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Dog whistle evo psych

By Amanda Marcotte
Wednesday, February 18, 2009 1:41 EDT
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There’s a couple of links I want to toss up tonight, because I think these are troubling indicators that armchair evo psych “theories” about how women are biologically inferior to men have become so ingrained in our consciousness, that half-baked pseudo-science evolutionary just-so stories don’t have to be made up at all. Gender essentialist stories are now written, and the audience is free to assume that the measured trends are DNA-based and have no relationship to social conditioning at all. The first is this article about a kind of “no duh” bit of research that sounds like it has major methodology problems, even as it demonstrates something any random asshole on the street could have told you.

When men are shown images of women in bikinis, the part of the brain they use when thinking about DIY tools and other objects lights up.

At the same time, the region they use to try to tune into another person’s thoughts and feelings tunes down, brain scans showed.

Like Vanessa said, there may be good intentions behind the research, to show that the routine sexual objectification of women does in fact translate to the routine disrespect that ordinary women experience throughout their day. And like Samhita said, no duh. While it’s certainly true that some people have a subversive relationship to some kind of pin-up art (think of punk rock re-imagining of the Betty Page imagery), the day-to-day, irony-free function of most girlie pics is to make men feel like women exist for men. It’s not even about arousal, unless every guy in the country is walking around with a permanent hard-on, because you can’t turn around without seeing cheesecake in our culture.

Samhita’s post also drew out another aspect, call it dog whistle evo psych nonsense. Here’s the quote from the original piece:

Asked if women were likely to view half-dressed men in the same way, she said that women tended to rate age and bank balance over looks.

They didn’t say if there was any research, or if she just spouted that off. But what’s fascinating is that nowhere was it ever stated that these behaviors are evolved traits embedded in DNA. Because you don’t have to say that anymore—audiences are trained to infer that. And infer they do. It’s only 5 comments in before the armchair evo psych crap starts:

This, to me, only goes to prove the biological differences between men and women. Men look for “good looking” women to further their line as an evolutionary process, more men are likely to want to impregnate a “good looking” woman. Women on the other hand look for men that can provide the necessary nest building materials. These days those materials are experience and money.

I believe Charles Darwin did work in this line.

But of course, the research does nothing of the sort. But people have been trained to think any social phenomenon measured must be an indicator of unchangeable, genetic traits, and so you don’t even have to dig up David Buss to bullshit for you anymore. Just in the nick of time, too, because the human genome project is swiftly moving us to a point where we’re going to have to admit there is no “can’t feel like a woman is human” gene in men and “gold digger” gene in women. So now the topic of “how” can be ignored completely, and people can believe that socially conditioned traits are genetic, and no one will correct them.

Invariably, when I write about this issue, I get accused of thinking that humans didn’t evolve at all. Which is, of course, complete nonsense that is wielded by people who are too emotionally invested in proving these stereotypes to see the big gaping holes that occur when you make claims above evolved traits with no real proof to back it up, in a society where there are often millions of pieces of evidence for the social conditioning theory. The existence of the engagement ring by itself would be enough to argue that women are strongly conditioned to see their social status as dependent, in some cases entirely dependent, on the wealth of their husbands, and this in turn will have an effect on their priorities. Duh.

With this sort of thing in mind, I wrote this piece at RH Reality Check about the way that social causes are almost never addressed in mainstream media pieces that reference the gap between the average sex drives of men and women. Which isn’t to say all men are hornier than all women—some women are hornier than the average man, some men have very low sex drives, etc. But it does seem that a lot more women than men just check out of sex, and, as we’ve talked about before on the blog, the stats show that many don’t really care. (Which says to me that they aren’t getting any other benefits from sex like emotional connection, either, so perhaps a lot of women just have massive relationship issues causing them to want to avoid sex completely.) But what really bothers me is that people have fallen so far into the habit of thinking all differences or behaviors must be biological and genetic in origin, that you almost never see anyone confront some of the otherwise obvious issues, like women often lose their desires because, as I put it in the article, “women feel overworked, underpaid, underappreciated, understimulated, and shamed about their bodies.” Sex drives are not etched in stone, and the term “you don’t use it, you lose it” applies. Read the article to see all the ways I see women not using and therefore losing their desire.

Obviously, the answer to why people lean on evo psych theories and ignore the much more likely social conditioning is because looking at the latter leads directly to challenging male privilege. To point out that women’s lowered libidos are the direct result of being tapped out and understimulated suggests solutions that will unnerve a lot of men and challenge male power—more balance in sexual imagery, less bullying women about their bodies, more social permission for female libidos that makes some men fear infidelity, more men picking up housework and treating women with more respect, and even direct changes to what you do in bed so that it’s not all penis-centered. Sounds like too much of a sacrifice for many, and it’s just easier to push all the blame on women for being fundamentally broken.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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