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Year : 2020  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 108-109

Book review: A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion – Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer

Department of Psychiatry, T. N. M. C. and B. Y. L. Nair Ch. Hospital, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India

Date of Submission19-Feb-2020
Date of Decision29-Mar-2020
Date of Acceptance08-Apr-2020
Date of Web Publication30-May-2020

Correspondence Address:
Dr. Hrishikesh Bipin Nachane
63, Sharmishtha, Tarangan, Thane (West), Mumbai - 400 606, Maharashtra
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/aip.aip_7_20

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How to cite this article:
Nachane HB. Book review: A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion – Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer. Ann Indian Psychiatry 2020;4:108-9

How to cite this URL:
Nachane HB. Book review: A natural history of rape: Biological bases of sexual coercion – Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer. Ann Indian Psychiatry [serial online] 2020 [cited 2020 Oct 25];4:108-9. Available from: https://www.anip.co.in/text.asp?2020/4/1/108/285512

Publisher : The MIT Press

Pages : 251

Price : Rs. 2357 (paperback)

Year : 2000

ISBN : 0-262-20125-9

Editors : Margo Wilson

Edition : 2nd edition

There is no doubt about the horrendous repercussions rape has on its victim. Rape is gradually becoming an epidemic that is not confined to any particular stratum of society, culture, or race. Many specialists have chimed in to formulate theories and preventive strategies for rape, such as feminists, psychologists, forensic experts, and social scientists. Among them, Thornhill and Palmer's book on the evolutionary biology theory of rape struck like lightning. It attracted a lot of controversy among other professionals, particularly their statement: “rape is natural.” However, what the authors have achieved is that they have provided a fresh and unbiased view on the etiology and nature of rape in the human society. This review highlights the need for taking their view into consideration, a glance of the controversy it created, and what the overall picture is lacking.

Conceived by a biologist and an anthropologist, the book hits off by highlighting Darwinian concepts and the fundamentals of evolutionary biology. The authors put forward a disclaimer at the beginning of the book, stating that there is no morality or ethical concept in biology (calling it a naturalistic fallacy). This is perhaps one of the most critical statements to help decipher their stance on the issue of rape. The authors claim that rape is “natural” because it exists in nature. Speaking from the point of view of evolutionary biology, a behavior cannot be seen as right or wrong. Understanding evolutionary biology means understanding how a particular behavioral trait or pattern (in this instance rape) exists in society and not debating whether it should. The authors claim that this would be key in formulating preventive strategies for rape.

Initial key chapters focus on understanding the biological differences between male and female sexuality. This is important as their central doctrine is that rape is a sexually motivated act rather than a violent crime related to domination and control. Even though many feminists and social scientists have argued to the contrary, what the authors put forward makes sense and they support it with facts. The major clash here comes with the work of Susan Brownmiller titled “Against our will,” which states that control is the main aim of rape. The authors also suggest that females and males in the human society have undergone adaptations to facilitate and counteract rape. This is quite an interesting section to read. The victim's role in the act of rape has always been a point of controversy. The book suggests that a victims' dress sense and the amount of skin shown directly correlate with them being raped. This explains the rape of women in the reproductive age group but neither the rape of children, the elderly nor same sex victims. This is definitely a major drawback of the book. The other theories that follow are centered on this, such as sperm competition and the fact that rape exists in our society only to improve reproductive success. As females have to spend more time and energy in sexual activity (gestation, birth, and raring of offspring), females get to choose their mates. Thus, rape helps males to circumvent female choice and obtain a higher number of mates. Hence, polygyny prevails in humans. Society dictating humans to be monogamous could be an essential reason why rape is still prevalent.

The authors state that the reason why rape causes a lot of anguish to its victims is because of its effect on the victims' partners. It makes the victims less desirable to their partners and this is the reason behind the psychological pain experienced by them. As mental health professionals, we focus more on neurophysiological and neurochemical changes in the victim, which could amount to psychopathology and psychological pain. However, this angle is completely overlooked by the authors. The factors which they do consider in the book are age, marital status, and extent of physical injury. The authors have stated that increase in physical injury may lead to decrease in psychological pain as it is less threatening for their partners (making the signs of rape more evident). Other researchers, however, have shown that extent of injury correlates with loss of self-esteem and severity of psychopathology experienced. Thus, this stance by the authors seems a bit chauvinistic to say the least.

When the book released, it was met with a fury of opposition, especially from feminists and social scientists. All the theories explained above have been strongly refuted. Many researchers have felt that it is wrong to characterize nonhuman sexual coercion as rape. However, if rape has to be considered from an evolutionary biology point of view, it is prudent that sexual coercion in other animals be considered and compared with humans. This in fact adds to the authors' merit. A few people had an issue with the evolutionary biology outlook in itself, claiming it to be more theoretical than practical. One of the main theories that the book clashes with is learning theory. As mental health experts, we are well versed in learning theory and its use in day-to-day practice. However, the book points out many flaws in using this theory with rape, mainly labeling it as ideological. However, they also mention role modeling and the absence of father figures during the developmental period as strong risk factors for men to commit rape. In fact, what seems odd is that the authors have written off social scientists as “ideological” when in fact their theories appear equally ideological. The references used to support some of these theories are mainly concepts rather than evidence-based facts. The authors conclude by suggesting a few strategies to prevent rape such as educating boys and girls about sexuality, having stricter laws and swift justice, physical barriers (separating women from men and making sure that women are comfortable in their interactions with men) and chemical castration. How many of these are practical and evidence based remains to be seen. However, it might be worthwhile to consider them.

In conclusion, the fact that rape is an adaptation is a hard pill to swallow and has not been accepted by many researchers. Overall, it is not a fast-paced book, but it is one that makes you put your thinking cap on. Perhaps, like the story of the blind men describing an elephant, the authors have grasped only a part of the picture. In spite of some of their main theories appearing flawed and having certain lacunae, they do provide compelling evidence for many. They also have formulated management strategies based on these theories, which should be considered and perhaps can be supported by further evidence. Thornhill has done considerable work in this area, and this book is definitely recommended for those curious to link evolutionary theory and rape.


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