Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1685

Sex, violence and genes

This article is over 24 years, 2 months old
Issue 1685

What do socialists say?

Sex, violence and genes

By Helen Shooter

CHILLING figures on how many women have suffered rape or sexual assault were released by the Home Office last week. Some “experts” have tried to give a scientific reason for why such sexual assaults happen. The most recent example is a book by Randy Thornhill, A Natural History of Rape. He argues that his studies show male scorpion flies will forcibly mate with females. Thornhill then translates this directly to human beings, arguing that rape in men is a natural instinct and women can fuel this by “come-ons” like a short skirt or low cut blouse. His work has been given credibility by a long article in the respected New Scientist magazine.

But there is no scientific fact behind the idea that rape is in men’s genes. Throughout history the way men and women have related to each other has changed according to different societies. In ancient Rome the male controlled the household. He had the power over life and death decisions. Yet with the nearby ancient Etruscans it was the women who were famous for their independence and self assertion. In some societies polygamy, where a man can be married to several women at once, is normal, while in others it is common for women to have two or more husbands at the same time (polyandry).

The variety of what are considered “normal relationships” shows that sexual relations are not unchanging throughout human history. Our sexual desire has expressed itself in different ways in different societies. In recent times our own view of relationships has changed radically, from assuming that you married and stayed with one person until you died to a situation where many people don’t marry at all and have several partners in their lifetime.

What can seem so personal to us-our sexuality-cannot be separated from the context of the society we live in. In a class-divided society, sexuality is bound up with class power. People’s relationships are not merely an expression of their individual desire but reflect a society where a tiny minority own and control the wealth that the majority have produced. So one way in which the ruling class has shown its wealth and status power is through a multitude of wives and concubines.

Under capitalism, the form of class society we live in, everything is reduced to a commodity with a value. That doesn’t just apply to goods, but people too. People become like things to be bought, sold or owned. Women are treated like objects to be drooled over in men’s magazines. Their bodies are used to sell anything from a fast car to a brand of beer. So the society we live in deforms our sexual relationships.

Rape is not a reflection of men’s natural instincts implanted in their genes but an expression of just how distorted the relationships between men and women have become in class society, and especially in capitalism. The argument from scientists like Randy Thornhill about rape being natural is not just offensive to women, it also disgusts the many men who would not dream of committing rape. They are not genetic mutants, suppressing their natural urges. They are men who have some sense that women are not passive objects but should play an equal role in society.

The argument that our behaviour is determined by our genes is a way of excusing all the rottenness of the society we live in as “natural”. Tragically, some “post-feminists” have accepted the arguments about women’s and men’s behaviour being naturally different. Some of the leading women’s magazines and “New Ladette” role models encourage women to “play men at their own game” by being aggressive and leery too. Socialists argue that to copy the commodity view of other people is not a celebration of our humanity but a denial of it.

In a world where multinationals didn’t squeeze the life out of workers for profit, where there was no longer vast wealth existing alongside brutal poverty, men and women’s behaviour would be different. The socialist Frederick Engels, writing over 100 years ago, spoke of how a socialist society would change men and women’s relationships. He talked about a society of “a generation of men who have never known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other consideration than real love. They will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion-and that will be the end of it.”

Together men and women can fight to sweep away the rotten society we live in, and all the disgusting ideas that are used to justify it.


Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance