The Fistfight Fallacy: rape culture’s ahistorical premise

Stick figure of a caveman, from wikimedia commons.

Trigger warning: I’m fighting back against a rape apologist’s claim, and some of this material may be triggering.

Inevitably, when you write about patriarchy, you get “schooled” by some asshat who informs you that society itself is founded on the threat of rape. That men are bigger and stronger and have always been able to coerce women into sex, and that fact is the simple biological root of patriarchy that cannot be expunged by a bunch of PC feminist mumbo-jumbo. It’s an argument that persists because I think a lot of people, even feminists, find it depressingly believable. But there are a number of flaws to this argument, and I want to bring up a few of them.

Flaw #1: The assumption that society is reducible to The Average Man and The Average Woman.

This is problem for multiple reasons. First of all, the fact that human beings exist in social groups. Human survival has depended on our ability to form extra-familial groups and defend ourselves against other groups. The codes of behavior that govern interpersonal relationships within groups generally involve not abusing one another. Rape is not conducive to social cohesion. If a woman is raped, chances are she has friends and family who are capable of beating up and killing the rapist. The idea that prehistoric men could rape women without consequence is absurd. No matter how strong an individual man is, he can always be overpowered by greater numbers.

For that matter, there are plenty of individual women who are bigger and stronger than plenty of individual men.

Flaw #2: The assumption that rape is about sex and procreation.

Rape is not an efficient way to father children. If you have a consensual sex partner, and you live in a group with that partner (or more than one, if you will), you’re more likely to father more children than men who rape and risk being shunned. Which is what matters in this imagined evolutionary world we’re talking about.

And now that I’m done appealing to the raw numbers that assume the worst of human nature, let me point out that most human beings eschew violence unless it’s necessary. There’s no reason for violence to be necessary for procreation.

Most men now are not rapists. To assume that most men in the past were rapists is to project a rapist’s mentality onto the past. As for the argument that society has “wussified” men who would otherwise be rapists, I’d like to point out that you’re describing social construction and conditioning. Which is exactly what you’re trying to debunk by arguing that biology makes rape and patriarchy inevitable.

Rape is a violent crime, and it’s about domination, not sex.

Flaw #3: The assumption that physical strength is the only meaningful threat.

The reason I call this argument the “fistfight fallacy” is that it assumes a direct physical confrontation is the only form of power in human society, which is laughably simplistic. “Men have always been able to coerce women into having sex because they’re bigger and stronger, therefore patriarchy is natural” can be rebutted with a number of counter-claims:

  • Women have always been able to poison men, therefore matriarchy is natural.
  • Women have always been able to stab or club men to death while they are asleep, therefore matriarchy is natural.
  • Women have always been able to make ropes and strangle men, therefore matriarchy is natural.
  • Women have always been able to persuade men to kill other men, therefore matriarchy is natural.
  • Women have always been able to kill the offspring of rapists, therefore rape is a bad evolutionary strategy.
  • Women’s families and friends have always been able to kill rapists, therefore rape is dangerous.
Flaw #4: The assumption that physical strength orders society.
Human societies have more dimensions than chest-beating contests of strength. It’s possible to imagine some foundational moment where a group of humans got together and decided to obey the biggest guy because he was big, but more often, societies have been controlled by other factors:
Who is the best manipulator? Who is the smartest? Who is the most attractive? Who has the most resources? Who has the best tools? Who has the most valuable knowledge? Who has the most loyal family members? Who has the fewest reservations about slyly killing off the competition?
There are lots of reasons people who aren’t the strongest get into power. And even if the strongest person does win a contest, there’s no guarantee that he or she will have the smarts to hold onto power afterwards.

Flaw #5: The assumption that women are sexually passive and must be coerced into sex.

This is a Victorian cultural premise projected onto prehistoric societies. This idea has a history, and the reverse was believed to be true in the Middle Ages. There has not been a continuous social consensus that males are more sexually ambitious than females since prehistoric times. It is a socially constructed idea that we inherited from the 19th century. Not even that old.

Flaw #6: The assumption that human beings are all motivated by simple evolutionary arithmetic.

Human beings have survived because we are good at organizing, banding together and communicating. We don’t have particularly threatening physical characteristics. We survive because, more or less, we get along with each other. At least, we try to focus the violence of our societies outwards (in wars with other groups) rather than inwards, because that’s how we avoid killing each other in a massive apocalyptic bloodbath. With social behavior comes a host of potential motivations: to be liked, to be popular, to be powerful, to be included, to be protected. Human societies, because they are bigger than simple family packs, are necessarily more complex. Our behaviors are not all determined by what will result in the most children. This is to say nothing of the immense complexity of human sexual attraction and behavior.

Moreover, all societies have histories of a sort, oral or written. That contributes to the complexity of our motivations: we want to be remembered well, or avenge a wrong, or improve upon the past. The best known men in history weren’t the most prolific fathers; they had influence over people who weren’t directly related to them.

It’s easy to justify patriarchy if you reduce people to the most simplistic motivations and impute to them instincts that have long been considered criminal. Despite the fact that rape has often been wrongly viewed as an injury to a woman’s father rather than to herself, it has nonetheless been considered a crime. There are enough potential pitfalls when you ascribe the norms of today to the past, especially the prehistoric past, but to ascribe aberrant, criminal, antisocial behavior of today to the past and call it a norm requires a special kind of mental gymnastics. You might as well say that society is founded on murder and theft – which, by the way, I don’t see a lot of people doing.

Patriarchy is not a biological imperative, it’s a learned ideology. Rape is also a culturally conditioned form of violence.

I don’t plan to engage with this absurd argument in the future, but I address it now because it has an unfortunate currency on the internet. Let’s not forget, though, that rape is a tool of domination and is a violent gender-based hate crime, not a tool for procreation. It is a weapon used against LGBTQ people, not just cis women, to intimidate them. The argument I’ve fought back against here is ultimately a tool used by rape apologists who want to undermine efforts to end rape by naturalizing it. That’s why I don’t plan to talk about it again. Rape apology doesn’t deserve the space. However, I want this post to exist so that the people who are tempted to believe such tripe have a few extra reasons not to buy it.


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