Psychology of Sexual Aggression

Early psychologists saw rape as the act of degenerates and imbeciles. Freud and his disciples said little on the subject, other than noting female fears of rape and female rape fantasies. Freud (1896/1961) believed that humans are innately incestuous and for a time argued that female hysteria was the consequence of incest. However, the Victorian society that Freud worked in believed incest to be rare and the act of primitives. Freud repudiated his theory less than a year after proposing it (Meigs & Barlow, 2002). Wilhelm Reich briefly considered a "masculine ideology of rape" (Brownmiller, 1975, pp. 11-12), but it was latter-day feminists who explored the cultures and social conditions of rape and other sexual aggression. Even today, many psychologists treat sexual aggression as deviance, focusing on the reform or medication of perpetrators and on the consequences of sexual aggression for victims. Psychologists differ on causes, but most side with nature in the nature-nurture controversy, assuming dominance and sexual aggression to be natural male traits that are exaggerated in some males. Psychologists have done thousands of studies to determine sex differences that may be linked to various behaviors. In Brain Sex, evolutionary psychologists Moir and Jessell (1991) warn that there are biological facts of life that we cannot buck. Such "facts" include the views of sociobiologists E. O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins who believe that female exploitation begins in the fact that females perpetuate their genes by lengthy nurturance of embryos and that natural selection favors traits that encourage sexual hierarchy: physical strength, aggression, and promiscuity in men; caretaking and fidelity among women. Like sociobiologists, evolutionary psychologists ignore variations among human societies in patterns of aggression and nurturing and the fact that, in a wide cross-section of cultures, both male and female children exhibit nurturant behaviors (Whiting & Whiting, 1975). They also ignore psychological research demonstrating few sex-linked differences in brain structures and functions. In The Psychology of Sex Differences, Maccoby and Jacklin (1974) reviewed over 1200 works covering areas such as intellect, perception, learning, memory, cognitive styles, achievement motivation, self-concept, temperament, and power relationships. They found that boys in the primarily western cultures studied are slightly more aggressive than girls and excel slightly in visual-spatial ability, while girls tend to excel in verbal abilities. The differences were extremely small and unstable with a 1-5% variation in mathematical, verbal, and visual-spatial skills. Theories focusing on a hormonal (testosterone) basis for male dominance and aggression also disregard cultural variation, certain forms of female aggression, and the fact that women have been aggressive in work situations as well as violent with their children and other family members. Given mounting cultural and sociological evidence, many psychologists now attribute American men's heightened aggression to the gender-specific ways in which parents teach children about the acceptability and uses of aggression.

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