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Biology versus culture

Sexuality like various other biological processes is said to be controlled by genetic factors. However our knowledge, understanding and expression of sexuality are also influenced by our cultural background.[33] Scholars have often debated that biology plays a role in sexual violence. However, it needs further exploration whether the act of rape is biologically coded or is culturally determined.

The biological or evolutionary theory of sexual violence emphasizes that evolution applies to sexual violence just as it does to any other aspect of life[45] and that it reflects adaptations constructed over evolutionary time,[46] but this remains a controversial idea. It views sexual violence as a result of a man’s “natural” sexual urge, which is different from that of a woman. This difference in sexual urges is said to be a result of early evolutionary changes and adaptation for successful sexual reproduction. Due to sexual selection, men use the reproductive strategy (including sexual violence) of impregnating as many women as they can to spread their sperm and to maximize the number of female eggs that can be fertilized. This theory looks at sexual violence as a natural behavior resulting from a biological propensity to reproduce and have a net positive effect on the person’s (resorting to sexual violence) reproductive success.[45,47] This theory, thus, accepts the act of sexual violence resulting from a man’s aggression as a natural thing but has thus been challenged.[48] Agreeing to this theory would mean that every man has an innate propensity for sexual aggression and inflicting sexual violence. This theory, thus, searches roots of sexual violence in one’s genes and completely ignores other factors that may come into play later on in life.

Another theory attempts to describe sexual violence in terms of cultural explanations, claiming that sexual violence is socioculturally constructed. It, thus, negates biological underpinnings for a man’s sexual urges, claimed by the biological theory. This theory looks at other important factors such as gender power equations, moral values, attitudes toward violence, and so on to be contributing toward sexual violence. Based on these, Sanday[26] divided cultures into two types: Rape-free and rape-prone cultures which are moulded by sociocultural values; the former are more balanced in gender equality and have low rates of rape, whereas the latter have high rates where women are excluded from positions of power while restricting their freedom and objectifying them. Sanday[26] pointed out the widespread existence of rape-prone societies but absence of rape-free societies. On similar lines, Otterbein[49] examined 17 cultures and reported that cultures with rigid sex-role systems showed higher sexual violence. The sociocultural theory, thus, explains sexual violence in terms of social expression of male power or patriarchy. If one agrees with this hypothesis, it would mean that patriarchal societies will witness more sexual violence compared to the gender-equal societies. Thornhill and Palmer[50] collate these two hypotheses, arguing that the socially learned behaviors known as culture are largely biological and hence an overlap of biological and cultural factors occurs in sexual violence.

Cultural sanction of violence also may encourage sexual violence. For example, higher rates of rape were observed by Le Vine[51] in the Gusii or Kisii tribe of Kenya. In Gusii marriages, sexual aggression is a sanctioned behavior, wherein men are encouraged by other society members to use pain and be sexually aggressive on their wives during sexual intercourse. This is done in order to show one’s power. It is argued that the higher rates of rape among the Gusii occur when marital sexual aggression overflows into the premarital or extramarital area.[51]

Whether sexual violence is influenced by biological or cultural factors, it has major influence on the mental health and functioning of the victim especially due to the social responses to the violence.[52] Negative social reactions lead to higher levels of mental health issues in the victims.

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