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Across the broad spectrum of the natural world, only in a very few species are females regularly abused by males. Muller and Wrangham's compelling new book on primate and human sexual coercion informs us of the troubling reality: notably, it is among our own human species and our primate cousins that this practice is exceedingly common. Many human and primate males use violence against females as a strategy for controlling female sexuality. Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans is the first systematic attempt to document and understand this anomaly, to assess and analyze the many forms and functions of male aggression in humans and primates.
The fascinating tale begins with an exploration of sexual violence among a variety of primate species (and, surprisingly, dolphins), and slowly, with each study, a common diagnosis unfolds: male sexual coercion is an expression of a fundamental conflict of sexual interests between the sexes of our species. Females and males have divergent costs and benefits attached to copulation, and conflicting reproductive optima underseat and drive many of their mating habits. These fundamentally conflicted interests have applied selective pressure to shape male coercive behaviors toward overcoming antagonistic coevolutionary cycles--a kind of "arms race" between males and females--whereby each sex is continually evolving new strategies to get the better of their sexual other.
Male sexual coercion in human and primate species has escalated over evolutionary time for the purpose of increasing male reproductive opportunities, both over against other males and against the uncooperative tendencies of females of the species who are not inclined to submit to their advances. To understand the complex evolutionary journey of male sexual coercion, we must appreciate the dual interplay between "how traits evolve from sexual coercion and how coercion itself evolves" (p. 235).
In essence, what the many studies of this anthology reveal is that selection favors members of the species who: enjoy the highest number of mating opportunities; enjoy access to superior quality mates; or enjoy both of these reproductive advantages. That is to say, Darwin remains the voice of authority on the definition of sexual selection: "the advantage which certain individuals have over others of the same sex and species, in exclusive relation to reproduction" (pp. 23-24). Both males and females seek out both advantages (high quality mates and optimal number of sexual opportunities), but too varying extents. Differential investment in the offspring causes females to focus on the former advantage (seeking higher quality mates), while males tend to be driven by the latter (quantity over quality). This difference in focus makes perfect sense, the primatologists explain, because for males there exists a steep and positive relationship between the number of mates and reproductive success; while for females, that relationship peaks very quickly and then turns negative with each additional mating.
In short, males and females of the primate and human species find themselves at odds when it comes to sex, because their reproductive interests are diametrically opposed. However, across the unfolding narratives of male sexual violence collected in this work, many other factors come to be added to the fundamental and original two--mate quality and quantity of sexual opportunities--to enrich our understanding of why our species and our primate cousins enjoy the dubious distinction noted at the outset of this review. One stunning revelation is that males may employ sexually coercive behaviors against females simply because they can. There exists a considerable dimorphism between the sexes in humans and primates; that is, males are significantly stronger and larger than females. So often males will use their physical advantage to press their sexual interests and force unwilling females to cooperate.
At the far end of the spectrum of primate sexual violence, bonobos seem to live in admirably egalitarian, sexually co-dominant communities, the males lacking the despotic nature and aggressive tendencies of many other primate species. At the opposite pole of the violence spectrum, orangutans are unusual (indeed among all mammals) for their unparalleled use of force during copulation. The sorry truth is that human beings are situated closer to the orangutan end of the spectrum.
The technical language of mating bias, natural selection, and reproductive optima allows the (non-specialist) reader to approach the problem of male sexual coercion from an entirely novel standpoint. But as the book arrives at its concluding chapters, we are reminded of what is at stake in the conversation about sexual coercion, as it applies to our species. We recall that we are really talking about intimate violence. The "common" tendency of males of our species to use force to get what they want from females reminds us of the troubling realities of sexual coercion as it occurs within our own species. The shift from primate populations to human also forces us to entertain some troubling potential connections between the species. We would like to believe that female resistance should be taken seriously, expressing a negative mating preference that ought to be respected at all costs in human societies. But a less pleasant explanation borrowed from primatology suggests that female resistance may simply be a way of assessing the quality of the mate; his coercive ability may be a feature that females seek out as proof of his physical superiority.
However, humans are not just another primate species, as the scholars make abundantly clear. Human sexual coercion is a result of a much broader range of explanatory forces; culture, power, politics and the law intervene in human societies to complicate our understanding of intimate violence in our species. Later articles in this book prove highly valuable in drawing these factors into their explanations of human violence.
Sexual Coercion in Primates and Humans is a compelling book. I recommend it most highly for specialists, students, and any educated reader who is interested in enhancing her understanding, not only of primate culture, but of the appalling frequency of intimate violence that characterizes human societies across the globe and remains one of the most pressing global problems underscored by the World Health Organization.
© 2010 Wendy C. Hamblet
Wendy C. Hamblet, North Carolina A&T State University