Tools of war: Why cannibalism has disappeared but rape hasn’t


You know the story of the pretty girl dressed in questionable clothing who walks into the woods and speaks a little too freely to a leering wolf. “All the better to eat you with, my dear,” the Wolf says to explain his large, sharp teeth to Little Red Riding Hood. The fairytale, a childhood staple with multiple iterations, began in the oral tradition and was first written down by Charles Perrault in 1697. Perrault’s version ends with the wolf first eating Grandma, then Red. “Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies,” the moral of the fairytale clarifies, “should never talk to strangers… They may well provide dinner for a wolf.”

Every adult—and every astute kid—knows what’s really going on in “Little Red Riding Hood,” and it’s a lot creepier than a wolf sitting at the top of the food chain. Audiences recognize that this fairytale is less concerned with literal predation than it is preoccupied with literal rape. But when the anthropomorphized wolf consumes Grandma and Red, “Little Red Riding Hood” conflates eating and rape in a strangely cannibalistic act. In this connection, “Little Red Riding Hood,” whose oral tradition dates to at least 1000 CE, suggests a place we modern humans might look to the demise of one ancient behavior—cannibalism—to find the end of another ancient human behavior—rape.

Rape and cannibalism are not the same—for one thing, rape survivors can tell their own stories, while cannibalized peoples cannot. Another major difference is that while cannibalism has died out in a rich brocade of taboo woven from narrative, religion and sometimes law, rape lives on. The question becomes what cannibalism can teach us about new ways of looking at, understanding and ultimately preventing rape.

However different cannibalism and rape are, they have storied roots in human history. Like rape, cannibalism has often been deployed as a tool of war. “One narrow aspect of the [cannibalism] spectrum is the idea that you are doing it for violence sake, for the power that you have over someone,” says vertebrate zoologist Bill Schutt, author of “Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History.” “Two of the ways you can perform extreme violence is either to rape or to eat somebody, having nothing to do with a ritual, just complete savagery.” This tie raises the question: If ancient (and even modern) humans can learn a taboo against eating people, why can’t we learn a taboo against rape?

There is nothing neat about rape. It’s perpetrated by many different kinds of people, and is motivated by complex reasons. Next to rape’s sprawl, cannibalism is tidy, breaking down into three basic subsets: survival cannibalism, which is eating people to stave off starvation, as the ill-fated Donner party did in the Sierra Mountains in the mid-nineteenth century; endocannibalism, which is the ritualized eating of your own dead; and exocannibalism, which is the eating of people outside your group or clan, usually as part of warfare. Finally—and this is integral to understanding rape—while cannibalism is equal opportunity for all genders, the historic power, economic, and social inequity between men, who perpetrate most rape, and women, who are most rape victims, keeps rape borderline socially acceptable.

Exocannibalism, Schutt argues, “instills fear in your enemy—not only are we killing you, but there’s nothing left. We ate you. We think of you as a hot dog.” In this way, ancient peoples used exocannibalism as a way of utterly annihilating their enemies. This practice of cannibalism-as-war extends to not-so-ancient peoples too—it’s highly likely that the Francs cannibalized Muslim dead in the Syrian city of Ma’arra during the First Crusade, 1095-99. While narratives tried to make it look like survival cannibalism, there’s enough dodginess in contemporary accounts to suggest that the Francs were more cagy than they were hungry. In terms of war, sexual violence has functioned a lot like cannibalism. Both rape and cannibalism were ways for nascent states to consolidate power. Both acts create fear and both have the long-term effect of absorbing one culture into another, cannibalism through consumption and rape through procreation.

The reasoning of people who practice exocannibalism can also look similar to that of rapists. “The core of exocannibalism is the whole idea of the ‘other,’” Schutt says. “If he’s not in your group, then you can do anything to him.” This rationale of irredeemable difference can also motivate rapists and sexual abusers. Rory Newlands, a University of Nevada psychology doctoral student specializing in sexual assault prevention programs, suggests that “places where there was more gender equality, there were fewer rapes and sexual assaults.” Newlands points out, “It’s this divide between, you’re a woman, I’m a man” that can create the psychic space for rape. To see the victim as different and less than you can be as much a part of rape as it was for cannibalism.

Yet while rape abides—the CDC reports that nearly one-fifth of all women are raped, while one in 71 men are—cannibalism has essentially been eradicated. Moreover, it’s only in the past 15,000 years that the majority of humankind stopped being cannibals while some cannibalizing peoples have stopped only in the last fifty years. Indeed, genetic evidence suggests that almost all of us are descended from cannibals. Just as when cows that eat other cows get mad cow disease, people who eat people can develop prion brain diseases. Our ancestors cannibalized, got prion diseases, and these ancient diseases have left marks on our DNA; chances are that you—and I—carry these genetic markers.

People didn’t just eat people for a whim. Cannibalism had evolutionary advantages to ancient homo sapiens and to our kissing cousins, Neanderthals. “If you’re not hung up on the fact that eating your own kind is bad, it’s just another piece of food in front of you,” Schutt suggests. When it comes to eating our own, early humans weren’t different from many animal species, who frequently eat their own. “In every major taxonomic group from microbes to Mormons, cannibalism was quite common,” Schutt says. Indeed, studies suggest that a real paleo diet would have included cannibalism.

So if cannibalism is evolutionary helpful, effective at building nations and as a successful tool of war, how did it die off? Schutt blames it on the Greeks. “It starts with the Greeks with Homer and Herodotus, moves through the Romans, and then it’s picked up by people like William Shakespeare and Daniel Defoe and Sigmund Freud and everything just snowballs into [the idea that] cannibalism is bad.” In other words, while rape had a much more tenuous place in the ancient world, cannibalism was far less ambiguous, and the stories people told reflect this. Fifth-century BCE Greece was ripe with cannibalistic narratives, but they were stories that made cannibalism unappealing—the acts of barbarians, the consequences of cursed families, or acts done by thoughtless gods.

Rape, on the other hand, held a position integral to Greek and, later, to Roman identity. Mortal or god, in Bible or in epic verse, historical or fictional, women being raped by men was very much woven into the fabric of ancient cultures. After all, the rape of the Sabine women (later turned into Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a musical that your high school probably produced) is integral to Rome’s history—no rape, no Rome. Rape’s place in storytelling is very different from that of cannibalism, and it comes down to this message: cannibalism is very bad, but rape, well, rape can be okay.

“We are all Greeks,” wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley. “Our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts have their roots in Greece.” Fast-forward a couple thousand years, and the taboo against cannibalism is so deeply ingrained that most of the United States doesn’t even have laws against it—in fact, Idaho is the only state that has laws against anthropophagy, or people-eating, although some states fold cannibalism under the broader heading of “desecration of a corpse.” Americans don’t really need laws to keep us from eating people. Our own disgust manages it just fine.

This is not the case across the world. In the past few generations, cannibalism has died out in the Wari’, a tribe indigenous to lands on the border of Brazil and Bolivia who practiced mortuary cannibalism, as well as in tribes in New Guinea who had their own forms of endocannibalism. “If Western Civilization had been pro-cannibalism, the whole world will be cannibals right now,” says Schutt, suggesting that it has been a gradual change owing to a combination of law, religion and Western culture. “It’s a generational thing. Grandpa is still sneaking a bite of the dead guy, but his kid might not, and their child might certainly not. It just fades away.”

Europeans exported their ideas of cannibalism as a taboo as they colonized the world. But it’s all kind of a great big fat people-eating lie because as late as the Victorian Age, Europeans and others practiced medicinal cannibalism, which is exactly what it sounds like. Pulverized mummies, executed men’s blood, human fat—human remains appeared as nostra for a variety of illnesses. It was a cultural blind spot that allowed Europeans to condemn—and even colonize—others for being cannibals while retaining their #NotAllCannibals status. “The birth of modern medicine killed medicinal cannibalism,” Schutt notes, while adding that today’s placenta-eaters have created a “slight resurgence.” The West is nothing if not hypocritical.

The question then becomes whether rape too can become something that fades away through education or cultural change, and if so, how? Until recently, women have carried the onus of rape prevention. (Note that the moral of Perrault’s “Little Red Riding Hood” didn’t address wolves or appeal to their better natures.) The unquestioned belief was that boys will be boys who grow into men who will be men, and these men learned that rape is bad but maybe not that bad. The last twenty years, however, have seen a shift in the way that American culture understands rape, and this shift shows in programs specifically aimed at college-age men, but those programs bring their own set of problems.

It’s hard to teach consent because American sexual education is woefully lacking. It’s hard to teach rape because men balk at the term. Newlands admits, “Rape is a very loaded word, so if you approach [eighteen-year-old men] as if they’ve already done something wrong, there’s going be some backlash.” Therefore, the programs aimed at men tend to pitch them as bystanders or allies of women. In this scenario, “Little Red Riding Hood” ends with the Grimm’s fairy tale conclusion of a woodcutter stepping in and cutting a slit in the wolf’s belly, out of which Red and her Grandma emerge, unscathed.

The issue with bystander or ally programs is that many rapes happen where no one can see. It was fortunate for Brock Turner’s victim that a pair of Swedish students happened to be riding their bikes past that dumpster and chose to intercede, chase Brock, call the police, and hold him until the police arrived. Most victims aren’t that lucky—even Red and her Grandma don’t get a woodcutter in every version of their story.

If statistics are stacked against the bystander model, if young men are fuzzy over the concept of consent, and if men shut down at the word “rape,” what alternatives are there? How, for example, can rape prevention education make rape unpalatable? One way might be to tell stories differently—or to tell different stories. Jeff Perera, founder of Canada’s Higher Unlearning, an effort to change models of masculinity, contends, “Healthy masculinity is a holistic, full idea of embracing so-called ‘feminine’ traits like empathy and emotional intelligence.”

Newlands also suggests redefining what makes a man successful is integral to decreasing rape, “What makes a man a real cool man, rather than he just had sex with a lot of girls, he cares about the women’s sexual pleasure. Instead of, ‘Oh I get all the ladies, I had sex with ten girls last week,’ it’s about being a good lover. That makes you a man.” Privileging quality over quantity, and packaging masculinity with empathy suggest tactics for changing cultural attitudes towards rape—and clearly telling these stories earlier in men’s education would help too.

To these ends, what if, instead of catcalling Red and stalking her through the woods, the Wolf found himself surrounded by a pack of woke wolves, who advised him to admire Red for her rich interior life and to respect her humanity, and the story ended with them sharing a mess of burgers at Shake Shack? What if Red were a beloved little boy? What if the Wolf stopped himself mid-bite, apologized to Grandma and let himself out? What if the stories we told ourselves and our children made our men responsible for their own appetites? What if narrative can change the world? It worked for the Greeks.

A former academic, Chelsea G. Summers writes almost exclusively about sex. Her writing has appeared in Hazlitt, VICE, The New Republic, Adult Magazine, and The Guardian US, among other sites.

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