It’s time to stop using regressive evolutionary theory to justify men’s sexual objectification of women
Even ‘good men’ continue to defend men’s right to access female bodies, using debunked evolutionary theory.
A backlash against the #MeToo Campaign is running parallel with the campaign itself. Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked and fierce proponent of free speech, describes women’s free speech to name men’s predatory sexual conduct as a collective “witch hunt.” O’Neill tells us “sexual harassment hysteria is innately hostile to and even destructive of the idea of natural justice.” Men are being accused “of things only the most prudish and immature of minds could consider crimes or misdemeanors.” This is, he argues, “a Kafkaesque hell” and “a cult of ‘believe the women.’” O’Neill concludes:
“The sexual-harassment-in-politics scandal, built on flimsy accusations, swirling rumours, and an illiberal willingness to believe everyone who points a lone accusatory finger and says ‘PREDATOR,’ is becoming not simply strange and irritating but dangerous.”
Reducing women’s collective consciousness-raising to hysteria is a crude analysis that falls upon old, deeply embedded cultural myths: He attributes women’s collective speech to the myth of the lonely wrathful woman’s desire for summary justice because of some alleged inconsequential sleight by an unsuspecting, innocent man. He also calls upon the culturally embedded myth that women’s testimony is untrustworthy and not to be believed. He whips up fear of the #MeToo Campaign by suggesting similarity with the irrationality of the witch hunts of the 17th century, obfuscating that women themselves are calling for reasoned justice.
O’Neill’s analysis erases history rather than learning from its lessons. The many genuine gains made by women over the centuries have been achieved through the dogged, persistent, and brave speaking out against patriarchs whose vested interests are mobilized by belittling what women say. Despite women’s social gains, in 21st century Western liberal democracies, there remains a deep, festering, gender malaise — a dark shadow to women’s emancipation. Women speaking out exposes the undeclared deeply held belief of the Good Guy — the family man with cultural status — who nonetheless believes he has a right to women’s bodies. Women’s speech about men’s sexualized behaviour touches upon this inconvenient truth.
Heterosexual men’s pornography consumption demonstrates the historical persistence of the idea women are positioned as an available sex class for men.
I recently interviewed a medical doctor about his use of pornography. Let’s call the interviewee Richard. Richard told me he finds the sight of multiple women’s naked bodies visually compelling. Internet pornography, he assured me, is the perfect modern-day solution to Civilized Man’s moral dilemma. It allows him to cede his evolutionary heritage whilst enabling him to live according to society’s rules. In Richard’s belief, the bespectacled microbiologist peering down his microscope all day is no less biologically determined by testosterone and the Y chromosome than Primitive Man rapaciously roaming the savannahs of Europe. “This is why pornography is so neat,” he declared. “It allows Civilized Man to exercise control of his base impulses by channeling them into harmless fantasy.”
Richard expressed certain attitudes which he had likely never previously given voice, perhaps even to himself. I asked why, if pornography is so personally and socially useful, he had kept his consumption secret from all his lovers and partners. He replied that watching pornography is like defecating — Civilized Man, like Primitive Man, must respond to the call of nature, but he must do so discretely and in private. Consuming pornography does not mean infidelity to his wife, Richard assured himself, nor does it impede his respectful treatment of women in “real life,” as his adult daughters, friends, and colleagues should surely testify.
Now you may feel sympathy for Richard’s rationale. Scratch the surface of his explanation and we see that the anthropological basis for his claims are very much in line with mainstream perspectives on pornography consumption. Online medical advice about men’s sexual health tells men there is an “evolutionary link” that explains their pornography use. Men’s brains are “hardwired for easy arousal, so that men are ready for sex whenever opportunity knocks — a propagation-of-the-species thing.” Women are encouraged to understand it is natural for their menfolk to watch pornography so “there is no need to worry.”
Women’s Health magazine tells an identical story. Its male columnist tells women that men are biologically programmed to be “aroused by visual stimulation,” and since men have to put in the work of giving women orgasms in the bedroom (if only!), pornography allows them a little selfish space or “me-time.” Men seek their partners’ pleasure — “reading women’s body language, making sure they do not peak too early, and holding in any non-sexy bodily functions.” Pornography, therefore, is men’s “guilty pleasure that’s as brainless as watching a sitcom (but, you know, with nudity).” Women should understand “porn is a supplement to sex with them, not a replacement.”
Whenever a “nice guy” — for example a father, husband, or doctor — masturbates to pornography, is he driven by biology or patriarchy? Informing the naturalist story is a familiar narrative, extrapolated from Darwin’s theory of evolution. Ancestral men were risk takers with a biological predisposition to promiscuity and to inseminate multiple partners; ancestral women played a safer psychological game and focused on monogamy, home-building, and tending their offspring. The combination of evolved male and female traits, so the narrative goes, has ensured human evolutionary success.
Steven Pinker, a left-leaning cognitive psychologist and self-declared feminist supporter, is a respected purveyor of evolutionary doctrine. He is keen to assert that the consequences of evolution, such as men’s aggression and women’s emotional intelligence, should not dictate how social relations ought to be organized. No, no, no. In 21st century liberal democracy and the principles of sex-equality, no-one should condone, support, or proscribe men’s predatory behaviour. Nevertheless, Pinker advises, logical, dispassionate thinking such as his should compel us to recognize the evolutionary basis of some behaviours. Feminists like me can rail against the patriarchy till we’re blue in the face, but the fundamental facts of evolution are the inevitable cascade of consequences on the brains and behaviour of modern day humans. How could it be sexist to merely report the objective conclusions of science?
But is this evolutionary theory the product of science? Cordelia Fine, professor of the history and philosophy of science, thinks not. She takes evolutionary psychologists and biologists, as well as neuroscientists, to task for a fundamental deficit in rational thinking and dispassion that might make Darwin turn in his grave. Scientists elide sex with gender and essentialize gender as a “natural kind” (i.e. biological, fixed, discrete, and invariant across time and place). In doing so, they get evolution “wrong, wrong, and wrong again.”
In her most recent book, she coins the term, “Testosterone Rex” to encapsulate the myth that weaves together claims about evolution, brains, hormones, chromosomes, and gendered behaviour. Testosterone Rex offers a persuasive account of society’s persistent, seemingly intractable sex inequalities. Ditching Testosterone Rex as an explanatory framework allows other hypotheses to emerge, leading to a more complex picture. Fine’s analysis doesn’t require denial of evolution, sexual difference, or biology, but the converse.
Current sexual health advice is cloaked in scientism not science. Under the guise of objectivity, UK National Health Service advice is currently contributing to the “pink brain, blue brain” fashion that is gripping the collective imagination. It presupposes and thus helps construct that which Fine argues science should question — namely, the belief that boys and girls/men and women are two discrete entities, not only in their reproductive capacities, but in their proclivities, abilities, and desires.
Medicine also has a history of constructing gender difference by endorsing pornography consumption. A current, popularized version of this is exemplified by Brook, a sexual health charity. Hannah Witton, its sassy, upbeat, media savvy ambassador advises young women that, in an age of equal opportunity, they too can join in the sexual fun. Young women should embrace pornography’s positive benefits: watching people have sex is arousing, and sexual pleasure is good, she argues. Witton tells us “the consumption of porn should be separated from its production,” since the latter “belongs to an entirely different conversation” (a conversation she never has). Her advice to those of us who might have concerns about the politics of consumption is not to condemn pornography, but “to keep an open mind and don’t shame others.”
But pornography itself, both in its production and consumption, does nothing if not shame women. Let us consider one of pornography’s most orthodox, ubiquitous, and perhaps least violent of tropes: a woman being slapped, hair-pulled, and anally penetrated while being called a “slut.” Or let us reflect on another favorite representation: a woman on her knees surrounded by multiple men taking turns orally penetrating her until she gags and has eye make-up and ejaculate streaming down her face. In the West, pornography has followed religion in designating women as belonging to two separate classes: those whom men are obliged to respect (wives, partners, mothers, sisters, and daughters) and those others — “whores” (someone else’s mother, sister, or daughter), who men can legitimately sexually use and abuse through pornography (and prostitution).
Some “progressives” prefer to depoliticize their pornography consumption by naturalizing their desires and using, at least publicly, the sanitized language of “sex worker.” However, pornography is the disavowed successor of Christian ideology and the ancient stories of Adam and Eve, not an escape, as pornographers and their advocates claim.
Gail Dines, sociologist and founder of Culture Reframed, argues that when medical advice promotes pornography as sexual health it ultimately does the bidding of a powerful industry. The pornography industry has a vested financial interest in hiding the damage it wreaks on the physical and psychological health of performers, and indeed on many of its consumers, in particular children and young people. Whenever the legality of its practices is challenged, the industry brings in the big guns: the Free Speech Coalition.
The Free Speech Coalition, launched in 1991 and heavily subsidized by the industry itself, defends the industry from litigation and provides it what Dines describes as “a socially responsible image,” by framing it as “free speech.” But whose freedom of speech do pornographers and the law allow and disallow? Pornography speaks to historical male sex entitlement, but delivers this message, today, through digital technology and a new ironic twist worthy of George Orwell’s doublethink. Larry Flynt and Hugh Hefner, pornographers who became billionaires on the backs of women’s exploitation, are lauded by themselves, as well as by alleged progressives, women’s equality advocates, and free speech proponents like O’Neill as having liberated women from male sexual supremacy.
Testosterone Rex roams the pornography sets as well as the film casting rooms of Hollywood. Above all, he lives in the collective sexual imagination, no less incited by pornographic representations on the domestic computer screens of husbands, fathers, and doctors than the parliamentary computer screens of our politicians and social commentators.
Joanna Williams, another writer at Spiked, claims, “Feminism has long pitched men against women. But increasingly it pitches women against women, too.” She erects feminism as a straw-woman to knock down: Feminists, she alleges, shame “women who refuse to join in with the pity-me stories.” This reductionism obfuscates the reality, history, and purpose of feminism as serious political analysis which has considered the social conditions in which women and men find themselves for two centuries. Current feminist analysis of women’s speech does not pitch men against women or women against women, in terms of our collective interests. Moreover it is much kinder about men’s ethical capacity than men themselves.
Feminism argues that there is nothing inevitable about Testosterone Rex’s reign, as the act of squaring up to sexualized patriarchal power might demonstrate. His tumescence will deflate all the sooner if we collectively stop seeing him as a natural figure. The women who are collectively naming the ubiquity of male predatory behaviour through the #MeToo campaign are not turning themselves into weak victims, as Williams asserts. Rather, they are speaking the truth about male socialization and power under patriarchy. If we really value free speech, sex equality, a fair justice system, and genuine access for men and women to legal redress, we need to give Testosterone Rex the boot and relegate his loyal companion to patriarchal history too.
Let us remember that the original witch hunts, whose symbolism O’Neill calls upon to demonize the #MeToo campaign, were actually perpetrated by men on women (and a minority of men) whose speech went against orthodox, patriarchal ideas. As women, let’s ignore men’s (and some women’s) cries of “witch hunt,” and become truly active agents, refuse to keep men’s sex secrets, rebuff personal shame and place it with the men where it belongs. Let us, in the name of natural justice, liberty, and sexual freedom, exercise our right to free speech and collectively, publicly roar, “No more!”
Dr. Heather Brunskell-Evans is a social theorist, philosopher, and Senior Research Fellow at King’s College in London. She is a National Spokesperson for the Women’s Equality Party Policy on Ending Sexual Violence, a trustee of FiLia, and co-founder of Resist Porn Culture. Heather is the editor of a new book called, Born In Your Own Body: Transgender, Children and Young People.