For several weeks now we have had news stories about men making unwanted approaches to women. And of course we condemn them, particularly when the male is in a senior position and can influence the fortunes of others. Interestingly, it seems to me, allegations of sexual misbehaviour do not require the same levels of evidence needed for other allegations. While we outwardly maintain the principle that someone is innocent until proved guilty, inwardly we suspect that the allegation is true. I wonder if that tendency comes from our awareness of our own hidden sexual vulnerabilities.
Let’s dig a little deeper. Watch any television programme of the life of an animal species. It invariably shows that all the events tend to support reproduction. That’s no surprise because evolution, and therefore the survival of a species, is the major factor in the life cycle. Is it so for human beings?
We are far more complex, and much of the human purpose is concerned with other, and more edifying, values. Yet reproduction and its surrounding circumstances, which we may pretend to hide under the table, still play a huge part. If it didn’t, the human race would have died out millennia ago.
Let’s look at evolution’s plan. It is not hard to identify. First it provides the male as a necessary trigger. This requires an ability to recognise women who have at least an average capacity for child bearing. So features such as good breasts, ideal hip to waist proportions and symmetry attract. Ideally he should subconsciously recognise the signals, such as dilation of the pupils, from a woman who is going through her monthly stage of fertility. He is not required to note any of these consciously, it is enough to be attracted unconsciously. As far as evolution is concerned, the wider he spreads his seed the better.
The woman is complementary. Evolution requires a healthy looking man to impregnate her, and its main task is to find one who will be able to provide for her and her children at least for several years. She looks for capability and potential stability. And she wants to see in him the characteristics which will enable her children to have successful lives. In terms of sexual competition she is offhand or even brusque to men who do not match up. Her negative or positive attitude to partners is more marked at ovulation. And she is skilled enough to give the interrogatively glad eye to qualifying suitors without compromising her external modesty.
I am aware that these male and female characteristics read cynically. While they are necessarily general they are all supported by good evidence. Evolution itself does not have emotions or any moral sense. By its own internal dynamic it necessarily favours the characteristics required to ensure adequate reproduction. And it has another quirk. Because long term relationships are the best background for the success of the young, the desires which are triggered for mating easily expand to broader activities which support the relationship. And here cultural change plays its part.
Until very recently, sexual activity involved the danger of unintended conception, and so the mores of society harshly condemned mistakes. Modern control of conception has largely separated sexual activity and committed relationship. We do not know the long term outcome of this, although early indications suggest that evolution cannot be evaded without consequences.
So when we read of the casual abuse of women we might start by abandoning any automatic assumption that the man is a vile predator and the woman a modest maiden. They are both being strongly influenced by evolution to suit their reproductive needs: she by her unconscious recognition of how the male in question would serve as a long term mate; he by his unconscious recognition of how she would serve as a mother. Both, normally, are able to overrule their instincts so we are right to condemn those who offend. And we condemn more harshly if repeat behaviour is involved – though the solution may more readily come from a psychiatrist than from social punishment.
And we need to be careful about our judgments. It is easy to identify the male predator by what he says or what he actually does. But it will in some cases be his fallible attempt to read the messages a woman is unconsciously sending. The female predator – and, believe me, there are plenty – sends signals of a subtlety which can only be recognised rather than measured, let alone presented in court. But the worst is over for the moment: a recent international study shows a marked rise in sexual interest around Christmas, confirmed by a peaking of births nine months later. Unless you are in a Muslim country: for you it will be Eid-Al-Fitr – which celebrates the end of Ramadan.
(This text is marginally different from what is published in the Catholic Herald.)