A Feminist and an Evolutionary Psychologist Walk into a bar…

There are a lot of people radical feminists hate (not unreasonably so, in most cases) and frequently argue with. But if you ever manage to find a feminist and an evolutionary psychologist at the same table, get some popcorn.

Feminists and evolutionary psychologists make natural enemies for the following reason:

Feminism asserts that the gender stereotypes and current mindsets about gender roles, are the product of the culture of patriarchy. Evolutionary psychology postulates that the way human societies are structured today, is the natural result of our evolution. In other words, it’s not the culture of patriarchy that gave birth to gender roles and stereotyping. It’s our innate, gender-stereotypical behavior that generated the patriarchal culture.

Evolutionary psychology explains, though not necessarily encourages, gender stereotyping as a natural behavior. Here’s why:

Take, for instance, these popular notions that feminists aren’t too pleased with:
– Women are easily intimidated, while men are stronger and more aggressive.
– Men have greater sexual needs than women

Almost universally in the animal kingdom (and more pertinently, among our evolutionary ancestors), it is the males who compete with each other to mate with the female. The female does not have to compete for the male. This is because a female only reproduces once every 9 months (different for various species, plus the lactation period), while a male reproduces around the year.

Because of this, the male has a reproductive advantage if he fertilizes multiple females simultaneously. The female, however, would receive no such benefit because she can only reproduce once in several months, no matter how many males she mates with.

As a result, we see males who are constantly searching for mates while females aren’t. This generates intense competition among the males, in which the more aggressive, narcissistic males have a natural advantage. The males thus evolved to become more aggressive and ever-ready for intercourse.

Females, on the other hand, had no natural advantage in scurrying around looking for males to mate with. Consequently, the female gender evolved to be less aggressive than men. Also, since mates were available to the females a dollar a dozen, they’ve had the luxury to be more choosy. This is why females are less obsessed about sex than men are.

This is as I said, merely an explanation of why things are the way they are, not how they have to be in modern society. For instance, evolution has designed us to bear and nourish our own kids. Instead, we sometimes adopt children and help advance their genetic lineage.

As repulsed as we often are by the idea of biological determinism in these situations, we have to acknowledge the presence of real biological barriers in combating certain behaviors. This is not the same as being an apologist for misogynism, but recognizing that undoing hundreds of thousands of years of behavioral shaping is not something that can be done in a matter of decades.

Gender stereotyping is wrong, because it does injustice to the outliers in the group. Women who are physically strong, and men who are not hypersexual should not be clumped with the average people and receive blanket treatment.

Some behaviors, however, are so deeply ingrained within the male psyche that fixing them could be a pathological change.

Radical feminists sometimes complain about men who drool over pictures of nude women, and in doing so, they’re not fighting for gender equality as much as they’re calling for global castration. No amount of education and awareness could make a male less titillated by erotic imagery.

In such cases, it’s far more rewarding to rethink our expectations than to fight our hardwired biological instincts. Sex-positive feminism, which I subscribe to, proposes that we change our attitude about sex by removing the stigma, instead of railing out against men for their desire seek it. A stripper, female or male, is degrading herself or himself only if we believe it’s a degrading job.

Why is quenching a patron’s thirst as a bartender not as great an embarrassment as serving a client as a prostitute? It’s because the society has not stigmatized the former, or at least, not the the extent as it has the latter.

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  1. Great article. I would argue the nature v. nurture debate is pretty dated; there is always an interaction of both. I think one of the most important points your piece implies is the value of context. It really depends on historicity, temporality and culture. How we perceive each other will always be the product of countless factors, interacting together to create a bias -one that is constructed with our own individual differences
    Thanks for posting 🙂
    http://www.theartofpsychology.wordpress.com

    • My blog caters mostly to a Pakistani audience, where feminism and even evolutionary biology have barely begun to loom into public view. So some of the content here seems recycled, though I try to add my own ideas to the mix.

      Fascinating analysis, by the way.

  2. There is no denying the fact that we live in a patriarchical society, I also understand why some women will feel a need to change this situation. However, I feel the divide between men and women is another aspect of human nature. Wherever there is a perceived differentiation amongst a group, stems a need to compete, obviously some men feel threatened by the power of women and exert a continuous effort to oppress the other half of themselves. Since both men and women are both masculine and feminine, in reality, a divide is only a illusion, one cannot exist without the other. I know that myself as a women possess both masculine and feminine attributes thats what makes me balanced.

    As for men being biologically predisposed to drool due to the sight of naked women is another learnt response and the ‘right’ education could stop this conditioned response. For instance, there are cultures (rural & tribal) within the developing world where women walk around naked and the men do not take much notice.

    The stigmatisation of prostitution is no different from any other stigma of any other phenomenon.

    • Drooling at the sight of naked women is not a learned response.

      I cannot imagine an adolescent male being “taught” to have an erection at the sight of a sexually-appealing female. Or a female “taught” to be turned on at the sight of a handsome man.

      These are instinctive behaviors. Regardless of how much he is educated, a heterosexual male would still retain his preference for tighter skin; firm, reasonably large breasts; and large, gynecoid hips (though he may deny being titillated by them, due to social restraints).

      • I am not saying that sexual arousal is a learnt response but what the type of stimilus – what actually arouses someone. As I said, there some rural cultures that have not been imposed upon by religion, educational institutions or the media. They walk around naked everyday and do not identify each other as sexual objects – what is your explanation for this? In an over religious society sex maybe viewed as dirty and therefore the whole idea of the forbidden becomes overwhelmingly exciting. Our environments have a strong influence on our percepetion and vise versa.

  3. If the source of arousal is something one is “taught” to recognize, then homosexuals should have no reason to exist, especially in the more homophobic societies.

    I grew up discussing “hot chicks” with friends, and I turned out to be bi. How do you reckon that happened? Nobody told me anything about being sexually attracted to men’s abs.

    Among tribes where members walk around naked, they still sexually attracted to each other. They just become more desensitized to the visuals, just as I would stop being as excited about my favorite food if it’s offered to me everyday.

    • I understand the point you are trying to make; that people can be biologically predisposed to be attracted to the opposite and same sex. However, sexual attraction is also a social construct, just like childhood, in some parts of the world girls marry as young as 13 years old. In western societies that would be considered peadophilia, especially if the female is marrying a male over the age of 18 years. Yes it is natural to become sexually aroused (or become hungry, tired and angry) but how it is expressed and interpreted is definitely a social/cultural factor. I have spoken to some young men that are gay and this was due to attending a boys boarding school from the age of 4-18 years old. They are others that were born homosexual due to genes. As you should know our biology has an interdependent relationship with the environment, the two cannot be seperated. I feel the tribal, rural communties that live in the developing world and walk around naked, is a perfect example of how we, in the western world, also over religious societies are conditioned into this idea of our bodies being sexual objects. Everyone has a body, there are millions, billions of them around the globe and universe – what is so erotic about that.

      • Angel, if you believe in evolution, you believe in sexual attraction being innate behavior, not a learned behavior.

        I can’t imagine a male bonobo requiring psychosexual counselling from parents and peers, to develop an urge to mate with a female bonobo.

        Hunger and sexual desire are basic instincts that have been present in all species who eat and reproduce sexually. I hardly doubt if our early sexual ancestors experimented ejaculating into random holes and crevices from rotten trees to ant mounds before finally going, “Bingo!”. And then passing this knowledge down to their young.

        You’re correct that there are environmental influences / epi-genetic factors involved. But these instincts are, for at least a major part, in-built.

      • If you read my previous reply properly, I stated sexal arousal is innate (like hunger, tiredness and anger) but the way we express or interpret it, is social and cultural. Our response to sexual arousal, how we manage such feelings etc. I suggest you look at the way other cultures view sexual energy ie buddhism, acient egyptian culture and hinduhism. This will be my last response since I don’t think my message is being conveyed but it has been interesting.

    • sam
    • November 16th, 2012

    Evolutionary biology and Evolutionary Psychology is not similar, One is legitimate science, one is pop science. You are using them interchangeably which is really laughable

    • Evolutionary psychology is a part of evolutionary biology. It is meant to explain the evolution of some of our innate behaviors and instincts.

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  5. Where is the conflict? Even if patriarchy is an evolutionary directive, it doesn’t make it “moral” now, or does it?
    Btw liberal or libertarian?

    • “Patriarchy” is broader term that encompasses many practices. As I said, just because things have been a certain way in nature, doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t change that.

      But we could make our lives much easier if we sift out the real threats to women and their welfare (like rape culture, gender role enforcement etc) from the perceived threats, like the one I mentioned near the end of my article.

      I elaborated this in my most recent blog post as well.

    • Aiwass
    • November 23rd, 2012

    When you look at it, stigmatizing certain people, just like being sexually attracted to someone, is also not a rational but an instinctive response. No offence to you, but I don’t ‘make’ myself feel disgusted at the sight of an obese person, I just am. I don’t ‘make’ myself think lowly of someone working as a waiter, I just do. The only thing I can do is maybe not express it. But then, I could just as easily ask them to grow a stomach.

    • That’s true.

      The object in these cases is not to force oneself to appreciate obesity, homosexuality, a waiter’s job etc, but to be sensitive and tolerant of these people and their own life choices.

      There are real social problems, and then there are those that are only perceived to be as such. Fat prejudice, homophobia and snobbery are real problems. Sexual openness is natural, and the hyper-sensitization of this issue is an acquired human problem, not an innate one.

        • Aiwass
        • November 24th, 2012

        Unless it’s a genetic thing, being fat is a sign of gluttony and sloth, not a ‘life choice’. Being a waiter is a sign that you couldn’t find anything better. It’s a sign of failure.

        Let me let you in on a secret about what we refer to as ‘social disapproval’. A lot of the time it’s people feeding their own egos at the expense of others. Think about it. What have I to gain by insulting a floor cleaner about how better off I am compared to him? I’ll tell you. It makes me feel like a king. The benefits of wanting to feel like a king, you ask? Maybe some other time. Suffice it to say, sometimes it trumps being nice to others.

  6. There’s no evidence that snobbery and fat prejudice is a genetic problem. It’s not like an erection, which is beyond a person’s ability to control.

    These are the kind of behaviors that can be reshaped through education and awareness.

      • Aiwass
      • November 24th, 2012

      I think you already conceded the fact that looking down on someone is not within one’s control. Again, if I could help it, I wouldn’t get disgusted by fat people. But I can’t help it. The only thing I can do is to not insult them, but as I said, there are elements of the human nature that sometimes trump being polite to others.

  7. If you’re drawing an analogy to what was discussed in the topic, it fails on two levels.

    One, fat prejudice is not known to be a biological instinct. That changes everything.

    Two, “looking down on someone” for being different constitutes actual social harm. This is something that needs to be combated through education, regardless of how much we feel it’s undoable. Any behavior that threatens societal peace and limits productive cooperation cannot be accepted, and we may be required to act a certain way despite our personal disgust for somebody.

      • Aiwass
      • November 25th, 2012

      Each and everyone of the fat people I have ever known have been bullied because of their weight. That’s because ‘fat prejudice’ permeates our psyche. Fat people are seen as lazy, weak, slow, among other things. The prejudice is never toward the person, but toward the qualities he embodies. Laziness and physical and mental weakness are qualities that are not very highly valued, hence the ridicule of fat people. An aversion to bad things is a good thing. Aversion to fatness = good. Fat people need to change themselves, not others.

      • Fat people being lazy, weak or incompetent is a stereotype. And as I explained in the article, stereotypes are a definitive no-no, even if they’re semi-accurate.

    • Aiwass
    • November 25th, 2012

    Your argument against stereotyping is that it is unjust to the “outliers” of the group. The outliers are necessarily a minority. They are exceptions. Exceptions don’t disprove a rule. Some Muslims are terrorists. Does that mean all Muslims are terrorists?

    The outliers among fat people are the ones who can run a mile without running out of breath, who have control over their eating habits, who won’t drop out of gym after two days, who can pick up decent looking girls. Show me those fat people and I’ll respect them like anyone else, maybe even more. The rest of them deserve the ridicule they get.

      • Aiwass
      • November 25th, 2012

      Admit it, it’s all about protecting feelings from getting hurt. My advice to fat people is to not try to hide their failings but to overcome them.

      • No, it’s not about sparing people’s “feelings”. Fat prejudice is very much real, and very much harmful (link)

        Obese individuals face job discrimination and tremendous social problems. It’s not just limited to fat jokes.

  8. And to have any further discussion on this matter, we at least need to agree on the fact that stereotyping is unacceptable. I cannot be expected to go off on a tangent explaining why that’s a bad thing…that should be sufficiently obvious.

      • Aiwass
      • November 25th, 2012

      You have already explained why stereotyping should be unacceptable. The problem is that your explanation is humbug. That would be easily understood by anyone who would read my comments with a clear head.

  9. “As repulsed as we often are by the idea of biological determinism in these situations, we have to acknowledge the presence of real biological barriers in combating certain behaviors. This is not the same as being an apologist for misogynism, but recognizing that undoing hundreds of thousands of years of behavioral shaping is not something that can be done in a matter of decades”

    THIS.

    Brilliant blog!

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