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Artist, Heather Oliver             

That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle

[Re-posted modified EvoPsycho Bingo Card — click on image for bigger version]

One of the unlovely things that has been happening in Anglophone SF/F (in line with resurgent religious fundamentalism and erosion of democratic structures in the First World, as well as economic insecurity that always prompts “back to the kitchen” social politics) is the resurrection of unapologetic – nay, triumphant – misogyny beyond the already low bar in the genre. The churners of both grittygrotty “epic” fantasy and post/cyberpunk dystopias are trying to pass rape-rife pornkitsch as daring works that swim against the tide of rampant feminism and its shrill demands.

When people explain why such works are problematic, their authors first employ the standard “Me Tarzan You Ape” dodges: mothers/wives get trotted out to vouch for their progressiveness, hysteria and censorship get mentioned. Then they get really serious: as artists of vision and integrity, they cannot but depict women solely as toilet receptacles because 1) that has been the “historical reality” across cultures and eras and 2) men have rape genes and/or rape brain modules that arose from natural selection to ensure that dominant males spread their mighty seed as widely as possible. Are we cognitively impaired functionally illiterate feminazis daring to deny (ominous pause) SCIENCE?!

Now, it’s one thing to like cocoa puffs. It’s another to insist they are either nutritional powerhouses or haute cuisine. If the hacks who write this stuff were to say “Yeah, I write wet fantasies for guys who live in their parents’ basement. I get off doing it, it pays the bills and it has given me a fan base that can drool along with me,” I’d have nothing to say against it, except to advise people above the emotional age of seven not to buy the bilge. However, when they try to argue that their stained wads are deeply philosophical, subversive literature validated by scientific “evidence”, it’s time to point out that they’re talking through their lower digestive opening. Others have done the cleaning service for the argument-from-history. Here I will deal with the argument-from-science.

It’s funny how often “science” gets brandished as a goad or magic wand to maintain the status quo – or bolster sloppy thinking and confirmation biases. When women were barred from higher education, “science” was invoked to declare that their small brains would overheat and intellectual stress would shrivel their truly useful organs, their wombs. In our times, pop evopsychos (many of them failed SF authors turned “futurists”) intone that “recent studies prove” that the natural and/or ideal human social configuration is a hybrid of a baboon troop and fifties US suburbia. However, if we followed “natural” paradigms we would not recognize paternity, have multiple sex partners, practice extensive abortion and infanticide and have powerful female alliances that determine the status of our offspring.

I must acquaint Tarzanists with the no-longer-news that there are no rape genes, rape hormones or rape brain modules. Anyone who says this has been “scientifically proved” has obviously got his science from FOX News or knuckledraggers like Kanazawa (who is an economist, by the way, and would not recognize real biological evidence if it bit him on the gonads). Here’s a variation of the 1986 Seville Statement that sums up what I will briefly outline further on. It goes without saying that most of what follows is shorthand and also not GenSci 101.

It is scientifically (not politically) incorrect to say that:
1. we have inherited a tendency to rape from our animal ancestors;
2. rape is genetically programmed into our nature;
3. in the course of our evolution there has been a positive selection for rape;
4. humans brains are wired for rape;
5. rape is caused by instinct.

Let’s get rid of the tired gene chestnut first. As I’ve discussed elsewhere at length, genes do not determine brain wiring or complex behavior (as always in biology, there are a few exceptions: most are major decisions in embryo/neurogenesis with very large outcomes like Down syndrome, aka trisomy 21). Experiments that purported to find direct links between genes and higher behavior were invariably done in mice (animals that differ decisively from humans) and the sweeping conclusions of such studies have always had to be ratcheted down or discarded altogether, although in lower-ranking journals than the original effusions.

Then we have hormones and the “male/female brain dichotomy” pushed by neo-Freudians like Baron-Cohen. They even posit a neat-o split whereby too much “masculinizing” during brain genesis leads to autism, too much “feminizing” to schizophrenia. Following eons-old dichotomies, people who theorize thusly shoehorn the two into the left and right brain compartments respectively, assigning a gender to each: females “empathize”, males “systematize” – until it comes to those intuitive leaps that make for paradigm-changing scientists or other geniuses, whereby these oh-so-radical theorists neatly reverse the tables and both creativity and schizophrenia get shifted to the masculine side of the equation.

Now although hormones play critical roles in all our functions, it so happens that the cholesterol-based ones that become estrogen, testosterone, etc are two among several hundred that affect us. What is most important is not the absolute amount of a hormone, but its ratios to others and to body weight, as well as the sensitivity of receptors to it. People generally do not behave aberrantly if they don’t have the “right” amount of a sex hormone (which varies significantly from person to person), but if there is a sudden large change to their homeostasis – whether this is crash menopause from ovariectomy, post-partum depression or heavy doses of anabolic steroids for body building.

Furthermore, as is the case with gene-behavior correlation, much work on hormones has been done in mice. When similar work is done with primates (such as testosterone or estrogen injections at various points during fetal or postnatal development), the hormones have essentially no effect on behavior. Conversely, very young human babies lack gender-specific responses before their parents start to socialize them. As well, primates show widely different “cultures” within each species in terms of gender behavior, including care of infants by high-status males. It looks increasingly like “sex” hormones do not wire rigid femininity or masculinity, and they most certainly don’t wire propensity to rape; instead, they seem to prime individuals to adopt the habits of their surrounding culture – a far more adaptive configuration than the popsci model of “women from Venus, men from Mars.”

So on to brain modularity, today’s phrenology. While it is true that there are some localized brain functions (the processing of language being a prominent example), most brain functions are diffuse, the higher executive ones particularly so – and each brain is wired slightly differently, dependent on the myriad details of its context across time and place. Last but not least, our brains are plastic (otherwise we would not form new memories, nor be able to acquire new functions), though the windows of flexibility differ across scales and in space and time.

The concept of brain modularity comes partly from the enormously overused and almost entirely incorrect equivalence of the human brain to a computer. Another problem lies in the definition of a module, which varies widely and as a result is prone to abuse by people who get their knowledge of science from new-age libertarian tracts. There is essentially zero evidence of the “strong” version of brain modules, and modular organization at the level of genes, cells or organ compartments does not guarantee a modular behavioral outcome. But even if we take it at face value, it is clear that rape does not adhere to the criteria of either the “weak” (Fodor) or “strong (Carruthers) version for such an entity: it does not fulfill the requirements of domain specificity, fast processing, fixed neural architecture, mandatoriness or central inaccessibility.

In the behavioral domain, rape is not an adaptive feature: most of it is non-reproductive, visited upon pre-pubescent girls, post-menopausal women and other men. Moreover, rape does not belong to the instinctive “can’t help myself” reflexes grouped under the Four Fs. Rape does not occur spontaneously: it is usually planned with meticulous preparation and it requires concentration and focus to initiate and complete. So rape has nothing to do with reproductive maxima for “alpha males” (who don’t exist biologically in humans) – but it may have to do with the revenge of aggrieved men who consider access to women an automatic right.

What is undeniable is that humans are extremely social and bend themselves to fit context norms. This ties to Arendt’s banality of evil and Niemöller’s trenchant observations about solidarity – and to the outcomes of Milgram and Zimbardo’s notorious experiments which have been multiply mirrored in real history, with the events in the Abu Ghraib prison prominent among them. So if rape is tolerated or used as a method for compliance, it is no surprise that it is a prominent weapon in the arsenal of keeping women “in their place” and also no surprise that its apologists aspire to give it the status of indisputably hardwired instinct.

Given the steep power asymmetry between the genders ever since the dominance of agriculture led to women losing mobility, gathering skills and control over pregnancies, it is not hard to see rape as the cultural artifact that it is. It’s not a sexual response; it’s a blunt assertion of rank in contexts where dominance is a major metric: traditional patriarchal families, whether monogamous or polygynous; religions and cults (most of which are extended patriarchal families); armies and prisons; tribal vendettas and initiations.

So if gratuitous depictions of graphic rape excite a writer, that is their prerogative. If they get paid for it, bully for them. But it doesn’t make their work “edgy” literature; it remains cheap titillation that attempts to cloak arrant failures of talent, imagination and just plain scholarship. Insofar as such work has combined sex and violence porn as its foundation, it should be classified accordingly. Mythologies, including core religious texts, show rape in all its variations: there is nothing novel or subversive about contemporary exudations. In my opinion, nobody needs to write yet another hack work that “interrogates” misogyny by positing rape and inherent, immutable female inferiority as natural givens – particularly not white Anglo men who lead comfortable lives that lack any knowledge to justify such a narrative. The fact that people with such views are over-represented in SF/F is toxic for the genre.

Further reading:

A brief overview of the modularity of the brain/mind
Athena Andreadis (2010). The Tempting Illusion of Genetic Virtue. Politics Life Sci. 29:76-80
Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding
Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sex/Gender: Biology in a Social World
Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender
Alison Jolly, Lucy’s Legacy: Sex and Intelligence in Human Evolution
Rebecca Jordan-Young, Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences
Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown, Sense and Nonsense: Evolutionary Perspectives on Human Behaviour
Edouard Machery and Kara Cohen (2012). An Evidence-Based Study of the Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences. Brit J Philos Sci 263: 177-226

58 Responses to “That Shy, Elusive Rape Particle”

  1. delagar says:

    Thank you. Everything I have been thinking & did not have the science to say.

  2. Ann Leckie says:


    That is all.

  3. Athena says:

    Kelly, Ann — thank you!

  4. Susan says:

    Now that, mrs, is a fine rant. Brava! I also like the aside about the left-hemisphere/right hemisphere bullsh**. As if lefty is the big mean dominant cold-hearted logical monster and righty the dumb creative oppressed hemisphere sadly sighing to itself under the skull. I am going to hazard a guess that it is more complicated than that.

    In the same category as the generalisations you describe, I would like to add “women are better at multitasking”. That is a justification some man made up to justify having women do more housework and they’ve sneakily and nastily disguised it as a compliment.

    I do have one question – what about female readers who act positively towards rapists in literature such as Soames Forsyte and Lovelace? Soames should have been utterly loathsome, but to a woman, all the female readers I ever came across pitied him and loathed his wife Irene, on whom he forced himself. Why would we respond in such a manner when we are implicitly encouraged to condemn such a figure?

  5. Caliban says:

    The line I love:

    …people who get their knowledge of science from new-age libertarian tracts.


  6. Athena says:

    Susan, your guess about the left/right dichotomy is right. Ditto for multitasking: in fact all humans, regardless of specifics, are lousy at it no matter how “sexy” it looks or sounds.

    Soames Forsyte… now there’s an interesting case! Beyond the fact that in the latest TV incarnation he was played by heartthrob Damien Lewis (and depicted far more sympathetically than in the book), I suspect that women like Soames and loathe Irene for two reasons: Galsworthy portrayed him with increasing nuance and sympathy as the Saga progressed, as he himself felt more into the “law and order” camp in his personal life and convictions; and he portrayed her as the perfect woman who charms everyone just by being, rather than doing anything (she’s completely passive throughout the Saga, and gets increasingly annoying as it unfolds because of her static pedestal status).

    On the larger canvas, women are still conditioned to believe that they can “reform” a man if only they love him enough; almost all the cases of abusers like Lovelace fall into the “redeemable by the love of a good woman” category.

  7. Athena says:

    Calvin — I thought you might… (*smile*)

  8. Athena – what stories are like this, which feature rapists or sex domination and I guess, women liking it? Other than Shades of Grey?

  9. Athena says:

    Most romance falls in this category — both traditional bodice rippers and other subgenres (mythic, gothic and urban fantasy, for example, including vampire and werewolf romances). The two requirements are that the man be “redeemable” and that the woman who does the redeeming be inexperienced, aka “pure” (even Jane Eyre falls in this category when you think of it).

  10. eleni says:

    “So rape has nothing to do with reproductive maxima for “alpha males” (who don’t exist biologically in humans) – but it may have to do with the revenge of aggrieved men who consider access to women an automatic right.”

    I think that just nails it.

    Especially considering that rape has really little to do with sexual desire. A lot of (silent) victims of rape are men, and their aggressors normally identify themselves as heterosexual.

  11. Thank you. Well worth saying.

  12. Dylan Fox says:

    Fantastic stuff! I’ve refered to the ‘rapeion’–that rape particle–in discussions before. I think maybe you do a better job of explaining it then I do 🙂

    As an aside, I did see some hope for progress recently: the new TV advertising campaign we have in the UK against rape quite clearly lays the blame on the men and tells them they can stop. It makes a pleasant change from all the campaigns telling women not to wear certain clothes or to never let their drinks out of their sight.

    As another further aside, interesting how computer technology has bred the modular brain theorizing. I mean, just interesting how modern technology can influence thinking in that way.

    Again, fantastic article and thanks for posting it.

  13. SHaGGGz says:

    Valid points. However, I would like to point out that not all of evolutionary psychology is like this, and it has many useful insights to provide that are not captured by this meditation on fringe regressives who will pounce on anything that will give their dying worldview the imprimatur of scientific legitimacy. All fields have their sleazy opportunists, some more than others, but I wouldn’t go so far as discounting the entire field of climatology, for instance, because it has abusers.

  14. Anil Menon says:

    Loved the Bingo img. I agree with your assessment of EvoPsych; its this century’s version of phrenology. There’s always been an anti-humanist streak in biology, though its more circumspect these days. But who were the SF/F authors you were referring to? Hard to believe there are writers out there trying to make rape a respectable bourgeois pastime.

  15. Athena says:

    Eleni, exactly. The fact that heterosexual men will rape other men in specific circumstances is enough in itself to invalidate the entire “argument”.

    Aliette, Dylan — you’re welcome!

    Dylan, the use of Procrustean analogies that end up shaping perceptions of the original object is a time-honored practice. Before the computer, the brain was likened to a clock, among other things. Just as lousy an analogy, and just as useful in helping understand how the real item works. Mind you, there is nothing mystical or unknowable about how the brain works, even the unique human one. It just doesn’t work like a computer.

    SHaGGGz, you may have noticed that I listed Hrdy, a prominent EP practitioner and pioneer, in further reading. The problem is that EP, unlike the rest of evolutionary theory, lends itself readily to this type of (mis)interpretation and many of its well-known adherents seem to make sweeping conclusions from flawed studies or from just philosophizing in their armchairs.

    Anil, I found the Bingo card online and modified it (I couldn’t find the original source to credit it). The problem with EP is that it has little experimental evidence, so it can go hogwild and has done so — and, as usual, the theories that bolster the status quo get promoted and glorified. As for the SF/F authors, the so-called “grimdark” contingent (whom I call grittygrotty) indulges enthusiastically in the practice, perhaps as a way to excite jaded reader appetites — in which case their defenses of it are cynical and/or in bad faith.

  16. SHaGGGz says:

    I have not encountered claims of the sort you mention when I took EP in university. In fact, I remember an amusing prelude to the course wherein we examined arguments of the type you outline and what sorts of sophistry they employ. Perhaps the issue is one of diligence in applying scientific discipline and not something inherent to the field itself. There is also no shortage of evolutionary theory being distorted for obvious political purposes, but this in no way tarnishes its validity.

    As for computers’ similarity to human brains, I suggest qualifying your claim by specifying that the currently predominant Von Neumann architecture is what is not analogous to human brains. Recent advances such as neuromorphic chips may well prove you wrong.

    @Anil: EP is neither phrenologous nor anti-humanist. I quite enjoy recalling the paroxysms of religious indignation that accompanied its advent, which betrayed a preference for the veil of superstitious ignorance to discomfiting reality. It is merely an attempt to zero in on something we know must exist, namely the overlap between our uniquely human psychology and our primate and earlier ancestry.

  17. Athena says:

    I called a specific item within EP phrenology: namely, the extreme concepts of brain modularity (and the conclusions that popsci reaches using them). On a more general level, some scientific hypotheses are wrong or need to be heavily modified. Nobody disputes that there is continuity between humans and their ancestral species, as well as humans and animals; what is being flattened in the discussion are the contributions of unique attributes (language, culture) and the near-impossibility of reconstructing the initial conditions/settings.

    As for brains being like computers (or not), further knowledge will settle this. But the foundational premise of this analogy is false across several scales — from the way neurons work to the way brain processes input. And to my reading, at least, neuromorphic chips mimic neurons and/or try to reproduce the final outcome of a particular neuronal group. That has little bearing on the validity of the computer analogy for the brain. Building a jet does not tell you how bats fly.

  18. SHaGGGz says:

    It’s still a young field, and those unique attributes are obviously tough nuts to crack. I remain hopeful.

    I see what you mean regarding neuromorphic chips. Does your jet analogy hold if we were to gradually replace organic neurons with artificial neuromorphic chips without any perceptible change in conscious experience? I must admit that for me to call the brain a computer carries little weight as I regard pancomputationalism an attractive theory.

  19. Foxessa says:

    This is the first I’ve encountered “We Hate Irene and Soames Is Hot and Mistreated.”

    Evidently those who view that way have only seen the 2002 miniseries, in which he’s softened — but still, he was more than willing to have his wife die rather than lose an heir. Even Bonaparte was willing to sacrifice the child in a labor that might kill the mother in order to keep Josephine (at least at that period of their relationship). They haven’t read the Galsworthy novels, in which Soame’s stalking of Irene, buy-out of her mother to force Irene to marry him, and the marital rape were extremely shocking for the time published. This doesn’t mean the audience didn’t know such things happened, it was just that we don’t speak of them.

    But shock beyond shock — Irene left him! She found sympathy and support! She even suppported hereself! She was not a whore! She found happiness with Another! Her life was NOT ruined! Now that didn’t shock the audiences of the time. As said, what shocked them is that this was spoken of within the pages of fiction that was very well received at the time by both readers and critics.

    Love, C.

  20. Foxessa says:

    Oooops, NOT Josephine, but Maria Louisa, Bonaparte’s second wife.

    Gads. A long night of very HOT music, and the language part of el brain is not working on all cylinders yet.

    Love, C.

  21. Foxessa says:

    More and more, from many different angles, we’re starting to see a push-back to the rape particle, particularly as it is used in nerd culture.

    See Abigail Nussbaum’s entry on her Asking the Wrong Questions blog, here.

    Yes, this is also a personal issue for me, having suffered a family tragedy because of abduction, torture and rape. Yes, all that in the real world suffered by a real person who is no longer living, but who has left behind so many who loved her, whose lives have never been ‘right’ since.

    Love, C.

  22. Athena says:

    I think Galsworthy’s “first” is what you point out: not the rape itself, but the fact that Irene survived it so well, giving up neither her fundamental autonomy nor her fulfillment. At the same time, since this was modeled on real-life events in Galsworthy’s life (with him fulfilling the role of Young Jolyon), it’s no surprise that the plot currents and characters sway the way they do.

    I cannot fathom how anyone can call themselves “progressive” and “informed” and harbor such ideas as many nerdbeards seem to. For them, it’s like playing a video game, I guess. If similar cruelty had been depicted towards a dog or a horse, everyone would be shrieking from the get-go.

  23. Foxessa says:

    O — and I forgot to mention that Irene’s mother is in actuality her stepmother — adding a dimension of fairytale to the predator situation her beauty has placed her.

    Soames is not denied sympathy by the author either — meaning we see him wholly, in the round — a man who believes the entire world and its inhabitants should behave as he demands and expects, as he deserves and has earned by his own impeccable life and behavior, and is entirely incapable of comprehending otherwise. I.E. a very dangerous man, and never more so when denied his rights — an embodiement on some levels of reading of how Galsworthy saw the Victorian British Empire. Yet, this man concerned only with property, has his weaknesses, most particularly beauty. He has an art collection, to which he is determined to add Irene. And then he is helpless in the face of his daughter, his most prized possession, his own flesh and blood, for which he was more than willing to sacrifice the life of his wife.

    I suppose it shows how much I love those novels? I can recall in tremendous detail my first reading of The Forsyte Saga, particularly today, a Sunday at the start of summer, which was the second day of reading in that omnibus volume, after coming home from church, and my mother calling and calling me to come down and help with dinner (on the farm we call the noon meal dinner), and I not hearing her. I can’t remember exactly how old I was though; thirteen? fourteen probably. I do believe this was my introduction to England and English history, and the Victorians.

    Love, C.

  24. Jim Fehlinger says:

    Keep stirring the pot. I love it! ;->

  25. zarpaulus says:

    I think the “rape gene” proponents forget that humans are social animals and that nearly every society on the planet condemns the act of rape, in many cases with death. You’d think that if there was a genetic predisposition towards raping it would have died out back in the stone age.

    Though I have to ask what you’re including among “complex behaviors that cannot be influenced genetically”, because there have been studies indicating hereditary components to autism and schizophrenia. And I can assure you that autism is not solely “behavior” (and I have to wonder why you included Down’s syndrome as one of the few exceptions to your rule).

  26. Caliban says:

    I am not a biologist, but I do know a lot about computers.

    The issue is not, I suggest, von Neumann architecture versus nerdomorphic chips or whatever the latest neural-network-successor fad is (many of which have been very intriguing and all of which, outside of constricted and limited applications, have been frankly failures). I doubt Athena objects to the basic idea that the brain is a machine and what we perceive as mind runs on it; I doubt she believes in a ghost in the machine. The issue is drawing ghastly conclusions from poor analogies. In this case that there are universal and rigidly defined subroutines that preordain–and excuse– certain behaviors. A bad analogy is a bad analogy, leaving the issue of neurocraptic chips irrelevant.

  27. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > It’s funny how often “science” gets brandished as a goad or
    > magic wand to maintain the status quo – or bolster sloppy
    > thinking and confirmation biases.

    Fortunately, there are Web sites these days containing collections of
    embarrassing but cautionary quotations from gentlemen who were in their
    day perfectly respectable scientists, intellectuals, and public figures.

    – 1801 Julien-Joseph Virey, a medical doctor,
    wrote, “All the ugly peoples are more or less barbarians,
    beauty is the inseparable companion of the most
    civilized nations.”

    In an essay in the Dictionary of Medical Science (1819),
    Virey wrote of the black woman developing a
    “voluptuousness” and “degree of lascivity” unknown
    to whites. In discussing the Hottentot female* he
    stressed the consonance between  the “hideous form”
    of their physiognomy and this sexual lasciviousness.

    “Among us [whites] the forehead is pushed forward, the
    mouth is pulled back as if we were destined to think
    rather than eat;  the Negro has a shortened forehead
    and a mouth that is pushed forward as if he were made
    to eat instead of to think.” 

    – 1812 Georges Cuvier (1769-1832): the Aristotle of
    his age, the founder of geology, paleontology,
    and comparative anatomy.  Stated Africans are 
    “the most degraded of human races, whose form
    approaches that of the beast and whose intelligence
    is nowhere great enough to arrive at regular government”
    [Cuvier, 1812, p. 105 Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles. Vol. 1.]

    “The white race, with oval face, straight hair and nose,
    to which the civilized peoples of Europe belong and
    which appear to us the most beautiful of all, is also
    superior to others by its genius, courage and  activity.
    (And that there is a) cruel law which seems to have
    condemned to an eternal inferiority the races of
    depressed and compressed skulls. …and experience
    seems to confirm the theory that there is a relationship
    between the perfection of the spirit and the beauty of
    the face.” 
    [Tableau élémentaire de l’histoire naturelle des animaux
    (Elementary Survey of the Natural History of Animals, 1798)]

    There was also a character in Vienna around the turn of the (last) century
    named Otto Weininger, a “young genius” who committed suicide at the age of 22 or so
    ( ),
    who wrote a book (_Sex and Character_) purporting to elucidate the difference between
    masculine and feminine psychology and its effects on culture. Among other things,
    Weininger (who was himself Jewish — what we would call today
    a Jewish anti-Semite) attributed the “congenitcal weakness” of the
    Jewish character to an excess of the feminine humour, or something
    of the sort. It isn’t surprising that a book like this would influence
    Adolf Hitler, but what **is** surprising is that it would be admired
    by none other than Ludwig Wittgenstein, according to his biographer
    Ray Monk. Wittgenstein also had something to hate himself about —
    he was an unhappy homosexual. Weininger, BTW, now has fans,
    and a shrine devoted to his work, on the Web.

  28. Susan says:

    “This is the first I’ve encountered “We Hate Irene and Soames Is Hot and Mistreated.””

    No honestly, I’ve seen that all over the place. And I read the book! Honest, the whole thing! Before I saw any of the Damian Lewis thingy (for which Gina McKee I thought was miscast.)

    I know I’m supposed to feel sorry for Irene and Soames is not only a marital rapist, but a property developer, a snob and a narrow-minded, unpleasant character. But there is something about Irene that sets my teeth so on edge that all of Soames’s minus points (and the sacrificing of Annette’s life is pretty much up there on the Shitty Things list, thanks, I missed that one) still can’t make me hate him as much as I do Irene.

    It’s her impenetrability, her cruelty, her superiority over other women, her treachery, her exploitation. She gives off this whole vibe of being independent but in reality she is a parasite off several Forsyte men. Her passivity is quite active and calculated. That June was her friend, and that she set out to steal her fiancee – FFS it’s the one thing you don’t DO to another woman, especially your friend. She’s so damn cold I don’t care that she’s done wonderfully well since she got free of Soames.

    Soames Forsyte never wafts along thinking I’m dirt and he’s better than me. He’s flawed and human. Whereas Irene would look through me. My reaction to Irene is visceral, it’s negative and it’s rooted in the fact that I’m a woman and I can’t stand the thought of her because she makes me feel insecure and Soames doesn’t.

    That’s why I can’t hate him more than I do his wife.

    (Athena this is completely off topic and I apologise. But I hate Irene with a pure and true loathing. Galsworthy is a remarkable writer to get me to care this much about a character positively or negatively.)

  29. Susan says:

    PS. Foxessa Re “Game of Thrones” I’ve never seen it but there’s a hilarious takedown
    of it on Tiger Beatdown:
    It’s rare to read a feminist critique that makes me laugh my head off but this did.
    Btw I don’t know what the warnings are on that. I am sorry you’ve had personal and upsetting experiences to do with the topic.

  30. Athena says:

    Susan, C: I have read the Forsyte saga many times myself, and saw both the old and new Masterpiece Theater series. And although we are meant to dislike Soames (and we should, at least in the first trilogy), Irene is very problematic for reasons that both Susan and I have listed — I can almost hear her murmur “Don’t hate me ’cause I’m beautiful!” But, as you both point out, that is an endless conversation! It is a credit to Galsworthy’s talent that his work still moves us so powerfully even today, when circumstances are so different.

    I read Sady Doyle’s takedown of GoT and I also found it very funny. Needless to say, it was condemned as another out-of-context, out-of-scale rant about things that matter little. Even funnier was the fact that one of the grittygrotty contingent tried to portray himself as the equivalent of Doyle.

    Jim: well, you know me. I couldn’t avoid trouble even if I wanted to (and generally I don’t). But if you think that Virey’s 1801 views of black women were horrific, read Kanazawa in 2011. We haven’t come that far, after all.

    Paul, yes, autism has hereditary susceptibility factors; some of the genes that are candidates for this susceptibility act during neurogenesis, neuronal migration or synaptogenesis (which places them in the category of genes I discuss in this article and in Miranda Wrongs). However, there is no algorithm that can predict the outcome going from gene to brain wiring to organism. In the case of Down syndrome, the gene product linked to cognitive impairment is DYRK1A, a tyrosine kinase. Looking at it, you would never guess its link to eventual outcomes in cognition.

    Calvin, exactly. Perhaps I should link to my article that discusses the inseparable entity that is the brain/mind and also briefly goes over the issues of uploading and neuron substitution that SHaGGGz brought up — Ghost in the Shell

  31. Foxessa says:

    I don’t read Irene that way and never have. And I have always read Soames as believing himself superior.

    Which is why he’s so infuriated — he IS superior to them all, and yet that ne’er do well Young Jolyon gets everyone’s sympathy — AND a career that allows him to support his illegitimate family, despite his own family disowning him, AND then gets forgiveness from Old Jolyon (who ALSO becomes a friend of Irene’s and leaves her a legacy), AND then gets the family money after all, AND The House — AND worst of all, Irene too, and yet another son, Jon with her. Two sides of the fairytale, the female and male, yet it’s Irene who provokes hatred, not young Jolyon.

    And, in the end, the fairytale closes ’round. Irene loses her son, and that happens because of Soames’s daughter.

    Brilliant. They were the first couple that I ever identified with as a Couple, as a young reader, people who were together entirely as equals and compatible personalities.

    Love, C.

  32. Foxessa says:

    I too have read Sady Doyle’s got dissection.

    I’ve been speculating that the novels are so overloaded that the frequency and levels of sexual humiliation, degradation, violence, etc. were not so noticed, at least by female readers, who have long trained ourselves to glide over, elide and even skip that kind of thing when reading because it makes us feel sick if we read it with attention. So many words make that kind of skipping over very easy, actually. I skipped huge parts of the volumes I read because just Too Much that didn’t matter of books that went on forever, were very heavy, and then didn’t go anywhere.

    But with the HBO screen strip down of the text, and with the enthusiastion cooperation of the show runners, this stuff got foregrounded and shoved in our faces, literally. And some audience members, particularly with what’s been going on with Showtime’s Spartacus, etc. just can’t avoid seeing what they are seeing, which is porn in every way, other than actual penetration, and it’s not not sexy porn, but violation – rape porn.

    Love, C.

  33. Athena says:

    I only read the first of Martin’s doorstoppers. Before that, I had read a collection of earlier stories of his. They were very good, so he must be aware of what he’s doing in GoT. We discussed the various aspects of both the book and TV series in an earlier blog entry by Calvin, The Anxiety of Kings.

    Regarding the other Saga, Young Jolyon is judged far more leniently than Irene (both within the story and by the readers) because he’s both a Forsyte and a man — tribal loyalties and default biases prevail. Also, he and Irene can be the ideal couple partly because they are independently wealthy at that point and can indulge in the elevated life. His earlier wife, who is not even named if I recall correctly, is deemed to be cut from inferior cloth in part because during her life they live in reduced circumstances. Conversely, June (a Forsyte but a woman) is treated abominably, partly because she is feisty; Fleur ditto, to some extent.

    But let’s restrain ourselves and defer further discussion of the Forsytes to another time, since it is off topic — although the questions of agency and rape are pertinent in the present context as well.

  34. Rebecca Hb. says:

    Excellent post. I think I will just link this in the future when people try to inflict that BS on me.

    Most romance falls in this category — both traditional bodice rippers and other subgenres (mythic, gothic and urban fantasy, for example, including vampire and werewolf romances). The two requirements are that the man be “redeemable” and that the woman who does the redeeming be inexperienced, aka “pure”

    Maybe I’m reading fewer romances than I thought, but I can’t remember hardly any recently-written books where the male love interest rapes the female love interest (or vice-versa).

  35. Athena says:

    Rebecca, by all means, link away! Actually, Amy’s question was broader. She said “rape or sex domination” — and contemporary romance still has its full share of the latter. Even though it is now fairly customary in several subgenres for heterosexual pairs to eventually become quasi-equal partners, the opening often starts with some kind of coercion to the woman.

  36. Rebecca Hb. says:

    Ah, yes, I can definitely agree with that. I do amateur book-reviewing on my blog; one of the romance series I’m planning to rec is going to come with the caveat “if this is a trope you dislike, you should skip this series” specifically re: sexual domination.

    Sorry, I just tend to see people dismissing romance as having “rape = love” as a common plot element and it makes me go “Nooooooooo~!”. But yes, sexual domination is still a very common trope in the genre. Which is a pity.

    Now to go tattoo this post to the skin of at least one guy I know…

  37. Foxessa says:

    Maybe the current propensityt in sf/f for rape as motivation for everything and constant action hit home was in the same episode of Battlestar Galactica that lost my respect and patience. It was the coming of the Pegasus and Gina’s gang rape and boasting of it — and the commander of the Pegasus is a woman, so it’s OK and even not sexist! And the captured female pilot episode — the male pilots go chasing out to rescue her — and the female pilots who are her very close friends just stand there. Everything went to pieces after those two episodes. Both of these were just so wrong, such bad writing, such non-creative writing. Rape and rescue of female characters are tropes from the medieval romances, not a space-faring culture, in which the women are astrogators, pilots, warriors, commanders. But they couldn’t stay away from 1950’s soap opera. And I quit watching and will never watch anything from these guys again.

  38. Athena says:

    The Battlestar Galactica reboot was a horrific disappointment, especially because it started with such great promise. It was a total failure as SF (both the S and F components)… We discussed BSG and Caprica here.

  39. Foxessa says:

    Ah, so I looked at that link to the BSG discussion.

    How can one not see all this as, you so brilliantly put it, as the field’s constant pull to neoteny?

    Love, C.

  40. Jim Fehlinger says:

    “Take a letter, Maria. . .”

    Me boss, you secretary.

    “According to their [Marco Del Giudice of Italy’s University of Turin as well as Paul Irwing and Tom Booth of the University of Manchester] analysis, men are far more dominant, reserved, utilitarian, vigilant, rule-conscious, and emotionally stable, while women are far more deferential, warm, trusting, sensitive, and emotionally ‘reactive.’ The two sexes were roughly the same when it came to perfectionism, liveliness, and abstract versus practical thinking.

    According to Irwing, the research means that women and men behave almost like two separate species.”

    “Liveliness”, eh?

    In other EvoPsych news:

    “Natural selection maintains the repugnant taste of semen so that a man’s sperm will wind up in the appropriate place: the vagina and not the stomach. So long as sperm tastes bad, women will not be tempted to swallow it, but will turn their male partner towards conventional intercourse, which of course is the only act that will produce children. In other words, any male with good-tasting sperm would have fewer offspring than his competitors. A man whose sperm tasted like honey would probably not have any children at all. . .

    [I]t’s the kind of interesting speculation that evolutionists indulge in over a few beers.”

    In case you ever wondered.

  41. Athena says:

    The laugh quotient of these statements is similar to that of this year’s Republican candidates: even professional comedians couldn’t improve on them!

  42. intrigued_scribe says:


    “…I’d have nothing to say against it, except to advise people above the emotional age of seven not to buy the bilge.”

    Excellent line.

  43. Athena says:

    Thanku, dear Heather! *smile*

  44. Saajan Patel says:

    Your blog is amazing. I am going through your many articles and have the pleasurable sensation of learning a great deal.

  45. Athena says:

    I’m glad you’re finding the blog enjoyable, Saajan! I like interweaving strands.

  46. Aaron says:

    Great entry. More writing like this is needed to counter the tendency of modern neuroscience to offer policy prescriptions derived from brain imaging. It seems so obviously wrongheaded, but it really is a pretty dominant strain of scientific, political, and legal thought right now.

    I’ll go off on a parallel tangent, cause there’s really nothing to be added to your great article . . .

    For anyone feeling like this neuroscience/ep/whatever thing is just a fringe element, try talking to Americans about their drinking age and get ready to hear a bunch of “science” about how “teen brains” don’t “develop” until they’re 21, 25, 30, 35, etc (it basically changes depending how much the person talking hates young people). It’s based in science, sure, but mistakes the measurement, devoid of all complimentary factors, as the policy conclusion. It’s now being used to try to raise their crazy drinking age more, raise driving ages, change ages of consent, and all sorts of other legislative solutions that would never fly if they were prescribed to other more specific groups.

    If you’re having trouble imagining how people could use science as an excuse to repress a group/justify their behaviour, then step back from the issue presented in the article and reflect on your own beliefs with regard to the process as it pertains to other issues (drinking age, driving age, or whatever else). You might get a glimpse into how difficult it is to separate “scientific studies” from the cultural beliefs of their place of origin.

    OK, vaguely related tangent done. Hoe that wasn’t too out there 🙂

  47. Athena says:

    Welcome, Aaron; I’m glad you enjoyed the entry.

    Human brains do develop, and different parts mature at different times, although each brain is individual in its development arc (within boundaries). However, most brains have reached a quasi-final configuration by the end of puberty, although plasticity remains in several functions: most prominently formation of new memories. Of course, policy makers rely primarily on statistics (how many accidents are caused by drivers of type X) and on prevailing social norms. What is absurd is the idea that people past the developmental stage of puberty — which is coming earlier and earlier to First Worlders, due to nutritional shifts — cannot be relied upon to self-regulate their drinking, but can do all other kinds of things, including making decisions in a combat setting.

  48. Aaron says:

    of course….and like you said in your article, people’s behaviour is basically adapted to their society, not pre-determined by EP or brain measurements. We could pick out of a crowd and chance on a 16 yo with a bigger pre-frontal cortex or whatever than a 30 yo….doesn’t mean we decide what behaviours each person is likely to engage in based solely on that. And of course, there’s no explaining how a group of Italian 16 year olds get together over wine to study at lunch (or the 99% of the world that treats alcohol culturally differently than the US) and we don’t seem to have a worldwide epidemic of damaged brains.

    Anyways, I brought it up mostly to be a shit disturber cause I know what a touchy subject alcohol & youth is in the US 🙂 But because of that, I think it’s a perfect example to illustrate how people can be really stubborn in clinging to their culturally implanted beliefs as “scientific fact”. Not that the people described in your article really deserve empathy, but I think we do have to understand and acknowledge when our own behaviour can veer down this road if we’re to change any minds….and it’s usually on some unrelated “non pet” or “this doesn’t really affect me” issue.

    Anyways, thanks again for the great writing! I stumbled across your blog from someone on Twitter & I foresee myself having a lot of reading to catch up on now . . .

  49. Lauren says:

    Hi, Athena,
    Reading things like this always makes my brain feel better. Have you posted anything directly addressing Simon Baron-Cohen’s reductionist analogy about autism being an “extreme male mind”? I feel that, at the very least, he’s introduced a metaphor that’s so distracting that obscures more than it illuminates. Plus Dave Barry is funnier.

  50. Athena says:

    Hello, Lauren! I haven’t done that, though I’m tempted. I’m reading some related scientific literature, so at some point I may venture to discuss Baron-Cohen’s essentialist reductionism.