Pascal Boyer

What it is about women?

Published on 19 February 2012 at 11:53

A few weeks a go, a young girl was assaulted in the othodox Jewish community of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem. Being from an orthodox family, the girl was dressed in what most people in Israel and the rest of the world would judge an inordinately puritanical fashion. Apparently, that was not enough for a group of enraged young men, who ganged up on her and terrorized her, spat at her, shouted in her face and called her a “whore” and other assorted insults. The main source of their righteous anger was her bare arms. She is eight years old.

modesty police

The incident did not pass unnoticed. Israel is probably one of the most secular places in the world.The extremism of the Haredis and other fanatics are a perennial concern and irritant to most Israelis. Thousands joined demonstrations in several towns to denounce this latest eruption of puritanical folly.

Obviously, this kind of incident is far from special to Israel. In most of the Muslim world, men routinely gang up on women who fail to dress according to their standard of Islamic modesty. Women are just as routinely beaten up or even sent to jail for real or imagined violations of some extravagant regulation on what they should wear, say or do. In the US, many of the religiously inspired “social conservatives” are also obsessed with women, forever trying to push back on the very limited legal acceptance of abortion, but also on the availability or funding of contraception and genetic counselling.

None of this is new to our readers. But it raises, again, the question, What is it about women? that is, what is it that triggers that kind of apparently irrational hatred? Obviously, the question really is about men and their ever so mysterious psychological makeup.

We at ICCI are in the business of providing (or at least imagining) deep empirical answers, based on evolutionary and cognitive evidence, to the great questions of the day. But this question does not seem to have attracted much evolutionary or cognitive research.

To make the question more tractable, we should avoid grandiose but vacuous statements (“men always hate women”) as well as the patently tautological ones (“this is all because of patriarchy”).

We should perhaps start with the simple, methodologically individualist question: Why would a man participate in that kind of coercion and violence? What’s in it for him?


Long ago, when I was very small, intellectuals used to say that “it was all a question of power”, and that “men want power over women”. Small that I was, I could see that this could not be a very good explanation. Why would a man want power over women? What’s in it for him?

Growing up, I realised that evolutionary biology made that kind of explanation even less credible. An evolutionary perspective explodes the notion that “gender dominance is not about sex, it’s about power”. It is of course about sex, or more precisely about reproduction, since power itself is a means towards reproductive success.

So our main contender for a first pass at an explanation is that human reproductive strategies result in large asymmetries in the costs and benefits of various sexual behaviors. In particular, the strategic need for men to provide for their offspring is accompanied by the potential cost of providing for another man’s - in other words by the risk of cuckolding. As a result, powerful motivations towards “mate-guarding” would be present in humans, as they are in other species with important paternal investment. All this was brilliantly sketched by the late Margo Wilson, Martin Daly and others.

Assuming (as I do) that this is on the right track, we need to go further.

First, the young men in Beit Shemesh were not guarding their own mates, they were persecuting a third party, who in this case was very unlikely to be anyone’s sexual partner. In places with socially accepted coercion of women, adult males are involved in a strange kind of cartel or public-good game, in which each contributes to limiting all women’s sexual choices, their own mates but also other men’s as well as potential mates for as yet unknown or unborn males. How does that work? What are the incentives for staying in that game? How do men deter defection?

Second, we do not have a very good proximate description of what creates powerful motivation and emotions in these men. In the abstract, it seems that collective mate-guarding could be organised in a sober and methodical fashion, like tax-collection and highway code enforcement. So why all this passion? The fanatics of Beit Shemesh are sadly typical. Oppressing women usually comes with a degree of anger that seems to call for a special explanation.

So, ICCI members, provide us with your best guesses as to how to explain all this.

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A range of method to police morality
Konrad Talmont-Kaminski   20 February 2012 at 22:36

It strikes me that connected to this kind of behaviour is the morality police that one finds in the most conservative Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia. There you are dealing with a much more methodical form of mate-guarding and you do find that it is not only women who are at the receiving end - even though they remain the main 'recipients' of the attention. At the same time, there are "honour killings" which are typically committed by the family of the woman. So, there appears to be a range of 'methods'.

Still, emotions do seem to play a very significant role in much of the policing. The family feel shamed by the behaviour and from reports I've seen it sounds like the morality police are much more enthusiastic about their work than, say, traffic wardens. The obvious thing to say is that sex is a very basic element of human life and that's why the emotions are involved but that is hardly enlightening. What about taking the sort of Damasio line that here's an example of the kind of cognitive role that emotions play in fcussing people's attention on particular salient aspects of their environment?

It's all about fairness!
Nicolas Baumard   21 February 2012 at 01:40

(Yes, I know, this comment is hardly suprising)

As Pascal’s remark on public good game suggests, sexual restraint might be a question of cooperation. For many people, we would be better off if we would restrain ourselves and live a quiet, faithful and monogamous life. In consequence, those who do not restrain their sexual dispositions are just cheaters: They benefit from the fact that others restrain themselves (and leave the mating market) while not paying themselves the cost of social restraint (they are still on the market and they advertise their availability).

In this perspective, wearing t-shirts or jeans is just as (emotionally) outrageous as cheating in a queue, stealing a parking spot or littering in the street. It's just unfair.

But why is that monogamy is considered as a problem of cooperation in the first place?

Weeden, Cohen and Kenrick might offer a good explanation:

One must first acknowledge the typical tradeoffs and risks of monogamous, long-term, high-fertility strategies. For men pursuing these strategies, the basic bargain is that they are agreeing to high levels of investment in wives and children while foregoing extra-pair mating opportunities. In return, they receive increased paternity assurance and increased within-pair fertility. Given that these men are making high levels of familial investment, their central risk is cuckoldry.

For women pursuing these strategies, the basic bargain is that they are agreeing to provide increased paternity assurance and within-pair fertility while foregoing opportunities to obtain sexier genes for their children. In return, they receive increased male investment. Their central risk is male abandonment, especially when they have higher numbers of young children. Indeed, following the sharp rise in divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s, single mothers and their children now form the core of American poverty (Casper & Bianchi, 2002).

In addition to risks from spousal infidelity or abandonment, high-fertility strategies also place financial and household management burdens on families. Events that may be manageable inconveniences for most single people or childless couples—like getting the flu, temporarily being laid off from work, or uninsured damage from a storm—can become very serious problems for families with young children. In addition, a further risk of high-fertility strategies is that children from large families will be individually less well funded than their social competitors on average.

In line with this theory, they show that mating strategies are a very good predictor of one’s moral opinion non only about sexual issues, but about a range of others practices, indirectly related to monogamy such as “pornography, divorce, cohabitation, homosexuality, drinking and drug usage (which are transparently associated with promiscuity), and abortion and birth control (which reduce the costs of promiscuity and enhance the ability of small-family strategists to produce well-funded children).”

On this topic, Kurzban, de Scioli and Weeden present very interesting data about the relation between mating strategies and the condemnation of recreational drugs.

Of particular interest for the ICCI readers, they show that moral opinions are not determined by abstract political view but rather by ecological and personal variations (i.e. whether one pursue a monogamous strategy or not).

Patriarchy as a common good
Olivier Morin   21 February 2012 at 12:31

Thanks for the post, pascal! I have an answer to your two questions, but first I need to make a short preamble.

I agree for the most part with you and Nicolas, but the basic pattern you sketched does not tell us why power over women varies so much from one culture to another. Fortunately, all 8-year-old girls do not share the misfortune you just described. Yet the mechanisms that you and Nicolas describe should be universal. What's missing?

We could look at it that way: patriarchy is a common good for men. As Nicolas points out, it reduces competition and makes every male more secure, as long as everyone respects the rule. Think of it as a sort of corporatist, monopolistic trade union: the trade-union puts severe restriction on the labor market, it blocks the free exchange of money and services, and most workers benefit. Consumers pay the price. Likewise, patriarchal institutions benefit males (especially the weakest, those who would be at a disadvantage on a free sexual market), and women pay the price.

Now, patriarchy is not equally strong everywhere, for the same reasons that trade unions are not equally powerful everywhere. They are common goods, vulnerable to free-riders. Some males are more attractive, more powerful and more wealthy than others. Patriarchal institutions do not benefit them. They have a stake in a less restrained circulation of women.

What happens when anti-patriarchal norms carry the day is not always pretty. Mating choices are not just about good looks and estimated fitness. Money and power matter. When a patriarchal system is not enforced, the wealthy and the powerful benefit in two ways: first, they can directly boost their own fitness by buying women in various ways, through prostitution, slavery, war, simple greed, or a combination of all this (such combinations are well described in David Graeber's Debt. Graeber suggests that the patriarchal institutions of judaism and islam evolved as reaction to prostitution and debt slavery). Second, they can use those women as a symbol of their own influence: captive women become a token of power, and sometimes are quite literally used as money (Graeber again). Remember Achilles' wrath. Patriarchy can be seen as a reaction to competition over women as sexual partners and as symbols of one's dignity, and the inequalities it creates.

Now, Pascal, let me answer your question.

Why do males try to control women who could not possibly have sex with anyone? because they are sustaining a common good. If they were pursuing their own private advantage there would be no point in policing others. They are showing everybody else that patriarchy applies to everyone, because that is exactly what one needs to do to maintain a public good. One needs society to be unanimous, and the unanimity has to be public. (in this logic, abortion might be tolerated when secret, but should never be legal, even if that resulted in fewer abortions.)

Why are they so emotional about it? because they are afraid, and sometimes rightly so (from their perspective) of what would happen if the patriarchal norms would collapse. They feel that, if women are free to circulate, wealthier, more powerful men will steal their wives and sisters or turn them into prostitutes; they themselves will lose their dignity. Cause enough for anger. Incidentally, this is more or less what the men in question say.


Religion and Demography
Michael Blume   21 February 2012 at 14:43

Dear Pascal,

I don't know if you remember me but we had a very good (if short) discussion in Frankfurt some years ago about your cognitive approach and my (then-upcoming) field of study: Religion(s) & Demography. In the meantime, even more data has shown up, some of which I tried to assemble on my homepage.

In short: Religious traditions (or "guilds", as you named them) are able to enforce social networks (including socially transmitted worldviews and emotions) with a wide, demographic potential. Some religious traditions practically prohibit having children (i.e. the Shakers) and others emphasize large families (i.e. the Old Order Amish or the above-mentioned Haredim). Some are preaching sexuality as a way to winning over converts (i.e. "flirty fishing" with the early Children of God by David Berg) while others are restricting and prescribing sexual activities to monogamous marriages. In the long run, those attaining larger numbers of children tend to grow - as the above-mentioned Haredim, which grew with an average of 6-8 children per woman from a mere percent to more than 10% of the Jewish population within a few decades. In contrast, we still didn't find a single non-religious population that had been able to attain at least replacement level for a century!

Thus, although I would agree that socially transmitted teachings, credibility enhancing displays (Henrich's CREDs), values and emotions have to link with individual psychologies, it's the sociocultural history which is leading reform Judaism to sexual tolerance (and very small families) and ultraorthodox traditions into very strict and escalating "social" policies (and very big families) - and which is focussing so many religion-rleated debates onissuessuch ascontraception, abortion, homosexuality, marriages etc. Religious Demography would be a great chance of bringing together individual, social and cultural (historical) perspectives.

Wishing you all the best, Michael

Patriarchy is also supported by women
Nicolas Baumard   21 February 2012 at 16:37

On Olivier's answer: what is interesting with Weeden et al.'s framework is that it allows explaining not only why men moralize clothes, but also why women do. Indeed, "committed" women, who have invested heavily in their monogamous relationships, also have much to lose in sexual promiscuity. And the fact is, sexual restraint is also supported by women.

So as Pascal notes: it is not about power on women. Even women (those in a relationship) benefit from moralization.

Note also that patriarchy is perfectly compatible with the interest of highly successful males and that it does not particularly benefit the weakest males. Actually, the most violent practices (footbinding, circumscision) appeared in polygamous societies.

As for cultural variations, Kaplan et al. have a very good summary of the litterature.

"Rigtheous" women and "promiscuous" men
Radu Umbres   21 February 2012 at 23:10

I agree with Nicolas that "committed" women are often upholding patriarchical ideologies and this is highly relevant for the phenomenon. And this would support the hypothesis of protecting the "common good" with mutual benefits for participating women and men.

However, this still leaves us with a problem: why are promiscuous men NOT a target of ostracism? After all, they are free-riders and should be warned/punished to keep them in line with everyone else. Among Romanian peasants and Roma I know something about, the rules of modesty that apply for women don't apply to men in the same manner or degree. Moreover, men are sometimes allowed or even encouraged to display sexual prowess (although not towards the spouses of consociates).

So, why only women? Of course, it is less costly to control just one end of the problem (only women or only men). The same result with half the effort. But this is clearly insufficient to explain why the coordinated effort a la Schelling aims solely at women.

Another problem is that symbolic and physical violence is also aimed at women who do not belong to one's group (of potential spouses/sisters/daughters) The ultra-orthodox Haredi mount demonstrations against the lack of modesty of obviously secular women passing through their neighbourhoods (whom they would never marry anyway). In other cases as well, people react negatively to women dressed or acting immodestly who belong to other ethnic groups/classes, etc who are not part of the pool of potential mates. What is the reason for punishing someone who is clearly not part of the same social contract as you are?

As Konrad mentioned, one explanation could be that the proximate explanation involves emotions such as disgust in face of actions deemed "dirty" or "polluting" (taking a cue from Mary Douglas and Jonathan Haidt). The emotional response could have indeed appeared in a game-like setting of controlling ingroup sexuality, yet now overspills into new situations. That is, the individual responds emotionally to "promiscuity", although it matters little or not at all in the current "market" of sexual reproduction.

To sum up, the common good hypothesis goes half-way in explaining the control of overt sexuality, with emotional responses as a proximate mechanism. But the problem remains: why are men not the target?

Women are not allowed by social group to own their bodies
José-Luis Guijarro   22 February 2012 at 21:03

Maybe I am being banal, but as some feminist say, the problem here, it seems to me, is the social idea that reproduction is too important to accord reproductive individuals the possession of their bodies. I am talking about biological (i.e., giving birth) and social (transmitting social values) reproductive processes. The whole Social Group, it is felt, should be in charge of this important feature, and so individual women are not allowed to have full possession of their bodies. It is the group (normally a patriarchally organised group) the owner of those bodies, and so, those that consider themselves spokemen of the group are allowed to impose their ideas on the way these bodies should be hidden or manifested. Thus, when a host of political problems are threatening a given group, as it happens now in some Arab countries, one of the leaders finds it natural to say that their revolution will not allow women in bikinis in their beaches --as if that was indeed a main issue!

But we don't have to go to the Arab countries to find signs of that social trend. Do you believe that many men in our societies would understand that a woman decides freely to have a termination if it so happens that he (I mean, HE) is willing to have and take care of that offspring? This will probably seem outrageous to even the most feminist minded male of the most so-called open society ...

After all, the body of that woman is not totally hers, and he (I mean, HE) has also the right to decide to have a kid and overrule the woman's own free decision to shut her body to that experience.

Emotions as regulators of social behavior
Kovács András Bálint   24 February 2012 at 18:17

Since there is a large variety of social reactions to female body display, the explanation of the most excessive reactions described in the question must cover all other versions too. The explanation of the ultra-orthodox or islam extremists’ response to this must be valid for any liberal society in Europe or for an archaic society in Africa.

Why anger?

 Emotions have a function in regulating social behavior. Behavioral rules that are regarded as important for a community’s cohesion but that are not as important as to be enforced by alienated power (i.e. the police, justice, IRS etc.) are relatively hard to enforce. They are interiorized by education (what is decent and what is not), and enforced by emotional response: disgust, withdrawal of love, ridicule, anger. The stronger those rules the stronger the emotial response. This is valid for all domains of rules considered „moral”. Sexual behavior, especially female sexual behavior is one of the most relgulated in a society. Display of the female body is considered part of sexual behavior. Because the female body is considered as an asset of social reproduction (in some societies it is considered as a value exchangeable for other goods), its display is a sign of sexual access. (regardless of monogamy or patriarchy). In some cultures nakedness is not a sexual signal to access at all, in others there is a limit to which public uncovering of female body parts is not a sexual signal, (consider the difference of female clothing for different age groups in European societies) in yet others the slightest public display is already a sexual signal to access. 

Why men with third party mates (or non-mates)?

In most societies men are in control of the public sphere, they have the right and responsibility to control what happens there. Their anger at the view of a naked female body part is the result their social „rights” and „duties” to control the public sphere regardless of their personal relations to the trespasser. The more women are excluded from controlling the public sphere the more they are controlled by men in public spaces. 

In sum, these men are enforcing by their anger a public and social behavior of signalization of sexual access. All societies do that to different extents, emotions are always involved when this is the issue ( the intensity of emotions in this case can also be explained by the fact that male sexual arousal has to be prevented here). You can see the same angry reactions in some countries to the gay pride parade. Jewish or Islamist extemists are not essentially different from anybody else in this, they are just: extremists.

Not fairness, not mutual interest ... cognitive dissonance maybe
Christophe Heintz   7 March 2012 at 10:19


Nicolas: I do not understand why attacking a woman because of her clothes is fair. It does not look fair to me at all, I must admit, and I don’t see what are the payoffs that would make it fair to anybody. If a woman display any sign of immodesty, which, let us sau, is interpreted as sexual availability, what cost is she imposing on anyone ? She might not even be married! 

With women “immodesty,” we are not in the case where someone passes us in the line, as Nicholas suggests. We are in the case where someone offers us to go before her in the line! If a woman is indeed signaling promiscuity with her "immodesty" behaviour or clothing, then she offers to males the possibility to reproduce without paying with parental investment.

Radu is right to emphasize that women are punished for being promiscuous while men are praised for that. If fairness was at work, promiscuous men should be punished for free riding rather than the women; the women, anyway, always pay a cost for giving birth and rearing their children. Why is it so unfair?

I think that Pascal’s question should be understood as contrastive: why do women get punished because of “immodesty,” rather than men because of promiscuity? 

Men’s interests?

Olivier: I do not understand why any man would have an interest in requiring women’s “modesty.” What’s in it for a man when he requires women *other than his own partner* to hide her sexual availability and reproductive potential? We are not dealing with men's jealousy, here.

If women’s modesty is indeed a public good, then there should be a tragedy of the commons. (I don’t see how it could be a case of mutualism: each man gains in having sexual access to many women). Moreover, if men were somewhat to regulate the public good ( = women as means of reproduction) then the regulation should involve punishing those who overuse the good, not the good itself: the promiscuous men, not the women!

I do not see why insulting a woman who might advertise sexual availability rather than courting her is in any way an adaptive behaviour. If her behaviour is interpreted as promiscuity, then it means that reproduction without parental investment might be possible: but the person who will pay the cost is the woman, if she indeed agrees to have sex without requiring guarantees of paternal investment.

Cognitive dissonance

Characterizing norms enforcing women’s modesty as “collective mate guarding” might be misleading, for it is not the women mate that are guarded against promiscuous men, it is the women mate that are prevented from signalling availability.

Maybe an explanation is to be sought in the adaptive bias that men have to over-perceive women’s sexual intent.

C.f. Haselton and Buss (2000) Error Management Theory: A New Perspective on Biases in Cross-Sex Mind Reading.

This over-perception might have frustration as a side effect. There is a cognitive dissonance between the number of perceived calls for mating and real occasions to mate. This cognitive dissonance is reduced by any norms that assumes that all women are just bitches.

Hence, the awfully unfair norm meant to control women’s “modesty,” the non-adaptive behaviour that consists in enforcing and maintaining this norm, might result from a desire from men to reduce cognitive dissonance. 

Pascal Boyer

City: St. Louis, Missouri, USA
Country: USA
About me:

Evolutionary Psychology, Functions of memory, Anxiety and Threat-Detection Systems, Cognitive Development

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