Despite our highly evolved brains and planetary dominance, humans sure could learn a thing or two from the animal kingdom.
On the subject of rape, for instance. Rapists are often labeled “animals,” and yet — just for the sake of discussion, leaving aside the fact that all humans are technically animals — forcible sex doesn’t exist as much among non-humans as within our so-called civilized society.
I say “as much” because scientists have seen signs of coercive sex and even gang rape in animals from ducks to dolphins. But in general, calling rapists “animals” does a disservice to animals. (UPDATE: The anti-rape design of duck vaginas notwithstanding — perhaps they are just more highly evolved and this is where we’re all headed?)
The thing about animals. They stick to pretty predictable patterns of courtship and mating. Watch Nat Geo Wild for any length of time — I personally go to great lengths to — and you’ll get quite the peep show. What appear to be extravagant dances to us are probably blasé to members of the species depicted. There’s no novelty in it for them, not for several millennia, and they seem OK with that.
For example, we observe nothing short of regal in the clownish blue-footed booby’s routine mating rite.
He whistles at her to get her attention. She doesn’t seem impressed, spewing excrement at him. If, eventually, she gets in the mood — and male boobies know they must be very, very patient — she will make a grunting sound in response to his whistling. The male booby waits for her consent. Often, consent is denied.
Then, the male knows to move on. Not to force the issue. (They also seem not to mind an audience.)
Compare the come-on of the Temminck’s tragopan, an irresistibly eager pheasant, below:
… to your garden-variety harassment by Hoboken, N.J., construction workers. (Picture it in your mind — I’m sure you’ve had the experience once or twice — or peruse this LONG, 8-minute video; they are actors, as is the woman being harassed. An interesting social experiment conducted to see how passersby might react and whether they would intervene.)
In the animal world, the males typically display and it is left for the females to decide whether any “action” ensues. That’d be a pretty awesome world to live in.
Humans, too, have courtship rituals. Yet we often feel above such predictability, exercising instead our vague notion of “free will,” which we assume other animals don’t possess. Or, we malevolently exert our wills over one another — something most other animals are simply too dignified to do.
Humans are forever reinventing the wheel, so to speak, with vast reasoning skills, striving for a unique experience in all things, including sexual conquest. Sexual culture today seems somehow infested with callous extremes. And the gang mentality — even crueler and harder to crack.
Whether or not they receive sexual education, humans come to sex in their own time, acting on urges that fit the norms of society — or not. Human drives may fit within accepted values or may veer far afield of what seems moral or right. But where a lot of bad behavior is present, you have to wonder: Is it somehow condoned?
I am at a loss to understand why any human being would rape another. How violence and sex intermingle, without analyzing any rapist’s motives or malfunctions, is beyond my ability to reason through. It is a brutal perversion. Can’t quite call it an aberration, though, because sexual harassment and assault — crimes, both — have become horrifically prevalent in modern society. We have become inoculated to news of it.
The sorrowful story in India this week has now ended in death for the 23-year-old medical student who was gang-raped on a New Delhi bus, with her boyfriend present, also a victim of the barbarous attack. In a way, I feel it’s a relief she died — spared from having to relive the hell that would have become the rest of her life. The news galvanized that nation, with both women and men blaming the government and police for doing too little to protect women from vile and violent acts. But the protesters were also beaten back by powers that be — and even a police constable was killed in the melee. Violence heaped upon violence, making any one of us feel utterly powerless.
The grim statistics, from CNN.com:
“Reported rape cases in India — where a cultural stigma keeps many victims from reporting the crime — have increased drastically over the past 40 years — from 2,487 in 1971 to 24,206 in 2011, according to official figures. New Delhi alone had 572 rapes reported last year and more than 600 in 2012.”
India is no island. There are merely a lot more people. Things are just as bad in our hemisphere. I was groped twice by strangers in public — once in Montreal at the Expo 67 World’s Fair when I was 6, and once in Puerto Rico, by a mere child, a boy younger than my 12 years, who was encouraged to do it by his father, and was praised afterward for it. I’m not sure how scarred I was — but I was scared and will never forget either experience, nor my shock, my indignation and suppressed rage.
As feminist Andrea Dworkin said, in a 1975 speech: “Rape is no excess, no aberration, no accident, no mistake — it embodies sexuality as the culture defines it. As long as these definitions remain intact — that is, as long as men are defined as sexual aggressors and women are defined as passive receptors lacking integrity — men who are exemplars of the norm will rape women.”
I have learned far too much about rape this year — from my daughter, who is a rape survivor and now a shining advocate for women’s rights. I am unsure how any one of us might change the ferocity of this world, but I know if anyone could, she can.
Still, I pine for a quiet, peaceful life, perhaps on an actual island, like the Galapagos, where I might watch majestic giant tortoises — once driven nearly to extinction by humans’ uncontrolled desire for their meat — do a slow, predictable, respectful mating dance, kinda like old people. And there I’d contemplate where we as humans fit in, in the grand scheme of things.
There will always be sex. And there likely will always be violence.
And perhaps always, not animals, but beasts — monsters — who would co-mangle the two.