6 Is Evolutionary Psychology Sexist?

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • Define Feminist Theory and explain how Feminist Theory tries to explain the downfalls in regards  to sexism in Evolutionary Psychology.
  • Define Sexual Selection Theory and explain how Sexual Selection Theory tries to explain the downfalls in Evolutionary Psychology.
  • Distinguish what the best predictor of being harassed, and harassing someone is.
  • Determine where Evolutionary Psychology finds most research.


Problems with Evolutionary Psychology: A Feminist Perspective

Evolutionary Psychology (along with most other sciences) has existed primarily as a male dominated field for decades. Not until the 1970’s during the second wave of feminism that the introduction of women into scientific spaces caused previously male-centric circles to question the amount of bias in their work. This section will go over several critiques for Evolutionary Psychology from a Feminist Perspective.

It has been argued that the various theories of Evolutionary Psychology should be included in the feminist framework due to the current lack of explanation of several related subjects. However, Evolutionary Psychology has a history of deliberately excluding certain types of information based on contemporary social norms. So, to what extent can Evolutionary Psychology adapt to its decades worth of bias? Sex and science do not exist in a bubble. Traditional ideas of natural gender roles influence how people have historically, and currently, study natural processes. Decades of male-centric bias has colored how evolutionary psychology has been perceived, and it is important to recognize how this cannot be separated from our own cultural context, this is supported by feminist theory (find support). For example, early research into primate behavior deliberately excluded gay characteristics, and has changed along with social norms. Early scientists refused to acknowledge homosexual tendency in primates due to fear of being socially ostracized as being homosexual themselves.


Feminist Theory:

A form of psychology which critiques historical, psychological research as coming from a male perspective while disregarding female differences. Feminist theory is rooted in the values and principles of feminism.


This brings us back to the core of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. Natural selection theory couldn’t have existed for a century and a half without having tremendous level of support.  Issues start to arise when Sexual Selection Theory is thoroughly analyzed. Sexual selection focuses on the aspects of reproduction rather than survival. The two mechanisms that govern sexual selection are Intersexual Selection (how females choose mates), and Intrasexual Selection (males fighting amongst themselves as a form of competition). Sexual Selection has been argued to be heavily male-centric and overlooks the agency that females have in mate selection. This is linked to a history of dismissal of female perspectives due to them being “not important”. And while originally, Darwin was aware of the importance of females, contemporary scientists tend to overlook active mating processes in females. This has resulted in a massive skew towards male-entered research.


Sexual Selection Theory:

 A theory which argues that gender determines qualities, which in turn, increases an individuals chances of passing on genes.


On its own, Sexual Selection Theory lacks an explanation as to why females are choosy and males are competitive, but not the other way around. Bateman’s Fruit Flies provide a possible explanation. In their research, Bateman found that male fruit flies attained a higher reproductive variance over females, and thus supposed sexual selection. In follow-up studies however, random mating also produced similar results – nullifying Bateman’s finding. While studying Hanuman langur females, they were observed soliciting sex from multiple males. This lead to the creation of the According-To-Theory, where coy females would use this as a tactic to confuse infanticidal males. These strategies are not as obvious as the ones presented by Sexual Selection, and therefore might be more complicated than originally thought.


Are There Errors in the Way We View Sexual Harassment?

The perception of sexual harassment (is the undesired and unsolicited sexual attention which is given to someone, who is the victim, of the unwelcomed and negative manner of someone else) has been viewed primarily as an act from men towards female counterparts. Therefore, we have failed to understand whether females engage in sexual harassment of peers, and men and women also engage in sexual harassment towards same sex individuals. People who engage in sexual harassment may be engaging in sexual harassment, in hopes of gaining attention from the person, without the desire for the negative feedback. Unrestricted willingness to engage in sexual endeavors in a non-committed manner is a predictive variable in determining the chances of someone being harassed or harassing someone else.

Bendixen and Kennair (2017) decided to test whether sociosexuality is a predictor in sexual harassment for same-sex and opposite sex people, for both perpetrators and victims of sexual harassment. Through an online self-report survey, participants asked questions on sociosexuality and sexual harassment: Categories of questions included questions on sociosexuality, exposure to porn, stereotypes regarding rape, negative sexism towards both men and women, and same and opposite sex sexual harassment.

The results suggest that sociosexuality is a predictive factor when analyzing perpetrators and victims of sexual harassment. Additionally, exposure to porn was not deemed a predictive factor for sexual harassment for either same or opposite sex people. Therefore, the study shows that the best predictor for either engaging in harassment, or being harassed, is openness to uncommitted sex.

So What Does This all Mean?

Feminist theory, a theory which tried to distinguish the reason for inequality between the sexes using a feminist approach, has dominated the evolutionary psychology world for decades. It seems as though evolutionary psychologists use feminist theory to explain the differences of men and women based on sex alone. This cannot be the only foundational basis of differences between men and women considering that almost everything men can do women can also do. Women tend to have some characteristics men do not possess, and vice versa, but this does not mean when a woman puts her mind to it, she cannot do the same things men can do.

For example, sexual harassment has been seen as something men do to women and not the other way around. However Bendixen and Kennair (2017) determined that sociosexuality, how willing someone is to engage in sexual acts outside of a committed relationship, is really the determining factor of sexual harassment, not gender. Both women, and men, cheat when they are in committed relationships, and in Western society, some people of both genders can agree that sexual encounters outside of a committed relationship is okay. So what can be determined from this research is that women and men can be responsible for sexual harassment. This is not dependent on gender.
Evolutionary psychology tends to base most of its evidence upon the shoulders of sexual selection theory. This theory claims that individuals of each gender may possess certain qualities which will increase their chances of mating which will therefore increase their chances of passing their genes onto the next generation. In men this quality is competitiveness, whereas for women this quality is choosiness. However, we see more sensitive males attaining the attraction of more choosy females, and less choosy females attaining the attraction of more competitive males. We can not pinpoint differences of men and women solely on sexual selection theory due to the differences we see between individuals of the same sex. Therefore, we propose that evolutionary psychology needs to move away from their core ideas because they are based in the past.

Additionally, we propose, rather than trying to find a concrete reason for the differences between men and women, evolutionary psychology needs to find a person-to-person reason for differences rather than a gender-to-gender reason for differences.


Chapter References

Ah-King, M. (2007). Sexual Selection Revisited — Towards a Gender-Neutral Theory and Practice. European Journal of Womens Studies, 14(4), 341–348. doi: 10.1177/1350506807081883

Bendixen, M., & Kennair, L. E. O. (2017). Advances in the understanding of same-sex and opposite-sex sexual harassment. Evolution and Human Behavior, 38(5), 583-591. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2017.01.001

Kelly, S. (2014). Tofu feminism: can feminist theory absorb evolutionary psychology? Dialectical Anthropology, 38(3), 287–304. doi: 10.1007/s10624-014-9353-2


Evolutionary Psychology: Exploring Big Questions Copyright © by kristie. All Rights Reserved.

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