Somewhere we got the idea that “caveman” courtship involved a man clubbing a woman over the head and dragging her by the hair to his cave where he would, presumably, copulate with an unconscious or otherwise unwilling woman. This idea, as these two products show, is generally considered good for a chuckle.
(glasses sent in by Cole S.H.)
Of course, we have little to no knowledge of the social lives of early humans. First, long buried bodies and archeological dig sites simply can’t tell us much about how men and women interacted. Second, to speculate about early humans based on humans today is to project the present onto the past. To speculate about early humans based on today’s apes is (at least) as equally suspect. Ape behavior varies tremendously anyway, even among our closest cousins. Which type do we choose? The violent and hierarchical chimp or the peace-loving Bonobos who solve all social strife with sex?
In other words, the caveman-club-’er-over-the-head-and-drag-her-by-the-hair narrative is pure mythology. The mythology, nonetheless, affirms the idea that men are naturally coercive and violent by suggesting that our most natural and socially-uncorrupted male selves will engage in this sort of behavior. Rape, that is.
The idea also affirms the teleological idea that society is constantly improving and, therefore, getting closer and closer to ideals like gender equality. If it’s true that “we’re getting better all the time,” then we assume that, whatever things are like now, they must have been worse before. And however things were then, they must have been even worse before that. And so on and so forth until we get all the way back to the clubbing caveman.
Thinking like this may encourage us to stop working to make society better because we assume it will get better anyway (and certainly won’t get worse). Instead of thinking about what things like gender equality and subordination might look like, then, we just assume that equality is, well, what-we-have-now and subordination is what-they-had-then. This makes it less possible to fight against the subordination that exists now by making it difficult to recognize.
The idea of caveman courtship, in other words, seems silly and innocuous. But it actually helps to naturalize men’s aggressive pursuit of sex with women. And that naturalization is part of why it is so difficult to disrupt rape myths and stop rape.
Originally posted in 2008 and cross-posted at Ms. magazine.Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.