May 1 2000

In Rape Debate, Controversy Trumps Credibility

'Natural' sexual assault theory 'irresistible' to profit-driven media

When Taliban leaders claim women incite sexual assault by wearing clothing more revealing than a burkah or leaving their homes unchaperoned by male relatives, it’s not hard for U.S. reporters to recognize these statements as products of misogyny. But when two evolutionary psychologists recently put forth the same basic notion under the guise of objective science, they became highly sought-after media stars.

Book excerpts in small science journals don’t tend to receive torrents of mainstream media coverage. But that’s what happened when The Sciences (1-2/00) ran an essay titled “Why Men Rape” by evolutionary psychologists Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer. Excerpted from their then-unreleased MIT Press book A Natural History of Rape, the essay claimed that rape is not a crime of violence but a “natural, biological phenomenon.”

During January alone, before their book was even published, a Nexis database search shows that news outlets rushed out more than 50 reports on Thornhill and Palmer’s theory that rape evolved as a reproductive adaptation on the part of socially disenfranchised men who needed to pass on their genes by force.

Since “rape is in its very essence a sexual act,” Thornhill and Palmer told reporters (New York Times, 1/15/00), a woman’s risk of attack rises along with her hemline, and her willingness to socialize without the company of “male protectors” (CNN Talkback Live, 1/18/00). Accepting this “scientific knowledge” (Washington Post, 1/28/00) about forced sex “empowers women to avoid” it (CNN, 1/18/00) by helping them understand the “costs associated with dressing provocatively and going out alone at night and so forth.” (Today show, 1/24/00) Thornhill denied blaming the victim: “All we’re doing is giving women the information about male sexuality and thereby letting them choose” (NPR Talk of the Nation, 1/26/00).

Science vs. feminism

Using empowerment rhetoric to promote their brand of speculative and untestable science, Thornhill and Palmer outlined the terms of the debate early on: “We have to get rid of all the ideology, the polemics and the claims and deal with rape scientifically,” Thornhill told the first major outlet to carry the story (Scripps Howard News Service, 1/10/00). Feminists and social scientists who don’t leave “the dark ages” (NPR, 1/26/00) and embrace evolutionary psychology as the “truth” (L.A. Times, 2/20/00), they asserted, “will essentially be pro-rape” (Scripps Howard, 1/10/00).

Since Thornhill and Palmer claimed that “the rape-prevention measures that are being taught to police officers, lawyers, parents, college students and potential rapists are based on the prevailing social-science view, and are therefore doomed to fail” (Sciences, 1-2/00), they offered news outlets this suggestion for an “scientifically informed” alternative (Washington Post, 1/28/00): Before teenaged boys receive driver’s licenses, they should be taught that “Darwinian selection” is the reason why a man “may be tempted to demand sex even if he knows that his date truly doesn’t want it,” and why he “may mistake a woman’s friendly comment or tight blouse as an invitation to sex” (New York Times, 1/15/00).

Following Thornhill’s lead, journalists generally framed the “Darwin made me do it!” story as a battle between angry activists and dispassionate scientists. Headlines like “Study of Rape Hits Ideological Wall” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 2/27/00) and subheads like “Feminists Incensed” (, 1/28/00) were common, as was Thornhill’s refrain that the equation of rape and violence is “based on empirically erroneous, even mythological ideas” (New York Times, 1/15/00) promoted by “scientifically bankrupt” feminists like Susan Brownmiller, author of Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, whom they attack by name in their book and in numerous interviews (e.g., Washington Post, 1/28/00).

It would have been relatively easy for reporters to compare Thornhill and Palmer’s claims against the exhaustive research conducted on rape victims and rapists over the past 30 years. According to Dr. Mary Koss, a professor of public health and psychology at the University of Arizona and a leading rape researcher, “The bulk of available data makes fiction of [Thornhill and Palmer’s claims], thus eliminating all the data that the authors purport are supportive of their theory except their observations of insect and bird behavior.” (Violence, Trauma and Abuse, 4/00) For example, Koss notes, no existing data prove a causal link between a victim’s location, attire or time of day and heightened risk of rape. (For a copy of this review, email Dr. Koss at

But since feminists’ adverse reaction was the popular news hook, Thornhill and Palmer’s theory was rarely subjected to scientific criticism. When it came time for balance, reporters generally sought responses from anti-rape advocates, rape victims and feminist activists, often described as reacting to these ideas with “fear” and “anger” (Scripps Howard, 1/10/00, 1/27/00).

Controversy over content

San Antonio Express News reporter Susan Yerkes told Extra! that broadcast coverage of A Natural History of Rape was a sad illustration of how “TV producers think they need to do shows with people who will kill each other over spurious issues just to get the audience’s attention.” This boxing match approach was most stark in televised debates, where feminist guests seemed to be brought in primarily to express outrage.

Facing off against both Thornhill and Palmer on CBS‘s Early Show (1/20/00), NOW president Patricia Ireland tried to break out of this formula by pointing to examples in nature that don’t mesh with Thornhill’s reproductive adaptation concept–only to be cut off by host Bryant Gumbel. “We’re not going to get into the full science of it here. We’re just not going to be able to get that done,” Gumbel said swiftly. Gumbel’s next question illustrated what he considered a more relevant query: “Mr. Thornhill, Mr. Palmer, did you fully expect your book to cause the uproar it has?”

Stoking this “uproar” allowed outlets to appear skeptical, even as they failed to scrutinize the sensationalistic theory’s underlying science. Frustrated by what she considered undeserved credibility given to Thornhill and Palmer by the media, NOW Vice President Kim Gandy told CNN (1/18/00) that while the authors don’t have much accurate information to impart, “one thing these guys know is…how to get themselves on television.” Host Bobbie Battista’s response was telling: “Well, it is provocative.”

Rather than including biologists who could add scientific counterpoints to the debate, Today (1/24/00) pitted Thornhill against New York sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein. As was the case in every debate where Thornhill was the only scientist in the conversation, he appeared by default to be the defender of natural reality, allowing the sociobiologist to round off his claims with the assertion, “these are not debatable issues.” When Fairstein criticized Thornhill for doing no research on rape victims or rapists, and instead basing much of his theory on his studies of the sexual practices of scorpion flies (“This is not, professor, A Bug’s Life,” Fairstein said), Thornhill huffed, “It’s very, very tragic for critics of our approach to try to mislead the public about the nature of science.”

Ignoring the scientific credentials of critical peers, Thornhill said his work is “misunderstood” because of “political correctness, the public’s lack of scientific sophistication, and distorted coverage by the ‘American media disco.'” (L.A. Times, 2/20/00) All these criticisms, Thornhill was fond of saying, will fall by the wayside when people’s “initial emotions” subside (L.A. Times, 2/20/00) and they give the theory a “fair trial” by making an effort to “look at the actual data and read the book” (NPR, 1/26/00).

“Bad science”

Despite Thornhill’s dismissal of detractors as people who simply “hadn’t read the book”–and despite much similar media framing–many of his and Palmer’s most vocal critics were scientists who carefully read A Natural History of Rape and found its methodology and proclamations highly problematic. Unable to find any serious scientific critiques in mainstream science reviews, Jerry Coyne, a professor of evolution and genetics at the University of Chicago, teamed up with Harvard University comparative zoology professor Andrew Berry to produce a comprehensive, point-by-point debunking of Thornhill and Palmer’s book for Nature (3/9/00). (Coyne also wrote an excellent, extended scientific review for the New Republic–4/3/00.)

“In their media appearances, Thornhill and Palmer cloak themselves in the authority of science, implying that the controversy over their ideas is purely political, and that the underlying biology is unimpeachable. This is a serious misrepresentation,” Coyne and Berry write. They detail instances where the authors’ “evidence either 1) fails to support their case, 2) is presented in a misleading and/or biased way, or 3) equally supports alternative explanations.”

One of these instances is particularly glaring. Thornhill and Palmer support their evolutionary adaptation theory in part with the contention that female rape victims of reproductive age suffer more psychological trauma than pre-pubescent or post-menopausal women. They base this contention on a paper Thornhill wrote with his former wife, Nancy Wilmsen Thornhill (Ethology and Sociobiology, 1990, Vol. 11), a reanalysis of data from a 1973-74 survey of rape victims’ responses within five days of their assault. Alarmingly, when Coyne and Berry checked the cited reference, “We [found] that the original work’s conclusions differ critically from those given in the book…. The authors have used statistical sleight of hand to buttress their argument.”

This alarm at Thornhill’s misrepresentation of statistics is shared by Anthony Goldsmith, director of the Joseph Peters Institute (formerly the Center for Rape Concern), the group that conducted the 1973-74 research on rape victims. Describing Thornhill’s claims about victims’ varying rates of trauma as “a bad reanalysis of the data,” Goldsmith told Extra!, “The research doesn’t support what they claim, and that’s bad science. It’s not nice when our data is misused. I don’t like it…particularly when it’s used to support a theory that hinders the way we work with offenders.”

Thornhill’s misrepresentation isn’t limited to papers he authored himself, or to sociological research on humans. Koss told FAIR that she identified 52 separate points of error when she read the book. And in an online review, Susan Brownmiller writes, “By ellipsing sentences he misinterprets evolutionary biologist Patricia Gowaty’s study of forced copulation in ducks.”

Coyne told Extra! he is surprised that the press did not expose Thornhill and Palmer’s faulty research in the glut of coverage of A Natural History of Rape. “Any science journalist could have gone to these sources and looked them up,” Coyne said. “It makes me so annoyed that if scientists like myself and Mary Koss hadn’t gone to the actual research they refer to… the truth about Thornhill and Palmer’s findings would have remained buried forever.”

“Sad state of journalism”

Certainly, there were a handful of journalists who scrutinized the implications–and the coverage–of Thornhill and Palmer’s slippery science in excellent and critical reviews (e.g., Barbara Ehrenreich, Time, 1/31/00; Margaret Wertheim,, 2/29/00; Dave Hill, London Observer, 2/27/00; Laura Flanders, In These Times, 3/6/00).

But controversy, not an examination of scientific credibility, is what most news outlets wanted, so controversy is what we overwhelmingly received–with little real information to help the public determine whether the evolutionary rape theory was scientifically sound, let alone newsworthy.

What Thornhill and Palmer received as a result of hundreds of stories in the national and international media was much more tangible. MIT Press capitalized on the book’s PR hype by moving its publication date from April 1 to February 1, and by highlighting the book’s media reviews on their web site.

Just as A Natural History of Rape hit bookstores, MIT Press ran an ad with the tagline, “You’ve seen the coverage. Now read the book” (Publishers Weekly, 1/31/00). Apparently a good number of people followed that advice: an MIT Press representative confirmed that the initial print run of 10,000 copies sold out by the first week in February, and at least another 10,000 copies were ordered.

In the lead paragraph of a Plain Dealer story on the “backlash” against Thornhill and Palmer’s book (2/27/00), we are told that the authors “shed light on how difficult it is to have meaningful public discourse on a subject as scientifically complex and emotionally charged as rape.” Perhaps this is true–because media were seemingly uninterested in “meaningful public discourse,” focusing instead on the clash between feminists and sociobiologists. But this construction didn’t only overlook the book’s sloppy research–it also ignored the reality of the rape education and prevention field over the past three decades.

As Brownmiller rightly notes, feminists, not scientists, accomplished social policy advances such as rape crisis centers, acquaintance rape prevention programs, and legal reforms to shield victims from having their attire and sexual history used against them in court. These are the types of advances Thornhill brands “scientifically bankrupt” and “doomed to fail. ” Is it any surprise that, when asked by NPR‘s Melinda Penkava “if it’s possible to have both worlds, here?” (1/26/00), Brownmiller responded with a question of her own: “Why are you conceding so much to a couple of guys with a crackpot theory?”

It’s a good question. When incendiary ideas based on sloppy, contested science become such big news (think of The Bell Curve), we need to ask not only how this theory got presented to the public, but why it was so ballyhooed in the first place. Just because a topic is “provocative” doesn’t mean it is inherently credible or newsworthy. But such distinctions are becoming increasingly vague in a media climate that considers news a “product” and readers and viewers “consumers.”

When Brownmiller asked a USA Today reporter why he was giving Thornhill so much publicity, she says he replied that his paper had to remain competitive with other outlets also covering the story. Besides, he told her, “the irresistible combination of sex, violence and science” was impossible to pass up: “It sells newspapers and magazines, and that’s the sad state of journalism today.”

Jennifer L. Pozner is head of the Women’s Desk at FAIR.