November 26, 2012 | Posted By Lisa Campo-Engelstein, PhD

During the recent election season, a handful of male Republican politicians made some now infamous comments about rape. The common theme in all these comments was implicitly or explicitly blaming and/or holding women responsible for rape (e.g. Missouri Rep. Todd Akin asserted that victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant) while ignoring or condoning men’s role in rape (e.g. Wisconsin state Rep. Roger Rivard stated that “some girls rape easy”). 

While these comments are problematic for a number of reasons, I want to point out how they are grounded in false and gendered views of biology. Specifically, these comments echo biological determinism: the belief that our biology determines our desires, characteristics, and actions. Because women have so few eggs (approximately 500 in total compared to the millions of sperm men produce daily), women need to be selective in who they choose to have sex with. They should limit sexual encounters to men who they think would make the best fathers; that is, men who would produce the best genetic offspring and who will be able to provide for the offspring. Moreover, since women will be responsible for childrearing, they should be careful to pick men who will make this investment worthwhile. Women’s passive sexual “nature”—i.e. their weak libido—is thought to aid them in making good choices about mates. In contrast, men have no reason to be selective. In fact, because they have so many sperm and because they are not responsible for childrearing, they have no constraints on whom to have sex with. If we accept there is a “biological” urge to procreate, then men are “naturally” inclined to have sex with as many women as they can.

A “spread the seed” versus “hoard the eggs” mentality is often used to explain, and justify, men and women’s different sexual natures. We see it used in everything from heterosexual courtship practices to cheating to rape. It is assumed that our sexual nature is uncontrollable because it is natural, that is, biological. Human brains are said to be biologically hardwired for us to act a certain way so as to ensure procreation and thus survival of the species. Women long for a monogamous relationship to protect their investment—their children—whereas men have trouble settling down and when they do, they often cheat because of their biological urge to procreate with as many women as possible. According to this view, people cannot be held fully responsible for their sexual behavior because it is beyond their control; it is in their nature. 

We see this mentality when people talk about women who are “asking to be raped” because of the women’s actions. The idea here is that most men cannot control their libido and if they see a woman who acts a certain way, they have no control over their desire to have sex with her and thus may rape her. Women are seen as responsible for causing their rape because of their actions, as they are supposed to know that men cannot rein in their libido and consequently they should act in a way that prevents them from turning men on.

The comments made by these politicians place the locus of blame for rape on women by relying on the biological determinism view of sexuality. It’s important to note that there is no good evidence for the claim that our sexuality is based solely, or even mostly, on evolutionary forces. There is, however, good evidence that our sexuality (as well as our understanding of sexuality) is shaped by social factors, such as gender norms. Perhaps politicians would be less likely to make such troubling views about rape if their understanding of sexuality was based in legitimate science.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI's online graduate programs, please visit our website.

1 comments | Topics: Reproductive Medicine , Women's Reproductive Rights


Athene Aberdeen

Athene Aberdeen wrote on 11/26/12 3:27 PM

It is unfortunate that the biological view of determinism is also at the base of modern advertising as has been evident in the media for the past few decades. Politicians publicly or privately are part of the body politic and the body politic even though it has been exposed to what you call "legitimate science' about sexulaity, will continue to make such assumptions because there is no balanced view of sexuality in Western society. When the contribution of religion an important social factor is cast aside, gendered norms will remain for it is these very norms that modern advertising feed on and continue to use to mislead people about their sexuality, a God given gift that ought to be used responsibly.

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