Biological determinism and D/s: Gendered archetypes, cuckolds, flower rooms, and penis-fencing

My boyfriend recently stumbled across a blog that claims that male submissiveness is not an evolved trait. It implies that male dominance and female submissiveness, on the other hand, are. While this post is really a load of bollocks and I debated whether to even dignify it with a response, I decided to do so because it made my boyfriend a bit worried that one day I’ll realise that I need a domly dom and not my wonderful, submissive boyfriend. This fear is compounded by the fact that I’ve switched a bit in the past and when we first got together, we only really expected to see each other for three months because I was leaving the country. However, we fell in love and decided to find a way to make it work. In just a few days time I’ll be with him after a few months of being away. 🙂

Enough of the pleasantries, back to the slaughter. This essay bastardizes a bastard science. Evolutionary psychology is a bit spurious to begin with. Some of it is comprised of legitimate findings, while some of it consists of surveys designed to find sex differences and bolster an antiquated notion of man as breadwinner and stud and woman as home-maker/baby-making-machine and coy (*cough* anything David Buss ever worked on *cough*). Even if we assume that the findings of evolutionary psychologists are legitimate (which to be fair some are), this essay bastardizes them. Here’s the gist of the author’s argument against male submissiveness being natural:

Even more fundamentally, why do females want to engage in extra-pair sex? (and risk losing their long term partner and his contribution.) They do this when a “fitter” (in terms of long term reproductive success) male comes along, that her genes will benefit from mixing with in her pool of offspring.

(This is a bit like the man who asked his wife, after seeing Indecent Proposal, “Would YOU sleep with Robert Redford for a million dollars?” She replied, “Yes, but they’d have to give me some time to come up with the money.”)

In these encounters, the man is of higher status in the “market” than the women, and he is exchanging his fitter genes in return for access to her womb (and the resources of the poor sap at home who is supporting her day in day out.) Consequently, he doesn’t need to submit to her, since he’s in something like a seller’s market.

And as I’ve outlined above, men in long term relationships supporting women and their offspring need to control them (at least as far as their sexual encounters with other men goes.) If they don’t, their line dies out, since other, higher status men, win out. (They are documentated cases of pre-industrial societies where 50% of each generation are offspring of the village chief, one way or another, so this danger is very real.)

For these reasons, we argue that male submissiveness is not an adaptive trait which has been selected for (that it “does not have a genetic basis” and is “not part of human nature”.)

This passage drastically conflates several concepts. Studies have shown that women are attracted to different men at different points in their menstrual cycles; more feminine male faces most of the time, and less feminine (but still not uber-masculine) faces during ovulation (when conception is most likely) (Penton-Voak et al., 1999). Evolutionary psychologists take this as an indication that the ideal mating strategy for women is to have a more feminine long-term partner, and occasionally cheat on them with a less feminine man when the likelihood of conception is high (because these less feminine men supposedly have ‘better’ genes). In fact, they argue that the reason why women have concealed ovulation now (we don’t have bright red swellings when we ovulate these days) is so that women can trick their long-term partners into raising another man’s child. Firstly, the study to which I’m referring did not look into dominance at all. Secondly, studies that have found some sort of dominance to be attractive have been looking into social dominance, not sexual dominance. Most of these are still based on perceptions of dominance when looking at pictures of faces. Even studies that have used behavioral displays simply involved things like competitiveness against other males. I hardly see how being sexually submissive to one female would make a man less competitive towards other males.

Contrary to the author’s misconceptions, a man can be assertive, confident, well-spoken, and attractive to potential partners….and be submissive to that special woman who makes him want to feel used. Keeping your long-term partner satisfied is an excellent method of mate retention. I highly recommend it. Plus, even if we took the author’s assumptions as truths: that ‘feminine’ meant ‘submissive’ (which it doesn’t), and that the jargon that evolutionary psychologists use when talking about dominance and submission mapped onto the BDSM scene (which it doesn’t) then women would be more attracted to submissive men three-fourths of the time, and would be more likely to have long-term relationships with submissive men. Even if one in five children were conceived through extra-pair copulations (which is about the current rate), that would still leave four out of five children as the offspring of submissive men. Congratulations. Your argument is totally bogus.

The Flawed Assumptions of Evolutionary Psychology

Now let’s move on to some of the author’s claims that have less to do with his own misinterpretations, and more to do with the flawed assumptions of evolutionary psychology. The author states,

If a human male can control his long term sexual partner, he gains by being able to put resources into supporting her offspring with some confidence they are also his offspring. If this isn’t possible, then males and females become solitary rather than mated because it’s not in males’ interests to offer that support. The fact that humans, unlike many other species, haven’t lost this behaviour, shows that this confidence has largely been present during the period of human evolution.

The main crux of the author’s argument is that men are more willing to invest in a woman and her children if he is certain that the children are his own (which is an accurate portrayal of the idea of ‘paternity certainty’ in evo psych), and that male dominants are in a better position to do this, so they win. The problem is, while this assertion has been supported in post-industrial societies, there is no evidence that this inclination is evolved. In fact, research suggests the opposite.

The idea of ‘paternity certainty’ assumes a level of biological knowledge that was most likely not present in the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (the time during which we evolved to our present state). During this time, the archaeological record suggests that humans were hunter-gatherers. Currently there are several hunter-gatherer societies, such as the Ache, in different parts of South America that believe in ‘partible paternity’. Partible paternity is the idea that several men can be the biological father to one child. In fact, it is believed that it is better for a child to have multiple fathers because each one can contribute different things: one might be a good hunter, the other might be a good dancer, another might be particularly handsome (Becker and Valentine, 2002). It has also been found that children with multiple fathers in such societies are more likely to survive. This has been corroborated in other species as well: for example, in baboons, if multiple males copulated with a female during her estrus, then more males are likely to defend the resulting infant, and these infants are more likely to survive (Hrdy, 2003). So, contrary to the author’s argument, a woman having sex with multiple men during her fertile window might actually improve mating success for both men and women.

Female Domination

The author also claims that there are no human societies led by women, and therefore implies that women must not be naturally dominant. There are no human societies that mirror the way that males attempt to control females by limiting their access to the outside world and chopping up their gentials so they can’t experience pleasure. However, there are and their have been matriarchal societies. A good example of this is the Mosuo of southern China, who still function today. Rather than having marriages, a woman (and any brothers and sisters she has) will live in her mother’s household her entire life. When a girl reaches sexual maturity, she is given her own room that opens both into the family courtyard and out to the street (called her ‘flower room’). She can have as many lovers as she wishes; the only rule is that they must be gone by morning. Any children she conceives will be raised in her household by her family – her mother, sisters, and brothers (Ryan & Jetha, 2010). Jealousy still exists, but Ryan and Jetha (2010) explain: “Openly expressed jealousy, for the Mosuo, is considered aggressive in its implied intrusion upon the sacred autonomy of another person, and is thus met with ridicule and shame” (p. 129). In this way, both men and women are free to have sex with whomever they like. Reproductive success is then based not on the ability to control another person, but rather on how pleasant interactions in a woman’s ‘flower room’ are.

I shall end this discourse with a thought experiment. Let’s say that we have evolved behavioral dispositions. The two species that are most closely related to us are the common chimpanzee and the pygmy chimpanzee, or bonobo. In the former, males are dominant: there is one alpha who has basically unlimited access to all females, and then there is a hierarchical chain that is highly correlated with number of copulations. Sex only really happens during estrus, which is a relatively small proportion of time. All sex is dorsal-ventral (‘doggie’-style). In the latter, females are dominant. All the adults have sex with each other, and sex occurs throughout the menstrual cycle. The range of sexual behaviors is much more diverse. Bonobos are the only other species to engage in sex face-to-face. They also engage in oral sex, manual sex, genito-genital rubbing (rubbing clitorises together), and ‘penis-fencing’ (rubbing cocks together). Which species would you rather be descended from? Which species’ sexual behavior sounds more like that of humans? In reality, we have descended from a common ancestor of both of these species. We have the potential to have societies like either of these, or something rather different from either. Genes do play a role in some of our cognitions, but the ecology and social history in which a society exists, as well as the separate experiences of individuals also play a hugely important role.

Posted on June 19, 2011, in academic, D/s Relationships, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. This is an amazing rebuttal to a bogus essay.

  2. Thank you for dismantling this awful, ill-conceived essay so thoroughly. The reaction of your boyfriend to it makes my heart break. How many submissive males must have that pang of self-doubt, without someone there to reassure them?

  3. I second Ariadne’s thanks for your excellent rebuttal of this pitiful mess of an essay. It makes me sad to think of all the submissive men out there who may have read that and didn’t have anyone to reassure them.

    Secondly, studies that have found some sort of dominance to be attractive have been looking into social dominance, not sexual dominance.

    The idea that social and sexual dominance are the same thing is especially frustrating to me personally because I’m very easy-going in my daily life and sexually dominant, and I’m attracted to men who don’t take crap from anyone and are sexually submissive. It’s also frustrating to hear that I’m not dominant enough because I don’t feel the need to boss people around outside of negotiated scenes.

    • Stabbity, I completely second your last concern. I’m not necessarily attracted to “socially dominant” men myself, but I hate that people automatically assume I’m not dominant because I’m laid back.

      It’s so disconcerting to tell someone you’re dominant and then have them look you up and down and say something to the effect of, “you’re kidding yourself, I can’t see that.”

  4. dishevelleddomina

    Yes! To the post and to the comments.

    I happen to suffer from an affliction called, “being cute.”
    I’m also pretty easy-going and I don’t feel the need to be in charge. My entire demeanor and personality tend to make people think of me in a certain light and it is NOT a sexually dominant one.
    My husband, who is a natural leader, has gladly fit into a femdom relationship with me from the beginning. The sports field, work place, roadway, and gym are not places where one would find any evidence of this.
    Social dominance is sooooo not sexual dominance.

    As a passing point, just this week, a neighbor of mine who is a very conservative evangelical Christian “complimented” me on being a “submissive wife”. I laughed in her face (I couldn’t help it) and my honey got quite a chuckle from it too, but it is further proof that people see whatever they choose to see when they look at a couple. Our actual sexual dynamic, which does have some social overlap, is not overcoming preconceived ideas when this woman sees us interact.

    The fact that my husband was tired, looked at his watch, then at me, and I interpreted that as a reminder he had to get up early for work in the morning and was ready to leave the party so I got up and began saying goodbye didn’t mean I am submissive. It means I was trying to be a considerate partner. Also, I was looking forward to tying him up when we got hime.

    That article is such a load of self-delusion assumption, wrongheaded reasoning, and specious conclusion. The opening paragraph does state that it is written in opposition of the assertion that men are inherently pre-disposed to be submissive. I actually agree with the author that such an assertion is ridiculous. It’s too bad that most of what was written after that point was a steaming pile of horseshit.

    I hope they are all very happy with their total internal enslavement of willing women, I’m sure, and I appreciate their condescension in offering assurances that they aren’t calling female dominance or male submission “bad” just because they deem it unnatural (in their very limited understanding of what male submission might actually mean and their specific view of evolution) and counter-productive to the
    development our species.
    I’m sure Satoshi Kanazawa would be impressed.

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