SEXUAL ASSAULT: CULTURALLY CONSTRUCTED OR BIOLOGICALLY
Is sexual aggression primarily the product of sociocultural factors?
Sanday (1981, 1986) takes this position. She divides societies into
what she terms rape-free and rape-prone societies, and she lists
the sociocultural characteristics she maintains accompany each type.
However, a number of scholars have taken the position that sexual
aggression is largely biologically determined (see Thornhill, et
al. 1986 and Eibl-Eibesfeldt 1989; see Palmer 1989 and Sanday 1981
for a review of this literature).
Parker (1976) in reviewing a variety of evidence concludes that
there is a close functional association of the sexual and agonistic
responses. Some of the evidence comes from experimental psychology
where the subjects show increased aggressive arousal when their
sexual arousal is heightened experimentally and vice versa. But
these were American subjects who were culturally conditioned to
link sex and aggression, as demonstrated by the prevalence of rape
behavior in American society and the use of sexual metaphors in
abusive language (see G. N. Appell 1987). Would the same results
have occurred in those societies where the drives of sex and aggression
are socioculturally highly individuated?
Parker also brings in evidence from research on the brain to show
that the loci for sexual arousal and aggressive arousal are closely
interconnected. However, Restak (1984:142) concludes that aggression
is not a unitary entity with a concrete existence. Instead, "the
brain is like a mosaic in which only the complete aggregate of seemingly
unrelated parts suggest the whole picture" of drives such as
Furthermore, as the brain has some plasticity in its organization,
and as the final wiring of it occurs after birth as a result of
early experience (see Aoki and Siekevitz 1988; Annis and Frost 1973),
the close wiring of sexual and aggressive arousals claimed by Parker
may in some way be a cultural artifact.
However, if those who claim that sexual aggression has a strong
biological component are correct, then we would expect some cost
for the redirection of this biological impulse in Rungus society,
some evidence in the biosocial energetics of the cultural control
of these biological factors (see Appell 1984, 1986). Yet there is
little evidence of psychological, physiological, or behavioral impairments
as a result. There is the fear and anxiety over the consequences
of illicit sexual intercourse. It is believed illicit intercourse
can cause illness and death of children, the loss of crops, loss
of fecundity of domestic animals, and the withering of swiddens.
And these consequences are believed to touch everyone, not just
those who have been engaged in illicit intercourse. So Rungus individuals
have to cope with the anxiety over the proper behavior of their
village mates, and even those in neighboring villages. And this
anxiety may produce dreams in which sexual intercourse can indicate
that one's soul is in jeopardy from malevolent spirits, and illness
may follow. However, the anxiety created can be relieved by the
sacrifice of a pig or chicken, which also provides a source of protein
unusual in the regular diet.
There is also the cost from the discontinuity in cultural conditioning
of young men and women in that some are anxious over performing
the role of spouse and reject for a brief time their spouses' sexual
attentions. But this does not appear to be a significant psychosocial
cost, as for those who experience it the anxiety quickly dissipates
into the typically close, mutually dependent relations with their
Furthermore, all societies regulate sexual relations. But if there
are strong biological roots to sexual aggression, those societies
that do not inhibit illicit sexual intercourse to the degree the
Rungus do must experience other costs. There is the cost of the
fear of sexual aggression; the cost of the fear of rape. And there
are the psychic and physical costs to the victims of sexual aggression.
The inhibition of aggression in Rungus society does have the consequence
of producing an intropunitive modal personality (see Appell 1966).
And this is manifested in threats of suicide when an individual
finds himself frustrated in achieving his goals or believes that
he or she has not been given sufficient consideration or respect.
And actual suicides do occur. But the prevalence of the threats
and actual suicides do not appear any greater than the fighting,
assaults, and murders that accompany an extropunitive modal personality.
Thus, up to this point I have been unable to discover any significant
costs to Rungus society from the individuation of the drives of
sex and aggression. This suggests that claims for the biological
basis of rape need to be reassessed.
However, this does not eliminate the possibility of any biological
component to sexual assault. Rungus males do phantasize about this,
do talk about it, do have examples of it in their projective systems.
The fact that there are few if any behavioral manifestations of
sexual assault and that, furthermore, there are few if any biosocial
costs of redirecting this impulse suggests that if there is a biological
component in sexual aggression, it is a weak one, the control of
which requires little investment.