Why we can’t divorce culture from rape

It is appalling that at one of the most respected institutions in the country, the views of Matthew Gillum are being expounded in this very public forum. In “Evolution, not culture, deserves blame for rape” (9/20), Gillum presents, masked by psuedo-scientific research, all of the most pernicious rape myths that our society propagates. The very fact that Gillum felt the need to write such an opinion proves that society refuses to admit what rape really is: the product of systematic violence and misogyny.

First and foremost, it is problematic (as any student in the College must admit) to compare humans and animals while “taking culture out of the equation,” as Gillum writes. This approach risks both anthropomorphizing animals and discounting the inherent cultural factors in any human action. Culture matters and accounts for what we do. Patriarchal cultures have universally higher incidences of rape because violence against women in these cultures is acceptable; in cultures where there are more respectful gender relations and women have equal power, there are fewer rapes.

There are major pitfalls in arguments that use animal behavior to explain human sexuality. Can a fruitfly give consent? Clearly, human sexuality is different.

Additionally, it is impossible to separate “scientific” studies from the cultural context in which they are conducted. Biologists are operating with the same fundamental assumptions and prejudices as everybody else; they pick what questions to ask, what evidence is emphasized and what conclusions to present. Moreover, using science to justify violence is dangerous — historically, it has been used to defend slavery, colonization and genocide.

What’s more important than the preposterous examples Gillum uses to prove his point are the implications of his statements. Almost every paragraph in his article contains an antiquated misconception about rape that has plagued our society for hundreds of years.

By asserting that rape is solely sexually motivated, Gillum implies that rape is never about violence. Forcing someone to have sex against her or his will is inherently a violent act, and violence is about the assertion of power. To say otherwise is to ignore the trauma involved for any survivor of sexual assault. The aftermath of rape is emotionally and physically intrusive: It requires medical attention and, often, counseling. Furthermore, young, fertile (“sexually attractive”) women are not the only victims of sexual assault. Old women, young children, straight men, lesbians and gay men are also victims of rape, and the perpetrators are often people who are not sexually attracted to them.

Gillum’s contention that the blame for sexual assault lies anywhere but with the rapist is also outrageous. He implies that men can’t help themselves, thus absolving them of responsibility for their actions. In Gillum’s world, women should avoid rape with invisibility. They should stay well away from public life; they would be dressed head-to-toe in modest clothing; they should be “chaperoned”; they should be under the control of a few good men and protected from the rest of them. He places the blame squarely on the victims of sexual assault, demanding that they prevent their own violation. Such logic is inconceivable in the context of any other crime.

It may be possible that harsher punishments could prevent some rapes. Let’s face it: If a student could be expelled from Yale on the suspicion of committing sexual assault, rape would probably happen less frequently. However, the “ongoing tragedy” of rape on campuses will continue as long as this discussion is still viewed as legitimate, as long as there are people who accept rape as something inevitable and excusable, and as long as we ignore the underlying structures of society that condone sexual violence.

For a thorough refutation of the articles Gillum cites, see Evolution, Gender, and Rape, ed. Cheryl Brown Travis (MIT Press, 2003).



Kathryn Johnson, Elena Grewal, Sabrina Manville, Laura Manville and Della Sentilles are senior members of Rape and Sexual Violence Prevention.

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