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Study Confirms Sexual Assaults Caused By Darkness and Trees

Study Confirms Sexual Assaults Caused By Darkness and Trees

by Anne Russell
April 23, 2014

In the wake of reports of sexual assaults near the path from Boyd Wilson Field to The Terrace in Wellington, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington have released a study which found that sexual violence in public places is primarily caused by a lack of street lighting.

The study was conducted by evolutionary psychologist Julian Smith and anthropologist Jonathan Armisen over a period of six months. Drawing from a range of media reports, interviews with students, and field observations, Armisen and Smith found that most male-on-female sexual attacks on campus occurred after dark. They thus concluded that darkness is a precondition for sexual assault.

Smith suggests this behaviour may have some roots in genetics. "When men walk around in the dark for extended periods of time, it activates a gene left over from the Pleistocene Era,” said Smith. “We know from past research that small bands of Neanderthals largely inhabited caves, which were of course quite dark. Since survival in these caves was quite difficult, the males of the group needed to assert their sexual dominance over the females in order to reproduce the species.” Smith noted that while New Zealand's post-feminist society means this situation is no longer a reality, prolonged periods of ‘cave-like’ darkness can still revive these throwback genes in males.

According to Smith’s research, which draws heavily on past findings by leading botany psychologist Alan Davis, a similar phenomenon occurs in areas with extensive foliage. “That same gene can be aroused by bushy areas that resemble the foliage of our early ancestors’ habitats. Forests in those times were areas where sexual conquests often took place,” said Smith. Other theorists speculate that particular plants may evoke male arousal through the suggestion of hidden female nudity. This is known as the ‘Adam and Eve effect’.

Smith and Armisen’s study has had a significant impact on Wellington’s local response to sexual assaults around Victoria University. Police have proposed to clear some of the foliage around the path from Boyd Wilson Field, and the university has agreed to install better lighting in order to lower the likelihood of these attacks.

However, Armisen believes a longer-term solution may be necessary. “Of course, if we lived in a world of perpetual daylight, sexual assault cases would decrease almost to the point of non-existence.” He supports the actions taken by the Swedish government, who have recently commissioned scientists at the Blekinge Institute of Technology to develop a mechanical device known as a ‘super-sun’. This device takes its design from SAD therapy sunlight lamps, but works on a much larger scale. When placed at the top of Mount Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain, the light emanating from the device is predicted to reduce darkness in Sweden to minimal levels at all hours of the day.

This technology, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said, would virtually eliminate rape in a country that is already well-known for its progressive gender politics. It would additionally lower the country’s population of owls, who in the darkness of wintertime often deafen Swedish citizens with incessant hooting. While some New Zealand feminists doubt the viability of this technology as a solution for sexual assault in Aotearoa, Armisen believes their objections are in part formed by the feminist community's social and financial ties to several prominent morepork lobbyists.

In the mean time, Armisen recommended that women try to avoid either leaving or returning to their homes in order to minimise rape.


Anne Russell has a university degree. Follow her on Twitter: @elvisfchrist

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