The phrase “biological determinism” has been on my mind since January, when I read Jesse Bering’s extremely irritating Slate essay on evolution and rape, and the concept took on a special resonance the other night as I was trying to unclog the toilet in the kids’ bathroom.
I’ll be the first to admit that biology often compels us to do things we can’t predict and don’t fully comprehend. This fact is hard to deny when you are pouring dish soap and hot water into an uncooperative commode at 11 o’clock at night, grasping a plunger, and praying. That’s a sequence of actions I have never had (or indeed wished to have) intentional thoughts about; in fact, my rational mind reels away, panic-stricken, from any attempt to realize their import. Yet there I was in the bathroom, weighing the unthinkable—the implications of water pressure and suction and temperature differentials and nameless, awful viscosities—in a process driven entirely by biology.
You can’t deny biology. You can fight it or compensate for it or try to work around it, but you can’t make it go away.
I get that. Anyone with children and indoor plumbing gets that. Any woman who regularly spars with men gets it.
And yes, knowing the biological bases of behaviors can help explain them. That knowledge might even help us understand how to stop or change harmful behaviors—if we get the explanation right.
That’s a big “if.” Evolutionary biologists don’t even agree among themselves on the exact cause-and-effect relationships underlying inherited behaviors. For some reason though, a lot of us want to treat biology as the final word in any debate about behavior, when it’s not even an intelligible grunt. Plus we have a pitiably simplistic way of trying to link subtle and obscure biological mechanisms to familiar behaviors.
Bering’s essay is an excellent, face-palming example. His case, in a nutshell, is that nature has “endowed” women with “extraordinary, almost preternatural abilities to prevent” sexual assault. He bases this conclusion on a few limited studies that purport to show, for example, an increase in handgrip strength in women who are ovulating.
I know, I know; it’s a big jump from “Ovulation makes me grasp things more tightly” to “Nature has given me rape-prevention superpowers.” (Also, can I just say: “endowed”?)
Anyway, Bering posits that, over the years, as we hapless females have ovulated and chosen mates and reproduced and ran away from potential mates we didn’t choose, we’ve evolved some traits associated with ovulation that help us avoid rape during that happy time. The reason we supposedly developed this hormonal bodyguard effect is that rape during ovulation is “worse” for a woman, because she’s at greater risk of getting pregnant then.
Now I have so many problems with Bering’s essay I can’t possibly get to them all in a single lifetime, let alone one column. In the first place, the claim that a woman’s body has special powers it can use to prevent rape, but only uses them when pregnancy is at stake, compels the parallel belief that women who aren’t ovulating don’t fight their attackers as hard as they could because, eh, if you’re not gonna get pregnant, what’s the big deal about being raped?
I simply cannot wait for the chain emails based on this particular nugget of wisdom to start circulating:
“Scientists have proven that women can fight back harder against a rapist if they are ovulating. To reduce your chances of being raped, OVULATE CONSTANTLY.”
Secondly, the process of evolutionary selection assumed to be at work here is puzzling. If one woman is better able to avoid rape when she’s at high risk for pregnancy, isn’t she then, generally, less likely to get pregnant than a woman who doesn’t possess this ability? Resulting in fewer total babies for the lucky woman with magical hormonal rape armor (sorry, “phase dependent female rape-avoidance mechanisms”)? Mathematically then, wouldn’t natural selection favor the offspring of a woman who can’t lift a finger in her own defense?
More importantly, isn’t this whole approach to the problem of rape stupid and insulting to all women, everywhere, throughout the history of our species? I certainly think so.
Really, if we believe our species has a vested interest in evolving defenses against rape, can’t we just as logically hypothesize that nature would select for men who find ways other than rape to father their offspring? Maybe nature does; maybe someone’s even done research on that phenomenon. But if so, the findings sure don’t show up in the popular media very often, do they?
I worry that discussions of rape prevention are sometimes just an excuse to talk about rape and gender-based violence, and to channel the conversation along lines that we find entertaining. “We’ve heard the argument that men may have evolved to sexually assault women,” Bering says. “Have women evolved to protect themselves from men?”
May I ask why that’s the obvious follow-up question? Why isn’t the more reasonable question for study something like, “Have women evolved ways of coercing or forcing sexual compliance from men?” Or “What are the evolutionary costs of a positive biological link between violent behavior and procreation?” Or even “Why does research about the female body focus so obsessively on the idea of men raping women and women—possibly—defending themselves?”
In studies about rape and evolution, the research itself often evokes a scene from a slasher film. In the handgrip strength study Bering cites, for example, “192 female undergraduate students read a story about either a female character being stalked by a suspicious male stranger in a parking lot (ending with: ‘As she inserts the key into her car door she feels his cold hand on her shoulder …’) or a similar story in which the female character is surrounded by happy people on a warm summer’s day (ending with: ‘She starts her car, adjusts the stereo, and as she pulls out of the parking lot those nearby can hear her music blasting’).”
I guess you don’t sign up for one of these studies expecting you’ll be exposed to great literature, but for heaven’s sake. Did any of the female test subjects in this case demonstrate their “handgrip strength” by tearing these dumb little scenarios to shreds and cramming them down the researcher’s throat? That’s what I would have done. Of course, they’d already given the scientists permission to determine where they were in their menstrual cycles via a “urine-based ovulation test kit,” so maybe reading the scenarios was just another sacrifice they were willing to make in the name of science.
Why are we asking young women to give up their dignity for this kind of research? Can’t we study rape prevention without testing the urine of 192 young women and forcing them to read terrible short fiction? Honestly, it creeps me out when researchers, and the people who popularize their research, are so matter-of-fact about poking and prodding and probing the female mind and body in order to find out why men might want to rape us. News flash: There’s more than one way to violate a woman. Just because you wrote a grant proposal about it doesn’t mean it’s healthy, for you or your subjects.
I realize that by saying these things, I’m contributing to what Bering calls, “The unfortunate demonization of this brand of inquiry.” Of course, I’m female, so maybe my hormones are making me irrational at the moment. Why doesn’t some researcher stick a thermometer up my ass and find out? Anyone out there with federal funding is welcome to try. We could even measure my handgrip strength by noting how long it takes each researcher to resume eating solid food.
Look, I’m not trying to deny any biological realities here. Far from it; I’m well aware that men—on average—are bigger and stronger and faster than women—on average. The odds of biology mean that, if I have to fight a man, I’ll be fighting above my weight class. That’s a given, and I’d love to believe there’s some magical potion bubbling through my ovaries that would help me out in those circumstances. But the way people are going about looking for such an “advantage” does not fill me with confidence.
Meanwhile, there are any number of things a woman can do that will definitely give her an advantage over a man in a pitched battle: Practice evading, because you’ll probably be fighting someone with a longer reach. Learn to off-balance or throw your opponent, so you can take advantage of his greater relative mass and higher center of gravity. And most importantly: Go for the groin.
This next part may be a little uncomfortable for some readers. And by “some,” I mean “male.” Because by “groin,” I mean “testicles.”
“Protect the groin” is a phrase I’ve heard thousands of times in the dojo, even though my school doesn’t permit groin attacks in sparring. A few martial arts systems and some lower-profile MMA fights allow them, but they all require fighters to wear groin protection. Still, in karate, covering the groin is a primary concern during almost any shift in position. In fact, the basic movements with which we begin and end every exercise are explicitly designed to provide protection for the groin.
It’s a little mystifying, as a woman, to see so much concern lavished on a part of the body I don’t even have. Yes, it hurts when I get kicked in the groin, but the risk of that happening doesn’t dominate my strategy during a fight.
The delightful irony here is that, if you’re looking for biological rape-prevention features, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better one than the placement of the human male genitalia.
Incredibly, the very organs that generate the hormones which make men bigger, stronger, faster, and more aggressive than women, are one of the easiest and most convenient parts of the body to attack and injure. They’re such an obvious and devastating target that “No groin shots” is a sacrosanct rule in almost any (male-dominated) sport. One of the most important and sensitive male body parts, integral to the process of rape, and—Oh look, there they are! Right there, easy to reach and practically impossible to protect. So vulnerable that we’re reduced to creating a code of honor forbidding anyone to attack them. Isn’t that funny, how that works out?
How did that set-up evolve? That’s what I’d like to know. What natural forces leveled the playing field below the belt? Why isn’t anyone studying this? Where are all the books and research papers and articles about the mind-boggling vulnerability of male sex organs? Why aren’t there any studies where 192 male undergraduates are asked to read a story about a young man getting kneed in the crotch while scientists monitor their blood pressure?
Could it be because people—and by “people” I mean “men”—would be uncomfortable reading about that kind of research? Is it possible that rape prevention research isn’t as entertaining when it’s focused on damage to the male body? Why do we ignore this angle? The biology is undeniable. You can fight it or compensate for it or try to work around it, but you can’t make it go away.
“Ah, gentle as Mother Nature!” my father used to say sarcastically to us kids, usually when one of our pets had been eaten by a fox, or we were writhing from the venom of some exotic insect.
Like all good mothers, Nature obviously has a sense of humor.