Y Can’t Men Stop Assaulting and Harrassing Women?


Every day brings new revelations of men harassing and assaulting women. The media is agog with reports of sexual abuse by famous men, especially men in powerful positions. Of course, men in all walks of society are guilty of molesting and raping women. Many pundits are declaring a sickness in our society both in how our culture raises boys and how it condones and hides egregious male behavior towards women. Writers tend to portray this male malfeasance as a symptom of our particular social ills suggesting or implying that we in America or our Western culture are notably guilty of mistreatment of women. To an uncomfortable degree the United States is a culturally abusive patriarchy, but, despite how some media portrays it, the U.S. is by no means the only society guilty of this and hardly is it the worst. Amidst all the hand wringing by apologists and self-criticism by cultural analysts, few ask why is it that men feel privileged to harass and assault women? What is going on with gender relations both in our Western society and beyond?

There are so many examples of horrific treatment of women worldwide, much of it around sex. Female circumcision, more appropriately called female genital mutilation, vies in its barbarity with outright murder such as honor killings in which male family members murder a woman suspected or known to have had unacceptable relationships. One in six women are victims of rape or attempted rape, usually by an acquaintance rather than a stranger. Selling girls or kidnapping them into forced marriages have been common practices throughout human history. Forcing women to cover up so completely that their identities are hidden is a way to control their sexuality among other things. And, of course, polygamy is typical in many traditional societies. The uniting theme in all these cultural conventions is to control, prevent or gain access to female reproduction.

In the recent screeds lamenting male sexual misconduct, people rarely allude to biology’s contribution to sexual politics. For the most part, innate contributions to behavior are overlooked when it comes to humans. After all, if men’s deplorable actions have roots in biology, then what are the options to deal with this epidemic? The fear is that there is no way out, that we are doomed to endure these rampant assaults endlessly. But then an honest analysis of male-female relationships across time and geography suggests that abuse of women persists regardless of any cultural efforts to prevent it. If we don’t honestly evaluate the basis for human gender politics and the evolutionary bases for sexual behavior, we will continue to be doomed to endure bad actors.

There is copious scientific literature describing the courtship and mating behaviors of every kind of animal including humans. While we excoriate men for their crass and brutish behavior (not ALL men it is quickly and frequently pointed out), let’s very briefly consider some sexual behaviors in non-human species and compare and contrast to people. But first I want to tell a slightly less scientific tale of sex.

Some years ago I gave a talk about the putative evolution of sperm and eggs. I started with the supposition that the first life forms were single-cell organisms, something like today’s blue-green algae, whose reproductive strategy was to divide, to split into sister cells. The shortcoming of this method of reproduction was each new cell was a clone of the parent, so the offspring lacked genetic variability. In the event of environmental changes, the cells were potentially at a disadvantage. They couldn’t as readily adapt as other organisms that had different alleles (gene variants) providing alternative adaptations in the newly changed environment.

Somewhere along the way these single-cell organisms evolved means to exchange or combine genetic materials, the first instances of sexual reproduction. Those first cells to combine/exchange their genes presumably delivered their DNA in similarly sized and shaped packets since they shared the same ancestral evolutionary adaptations.

In addition to the goal of introducing genetic variability, the mother cells needed to provide the cellular machinery and nutrients necessary for the daughter cells to thrive. But evolution is always parsimonious and stingy, always looking for shortcuts to gain advantages. If the bottom line is to pass one’s genes, if all one needs to do is get the DNA delivered, finding a partner who does the work to provision the offspring with adequate resources could mean the other gene donor can slide. Instead of packaging the DNA with lots of organelles and all the organic molecules required to sustain life, just pare down the DNA transmission device to the merest vehicle necessary. Just make it large enough to carry the DNA, give it a flagella tail and endow it with an energy source just good enough to motor the little package to the big target cell. Oh yeah, and make lots of them. In other words, sperm. With a little luck, this strategy could mean getting lots of one’s genes into lots of progeny. Evolutionary success!

Credit: Carin Cain / Nature

Meanwhile, if the recipient partner is willing to accept the sperm’s spartan DNA offering, it must continue to pour resources into its own reproductive vehicle. That means making fewer of them and theoretically having lower reproductive success. It’s this contrast in germ line investment that differentiates sperm and eggs.

“I don’t like where this is going,” a women in the audience said.

I didn’t rise to the bait. “That’s a discussion for a different day.” Well, that day has arrived and then some.

The reproductive strategies of animals are myriad and fill volumes. Always fun to consider are the praying mantis and some spiders in which the female may consume the male during or after copulation. Yay? The male of some species of angler fish is many times smaller than the female. He attaches himself to the female as a literal parasite, fusing to her, merging blood vessels and becoming one with her just to be available to fertilize her eggs. (Too many analogies, but go there if you want to.) It points to the imperative role of the male as a sperm contributor. Similarly, the male honeybee, the drone, essentially performs only one function, which is to mate with the queen.

More germane to this essay are males’ strategies for gaining sexual access to females and limiting it from other males. Typically this means establishing control of a territory, achieving dominant status or simply finding and constraining a female. A well-studied example is elephant seals in which the enormous males fight for dominance and control of a harem of females. However, during dominance fights, sub-dominant males opportunistically attempt to mate with unguarded females in what appears to us humans as rape. While many species’ courtship rituals are unencumbered, egalitarian negotiations between the male and female and do not involve physical restraint, many other species mating behaviors do involve force. In some cases either or both strategies are invoked within a species. Evolution is agnostic about how organisms reproduce; it only cares (in a non-anthropomorphic way) that they succeed. Whatever gets the job done and results in viable offspring.

It’s easy to project the mating behaviors of animals onto humans, but are those behaviors applicable to us or coincidental? One of many books about human sexuality is The Coolidge Effect: An Evolutionary Account of Human Sexuality by Glenn D. Wilson. The book starts with a parable (that may even be true) about President Calvin Coolidge and his wife visiting an experimental government farm. They toured the farm in separate groups. When Mrs. Coolidge came to the chicken yard, she asked how often the rooster mated with the hens and was told, “Dozens of times each day.” Mrs. Coolidge said, “Tell that to the President.” Upon being told, the President asked, “Same hen every time?” The reply was, “Oh, no, Mr. President, a different hen every time.” The President said, “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge.”

Is the obvious comparison of fowl to humans legitimate? Our big brain cognition tells us that we are different, even superior to other creatures, specifically because of our big brain cognition, so the historical predilection of men to want to spread their seed is viewed in our modern society as anything from a conscious choice to an aberration, an illness in need of treatment. Yet these behaviors align with eons of biological evolution. Coincidence? I think not. When a roomful of male politicians in Washington attempt to legislate control of women’s wombs, they are just acting like Neanderthals in power suits. (Is that an insult to Neanderthals?) Like lipstick on a pig, we try to cloak our primitive behaviors in modern accoutrements that hide the underlying truths. We desperately want to think we’ve made great strides away from our animal past, but there is nothing like sex, this most biological of functions, to remind us that we’ve only taken baby steps and remain in thrall to our genetic heritage.

The evidence that there are manifest biological contributions to human sexuality is actually overwhelming, but in the light of our everyday consciousness such considerations are lost. Big brain cognition says, I refuse to accept this state of affairs. Yeah, big brain cognition says a lot of things, and here we are anyway. Men continue to act to control and gain access to women’s reproduction. Despite some parts of our modern culture’s abhorrence of these oppressive practices, they are, in fact, deeply rooted in Y chromosome-driven, androgenic factors. People’s behavior is motivated by evolved inherited motivations as well as conditioning and socialization acquired in one’s lifetime. It’s not one or the other, and very often social learning reinforces the genetics while being misunderstood as the sole cause.

When we confront our culture’s male miasma, we are working from the learning and socialization end of the spectrum. That’s fine, but there is continual disappointment when we teach our young men and boys how to respect women, how not to treat them like chattel, and we don’t get the results we expect. We’re ignoring the momentum of evolutionary time. Despite the effort to roll back the persistent caveman mindset towards women, it will continue until evolution, through natural and sexual selection, alters the reproductive landscape. Don’t hold your breath that evolution will make males less focused on sex and less driven by carnal desire. Human wishful thinking has no bearing on evolution, which could just as easily result in fiercer male competition for access to females. Rather, all who engage in this struggle to restrain male abusiveness will continually be pushing the rock up the hill, trying to hold back the forces of biological gravity.

Does what I’ve said matter? Does any of these purported innate predispositions driving gender relations alter how we want to deal with the male malaise afflicting women? For those of us who don’t accept this chauvinist state of affairs, everything I’ve said amounts to nothing other than an excuse, a partial understanding of why it happens. This is certainly not meant to exonerate abusive behavior, yet I don’t think it’s wrong to bring some biological and historic insight into the conversation. Recognizing an evolutionary aspect for the cause of men’s mating behavior doesn’t give us definitive methods or paths for how to mitigate it. What will impact men’s behavior will be a combination of changes to laws, attitudes, media and other social customs and norms. What those specific techniques will be are an ongoing discussion for a different day. If there is a message from investigating the biological basis for abusing women, it is that the struggle to resist bad behavior will never end. We can do our best in the near term to ameliorate it, but the sperm and the egg and the behaviors that support reproduction have been doing their dance for hundreds of millions of years. Like Sisyphus, we must be prepared for the long haul, to keep pushing the rock up the hill.