Monday, 9 January 2012

Misogyny is alive and well, but is there an evolutionary reason for the double standard?

I exercised great restraint today in not getting involved when reading a long discussion thread about the manner in which women can expect to be perceived and treated if they leave the house wearing anything more revealing than a muslim ninja suit. Predictably, words like "slut" and "whore" were peppered liberally throughout many of the posts, and I was surprised - and more than a little dismayed - to see that there were even a few women joining in the chorus of "if you wear a short skirt you're asking to be treated like an object" and "women who sleep around are sluts".

It got me thinking about the word "slut", which has always struck me as particularly vile as it's a term applied by the historically powerful gender to devalue the historically oppressed gender; these days, when it comes from a man, you can more or less take it to mean "this woman is bad for my ego because I find her attractive but although I have (or think I have) reason to believe she has sex she has not chosen to do so with me". Basically it's sour grapes; an attempt to devalue an object of desire because you can't have it. (Obviously I'm ignoring examples of rape and sexual assault/abuse here. In those cases, I would guess that "slut" and words like it would be an attempt to blame the woman for ones own actions to avoid feeling guilty about it - but I am aware that there's a world of difference between calling someone a slag and raping her.) Words like "slut" and - more commonly - "whore" are particularly characteristic of discussions with muslim men.  Very, very rarely will I discuss religion with a male muslim and not have to put up with such names, or in many cases some very graphic references to what they guess about my sex life, intended to be as shocking as possible; of course, these attacks say far more about the messed up attitude these men have learned to have towards women than they do about me.  I can't quite imagine what it must be like to simultaneously desire women through normal biological urges (heightened by a lifetime of being told you can't respectably have them) and yet loathe them as dirty, degraded sub-human creatures not worthy of your notice. In any case, a lifetime of conditioning to perceive a woman as intrinsically and by their very nature worth less than you is a handy tool when dealing with one who's inconveniently turned out to be a lot more educated and intelligent than you; obviously whatever she says is wrong because - whatever the appearances to the contrary - she is stupid, so you can call her some names to remind her that she's worthless and disregard it. (A word of advice for any women who ever come up against this attitude; don't deny anything they throw at you. All you'll be doing is feeding the myth that what you choose to do with your sexual partner/s is something shameful. Instead, show them how unaffected you are by their primitive notions of what your behaviour should be, and let them know that their opinion of you doesn't matter just because they think it does. Watch them dissolve into incoherent and baffled rage. Debate over.)

Anyway, all this got me wondering about the difference in attitudes we - even in the modern world, leaving aside the islamic throwbacks for a moment (heck, even the christians have mostly got around to letting their womenfolk wear trousers and go to the shops on their own!) - have towards the two genders. I will argue for a woman's right to sleep with as many people as she chooses (as long as it's safe and not hurting anyone), but even I, when I encounter a woman who openly has multiple partners or who has numerous one-night-stands, will raise my eyebrows before I can stop myself; it seems to be to on some level a built-in response, which says something about the extent to which unconsidered social conventions can influence our thoughts, however irrational and nasty they might be. I won't hold it against her, but I freely admit I will be curious about her and probably wonder what the thoughts and feelings behind her choice might be. Would I wonder that about a male who shagged around? Rarely - in most cases I'll just conclude he's either a flake or just out for fun (depending on how he goes about it) and leave it at that.

Obviously there is a huge cultural influence in evidence here, but I wonder if there might be a more instinctive, evolutionary drive at play too? (I need to make two qualifications here; one, it may well be that someone somewhere's done research and published books and all that either for or against my hypothesis; I haven't encountered it if so, but it's not like I spend my life reading academic papers. If you've come across anything on this topic, please let me know in the comments! Two, you can't get an ought from an is; even if you find my hypothesis credible, this does not mean I am in favour of gender discrimination or that I think I am providing an excuse for it. There are also sound evolutionary reasons for racism; the more thoughtful and informed among us are able to override this instinct with but a little consideration.)

My reasoning on this point is pretty simple.  Evolution, as we know, is all about gene survival; a gene that promotes the survival of its host organism will survive and be passed to the next generation, while a gene that is detrimental to the organism's survival will not be passed on because that organism will not survive to breed. For this reason, a gene that inclines an organism to want to be sure that the offspring it's raising are its own will be likely to become dominant over a gene that causes the host not to care; there are all sorts of mechanisms for precisely this in nature, as anyone who's ever watched an Attenborough documentary will know.

For a woman, there is no issue here; she knows a baby is hers because she gave birth to it - for this reason, it doesn't matter to her genes how many other women the father has sex with.  But to the man, who cannot have this certainty, the number of other men the mother has had sex with does matter; it matters because every additional sexual partner the woman has had reduces the odds of the child the woman has born being his - and therefore, the more partners the mother has had the more likely it becomes that a man is wasting his time and energy raising offspring that do not bear his genes.  If this is the case - and I should point out that I am a complete novice and this is just a guess - it seems reasonable to suppose that a gene or genes causing a man to prefer monogamous women to promiscuous ones might arise and become successful; and the obvious way for this gene to work would be to supply an opposing drive to the simple reproductive one, an opposition to attraction.  Of course with modern options on contraception and modern thought about the actual importance of gene transmission (many of us share Stephen Pinker's sentiment that "[our] selfish genes can go jump in the lake" and remain childless; others even adopt the genes of rival humans!) there's no excuse for this kind of instinct - if it exists - to take precedent over rational thought and basic equality.  I also don't think this alone would be enough to account for the complex emotions and cultural associations encompassed in words like "slut", but it might have provided the backdrop... and it might make it difficult to dispose of, although as I said earlier I don't think that's a reason not to try.

There's no need to detail the link between religion and misogyny because it's well known; but if there is an actual, hardwired evolutionary basis for this particular form of gender inequality, it makes it only more imperative to dispose of this additional, artificial construct that adds the best excuse ever found to treat women as sub-human.


  1. Hi SoggyMog. Came across from FSTDT per your request!

    Can I just say to start with, a nice bit of writing; thank you.I'll be back for more.

    As for your subject - your reasoning makes sense to me. I think I've read Dawkins saying similar stuff - particularly about the fact that women will know they are passing on their own genes, but men can't be sure. I know a lot of scientists are very sceptical about evo-psych claims, as it seems an awful lot of stuff can be claimed, but very little proven. All the same, this obvious mismatch between the sexes must surely make for different strategies.

    From a male perspective, you want any woman you sleep with to be faithful to you (to be sure it’s your genes in the child), but also you want as many women as possible to sleep with you to spread your genes as far as possible. These latter women give you the chance to pass on your genes, but simultaneously threaten that they may, after all, pass on someone else's. This makes them objects of desire AND fear.

    It's all speculation, but if this IS a genetic pressure that causes men to behave the way they do towards women, there's no reason why we can't rise above it. Indeed many men do. Well I say no reason; in fact there is as you say, religion. It’s not the only barrier, but it’s a major one.

  2. It strikes me as plausible that there are evolutionary influences in this area. That said, evolution should influence us to want to have babies as much as possible (not just sex), and men certainly seem willing to employ contraception to limit the number of children they have. Similar arguments could be employed to assume that men should naturally shun oral sex, but I don't think that conclusion would survive contact with reality.

    Yes, we have animal instincts. We also have fully functioning human brains; we can rise above this base nonsense, and we should. Evolution and darwinism are not excuses to be an asshole.