The topic of David Buss’s new book, When Men Behave Badly: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment and Assault, has scarcely ever been more relevant. It seems that, every week, we hear a new report of atrocious male behaviour, such as the recent alleged kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard in the UK; Harvey Weinstein’s exploits, which epitomised the #MeToo era; and the sex scandals of two recent US presidents (Donald Trump and Bill Clinton). Buss’s book is not only explanatorily powerful and pragmatically useful, but unfortunately very necessary.
The book synthesises over 30 years of research showing how evolutionary psychology can illuminate the origins of the sexual conflict that blights many women’s lives, and the mechanisms through which it operates. It explores why many men seem unable to grasp the vulnerability that many women feel. It also provides a roadmap for mitigating what Buss calls “the biggest human rights issue in the world”: sexual violence against women.
A number of evolutionary psychology researchers who study human sex differences have been inspired by David Buss’s work, including Buss’s former colleague Laith Al-Shawaf, whose series of essays in this magazine provide an excellent primer on the discipline.
Some detractors unfairly dismiss the field as a mere series of just so stories, while others mischaracterise its attempts to grapple with human nature as endorsements of the naturalistic fallacy—the claim that our psychological traits are innate, immutable, natural and therefore good. Critics seem to want to believe—contrary to logic—that evolution operates only from the neck down, and that human behaviour is magically detached from the brain.
Evolutionary psychology is the study of how evolutionary processes have helped shape the human brain and therefore human behaviour. Given the challenges we face tackling sexual conflict, including deception, harassment and assault, it would be a tragedy to ignore the findings of a field that can prove so illuminating. In order to have any hope of working against often highly destructive natural instincts, we first need to understand them.
When Do Men Behave Badly?
Much of Buss’s book is about human sexual conflict in general, rather than specifically about male sexual behaviour. The word when in the title is important: the book examines the specific circumstances in which male sexual violence is most likely to occur. There is some evidence that women are as likely to initiate intimate partner violence as men (not counting violence used in self-defence). However, when we understand the circumstances under which men tend to initiate violence, it becomes clear how much more extreme and impactful their violence is than women’s. Combining theory, statistics, experimental evidence and case studies, Buss lays out the forms of male sexual violence, in often harrowing detail. These include unwanted sexual attention, non-consensual touching, sexual harassment, sexual deception, intimate partner violence involving mate guarding, stalking, revenge porn, stranger rape, acquaintance rape, spousal or partner rape, honour killings and sex trafficking.
The book also describes the conditions under which violent men are particularly dangerous to female partners: when they view their partners as having higher value on the mating market than themselves; when their partner’s economic status or earnings are very different from theirs. There are also particular times at which such men are more likely to be violent toward women: when they have just been through a breakup; when their partners have few relatives and male friends around; when they suspect or discover infidelity; and—perhaps most disturbingly—when their partners are pregnant. (Men are violent towards pregnant mates roughly twice as often as towards non-pregnant partners, which may be explained by suspicions regarding the child’s paternity). Male sexual jealousy is the leading cause of partner violence and homicide.
Sexual Conflict Theory
Treating different things the same can generate as much inequality as treating the same things differently.—Kimberlé Crenshaw
Studies have shown that men and women tend to have different optimal sexual strategies, and that these strategies are often at odds. According to sexual conflict theory, these strategies co-evolved in the environment of evolutionary adaptedness in a kind of evolutionary arms race. Men have evolved certain behavioural strategies that can help them be sexually successful even at women’s expense. (Note that Buss does not consider rape an evolved adaptation, for reasons he discusses at length in the book). Women have evolved certain behavioural strategies to defend against sexual exploitation. Buss likens sexual conflict to a situation in which two people’s hands are on the steering wheel of a car, and each is trying to pull the car in a different direction.
Why do men and women have different optimal sexual strategies? This is largely explained by parental investment theory. From an evolutionary point of view, any traits that increase the chances of having more surviving offspring will tend to spread throughout the population over time. Women must invest time and energy in pregnancy and nursing—and can have only a limited number of pregnancies. By contrast, men can reproduce merely by having sex, and are not limited by the demands of pregnancy and nursing. Therefore, having a lot of opportunities for sex is potentially more evolutionarily advantageous to men than to women. As a result, in terms of reproductive success, it is more costly for men than for women to forgo sexual opportunities. This asymmetry has led to average group differences in male and female sexual psychology, some of which produce sexual conflict.
- Men tend to have a much greater desire for a variety of sex partners. (This is one of the largest documented sex differences in psychology.)
- Men tend to overperceive women’s sexual interest in them (for example, they are more likely to erroneously think women are flirting with them than vice versa).
- Men and women are both prone to inaccurate cross-sex mind reading, since we tend to infer other people’s sexual psychology from our own. (For example, some men assume that any woman would enjoy seeing an unsolicited dick pic, because they would enjoy receiving a similarly graphic picture from a woman.)
- People tend to misperceive their value as mates, and men and women differ in how they assess attractiveness.
- Men tend to perceive sexual harassment as less harmful than women do.
- Men tend to be sexually attracted by cues that a woman is potentially sexually exploitable.
Buss adopts the London Underground slogan mind the gap to emphasise how important it is to understand both sex differences and the times at which sexual conflict is most likely—such as before mating, after forming a partnership and in the aftermath of a breakup. Understanding sex differences may help reduce instances of sexual violence. For example, many sexual harassment codes and stalking laws use a reasonable person standard to determine whether it was reasonable for someone to have been unaware that their attentions were unwelcome. Those laws may need to be refined to take into consideration the fact that a reasonable man might consider behaviour appropriate that a reasonable woman would not.
Good Reasons for Bad Feelings
In the immediate aftermath of the Sarah Everard tragedy, women in the UK were more likely to express how vulnerable they felt, while men were more likely to emphasise how rare such tragedies are and how irrational it therefore is to live in fear of them. Some pointed out, correctly, that only an extremely small minority of men commit this level of violence against women, and that men are significantly more likely to encounter physical violence than women are. For example, of the 695 people murdered in England and Wales over the period March 2019 to March 2020, 506 (73%) of the victims were men. Of those murdered by strangers, 154 were men and only 23 were women.
How then can we explain why women tend to feel so vulnerable, while men tend to feel relatively secure? This may, of course, be partly because of men’s greater confidence in their ability to defend themselves, thanks to their superior average upper body strength. Tom Chivers has also argued that women’s fear may be inevitable, because, in a society of millions, even very rare events will happen occasionally and receive saturated media coverage—and because our threat detection psychology is sensitive to such information.
However, women’s miscalibrated fear may also be an example of evolutionary mismatch: many of our psychological traits evolved in response to environments very different from today’s. As sociobiologist E. O. Wilson put it, “We have Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous.” Buss describes a number of differences between our ancestral and modern environments that may contribute to sexual conflict:
- Increased anonymity
- Increased geographical mobility
- Fewer male bodyguards near women.
- More sexually integrated workplaces (activating sexual behaviour in inappropriate places)
- Increased monitoring of women’s activities due to cybertechnology.
- Novel drugs (alcohol, date rape drugs)
Buss also notes that women are much more afraid of sexual violence from strangers than from people they know, even though the latter is far more common. (They also tend to believe that they will be murdered if they are raped, although this is extremely unlikely—by one estimate the chances are one in ten thousand.) Buss and his colleague Josh Duntley asked 250 women whether they had ever feared that someone wanted to kill them. Of the 46 women who said that they had, at some point, feared being raped and murdered, 42 said they had feared that a stranger would be the perpetrator, while only 4 thought it more likely to be someone they knew.
As Buss explains, evolution can make sense of this result, and there may be what Randolph Nesse describes as “good reasons for bad feelings.” Women’s fear of strange men may be an evolved defence mechanism, well calibrated to our ancestral past, when strange men did pose the greatest danger—partly because women tended to live alongside male kin and friends who could protect them from intimate partner violence, whereas today, women often move away from their close kin for education or employment, and partly because women today encounter many more strangers. In our evolutionarily novel modern environment, women’s threat detection system may be overly sensitive.
Another reason why women may have evolved a tendency to fear stranger rape more than intimate partner rape could be that, in our ancestral past, becoming pregnant by a stranger represented the ultimate violation, removing the woman’s decision about, when, how and whom to have sex with. A woman who is raped by a stranger could incur the cost of obligatory parental investment in the offspring of a man whose genes she did not have an opportunity to vet, while receiving no support in raising the child and having no recourse against her attacker.
Another possibility is that women’s hypervigilance may be adaptive even in a modern environment. Modern rates of stranger rape may be so much lower than rates of acquaintance rape, precisely because women’s fear of strangers makes them sensitive to threat cues, such as stares, from strange men, prompting them to take defensive or evasive action in risky situations. In addition, as Buss points out, given the high stakes and the relatively low cost of avoiding risky situations, evolution is likely to favour a tendency for the female threat detection system to operate like an overly sensitive smoke detector. It’s better to be wrong 99 times out of 100, than to miss that hundredth time when there actually is a fire. (This idea is consistent with error management theory, which Buss has developed in collaboration with Martie Haselton, and with Randolph Nesse’s smoke detector principle.)
Not All Men—But Which Men?
In response to the Sarah Everard tragedy, members of parliament have called for 6pm curfews on men and undercover police in nightclubs and suggested that schoolboys apologise to their female classmates, during school assemblies, for rapes that other members of their sex have committed. Some people have implied that any man could be a potential rapist, arguing that, while not all men are rapists we don’t know which men are, even likening men to sharks
Thus, there has been a tendency to make blanket assumptions about all men based on the extreme actions of a tiny minority—so much so that Sarah Everard’s close friend Helena Edwards has written an heartfelt opinion piece, in which she argues:
Her abduction and murder is not, in my opinion, a symptom of a sexist, dangerous society …. I will not be blaming ‘men’ … for the actions of one individual. There will always be the odd psychopath out there—male or female—and there can be no accounting for that fact.
Sarah had many wonderful men in her life … They are just as horrified as everyone else by what has happened.
I don’t think Sarah would have wanted them, or men in general, to be smeared with the same brush as her attacker. Most people, and indeed men, are good. They would never wish harm on anyone else, let alone attack or kill someone. Despite what has happened to Sarah allegedly at the hands of this man, I will continue to believe that.
The suggestion, by a Green Party peer, that all men should be under curfew after dark to help women feel safer on the streets, is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard.
Seeing all men as potential rapists is not only grossly unfair, it is also unnecessary, since research psychology can help us predict which men are more likely to become rapists. Buss explains that men who score high on personality tests in the dark triad—narcissism, machiavellianism and psychopathy—tend to be drawn to sexual deviance. Their sense of entitlement, ruthlessness and lack of empathy, often accompanied by persuasive charm, makes them far more likely to commit violent crime. They focus on engaging in as many short-term matings as possible. Ironically, and sometimes tragically, some women are particularly attracted to men who embody this extreme version of the bad boy. Evolution may even favour such men—since they have some sexually desirable traits—because of the sexy sons hypothesis: their desirable traits are likely to be inherited by their sons, making those sons in turn sexually attractive to potential female mates. To a certain extent, female mate preferences for dominant men may be better attuned to our ancestral environment, in which women were more dependent on men for protection. It would be helpful if women could learn about the dark triad and resist the temptation to get involved with men who exhibit those traits.
Buss suggests that it may be possible to predict, to some extent, which traits in women may make them more susceptible to sexual exploitation. He discusses cues that some men use to assess how likely a women is to be sexually exploitable. Buss also notes that cues of sexual exploitability tend to make women more sexually attractive to men.
Identifying these risk factors is far from victim blaming. Some argue that we should focus not on educating women on how to be safer, but on educating men not to rape. But this is both unpragmatic and deleterious. Helping individuals be safer and striving to render the world safer are not mutually exclusive projects. Furthermore, we are unlikely to be able to educate psychopathic men not to rape: they already know that their behaviour is wrong and that knowledge does not deter them. However, we may successfully provide women with tools to reducing their vulnerability, since all women are interested in avoiding being victimised. We can do this without infringing on women’s hard-won freedoms, and without encouraging women to live in a constant state of fear.