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Societies Without Rape: Analysis of Peggy Reeves' Study

TW: Graphic Description of Rape

In Picture: Peggy Reeves

Have you ever thought about how to stop rape, a heinous problem in our society, with a long history of high institutional tolerance? Did you know that there are cultures where rape is virtually unknown? Did you think that rape is a broad cultural problem that encompasses the problem of toxic masculinity, gender binaries and sex roles? To have a nuanced idea about rape culture, we must, thus, have a multifaceted look into what causes it and find out how to stop it.

Rape culture refers to a culture in which rape is common and sexual violence against women is normalised and justified in popular culture. It is perpetuated by sexist rhetoric, the objectification of women's bodies, and the glamorization of sexual assault, culminating in a society that disregards women's rights and protection. Various sociologists have investigated rape culture and found that it is ubiquitous and normalized as a result of cultural attitudes on gender and sexuality. This is where the study of anthropologist Professor Peggy Reeves Sanday becomes relevant where she studies rape from its socio-cultural context than from an evolutionary and socio-biological standpoint.

Sanday deconstructs the cultural aspects that made countries more or less prone to rape. She came up with the concept of “rape-free” and “rape-prone” societies with a cross-culture study of 150 sample tribal societies. The study is significant because it departs from the traditional belief that aggressive nature, which leads to rape, is biologically inherent in male behaviour, and instead proposes that human sexual behaviour, while founded on biological demands, is a manifestation of cultural fortes.

Rape Culture and Professor Peggy Reeves Study

Professor Sanday defines rape as a sexual expression where the harmony between men and their environment has been severely disrupted. She interprets rape not just as a socio-biological view of human behaviour but brings into attention the sociological and cultural configuration that results in aggressive human behaviour. Sanday thus disagrees with the Western commentary on human sexual behaviour that male nature is programmed for aggression and violence which thereby induce rape and asserts it to mere human biology. She deconstructs the socio-biological concept of rape and studies human sexual behaviour through a broader lens of its sociological and cultural view than just comprehending rape as the attribution of violence in males and victimisation of females. She claims that rape occurs in societies not because men's socio-biological behaviour is innately violent and aggressive, but rather due to a broader culture of male domination, aggression, and exploitation which normalises and legitimises this behaviour.

Professor Sanday's rape study is a part of a larger study on the origins of sexual inequality. As a result, Peggy investigates rape in relation to sex roles, where she examines why cultures choose different styles of interaction between the sexes and how this influences the act of rape. Rape, she believes, serves as an oppressive and regulating force in culture, while gender stereotypes and binaries serve as oppressive and regulating principles.

Image Courtesy: Alec Druggan

In her cross-culture study conducted, anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, found that 47% of societies she studied had no rape, 36% had some incidence of rape, and 17%, of which we are one, were definitively rape prone. She described a rape-prone society as one in which observers report a high incidence of rape, rape is accepted as a ceremonial manifestation of masculinity, or rape is an act by which men are permitted to punish or threaten women. A rape-free society, according to her, is one in which rape is either infrequent or non-existent. Sanday used the word "rape free" not to imply that rape is completely absent from a community, but rather as a label to signify that sexual aggression is socially unacceptable and severely punished.

“Rape Prone” vs “Rape Free” Culture

Sanday’s definition of ‘rape-prone’ includes cultures where rape is a ceremonial act, cases in which men rape enemy women, and rape may be more of a threat used by men to control women in certain ways than an actuality. She takes caution not to generalize sexual assault as a universal characteristic of tribal societies and tries to emphasize that the incidence of rape varies cross-culturally, for which, she gives profiles of ‘Rape Prone’ Societies.

Peggy analysed that in ‘rape-Prone’ societies, the sex roles present conform sexes to a rather conceptual symmetry which is grounded in primary sex differences and where dominance is accorded to the male. The culture is exclusively defined in masculine terms where the women play an inconsequential role. She also gives examples of cultures where sexual aggression is encouraged as a yardstick of masculinity. The Gusii tribe of southwestern Kenya is an example. Despite the tribe's perception of rape as a culturally devalued use of force by a male to secure a female's submission to sexual intercourse, normal heterosexual intercourse between Gusii males and females is conceived as an act in which a man overcomes a woman's resistance and causes her pain. For example, only when a bride is unable to walk after her wedding night is the groom deemed a "true man" by his friends. Rape, on the other hand, marks a female as marriable among the Arunta of Australia. The Arunta girl is brought out into the bush by a group of men when she is 14 or 15 years old, where a designated guy slices her vulva and then gang rapes her before handing her over to her husband. As a result, a rape-prone society is one in which male or female sexual assault is either culturally acceptable or mostly unnoticed. But the point to remember here is that men are always portrayed as a social group as opposed to women. The sex status assigned to both males and females is reflected in the culture. As a result, the cultural context in which rape occurs plays a significant role in its perpetuation.

In 'Rape-Free' Societies, rape is absent and when a woman refuses a man, he never continues to insist. Abuse of women through the use of violence is the rarest behaviour in these societies. One important point to note here is that when viewed in the context of sex interaction is that, in rape-free societies, women are treated with considerable respect, and prestige is attached to female reproductive and productive roles, whereas in rape-prone cultures, these roles are devalued. In contrast to rape-prone communities, the interplay between sexes and people's attitudes toward the natural world is one of veneration rather than exploitation. In these societies, violence between sexes, or between anybody is virtually absent. The relationship with the environment is harmonious and there is little division of labor by sex. In decision-making, there is always the requirement of ‘consent’ and there is little attempt to ‘control’ or dominate the environment or each other. The religions or cultures of such societies respect and endorse feminine attributes of growth and reproduction rather than devaluing it. These societies are characterized by sexual equality and the notion that the sexes are complementary. As opposed to rape-prone societies, women are valued and in some cases, feminine qualities are considered sacred.

Hence, it is not men that are necessarily prone to rape: rather it is the way of interaction between sexes as accorded by different cultural settings, that makes them prone to violence and sexual aggression.


Professor Peggy's rejection of the idea that rape is an inherent male characteristic leads to the alternative concept that rape is usually absent where men are in harmony with their surroundings. She argues that when populations compete for diminishing resources, the male role is given more prestige because it is associated with aggression and destruction, whereas the female role is associated with fertility and growth. As men struggle to maintain or regain control of their environment, females are perceived as objects to be controlled. Some behaviours and attitudes separate the sexes and force men to prove their manhood. One way that men remind themselves that they are superior is through sexual violence. As such, rape is part of a broader struggle for control, dominance and exploitation.

Similarly, the propagation of toxic masculinity and