Evolutionary psychologists: Women are less likely to get themselves raped when they’re ovulating

As the daughter of two cultural anthropologists, I’ve always viewed evolutionary psychology with skepticism if not outright disdain. Sure, I love a sweeping generalization as much as the next wannabe pundit. But generally my thoughts can be summed up by this handy bingo card.

So I’m glad that many other folks have taken the time to challenge the shoddy scientific evidence cited in this Slate article arguing that women evolved to protect themselves from rape—especially when they’re ovulating. (Cause clearly we don’t mind that much during the rest of the month.) The obvious corollary, of course, is that men evolved to rape women whenever they can.

Look, if you want to argue—by cherry-picking “scientific” studies—that men evolved to rape—that it’s natural even if it’s not acceptable—be my guest. I’d think a lot of folks—including the vast majority of men who have not raped anyone, never would, and might be sick and tired of having their sexuality constantly vilified—might object to that claim. But hey—have at it.

But if your evidence is a few flimsy studies that may or may not show that during the couple days a month that I’m ovulating, I can squeeze hands harder and am less likely to do slutty things, such as talk to black men, that might get me raped, then it should be clear that you are adding exactly nothing to any meaningful discourse around rape.

And I think the most annoying thing about evolutionary psychologists is that they–and the media that just loves to write about their theories–just don’t seem to get that.

The author of this article, Jesse Bering, preempts—and laments—the criticism evolutionary psychologists often get when they start talking about rape as an evolutionary adaptation:

Thornhill and Palmer, Malamuth, and the many other investigators studying rape through an evolutionary lens, take great pains to point out that “adaptive” does not mean “justifiable,” but rather only mechanistically viable. Yet dilettante followers may still be inclined to detect a misogyny in these investigations that simply is not there. As University of Michigan psychologist William McKibbin and his colleagues write in a 2008 piece for the Review of General Psychology, “No sensible person would argue that a scientist researching the causes of cancer is thereby justifying or promoting cancer. Yet some people argue that investigating rape from an evolutionary perspective justifies or legitimizes rape.”

The unfortunate demonization of this brand of inquiry is rooted in the fallacy of biological determinism (according to which men are programmed by their genes to rape and have no free will to do otherwise) and the naturalistic fallacy (that because rape is natural it must be acceptable). These are resoundingly false assumptions that reveal a profound ignorance of evolutionary biology.

I think that really misrepresents the feminist objections to evolutionary psychology. I don’t believe that studying rape—from any perspective—automatically legitimizes it. And if I thought that evolutionary psychologists had a chance in hell of uncovering the “causes” of rape, I’d be all for it.

But, as Bering himself goes on to note, we are not ruled solely by our biology, what’s “natural” isn’t necessarily acceptable, and we have a little thing called free will. And to me that sounds a little bit like an admission that we humans are not, in fact, cavemen anymore, that we’ve actually got quite a few millennia of culture under our belts, that we’ve evolved into pretty sophisticated creatures who live in complex societies. And call me crazy—but maybe all that matters.

Bering seems to believe that my feminist objection to evolutionary psychologists’ explanations for rape is simply that it lets rapists off the hook. And, of course, that’s part of it. There’s no question that the myth that rape is inevitable—that male sexuality is naturally predatory—is used by rape apologists to justify men’s aggression and put all the responsibility for preventing rape on women. But, even more than that, my criticism is that it lets our culture off the hook for its role in fostering the misogyny and rape apologism that breeds and enables rapists.

Of course, Bering can’t even address that critique, because, in order to do so, he would have to acknowledge that culture exists. He might even be forced to entertain the possibility that other societal factors might be at play—and could actually have more explanatory power when it comes to rape. And then he might not be able to ignore the large body of evidence that rape is primarily about violence, not sex; domination, not reproduction. And then it would all start unraveling.

That’s the real reason I question whether evolutionary psychologists are actually interested in investigating the causes of rape, instead of simply reinforcing the myths that underpin rape culture. It’s not that they argue that men evolved to rape; it’s that when faced with the obvious reality that, even if that’s true, the majority of men actually do not rape, they just stop the investigation.

Atlanta, GA

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director in charge of Editorial at Feministing. Maya has previously worked at NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the National Institute for Reproductive Health and was a fellow at Mother Jones magazine. She graduated with a B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. A Minnesota native, she currently lives, writes, edits, and bakes bread in Atlanta, Georgia.

Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Editorial.

Read more about Maya

Join the Conversation

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    We love easy answers for complex problems. And it makes the job of the media easier. But it’s lazy journalism. Better a column that takes ten parts to fully explains the complexities of an issue than a garbage article than this one.

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    than a garbage article LIKE this one, rather

  • http://feministing.com/members/uclabodyimage/ uclabodyimage

    I’ve been reading and loving feministing for about 5 years now, but anti-biology rhetoric on the blog is over the top in my opinion.

    I’ve never seen a single positive entry on the links between evolution, culture, and behavior. What gives? There are many women and feminist minded biologists and evolutionary psychologists who do this work. Why not give them some props instead of always presenting such a narrow and misleading representation of what evolutionary psychologists do? There are dozens of studies that show that women’s behaviors and preferences change during ovulation compared to all other points in their cycle – rather than sweep this under the rug and try to pretend that this aspect of women’s experiences and women’s lives doesn’t exist, why not bring attention to the complex ways that biological, personal, and social factors impact the way we think and feel?

    For example, why not highlight the work of Sarah Hrdy, who has written extensively on evolution, women, and culture? Why claim that evolutionary psychologists think that culture doesn’t exist, when they think that both transmitted and evoked culture is critical to the human condition (and a whole mess of them study why such flexible intelligence emerged and how and when culture emerged)?

    There are three separate issues that got mushed together in this post. The first is on the news reporting of ev psych, where there is definitely a problem. Writers take the studies they read, fit them into their pre-existing narrative that men are from mars and women are from venus, and disseminate it. There is no actual evidence that this significantly changes people’s view of rape or sex (there is only one study on exposure to feminist vs. ev psych theories on acceptance of rape myths: exposure to feminist theories reduces acceptance, and exposure to ev psych doesn’t change them), but it is still a concern.

    The second issue is the quality of the research. Evolutionary psychologists do all sorts of cool research, from looking at whether changes in hormone levels leads to greater interest in casual sex, whether the MHC genes (immune system genes) that you have impact which odors you find appealing, and so on. Some research is nonsense (but anyone whose read anything in gender studies, sociology, or economics knows that’s true of any field).

    In the case of rape and sexual abuse, let’s assume that men have no evolved predisposition to it. But it still happens quite alot, especially in the absence of organized police forces and strong social norms preventing it. So it makes sense that we would evolve defenses against it, right? Most other species have these defenses. Some are physical and some are behavioral (e.g., about 50% of copulations in orangutans are “forced” copulations and the females very actively resist these attempts by the males). In women, the vaginal environment is relatively hostile to new sperm. There are several explanations for this, one of which is consistent with an evolved resistance to the consequences of forced sex. It makes sense to also look for evolved predispositions to prevent or avoid rape.

    The ovulation studies are interesting because it’s hard to come up with a sociocultural explanation for why there are ovulatory shifts in women’s attitudes regarding dangerous situations, regarding men who are judged to be sexually coercive, and handgrip strength in response sexual assault scenarios. Whether or not it is a rape avoidance mechanism is up for debate, but clearly psychological tendencies are loosely tracking fertility status, which requires explanation.

    Dozens of studies show that women’s sexual preferences and behaviors change subtly around the time of ovulation compared to all other points in their cycle

    • just_speak_up

      I have to agree with @uclabodyimage, but for different reasons (I’m not really down with evo psych).

      I’ve felt for a long time that the coverage of science on this website could be so much better. Why not add a contributor to this website that’s a feminist scientist (or a few feminist scientists)? I don’t mean to single out this writer (because others have done this as well and, truthfully, the topic she is addressing is among the most controversial and infuriating within the field), but when you throw around phrases like “flimsy study,” “shoddy scientific studies,” and ” ‘scientific’ evidence,” I have to ask: What makes these experiments not up to par? Can you give me the answer? You can’t critique science if you don’t know how to critique it–it goes beyond merely disliking the conclusions. Conclusions can best be attacked if you attack the science (specifically, the methods) that lead to them.

      As I mentioned earlier, though, I am not down with evo psych–but I can talk about why. I think there’s a slightly larger amount of HARKing that goes on in evo psych in comparison to other psych concentrations. I think many (but not all) of the experimenters are performing moderation analyses and treating the results as mediation explanations. I also think that they are guilty, at times, of ignoring the blaringly obvious historical context for modern behavior. See? I may not be right about anything I’ve just said, but at least I went beyond name-calling to make my point. I could even explain each of these points more in-depth and with many examples.

      uclabodyimage seems qualified to be a scientific contributor. I think it sounds like fun, too. What about you, Feministing? It could be a special series or debate where feminist scientists with different views on an issue come together to find the feminism in science. Media writing of science is difficult, but respectful treatment of the science is not impossible.

    • http://feministing.com/members/zeenacheda/ Dan C

      I love this comment!

      I also love feministing, but please get someone involved who has a background in science! It’s very, very bad to throw an entire field of science out the window based on a few articles written by a few sensationalist journalists.

      My sister is in grad school studying evolutionary psychology. She’s also an avowed feminist and a very politically active one at that. My mom is a very old school second wave feminist – a proud Raging Granny – who often takes issue with my sister’s reference to humans as ‘animals’. But make no mistake, we are only one of the millions of animal species that exist on this planet. All of those other animals have impulses and behaviors that are dictated, to some degree, by their genetics. The earliest great apes were surely the same way. They arrived with millions of years worth of naturally selected genetics influencing their behaviors. Did all of that coding simply get wiped from our genomes in less than 1 million years? How is this possible? What would have caused it?

      Modern humans have been organizing in societal groups for what, 50,000 years? In terms of evolutionary change, especially for a species that reproduces as slowly as we do, this is the blink of an eye. Exactly how much has natural selection changed about us in that time? According to most research, less than 0.2% of our DNA.

      Does culture affect our thoughts, beliefs and actions? Absolutely! Yes! 100 times YES! I’ve never – not once – heard a serious evolutionary psychologist claim otherwise. The evolutionary psychologists that I’m familiar with understand and accept the notions of cultural influence and free will, and not begrudgingly either. Their work simply focuses on a different part of our psychology. Most of the ones I’ve met and talked with view it similarly to our current understanding of how genetics influence many diseases. Our genetics likely allow for a certain amount of potential. Our actions, our own free will, as guided by our culture, either activate that potential, or they don’t. Even if your genetics gives you a strong potential for heart disease, its your free will that decides what you eat, how much you exercise and, ultimately, whether you die of a heart attack. Let’s assume, just for a moment, that some evolutionary psych theories are correct and our species does contain a certain potential for rape. For our closest genetic relatives (chimps, orangutans, gorillas), rape is fairly common. However, humans have a great amount of free will. Even if there is some sort of coding in me that offers the potential to rape someone, it is ultimately up to my culture to guide me and my free will to make my decisions.

      Feminists should not be scared of science! Believe me, as a guy, and an ally, I wouldn’t be into any research that asserts that I’m an out of control sexual predator that must rape every symmetrical, large breasted woman I see. But this is not what evolutionary psychology asserts. People are merely asking questions. And most of these questions aren’t very controversial. For example, why does sugar taste so sweet? It’s difficult to even attempt to answer this question without evolutionary psych. :-)

    • http://feministing.com/members/annemi/ Tricia

      Man, I felt the need to register on this site simply to give huge props to uclabodyimage for their comment about this article. I really dislike all the animosity toward evolutionary biology that I’ve seen multiple times from feministing. And I heartily agree that the studies mentioned are horribly misrepresented and dismissed for no real reason. I’d go on, but there’s no way I could voice my complaints as articulately as the comment above.

    • http://feministing.com/members/civility/ Calvin

      I wholeheartedly agree with uclabodyimage’s comment.

      To back up his/her point, I’d like to note that social progress should be marked by close attention to objective truths. Independent of the replicablity of this particular study, it’s important to understand that there’s an emerging wealth of evidence that biology, culture, and society DO interact.

      Just as it may be argued that this type of work “lets our culture off the hook for its role in fostering the misogyny and rape apologism that breeds and enables rapists,” one could just as fairly argue that sociocultural understandings of rape understate the evolutionary and biological bases of human psychology. And just as it may be argued “when faced with the obvious reality that, even if [this finding is] true, the majority of men actually do not rape, they just stop the investigation,” one can make the same (or stronger) claims for the idea of a ‘rape culture.’

      It’s pertinent that we integrate biological, psychological, and sociological understandings of feminist issues before we leap to normative judgments.

    • http://feministing.com/members/maya/ Maya

      Thanks for your comment. I certainly overstated my disdain for evolutionary psychology as a discipline, mostly because I wanted to link to that funny bingo card. I’m glad to hear there’s good, even feminist-minded evolutionary psych out there. But the particular studies cited in the Slate article–according to scientists who would know far better than me–seem to be pretty weak.

      Generally, my main point is that the evo psych claim that “men evolved to rape” is one that’s consistently made (and presented uncritically by the media that loves that kind of gender essentializing) without acknowledging all the evidence about how rape is affected by cultural and societal forces. Which I think is irresponsible. (And I agree that the bad reporting on evo psych studies probably is a big–if not the main– problem there.)

      In part, I just have no patience for evo psych explanations for rape because they don’t seem to add anything useful when it comes to actually preventing rape in the real world that we actually live in. I guess it’s kinda interesting if we’ve adapted some subtle defenses against rape when we’re ovulating. But so what? It’s not like there’s any evidence that we’re actually less likely to be raped when we’re ovulating. And even if there were, I’d prefer to not be raped on every day of my cycle.

      • http://feministing.com/members/uclabodyimage/ uclabodyimage

        I appreciate your feedback. There are people in ev psych who work with sort of a general “feminist consciousness” – keeping an awareness of how gender ideologies can shape science and trying as best as possible to. At the last Northeastern Evolutionary Psychology Society meeting there was the first ever Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society preconference, where people were wrestling with this issue of how to maintain an identity as an evolutionary psychologist and a (not-just 2nd wave) feminist identity, when there is such a strong conflict between large camps within evolutionary psychology and feminism (and biology vs. humanities more generally).

        But the links to the larger feminist movement can be tenuous, particularly with the more humanities oriented wing that attempts to create a disjunct between conciousness and biology, and with the activists who don’t see any immediate benefit to using a biological frame (except in specific cases, such as claiming that sexual orientation is genetic and, in their understanding, therefore not a choice).

        That’s where I think the “so what?” comes in. The people drawn to the biological explanations often prioritize the right to ask the “basic science” questions of trying to unlock to origins of life, the universe, and everything (of which evolution was a crucial part) and then consider the social impact.

        For example, some people in ev psych examine the different biological responses of “partner rapists” from “serial rapists” (basically partner rapists don’t become sexually aroused by depictions of rape scenes whereas serial rapists do, and the longer partner rapists are away from their partners the more their desire to be coercive increases and the higher their sperm count raises). Looking at the different biological responses might suggest different interventions for the two groups.

        But let’s say that none of the research on rape from an evolutionary perspective actually produces any tangible policy implications. There are still different ways to frame the research that could be politically useful or neutral. For example, we know from a wide set of studies that females in many animals do anything they can to avoid “forced copulations” because of the high costs it entails (e.g., pregnancy, removal of mate choice, physical damage). This indicates that there is a very deep and ancient drive to find sexual coercion damaging and destructive. And look, humans have the same drives, it’s built strongly into women to find rape a horrible violation. It’s not wonder that rape is so psychologically damaging and we should do anything we can to stop it.

        It seems obvious to us that my last statement is true, but apparently it’s not obvious to everyone. I don’t know if that’s the right framing to make the research palatable or at least neutral in it’s social impacts, but I’m just pointing out there are different ways to frame the same research.

    • http://feministing.com/members/franziakafka/ Franzia Kafka

      But it still happens quite alot, especially in the absence of organized police forces and strong social norms preventing it.

      I would actually totally disagree that we have particularly strong social norms preventing it. We have cultures – though perhaps not institutionalized – but still cultures which generally ignore and/or condone it.

      The other thing that loses me about evolutionary psych is that I think it makes tenuous connections between empirically observed “biology” and empirically observed “socialization” appear to be more concrete than I think they actually are, or it makes it appear that it can find *causes* when in fact it simply finds correlations between empirically observed biological measurements and empirically observed behavior. And there are just numerous problems with empirical laboratory studies, not least of which is that they’re nothing like the “real” situation. Again, re: rape, I’m sorry, but I’m fairly sure most rapists are not motivated by a desperate desire for children, nor are most women probably even consciously aware of if or when they’re ovulating. Did a study like this take into account the numerous ways we construct and tinker with “biology,” such as women who are on the pill? Why would a man rape a woman on birth control? Why would a woman on birth control even fight back against rape? Wouldn’t men “biologically,” by smell or something, target women not on birth control? I just find the whole idea that any more than a small portion of our behavior is the result of some primitive carry-over ridiculous. We are too steeped in socialization, language, and meaning to have such behavioral similarities to animals. And I find the value of such studies extremely limited.

      Further, I haven’t found evo psych well equipped to explain the (mostly social-related) reasons people often do extremely evolutionarily idiotic and personally harmful things, perhaps more often so than not, like destroying the very environment which sustains them.

      • http://feministing.com/members/civility/ Calvin

        Hey Franzia,
        I’ll throw in some insight based on how a psychologist would answer your critiques:
        1.) Most rapists are not motivated by an EXPLICIT desire to have children, and most women aren’t CONSCIOUSLY aware that they’re ovulating. But one of the most significant findings in social psychology demonstrates that explicit self-reports do not often align with actual behavior. Most people already deny that advertisements, the media, and other people don’t influence them. But we know they do. Feminists often utilize this notion often – we see that environmental inputs (media, socialization, etc.) contribute to how people enforce gender hierarchy without conscious awareness of it. Evolutionary psychologists (almost all psychologists, for that matter) would likewise argue that biological activity drives action without conscious awareness as well.
        2.) Birth control is an evolutionarily novel development, and human behavior has not adapted to react to it. Consider our evolutionary ancestors – birth control was nonexistent. Thus, there was no selection pressure to reinforce behavior that avoids women on birth control.
        3.) I think it’s almost self-evident that many of our behaviors are rooted in our evolutionary biology. We have to eat, sleep, reproduce. We’re driven to care for our children. We’re limited by how well we can see, how fast we can think, and how much weight we can carry. And all these limitations have been built into our culture – our culture interacts and works with our human biology, not against it.
        4.) An evolutionary account for why people do personally harmful things (more specifically, why men do a disproportionate number of these things) can be found in a recent address by the eminent social psychologist, Roy Baumeister: http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/goodaboutmen.htm
        The short answer: Evolutionarily, men have been rewarded for engaging in “risky behaviors.” That’s a partial reason why more men are at the top and the bottom, why men disproportionately engage in costly wars, why more men do stupid things (e.g., Jackass), etc.

        • http://feministing.com/members/franziakafka/ Franzia Kafka

          First, while I see what you’re saying, I have a problem with the determinism implicit in most evo-psych/genetics/biology work. Being affected subconsciously by the media or from growing up in poverty is something that can be changed by changing the media and social policy, which are socially produced. Being affected subconsciously by something you were born with cannot be changed. It is determinist and, like another commenter said below, I don’t find it useful in an activist framework.

          Birth control is an evolutionarily novel development, and human behavior has not adapted to react to it.: I think that’s totally not the case. Women have used methods of birth control as well as abortion throughout history, though of course probably none as effective as those we have today. It would seem to make no sense evolutionarily (such as in times of famine) or otherwise that women would do nothing to regulate their reproduction or have children come about willy-nilly.

    • http://feministing.com/members/rhian/ rhian

      Thank you. I mentioned the idea once before of having some sort of science editor on Feministing. Psychology is a bit out of my realm, but I’m a med student and a biology grad student, so most biology/medicine is reasonably within my grasp. To get things started, would any other scientists on here have an interest in collaboratively writing some sort of science series–perhaps for the community blog?

      • http://feministing.com/members/uclabodyimage/ uclabodyimage

        sounds like a good idea to me!

  • http://feministing.com/members/thinksmall/ C

    I don’t understand your objection. You note that it’s possible for an act to be natural but not acceptable. Your quote from the article has the scientists themselves noting that their studies are not about morals, but rather just about biology (“[they] take great pains to point out that ‘adaptive’ does not mean ‘justifiable’…”). And then you criticize the scientists, and the author of the article, for not sufficiently addressing the moral and social issues surrounding rape? I think they’ve made it pretty clear that these studies are not meant to have any sort of moral or social implication, so I don’t think you can fault them for not sufficiently addressing rape culture–it’s not the point!
    You say that the fact that we’re not cavemen anymore, that we are sophisticated people with free will and an ability to reason morally should be “all that matters,” but I don’t think it’s up to you to decide what “matters” in science. These scientists aren’t trying to discuss the moral problems with rape, or how to stop rape culture, or how best to prevent rapes or prosecute rapists, or any of the things that we normally talk about on this site when it comes to rape. And they’re under no obligation to address those concerns! They’re scientists who are interested in the evolutionary origins of human beings, and how those evolutionary origins manifest themselves in human being todays. They’re under no obligation to do research that adds something to the “discourse around rape” that you find meaningful. They’re doing work that the scientific community finds meaningful. These are two completely different spheres of study, and criticizing one for not addressing the concerns of the other is pointless.

  • http://feministing.com/members/jkro1442/ Jen

    I really don’t get why this article was written, especially with such defensiveness and anger. I second the suggestion to read and feature Sarah Hrdy’s research. I find studying rape as an evolutionary background and even… yes… an adaptation to be a useful insight. Of course – we have evolved past apes. Of course – women do not “prefer” to be raped when they are not ovulating. But perhaps take off your blinders and appreciate the core of the research at its fundamental level. Rape is not solely a cultural practice, nor is it solely a biological practice. There is room to explore and unpack research such as this, especially sans defensiveness.

  • http://feministing.com/members/forthequeen/ mike

    I took evolutionary psychology a few years ago, and although i think it is technically outdated. It does do a good job of explaining human behaviour from ancient times all the way up to i would say, maybe even, 1000 or 500 years ago. Obviously right now we have different social norms and modern technology and laws etc. but in ancient times gender/sex roles were real. A whole plethora of species have different natural defences against “forced copulation”. There is even, this beetle species, in which the male beetle literally puts sperm on one of his hook like appendages and stabs the female beetle in the abdomen to “ensure copulation”

    But step outside of the evolutionary perspective for a moment and just imagine, in a world without any type of legal protection for women, how much more often rape must have been occurring. Humans have been existing for tens of thousands of years while modern civilization is only a small fraction of that. One tribe attacks a neighbouring. I wouldn’t be surprised if they killed all the men and raped all the women. And this was probably happening on a global scale. Women weren’t being treated like 2nd class citizens, they were being treated like non-citizens. The only women who were probably immune to this was probably the daughters of any particular tribe leader or what have you. Rape is a very traumatic thing to say the least. it is only natural to assume that women would evolve genetically derived defences to rape.

    I know that it just further perpetuates the notion that women who get raped are at fault because THEY didn’t defend themselves. But that doesn’t mean that evolutionary psychology has gotten it wrong or is not useful.

    Even when i was studying evo. psych. in the back of my mind i knew that it shouldn’t apply to modern humans living in 2009 but if you look at the evolutionary psychological explanations for human behviour, and modify it using the current, modern, ways in which humans live their lives now, it can be very useful to explain people’s behaviour.

  • http://feministing.com/members/elizastasia/ Eliza

    Maya- Could you “trigger warning” this please?

  • http://feministing.com/members/franziakafka/ Franzia Kafka

    The thing I’ve never understood about the “men evolved to rape” thing is … No one can explain why, if we have “hard” biological evidence that men are “wired” to be inhumane and commit crimes and/or are unable to prevent themselves from behaving like animals, we would allow them to have so much power and freedom? They should not be running anything, neither business nor government. The stupidity of the logic is just baffling and allows men to have no accountability for their behavior.

    And, to uclabodyimage, I have a feeling that media reporting on evolutionary psych, sort of like media reporting on just about all other academic studies, particularly in science, is probably the biggest part of the problem. The media has a tendency to – if not misrepresent, distort, or exaggerate – then to reduce and oversimplify study findings and conclusions to the point of unrecognizability. Evolutionary-psych claims that would probably make sense to us if explained by an *actual* evolutionary psychologist who understood the premises of the field instead just get butchered in the mainstream media.

    • http://feministing.com/members/civility/ Calvin

      For an account for why men have so much power, I would see this article by feminist social psychologists Wendy Wood and Alice Eagly: http://college.usc.edu/wendywood/research/documents/wood.eagly.handbook.2010.pdf

      In the article, they put forward a biopsychosocial model, which argues that the interaction between biological, psychological, and sociological factors contributed to sex differences today. They point to evidence that suggests that hunter-gatherer societies (before agriculture and resource-accumulation) was relatively egalitarian. Still male-dominated, but less differentiated than modern society until the past 150 years.

      It was only when society advanced toward agriculture that patriarchy strengthened – men’s greater upper-body strength and speed gave them greater ability to engage in status-gaining activities (e.g., warfare, hunting, plow-technology) that led to greater decision-making, power, and authority. Paired with Baumeister’s theory about the “riskier” behavior of men, I believe we’re coming to a better evolutionary account for how patriarchy emerged out of our evolutionary history.

      • http://feministing.com/members/franziakafka/ Franzia Kafka

        Sure. This fails to account for *why* “activities requiring strength”, etc., came to be “status-gaining” activities in the first place, or how things like gathering food (I understand women’s gathering often provided the vast majority of a group’s food needs, while hunting was supplemental) or raising children don’t qualify as requiring as much “strength” as holding a sword. If physical strength was the issue, strong and/or more muscular or masculine women would also be allowed to participate in male activities. Sorry, I still don’t buy this.

  • http://feministing.com/members/vad1/ Van Dusenbery

    I think that the reflexive evolutionary psychology defenders are missing the main points of Maya’s original post: (1) this particular study and its finding have been challenged by evolutionary biologists and other scientists (follow the links provided); and (2) this study is being represented in the media to anti-feminist ends in positing a universal human nature (of rape and response) that ignores addressable social causes of contemporary American rape culture. Feminists have every reason to critically scrutinize particular evolutionary psychology claims and their representation in the media given how regularly they (and their sociobiology predecessors) have been used to “naturalize” particular forms of human sexuality and prevailing gender hierarchies.

    • http://feministing.com/members/azure156/ Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

      THANK YOU. Anyone defending this rape-apologist tripe and patting themselves for being “objective” is anything BUT objective. They’re looking for a justification to abuse and traumatize people. To hell with them.

      Riddle me this, evo-psych rape lovers: if rape is some big evolutionary adaptation, then why does it happen to boys and men? Or girls too young to reproduce?

    • http://feministing.com/members/uclabodyimage/ uclabodyimage

      Hey Van,

      I was making a couple points.

      1) The first one is completely in line with your point that media representations of ev psych can sensationalize sex differences and minimize culturally derived origins of behavior, which can have harmful effects. This is a point I (and I think many other commenters agreed on). This occurs, I think, for a couple reasons, including the lay understanding of “biological causes” is pretty poor, and journalists fall into that too, pitting “biological = fixed = universal” framings of a behavior versus “culture = flexible = non universal”. Obviously most evolutionary psychologists think that framing things this way is nonsense, but you wouldn’t get that impression from the media coverage. I agree with your expansion of this comment, which is that historically (and presently) some forms of biologically-oriented explanations do naturalize particular forms of human sexuality, and some of these biological framings emerge because of cultural ideologies rather than bias-free science. But, the point I am making, is there is a great deal of research in ev psych that does not fall into this pattern (pointing to Sarah Hrdy as a prominent example who of this, particularly given she has celebrity status within the ev psych community for her research challenging assumptions about gender). Check it out, you might be surprised.

      2) The second issue, one that was echoed by other commenters, goes beyond this specific post. It’s responding not to the specific post, but to the overall pattern of which this post is an example of.

      The comment(s) noted that there is a specific “frame” on this board about biology and behavior. There is selective coverage of evolutionary and biological research, which paints a rather negative picture of research investigating biological and evolutionary aspects of behavior, thoughts, and feelings. It isn’t simply a matter of “feminists having every reason to critically scrutinize particular evolutionary claims”… it’s a matter of feminists on this board ONLY critically scrutinizing.

      The inclusion of only negative frames and the exclusion of any positive (or neutral frames) is harmful in my opinion – it continues to create an artificial web between “feminist” and “biological” explanations, rather than a frame I would suggest, which emphasizes the complex interaction of genes, hormones, developmental experiences, social interactions, local ecologies, and historical trends.

      In principle, this seems like a frame that many within the feminist community can agree with, but not one that gets promoted through specific examples, and when specific examples arise it evokes a negative response because it challenges the more comfortable frame inherent in humanities-based formulations of feminism, which roughly assume: “if men and women are biologically identical, then any sex differences are purely environmental in nature, and therefore easily changed by creating a sex-neutral environment”. It’s more comfortable and simpler but that doesn’t make it right.

  • http://feministing.com/members/uclabodyimage/ uclabodyimage

    “(1) this particular study and its finding have been challenged by evolutionary biologists and otber scientists (follow the links provided);”

    Oops, sorry, forgot to respond to this. I wasn’t impressed by the critiques. I agree that none of the studies provide a slam dunk that women have evolved defenses against rape. But one of the main critiquer is a guy who just generally doesn’t like ev psych on I believe political grounds (Jerry Coyne) – the fact that two biologists don’t agree with an interpretation of the study doesn’t make the original interpretation incorrect. The studies themselves are pretty straightforward (women come into the lab throughout their cycle, have no idea that it is a cycle-related study, and behave differently at high fertility vs. low fertility).

    If you don’t like their intepretation, what is your interpretation for why women show ovulatory shifts in their behaviors, preferences, and responses to sexual assault scenarios?

  • http://feministing.com/members/geery/ geery baspil

    Van et al,

    The media oversimplifies (and often gets wrong) almost everything they report on. I take that as a given. If they report on a court decision, they often don’t even name the decision, and rarely if ever offer a link to the actual text of the decision. Once you go and read the actual court decision, you see that they often are sloppy, and sometimes are downright inaccurate.

    For those of us with a science background, the media is laughable when it comes to science. Those who critique articles they reflexively disagree with, will of course attack the media’s oversimplification of a scientific study (such as this one), but that’s a critique of the media, not of the study itself.

    I see as usual posts criticizing the MOTIVES (alleged) of those behind the studies . What evidence is there that those who were behind these studies sought/seek to ” justification to abuse and traumatize people. To hell with them.”


    Attacking the motives is par for the course but it again says nothing about the validity of the study. Let’s assume arguendo this study came to the correct conclusion. So what? It doesn’t make rape any more justifiable and it doesn’t mean that society can’t do better at discouraging it before it happens by teaching young men that it’s wrong, and do a better job at investigating and punishing it when it happens.

    I’m not aware of any evolutionary psychologist who claims that because there are certain tendencies we have evolved, that this vitiates free will. I see this strawman argument all over, that IF this study is correct, that it justifies rape, or allows an excuse etc. That is simply not true.

    There is a lot of churlish, selfish behavior that it’s quite “natural” for us to engage in. Except we have this pesky thing called society, with a set of laws, mores, taboos, etc. that can transcend our basest instincts (dare I use that word). Those who study science, and evolutionary psychology understand that.

  • http://feministing.com/members/geery/ geery baspil

    “If you don’t like their intepretation, what is your interpretation for why women show ovulatory shifts in their behaviors, preferences, and responses to sexual assault scenarios?”

    Good point. The internal hormonal milieu changes during the month. I don’t think anybody, even those w/o scientific backgrounds would disagree with that. The evidence is incontrovertible that hormones influence behavior. Those who have taken various types of exogenous AAS whether due to gender reassignment or for sports performance can speak to this firsthand. Given that there are behavioral changes due to this change in hormones (and also during menopause and andropause for the same reasons), it’s not that shocking that this study would discover what it alleges to discover.

    A critique of a study doesn’t have to offer an alternative explanation for observed phenomena, but the fact is that nobody here has posited one, and that;s concerning.