This Study, 'Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks,' Is, Uh, Real (Update: Nope)*

"Because of my own situatedness as a human...I recognize my limitations in being able to determine when an incidence of dog humping qualifies as rape."


Antonio Mari Planells / Dreamstime

Have you always harbored a secret desire to lurk at dog parks, tirelessly inspect the dogs' genitals in order to record their sexes, observe how frequently they hump each other, and ask their owners personal questions?

If so, you might enjoy a new study, "Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon." Yes, the paper is about dog-on-dog rape and what it means for feminism and queer theory. Essentially, it posits that studying "rape culture" among animals at the dog park is a useful vehicle for understanding rape among human beings.

The study was recently published in Gender, Place and Culture, a peer-reviewed journal. It is not, as I first suspected, a Sokal-esque hoax, though author Helen Wilson makes clear that it is "mostly qualitative in nature and did not make use of rigorous statistical analysis," casting doubt on its overall scientific merit. Wilson describes herself as a full-time researcher and part-time diversity activist. The only affiliation she lists is with the Portland Ungendering Research Initiative, which doesn't even have a website. Nevertheless, there are some actual data in the study, and plenty of academic citations.

The study has drawn much criticism from The College Fix—which called it "intellectually vacuous"—and the Twitter account New Real Peer Review, which tweeted screenshots of several ridiculous-sounding passages.

I read the whole thing and was actually a little surprised. Wilson did indeed gather some interesting, possibly useful data, and she's occasionally honest about its limitations. She even tackles potential criticism of the idea that dogs can be said to have "raped" each other at all.

"Because of my own situatedness as a human, rather than as a dog, I recognize my limitations in being able to determine when an incidence of dog humping qualifies as rape," wrote Wilson in the study. "In particular, from my own anthropocentric frame, it is difficult if not impossible to ascertain when canine sexual advances are un/wanted, or when they are rapes rather than performances of canine dominance, which introduces considerable unavoidable ambiguity in my interpretations of this variable."

Wilson spent 100 hours in three dog parks, where she made note of a whole bunch of times when one dog humped another. When the humping was male-on-male, owners intervened in the overwhelming number of cases. But when the humping was male-on-female, owners were far less likely to stop it. This, the study suggests, might say something about the owners' internalized homophobia and their willingness to overlook female victims of sexual assault.

Unfortunately, this quasi-interesting conclusion is buried under heaps of jargon and obfuscation. See if you can parse these passages:

While this research primarily involves applying theoretical considerations from feminist and queer theory, and draws inspiration from applications of Black criminology, to non-human animal observations collected over the course of a year in urban dog parks, the inherent relationship between human, dog, and dog parks brings the question into the realm of human (specifically feminist) geography….

Metaphorically, however, we are now better positioned to answer the question, "What specific and thematic lessons can be learned from dog parks that have the potential to further equity, diversity, inclusion, and peaceful coexistence and improve human-animal spaces?" The answer is that the lessons from this study can be taken as heuristics that contribute to different ways of conceptualizing and interrupting masculinist hegemonies.

I'm not sure we are better positioned at all, and what was that about "interrupting masculinist hegemonies"? This is the problem with so much social psychology research that cloaks its findings in the borderline-incomprehensible language of social justice: oppression structures, feminist geographies, etc. This study found that people don't do anything when male dogs hump female dogs but quickly intervene when male dogs hump other male dogs, maybe because they aren't cool with gay dogs. I don't mean to pick on Wilson, but the paper is many pages longer than it needs to be to get that information across, because she feels the need to break out all the usual bells and whistles relating to the interrogation of power structures, intersectional frameworks, and assorted gobbledygook. Inevitably, she overreaches:

By publicly or otherwise openly and suddenly yelling (NB: which was also effective at stopping dog rape/humping incidents) at males when they begin to make sexual advances on females (and other males in certain non-homosocial contexts), and by making firm and repeated stands against rape culture in society, activism, and media, human males may be metaphorically "shocked" out of regarding sexual violence, sexual harassment, and rape culture as normative, which may decrease rape rates and disrupt rape culture and emancipate rape-condoning spaces.

Wilson is essentially saying here that since yelling at dogs was a good way to get them to stop committing rape, yelling at men—while railing against rape culture—might work too.

She concedes, however, that unlike dogs, men cannot be leashed. That wouldn't be "politically feasible," she explains. The disappointment is palpable.

Updated on October 3, 2018: The paper is a hoax after all.