Re: Evolution and Sexuality

From: Harnad, Stevan (
Date: Fri Mar 10 1995 - 17:30:59 GMT

> From: "Upsdell, Louise" <>
> Date: Fri, 10 Mar 1995 14:10:16 GMT
> I'm torn between whether rape is a sex thing or not, simply for the
> following reasons: Going back to one of the previous lectures, we
> talked about concavities and convexities. Now, I don't want to sound
> completely graphic here, but in order for rape to occur, a man must
> penetrate the woman's body...invade it, in fact. Perhaps it is the power
> he exerts over the female which gives him a buzz, simply because he is
> in complete control.

Yes, some of it may have to do with the mechanics of male/female anatomy
and the dynamics of the sex act itself, but it's probably much more
complicated than that: You know from ethology that a lot of emotions and
motivations and action patterns (like aggression/attack and fear/escape)
have an overlap, behaviourally, neurally and subjectively too. Evolution
is opportunistic, and builds on parts it already has. So there is a
complicated interconnection among our emotions; that's partly why it's
so hard to sort them out pharmacologically. The stickleback fish can
easily be flipped from courtship to attack, for example.

But even apart from the dynamics of sex and the probable overlap among
ALL emotional behaviours (not just sex and aggression), there is the
fact that in social mammals, male domination of the social hierarchy
usually means control over all of the resources: food, territory, or
females. Anyone (male or female) that tried to challenge that
domination (e.g., by mating with someone else, or resisting mating)
would elicit aggression.

This is all distal, "primitive" stuff. But, according to sociobiology
and inclusive fitness considerations, since those were the conditions
prevailing in our EEA, it would be suprising if they did not continue to
make themselves felt proximally today.

> If all he was after was ejaculation, then surely he could find some
> other means of 'relieving' himself.

I realise I mentioned something along these lines myself, but on second
thought, it's simplistic to imagine that the distal forces that shaped
our sexuality could have been so lax about the proximal cues that
masturbation would have been enough to satisfy them (because of course
anyone genetically inclined to be satisfied with ejaculation alone
would quickly eliminate his genes from the next generation). The
proximal satisfaction from sex MUST be basically dyadic and not solo;
sex is not merely a means of ejaculation, and ejaculation alone will
not do. (In fact, my guess is that both humans and other animals would
work harder for the opportunity for dyadic sex, even if ejaculation was
thwarted, than for ejaculation without dyadic sex. This squares with
the proximal motivation, because in the EEA -- before contraception and
psychologists' experiments -- sex would invariably have led to
ejaculation and hence fertilisation and reproduction, whereas
ejaculation alone, always an option, would have been a ticket to

Probably there's not much point in trying to second-guess the motives of
the rapist. To a first approximation, what he gets is presumably what he

> This is where I get stuck, because I am confused as to whether in fact
> a rapist has a distal reason for raping, or not. If he does, then why
> do some rapists wear condoms (although I am aware that this goes back
> to the EEA when contraceptives were not around)? If he doesn't have a
> distal reason, then why do it at all?

Alas, this still does not grasp the distal/proximal distinction: The
proximal reason for sex is always erotic and/or romantic attraction and
sexual pleasure. The distal reason for that attraction and pleasure is
reproduction. Reproduction is not a proximal factor AT ALL (so it is
irrelevant whether or why rapists wear condoms). The only thing it
makes sense to ask is whether there was something in the EEA that gave
men more reproductive success if they used sexual coercion, and if so,
whether this is behind contemporary male sexual coerciveness.

> This is where I start to think
> that rape is a power thing, in which case, sex doesn't necessarily have
> to come into to it. Nevertheless, it does. Thus, after going around in
> circles, I think that a rapist is struggling to impose himself on others
> and dominate them, but can only really achieve this feat in his own
> mind by entering a woman's personal, intimate space. Sex is the means
> by which to gain power. So all in all, I agree with Stevan's comment
> that sex itself might be a power thing - rapists take it to the extreme.

I don't think sex is a power thing, just that power may be a part of it,
and a larger part for some than others. But now do look at some of the
actual evidence, as reported and discussed in the Thornhill & Thornhill
paper, because otherwise we are only trading intuitions about rape...

Chrs, Stevan

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