By David Lee on June 17, 2010 · tagged as , , ,

Evolution and rape avoidance: a good combination?

Why do women want to avoid rape?  Is it because sexual assault is a violation that causes emotional and physical harm? In a recent study ePublished in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, McKibbin et. al. suggest  an additional factor: rape circumvents her choice of a sexual partner and harms her “reproductive success.”

Based on the authors’ evolutionary analysis, the resulting study examines if “rape avoidance behaviors” are associated with “(1) women’s attractiveness, (2) women’s involvement in a committed romantic relationship, and (3) the number of family members living nearby.”

To what extent does an evolutionary analysis help us understand sexual assault? While I do not want to minimize this, I cannot see how evolution is the primary factor to examine to understand rape. As someone dedicated to prevention, I am much more interested in how we can make changes to community, society and culture factors that contribute to rape.

And then there is the problematic issue of rape avoidance. While rape avoidance skills are helpful, many people critique risk reduction as the primary focus of sexual assault prevention. In this study the Rape Avoidance Inventory (RAI) is used to measure rape avoidance.  The RAI is described as a reliable and valid measure of women’s rape avoidance behaviors (in a 2009 study by the same author.) Here is the actual description of this measure from the study:

The RAI consists of 69 behaviors that women might perform specifically to avoid being raped…. The RAI consisted of four components… corresponding to s specific set of rape avoidance behaviors. The Avoid Strange Men component included behaviors in which women avoid unfamiliar or strange men (e.g. “avoid men who make me feel uncomfortable”). The Avoid Appearing Sexually Receptive component included behaviors that may diminish a women’s attractiveness to a potential rapist (e.g., “Avoid wearing sexy clothing”). The Avoid Being Alone component included behaviors that function to keep women around others (e.g., “When I go out, I stay with at least one other person I know”). The Awareness of Surrounding/Defensive Preparedness component include behaviors that serve to keep a women attentive to her surround-behaviors that enhance a women’s ability to thwart a would-be rapist (e.g., “Carry a knife).

This scale appears to be based on a set of assumptions that rape is primarily committed by strange men attacking attractive women while alone and unaware of their surroundings. I admit that is an overgeneralization but those are the factors measured.  While there is value to supporting women to avoid rape, I find this study very troubling and wary of basing a rape prevention program on its assumptions.

What do you think about these concepts in helping our understanding of how to prevent sexual assault?

Here is the full abstract and link to the article.

Individual Differences in Women’s Rape Avoidance Behaviors.

McKibbin WF, Shackelford TK, Miner EJ, Bates VM, Liddle JR. Archives of Sexual Behavior 2010; ePublished May 13, 2010.

Click here for a link on the journal’s web site.

(Copyright © 2010, Springer Science+Business Media)

Rape can exact severe psychological, physical, and reproductive costs on women, and likely was a recurrent adaptive problem over human evolutionary history. Therefore, women may have evolved psychological mechanisms that motivate rape avoidance behaviors. Guided heuristically by an evolutionary perspective, we tested the hypothesis that women’s rape avoidance behaviors would vary with several individual difference variables. Specifically, we predicted that rape avoidance behaviors would covary positively with (1) women’s attractiveness, (2) women’s involvement in a committed romantic relationship, and (3) the number of family members living nearby. We also predicted that women’s rape avoidance behaviors would covary negatively with age. We administered the Rape Avoidance Inventory (McKibbin et al., Pers Indiv Differ 39:336-340, 2009) and a demographic survey to a sample of women (n = 144). The results of correlational and regression analyses were consistent with the predictions, with the exception that women’s rape avoidance behaviors did not covary with women’s age. Discussion highlighted limitations of the current research and directions for future research on women’s rape avoidance psychology and behaviors.

David Lee

More Posts by David Lee

David S. Lee, MPH, is the Director of Prevention Services at the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault where he provides training and technical assistance on prevention. David manages the national project PreventConnect, an online community of violence against women prevention practitioners, funders, researchers and activists. For over 27 years David has worked in efforts to end domestic violence and sexual assault.

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