Saturday, January 15, 2011

Evolution, rape, ovulation, and how to get your opinions labeled "Science."

I should declare, before going on, that I just finished my period and haven't ovulated yet. So take the following with a grain of awareness that this is just my post-period-pre-ovulation opinion.

A reader sent me this link from Slate about how women have supposedly evolved to protect themselves from rape. It falls victim, severely, to the usual process of pop-evolutionary-psychology:

1. Get a little bit of data. A self-reported survey administered to fifteen undergrads (the portion of your 9AM class who returned the surveys) is more than enough.
2. Break that data down by sex. Make sure to never ever ever break it down by age, socioeconomic status, level of education, nationality, or any other way people could conceivably differ from each other.
(2b. Make sure that you treat gender as absolutely biologically fixed. Disregard the possibility of non-heterosexual subjects, or for bonus points, attempt to lump gay men in with straight women and vice versa.)
3. Search for differences and discard similarities. Ways in which men and women are alike could never be significant findings! For bonus points, design your study in a way that is incapable of finding similarities--only test one sex, or test two sexes in different ways without a control.
4. This is the creative step. A less brilliant researcher would find that, say, women have a higher pain tolerance than men (as tested by heat exposure to the skin), and publish a paper entitled "Gender and pain tolerance in heat exposure." You are better than that! Because you know how to speculate wildly! Make up a completely ludicrous story that could have produced the results you found, and present it as your conclusion. Be sure that this story references "cavemen," justifies stereotypical gender roles, and act like proof of your data constitutes proof of your story. In the example given above, your paper should be entitled "Women naturally adapted to cooking; cavewomen adapted to the heat of cooking fires while making their men a nice mastodon roast when the men were away doing important things."
5. Release your findings to the popular press with an air of "This is the proclamation of Science and henceforth must be considered objective truth." Promote the story you came up with as the headline and bury the boring ol' actual data.
6. Get read by millions of grandparents, chatty neighbors, and suburban ER nurses who are spectacularly susceptible to the appeal to authority fallacy, and respond to all objections with "but that's just your opinion, Holly, and this is Science."

So, the article.

Women, gather round, read carefully, because this gay man—who once, long ago, feigned sexual interest in your bodies—is about to shine a spotlight on some hidden truths about your natural design.
That's a heck of a weird opening. I thought opening a post with my menstrual cycle was weird, but at least I didn't get all "I used to act like I thought you were sexy, but no." Great beginning for a science article.

It's by no means a perfect system, but evolution has endowed you with some extraordinary, almost preternatural abilities to prevent your own sexual assault. And these abilities are especially pronounced when you're ovulating.
This is the main thesis of the article, and contains two different weirdnesses:
1. Wanting to prevent sexual assault is evolution, instead of, like, wanting not to be assaulted.
2. Being sexually assaulted when you weren't ovulating, well, that wouldn't be so bad.
Expect these two assumptions to go blissfully unquestioned as we continue.

There is some evidence that convicted rapists are physically unattractive, at least as judged by women on the basis of their mug shots.
There is also evidence that attractive men aren't as often convicted as rapists, because they have an easier time setting up date rapes and because juries figure it must've been consensual if he's all studly.

And spousal rape is most likely to occur when the husband finds out (or suspects) his wife has been unfaithful, suggesting that he is attempting to supplant another man's seed.
Or suggesting that he's, you know, angry and jealous and attempting to punish her or reassert his possession. I don't think you need to resort to speculative evolutionary psychology when psychology-psychology has you pretty well covered.

Furthermore, UCLA psychologist Neil Malamuth and his colleagues found that one-third of men admit that they would engage in some type of sexual coercion if they could be assured they would suffer no negative consequences, and many report having related masturbatory fantasies.
Since these men were certified to have no families, peers, schooling, culture, life experiences, or media exposure, clearly evolution is the only explanation.

We've heard the argument that men may have evolved to sexually assault women. Have women evolved to protect themselves from men?
The thing I can't help thinking here is, you know, male and female genomes cross over every generation. It's not like these are two species evolving in parallel. Obviously there are traits that are expressed in one sex more than the other--hello, vagina--but I would suspect that for a trait to evolve in only women is more complicated than evolving in all humans. For the physical traits, there tends to be at least vestigial crossover--female clitorises, male nipples--and a significant portion of males who develop breasts and females who develop chest hair. So while of course males and females do express different traits, the image of us competitively coevolving like cheetahs and antelope is at best oversimplified.

1. When threatened by sexual assault, ovulating women display a measurable increase in physical strength. In 2002, SUNY-Albany psychologists Sandra Petralia and Gordon Gallup had 192 female undergraduate students read a story about either a female character being stalked by a suspicious male stranger in a parking lot (ending with: "As she inserts the key into her car door she feels his cold hand on her shoulder …") or a similar story in which the female character is surrounded by happy people on a warm summer's day (ending with: "She starts her car, adjusts the stereo, and as she pulls out of the parking lot those nearby can hear her music blasting"). The researchers measured the handgrip strength of each participant before and after she read the story, and compared the scores. [...] Only the ovulating women who read the sexual assault scenario exhibited an increase in handgrip strength.
I'd like to see the results of a third group that read a story about being threatened by, say, a wolf. (We would specify it was not a horny wolf.) I suspect that would do a bit for your handgrip too. Without that third scenario, we can't really distinguish between "ovulating women are protecting the purity of their sexy ladyparts" and "ovulating women are protecting their freakin' hides."

I also think the undergrad should become formalized as an SI unit of lazy psychology research. "We performed a 1.92 hectoundergrad study..."

2. Ovulating women overestimate strange males' probability of being rapists. [...]The researchers showed 169 normally ovulating women videotaped interviews with various men and asked them to rate the men on several dimensions, including their tendencies toward sexual aggression, kindness, or faithfulness. The more fertile the woman was at the time of her judging, the more likely she was to describe the men as "sexually coercive." Ovulating women didn't see these men as being less kind, faithful, or likely to commit—only more inclined to rape them.
I read the original study for this one (and I'm grateful that there actually was a direct link), and you know what, I'm going to break with Pervocracy tradition and buy it. Not as The New Immortal Truth About Women, but their methodology and results sound fairly plausible to me. In my personal anecdata, I do get noticeably hornier during ovulation (which is saying something believe me), and that means more aware of sex in general, and thus more likely to project sexual motivations onto people.

3. Ovulating women play it safe by avoiding situations that place them at increased risk of being raped. [...] At least two studies have demonstrated that women at the peak of their fertility are less likely than their peers to have engaged in high-risk activities such as walking alone in a park or forest, letting a stranger into the house, or stopping their cars in a remote place over the preceding 24 hours.
Walking alone in a park is a high-risk activity? Stopping your car? MOTHER OF GOD. I'm a fucking extreme adventurer and I didn't even know it. I've gone years engaging in high-risk activities every day! Twice a day sometimes when I couldn't get a ride in the morning and had to walk through the park both ways.

I don't even know what to say about the ovulation connection or whatever here. I'm just stuck on the implication that being outdoors while female is a high-risk activity. You know, this Monday I was planning on going for a nice long walk in the snow out in the boonies, maybe taking some photos, maybe doing some journaling, and I really didn't add "but of course I have to take the rape factor into account" to my plans. Until now.

Then again, I'm not ovulating, so of course I didn't.

4. Women become more racist when they're ovulating. At least white American ovulating women do when it comes to thinking about black American men.
Hoo boy.

Those are the jaw-dropping, politically incorrect findings of Michigan State University's Carlos Navarrete and colleagues.
Quick note: can we stop using "politically incorrect" to mean "harsh truth?" It really just means harsh.

While we're at it, can we stop trivializing decency in discourse by labeling it "political correctness"? Avoiding discriminatory and hurtful language isn't some partisan posture. It's just a basic step in not being a dickhead. Characterizing black men as rapists of white women isn't a daring rebellion against oppressive thought police, it's just racist.

White, undergraduate females were evaluated for race bias using several variants of an implicit association test, which asks participants to perform a word-matching task that indicates the relative accessibility of certain stereotypes. The women who happened to be ovulating scored especially high when it came to fear of black (as opposed to white) men, a fact that the authors interpret as reflecting an evolved disposition to avoid so-called "out-group males," who "may not have been subject to the same social controls as in-group members and would have constituted a threat in antagonistic situations." In this case, skin color serves as a convenient marker of group identity.
The entire history of American racism, washed away in a beautiful evolutionary flood of "it's perfectly reasonable not to trust the out-group!" The fact that this particular out-group has been specifically libeled with "coming after our white women" since the end of slavery has nothing to do with anything ever, since culture does not exist.

Stereotypes about the particular out-group being prone to violence may also play a role, so, at least in American society, cultural transmission works alongside evolutionary biology in promoting racism.
Oh, okay, culture exists. Oh my god, how to deal with this? Think... think... aha! Perhaps it merely works alongside my pet theory that explains everything!

Above is a set of astonishing truths that, had an evolutionary approach to studying complex social behavior not been adopted so rigorously over the past quarter-century and applied to human sexuality, would have gone entirely unnoticed—not least of which by a Kinsey-6 gay man who wouldn't know what to do with an ovulating woman if she came with instructions.
So now they're not studies suggesting certain things. They're "truths". A study showing that a limited population of young white women had negative associations with black men while ovulating is now somehow the TRUTH that ovulating women are racist (and they're right to be).

No. This is not how science works. A high p value doesn't mean all possible implications of a study are True. It means that the study itself--as in, the actual population tested and the actual tests done, not the various things they might symbolize--showed a correlation unlikely to be chance alone. You may have suggested something about women and the way they think, but you have only proven something about white undergrad American women in Michigan and the way they take implicit association tests. That's the only thing you can call truth. Everything else is somewhere between guessing, generalizing, and making shit up.

In conclusion, I'd like to say that I'm bisexual but more attracted to men. I hope this clarifies my views tremendously.


  1. It's not really fair to talk about this like unscrupulous sexist scientists are spreading lies. Often it's not the scientists at all, but simply bad science reporting on (often unfinished) research.

  2. That's true. With some of these studies the scientists are happily giving interviews on how they've discovered a Fundamental Gender Truth; with others, they just released the data fairly, and either the university PR office or a journalist turned it into wacky generalizations.

  3. Not only is it poor science reporting in the sense that the reporter didn't understand fundamental aspects of science re: Stretching Study Results Way Further Than They Are Meant to be Taken, it's poor science writing in the sense that's it's really weird composition. The tone of "Hey ladies, I'm gay and I know more about you than you do so crowd around my awesome wisdom" is inappropriately arrogant, and condescending, but it's also just kind of *bizarre.*

  4. This post is SO awesome! You've summed up pretty much everything I dislike about evolutionary psychology, particularly as it manifests in popular culture (as in the case of poor science reporting, as people have mentioned). I linked to this post on facebook, which I don't normally do. (Maybe I should do that more. You write a lot of awesome stuff that I think lots more people should read.)

  5. Hey, at least they acknowledged that spousal rape exists. So props to them for that tiny little thing in a sea of "Aw hell naw."

  6. This blog entry is now my favourite blog entry, for all eternity.

  7. Ovulating women play it safe by avoiding situations that place them at increased risk of being raped. [like walking in the park etc.]

    Hmmm. But, as many of us know, stranger-rapes aren't particularly common. One of the most common rape scenarios is, I think, someone getting a woman drunk at a party or nightclub and taking advantage of her.

    And if women tend to get uberhorny when ovulating, it seems to me they might very well be interested in going to a social event where they can flirt and be flirted with.

    So...are these women really avoiding rapey places?

    Incidentally, for me the major horny time is right around my period, not during ovulation...which doesn't make sense from an evolutionary standpoint but might from a biological standpoint (I read that a woman's hormone profile is closer to a guy's at that time of month than any other, and if boy-hormones are responsible for sex drive...).

  8. Laura wrote...

    This article seriously made me cry a bit. It does remind me, however, of this:

    Also, the "I'm a gay man, so I have innate authority on straight women's sexuality" hurts my brain in indescribable ways.

  9. For god's sake. Newsflash to scientists: JUST BECAUSE HUMANS *DO* SOMETHING, IT DOES NOT MEAN WE *EVOLVED* TO DO IT.

    Evolution helps a population of organisms adapt to their surroundings, but it is not a MAGIC power. It does not make those organisms PERFECT. What evolutionary advantage does, say, dying, give a species? Yet we all do it, don't we.


  10. "For god's sake. Newsflash to scientists: JUST BECAUSE HUMANS *DO* SOMETHING, IT DOES NOT MEAN WE *EVOLVED* TO DO IT."

    Please stop blaming all scientists for ham-fisted evolutionary psych. It hurts.

  11. You're bisexual??????

    Nah. You're just ovulating.

  12. Sounds like some typical ignorant research. I find it interesting that many activists among minority groups often minimize the suffering of other groups. Well, not surprising.

    Also: Wolves virtually never attack people. I'm not some PETA nut, I just grew up in cold places where there were wolves, and they are pretty cool, and helpful in controlling the deer population. This year they went off the conservation list in some areas (Montana I think?) and got slaughtered back to near-death. I'm not saying we all need to go hug wolves, but let's not portray them as the bad guys. I won't hold my breath for the Hebrew children's book where the noble wolf kills the filthy pigs to save the city though.

  13. Poorly conducted psychology, making good psychologists cry for over a century!

  14. Wolf-loving anon - I actually agree completely and am sort of regretting not making it a bear, or perhaps a malevolent nonhorny alien.

    Still, I simultaneously believe that wolves are ecologically important animals worthy of preservation, and animals you wouldn't like to see standing across the trail out of the woods as the sun started so set.

  15. ^point 4 was ridiculous(politically motivated??) no doubt, but i disagree in the case of the wolfs, you wouldn't need them, because if you did that supplementary group and the difference between the ovulating and non ovulating females was there, it wouldn't play a big role in interpretation really. if the difference was there again you'd hear science conclude it must be ovulating womens fear generally that's higher, if not its a special fear directed towards men, that's a detail but not necessary for the general conclusion that provided the findings are significant there is a difference between ovulating and non ovulating women, which I find interesting, no doubt though that in such highly controvesial a thread it would be almost obligatory for corroborating results to set the conclusions on a wider basis before presenting them as ultimate truth.
    The evolutionary arms races observed in nature are evident and the thought to use them in interpretation of humans ingenious still. When thinking of Darwins last sentence of the "origin of species" that there lies grandeur in the thought that we are an animal, which is most widely unfortunately seemingly misunderstood, it is very likely that such mechanisms co-occur. Yes, its also so very controversial, that outmost care should be well advised, which wasn't really a feature of the article. The findings are interesting however... I wonder if it can help me find out when she s ovulating ;) Asking things like, "hey how would you judge this guy there, doesn't he threaten the girl besides him with his weary looks." and if she answered yes: Bingo! lol hope that will help me at least, neither science nor anything else ever did...

  16. @Anon 12:30

    I think you're on the right track there. All these results are consistent with the minor conclusion that ovulating women have a stronger stress reaction than non-ovulating women.

    More stress? Less (apparent) risk-taking. More fear of vilified groups. More adrenaline, so greater grip strength.

    A more interesting test would be to look at cortisol levels in women over the course of a cycle. I imagine this study has been done, but it'd be hard to fit the results into a patriarchal evo-psych article like this one.

  17. I saw a link to that Slate article on some fairly unrelated site, and was like "I could read that and be annoyed, but I'm a little busy; I'll just read it when it shows up on Pervocracy." Glad to see I was right! I wonder why it is that pop psychology tends to be so much worse than pop other science? I guess part of it is that I'm less likely to be bothered if Discover says something inaccurate about an endangered frog than I am if Psychology Today or whatever says we evolved for men to be jealous of sexual infidelity and women to be jealous of emotional infidelity, or that bigotry is natural and a-ok, etc. It does seem like the conclusions and research tend to be worse as well, though.

  18. If you want to take the uber-cynical view- and I'm not disinclined to- the whole bizarre "I'm gay so you have to take it from me" in concert with the "it's not politically correct but science says so you can't question it" may well translate to "I'm immune to bitches and their tricks so I'm authoritative."

    As for wolves... they only very rarely attack humans in North America. There are more in the northern, Scandinavian regions of Europe, and more than that in Russia and the more remote parts of Asia. They just don't fit the standards of "documented" (eyewitness, wolf must never have been in any recorded way captive, victim must die, wolf must be dead and examinable to eliminate rabies), as is difficult to do with a remote peasant population that has never heard of David Mech.

    Not that I don't think wolves shouldn't be conserved, or encouraged to repopulate North America, but I do think their image as unusually saintly large carnivores in contrast to others we accept as "don't eradicate, but are dangerous"- like bears and cougars- is as flawed as Big Bad Wolf. Like Sunderban tigers, large carnivores several generations removed from being hunted that find easy prey... see easy prey.

  19. 4 just explained a very curious thing to me.

    couple years ago, i took part in a study *just like that*.
    and the researchers were puzzled and confused by my reactions.
    first off, i'm not "white". I'm Cherokee. i spent half my childhood on the rez. they ignored me when i said "Cherokee" and had me listed as white.
    second... in fact, i didn't score high in "fear" over all, and the group i "feared" the most were white men.

    so... puzzled researchers. then my boyfriend came to pick me up. researchers look as if they've been hit with anvil.
    next day, told i was removed from the study.

    because my boyfriend is black, and this "taints" my natural reactions. i asked what they meant - and the woman said something like "well, you've identified more with black people instead of white people."

    and i'm STILL confused about this - I'M NOT WHITE. why the hell SHOULD i identify as white?

    but i'm pretty sure i was kicked out of the study because my boyfriend is black.

  20. Holly,

    This post was my favorite thing from the weekend, and I posted the quote about "political correctness to my tumblr account ... thought you'd enjoy hearing that as of typing this comment, the quote had gotten 571 "likes" and/or "reblogs" and comments. You can check out the notes, etc., over at my tumblr.

    You're awesome!

  21. UCLA psychologist Neil Malamuth and his colleagues found that one-third of men admit that they would engage in some type of sexual coercion if they could be assured they would suffer no negative consequences,
    Including the negative consequence of the victim being upset or traumatized, let alone resentful or angry? The negative consequence of probably blowing any chance to ever have consensual sex with this person (particularly if you take the not unreasonable position that no one can ever uncoercedly consent to sex with someone who's raped them)?

    Because if no one feels victimized, I'm not sure it even still counts as coercion. And "no negative consequences" means, to me, exactly that; the question at that point becomes "if you could seduce someone [in the benign sense], would you?"

  22. Really, this study was the dumbest shit imaginable. Thanks for tearing it apart for us.

    And @denelian: what a bizarre experience for you to have! Personally I have found that I'm usually more attracted to men who look like my current boyfriend - when I dated a blonde, blue-eyed, lanky guy I'd check out guys who looked like him, for example. Maybe they figured that that effect would make you insufficiently scared of black faces for the purposes of their weird-ass study? Whatever they were thinking, it doesn't seem kosher to throw you out of the study...

  23. "I don't think you need to resort to speculative evolutionary psychology when psychology-psychology has you pretty well covered."

    I want this on a T-shirt.

  24. The comments section on that blog post make me feel ill.