Genders Evolving: The Shift To “Female Choice”
Today in the U.S., a shift takes place in how the genders relate. Men who grab women, demand sex from them, engage in lewd behavior, are losing status. Longer term, we may be moving to a situation where only women have the right to request a sexual relationship.
I’d like to put this into context.
Among animals, insects to birds, reptiles to mammals, the most common mating system is “female choice.” Males will put on displays, or have naturally exotic appearances, that attract females, who then make the decision whether to mate.
This isn’t the only mating system. Sometimes both genders have choice, and sometimes males dominate.
Humans are unusual. Superficially, it looks like people have a male choice system, since human females have more visually arousing attributes than males (permanently voluminous breasts, limited baldness.) Under some traditional conditions, male choice did dominate. But female morphology evolved earlier than that, hunter-gatherers exhibit female choice, and contemporary women clearly have agency.
So, like other things human, it’s complicated.
Among birds, the most diverse vertebrate family, female mate selection is by far the dominant method. Male birds compete for female attention. This is made evident in ornamentation. Colorful, aesthetically pleasing feathers are usually found on male birds.
Some birds, such as ducks, do not favor female choice. But males do not choose, either. Instead, males gang up on any isolated female duck, and one or more of them copulates with her by force. Females struggle against this.
Ducks, at least, usually live in fecund feeding environments. Males contribute nothing to raising offspring, because females can feed them alone. Territoriality isn’t worth fighting over. Nature is easy, there’s little to drive evolution, and female ducks lose control of evolutionary selection.
The female choice method is necessary when conditions aren’t so easy. It’s often aesthetically oriented. Male bird plumage evolves in exotic ways to impress females. Impression, in mating terms, is a turn on. Female choice mating involves female arousal.
Following Darwin, beauty both follows from, and leads to, function. Genetic essentialists define function as robust genes. But mate selection is at the phenotype level. Genes act in complex multifaceted ways that even geneticists only begin to understand. Mate selection occurs with a passionate confidence that mocks this uncertainty.
It’s not simply interpersonal arousal. Human culture shapes gender orientations and sexual choices.
Humans only recently migrated off of farms. Agriculture, in many places, reduced female choice. Reproduction forces women to carry a fetus almost a year, go through a painful and dangerous birth, feed the infant breast milk, and care for a slowly maturing child. As humans adopted settled agriculture, women increased pregnancy rates, and repeated births meant many women did not venture widely in society. They lost both the authority, and the capacity, to choose the next generation.
Before settled agriculture, women were less burdened, and capable of assessing future opportunity as well as men.
Culture undermines female choice when it isolates them. Religion can let men control what women want.
The “culture wars” battle to define what is beautiful, sexually appealing, and worth mating with. On one side, traditionalists favor mating certain types of men and women. On the other, mating is treated as a certain type of partnership.
But in the U.S. women enter and graduate 4 year colleges at higher rates then men. Higher education is an information source, and the result is that U.S. middle-class women are better informed about future opportunity than many men. They demand mating choice, and many men will oblige. Though if there’s many more educated women than men, educated men will have more choice.
The recent explosion of women reporting on abusive men has undermined traditional mechanisms of male privilege. Female choice is the default mating strategy among animals, and without active suppression of women, or agricultural hardship, or cultural dictates, humans will adopt manifestly female choice mating.
By establishing the abuse narrative, women have degraded the appeal of sexist culture. Men who grab women, who demand women provide sexual satisfaction, who use power to obtain it, are losing status. They’ve become less attractive, less likely to mate.
Real female choice means that only women would be able to request mating. This seems far off. But it’s important to understand that female choice is optimal. Where males choose partners, they often have many. Male choice is much more random, which isn’t choice at all.
Choice is better than random pairing because choice reflects agency. People can assess future needs, and by choosing particular offspring phenotypes their species is better able to exploit them.
Mating involves arousal. In order to choose, both males and females must be aroused. Where female choice is evident, males try hard to arouse them. Humans follow a different path. Women evolved distinctly arousing traits, and culture emphasizes them. Healthy men may grow bald when young, but not women. Women have permanently spherical breasts, the only mammal that does. They have smoother, rounder bodies, paler skin, more delicate features. We know that animal babies share some of these features to arouse supplicant behavior by parents. Human evolution seems to have found them useful for mating arousal.
Of course in culture, fashion is a dominant industry, much of it dedicated to female allure.
Superficially, this looks like a male choice situation (women have the decoration.) Yet human males, given the chooser role, are no more likely to carefully seek a single prospective mate for offspring, than any other male animal with this power. During exceptional circumstances, on 1960s sexual revolution communes or in Playboy mansion, men found themselves able to choose any female. The result was multiple, almost random coupling.
So why do female humans have the arousal role? Presumably because humans are complicated. The male quality that most arouses women is male arousal itself. A man aroused by a female behaves in distinctive ways. He pays closer attention to her, exhibits more sensitivity, is more protective, more civil, more passionate, more caring. These are the attributes that excite women, and to generate them, women arouse men.
Alas, this leads to miscommunication and mistakes. Females may arouse men they don’t intend to, leading to encounters they want to avoid. Or women may find men they’ve aroused appealing in the heat of the moment, only to regret it. To prevent the first, women must have the power to say “no”. To fix the second takes some form of abortion.
Men must learn to display their arousal in non-threatening ways. This is the single most important development the next generations must learn.
Why didn’t women select extravagant looking males, and evolve a male human that was aesthetically beautiful? Because female human sexuality isn’t superficial. Women value behavior more than imagery. A stereotypical man pretends at least that he values imagery more. If that’s true to some extent, it suggests how strongly women shaped human evolution. Men respond to visible stimuli that women control, and women chose individual men because of that response.
Most of recorded history was an unusual period where women lacked control of evolutionary selection. That’s changing now, which could lead to renewed human evolution.