Case Studies of Conservatism as Male Sexual Control - The Politics of Sexual Control

Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019

Case Studies of Conservatism as Male Sexual Control
The Politics of Sexual Control

The Islamic World

Political conservatism is measurably most concentrated among Islamic nations. In the most comprehensive study into this phenomenon, American political scientist Ronald Inglehart used an enormous World Values Survey dataset (with a 114,800 average sample size per question) to examine the cultures of citizens from eighty-two countries.10 Inglehart organized responses into two continuous orientations. He termed the first the traditional—secular/rational continuum. Here the traditional orientation reflects an emphasis on “religion, family and child-bearing, national pride and respect for authority, and rejection of abortion and divorce,” and the secular/rational orientation largely the opposite values. He termed the second continuum survival—self-expression, and writes, “Self-expression values gives high priority to environmental protection, tolerance of diversity, and rising demands for participation in decision making in economic and political life,” with survival being largely the opposite. What emerged from Inglehart's study is that countries from Islamic traditions—for example, Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, among others (along with a smattering of Christian-majority nations like Zimbabwe and Uganda)—were far overrepresented among nations scoring highest on the traditional and survival continua, signaling national pride, respect for authority, emphasis on religion, low tolerance of diversity, few environmental protections, rejection of abortion and divorce, and other hallmarks of politically conservative ideologies.

With such values at the prow, authoritarian regimes flourish in Muslim-majority countries. Political scientist Steven Fish studied data from 157 countries worldwide to identify factors that predict democracy or authoritarianism.11 Among those nations, the most robust predictor of authoritarianism was having a predominantly Muslim population. This trend was seen across languages, ethnicities, and geographic regions, in the forty-seven countries worldwide that predominantly follow Islam; only a few could be classified as democracies. Among the Arabic-speaking countries, which make up one-third of all Islamic-tradition nations, none were democracies. Authoritarianism was even pervasive among OPEC members, oil-rich countries, and this suggests that the lack of democracies among Islamic nations is not dependent on wealth, as is sometimes argued. Fish surmises that the wealth produced by oil “may enable the state to sustain a large and powerful internal security apparatus capable of repressing challengers.” Fish's speculation is consistent with the winner-take-all mentality of male mate competition.

How do we understand this connection? Before anything else, by avoiding logical fallacies. There are those on the Left who may erroneously frame any inquiry into Islamic culture as racism. However, suffice it to say that Islam is not a race. Islam is a religion practiced across every race around the globe. Indeed, Islam's most useful framing here is as a political system, which is true of all religions, particularly those in nations where church and state are not vigilantly kept separate. On the other end of the political spectrum, some on the Right may be tempted to presume moral difference or moral inferiority of Muslims. This too is an error in thinking.

Avoiding either of these fallacies, we can see that authoritarianism is a product of our male-gendered psychology, forged through the pressures of male mate competition. Returning to our initial question, we may ask, “Do societies with the greatest conservatism also show the greatest cuckoldry concerns?” To answer, we may start by considering gender equality. Here we must acknowledge that there is no nation on the planet in which gender inequality means men having less power than women. Seen through the lens of evolutionary science, gender inequality is about controlling female sexuality and thereby protecting male reproductive interests.

The World Economic Forum annually publishes a massive, 144-country survey called the Global Gender Gap Report. The report ranks nations on measures of gender equality across four main domains: economic income and opportunity, educational attainment, health factors such as life expectancy, and political empowerment. In 2016, twelve of the fifteen worst-ranked nations on this list were from the Middle East, and all were Islamic-majority countries, with the sole exception of Ivory Coast, where Christians narrowly outnumber Muslims for the majority religion (by 44 percent to 38 percent respectively).12 The fifteen worst in ascending order were Yemen, Pakistan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Chad, Iran, Mali, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Lebanon, Jordan, Oman, Egypt, Bahrain, and Turkey. In each of these countries, gender inequality is accompanied by government-endorsed control of female sexuality, enforced by a variety of strategies that serve a clear mate-guarding function, ensuring females are always under the watchful eye of a dominant male, and that their interactions with outside males are highly constricted.

Yemen, worst on the global list for gender inequality, provides some examples. Yemeni women who escape their home to marry the man of their choice may be charged with adultery or “shameful acts,” punishable by one hundred lashes. Article 40 in Yemen's constitution mandates that a wife may not leave her residence without her husband's permission (the article also stipulates that she must fulfill his sexual desires). Yemen also has laws designed to dissuade women from straying to the rival tribe. Yemeni women who marry foreign citizens are not allowed to pass on their citizenship to their children, whereas no such restriction exists for men.13

The strategies legislated in Yemen are prevalent throughout the Middle East. In Saudi Arabia, for example, it was illegal for women to drive until 2017, and a woman still requires permission from her male guardian to travel, study, or work. Saudis have also managed to harness modern technology to assist that primal endeavor to mate guard; when a woman attempts to travel outside the country, her male guardian is sent a text message.14 Moreover, voicing dissent from these evolutionary arrangements is often summarily punished. When men have made public calls for an end to male guardianship in Saudi Arabia, they have been arrested and given prison sentences.15

Another classic strategy for mate guarding has involved concealing women's sexuality from other men. Historically, in some places, the women of high-status men were hidden behind the fortressed walls of harems. Today women in many Muslim nations remain hidden behind clothing, which can range from the headscarf hijab to the most extreme form of covering, the burka, which conceals every inch of skin and hair, and some even cloaking the eyes. While often framed as a means to protect women, concealing women from competitor males—primed as they are to detect visual signs of sexual fertility—functions as a highly efficient form of mate guarding. And in many Muslim-majority societies, women risk beatings, prosecution, or even being attacked with acid if they are caught without appropriate covering.16 It would seem that such violent enforcement does little to provide “protection,” and that the more basic function of concealment is to deter cuckoldry.

At its most literal, sexual control in many Middle Eastern countries includes men having legal rights over their wives’ reproductive organs. Yemeni law, for example, stipulates that women must obtain permission from their husbands for any kind of medical procedure involving the uterus (including a hysterectomy, or a C-section) or for access to contraceptives; this level of control is endemic across the Middle East.17

Lastly, in some Islamic nations, conservative interpretations of Sharia law prescribe punishing straying females and form the basis for so-called honor killings, which almost always concern female sexual control. Honor killings most often occur as a result of extramarital affairs, premarital loss of virginity, refusing an arranged marriage, speaking to a male nonrelative, or even getting raped.18

Notably, in most of the nations in which gender equality is lowest, Islam provides the principal religious, cultural, and political framework. Islamic doctrine and tradition have frequently been used as a rationale for female sexual control. As one example among many, the Koran plainly states,

Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those from whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is high, supreme.19

These findings raise important questions regarding the relationship between culture, religion, and human reproductive strategy. The stakes become very clear when we observe that male-centric and conservative Islamic-majority societies have unusually high male populations. According to the United Nations, in 2015 twelve of the top twenty largest male-to-female sex ratios occur in Islamic nations, and eight of the top ten are Islamic.20 In descending order those countries are Qatar (3.066:1), United Arab Emirates (2.722:1), Oman (1.844:1), Bahrain (1.613:1), Kuwait (1.35:1), Saudi Arabia (1.309:1), Maldives (1.302:1), Equatorial Guinea (1.23:1), Bhutan (1.13:1), and Western Sahara (1.105:1). According to the Population Reference Bureau, a nonprofit specializing in world health and environmental data, male-biased sex ratios reflect “various forms of lifelong discrimination against girls and women—particularly inferior nutrition and health care early in life and during childbearing years,” as well as “sex-selective abortions or infanticide.”21

One thing that zoology teaches us is that skewed sex ratios intensify mate competition. Research on a large variety of nonhuman animals finds that when sex ratios are biased, mate guarding increases to contend with the surplus of rivals.22 In other words, cross-species observations predict exactly the correlation we see emerging between male-biased sex ratios and mate guarding, variously expressed by low standards for gender equality and specific practices from veiling to male guardianship to honor killings.

Now, here it is important to acknowledge that Muslim countries are not the only nations with religions or laws that codify male dominance, and that the ultimate cause of male mate competition is not religion or culture or politics—it is the evolved minds of men who express their evolutionary imperatives in the religions, cultures, and political doctrines that they craft. That being said, religions and cultures can codify male privilege to a greater or lesser extent, and there is little question that the doctrines of Islam—coupled with poor separation between church and state in Muslim nations—work in concert with the evolved psychology of men to create the nadirs of sexual control we are exploring here.23

Moreover, when we understand male mate competition, the reasons for political stances in Islamic nations become clearer. Research across Middle Eastern nations, for example, finds that most Middle Easterners agree that democracy is valuable but disagree with Western approaches to women's rights and women's education. For instance, a World Values Survey study by Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris found that Westerners and Middle Easterners consistently agree on statements assessing how well democracies perform as forms of government, and on the value of democratic ideals, e.g., “Democracy may have problems, but it's better than any other form of government.”24 However, the two groups diverged markedly on a scale assessing the value of gender equality, e.g., “A woman has to have children in order to be fulfilled,” and “A university education is more important for a boy than a girl.” The findings led the researchers to conclude that “the values separating the two cultures have much more to do with eros than demos.”

To summarize, nations that are the most politically conservative and authoritarian score lowest on gender quality and are most likely to legislate male mate competition strategies, such as mate-guarding, to include physical punishment or execution for straying females. This is accomplished by intermeshing secular and religious laws that reflect the dictates of dominant male figures, variously represented in the patriarchal family, in a political hierarchy, and in religious structures, including an authoritarian male god.


While the more ardent American tribalists see themselves as the religious or moral antithesis of their counterparts in the Middle East, and despite the fact that to many the United States is considered the pinnacle of the free world, the great nation is not first on the 144-country Global Gender Gap Report list. Nor is it the twentieth or the thirtieth. Compared to other countries on measures of things like wage equality, literacy rate, women's labor force participation, or the ratio of women in ministerial positions, the United States scores lower than forty-four other nations.25 With men in charge, it is perhaps not surprising that we find female sexual control to be a focal concern of conservative politics in America as well. Nor is it surprising that such control is tied to fears of cuckoldry.

There are many ways men work female sexual control into law, such as by allowing the murder of unfaithful wives, as we saw above. Another is the historic fight against birth control, which has been spearheaded by conservative men. Tellingly, male worry over birth control has often been framed as a path to women's sexual freedom and the potential for cuckoldry. While it is true that by mitigating the risk of unintended pregnancy, birth control removes a potential disincentive to intercourse, ironically contraception would prevent actual cuckoldry in the biological sense, where an extramarital affair results in a man raising another man's child. However, primate males’ evolved concern over cuckoldry long predates any form of contraception. Thus male brains remain exquisitely primed for sexual jealousy,26 which makes even non-procreative adultery emotionally threatening.

During the Victorian age, sexual repression in America hit its historical climax. Anthony Comstock, a US postal inspector on a personal crusade against what he regarded as sexual indecency, was a key figure in setting the cultural and legal standard of sexual control during that period. In 1873, Comstock managed to persuade the US Congress to pass a federal statute (the Comstock Law) that criminalized the distribution or even possession of sexually oriented paraphernalia, everything from sex toys to sexually explicit fiction. These laws extended to medical literature on abortion or contraception, which were regarded as sexually obscene. During this era, those caught selling or even possessing contraceptives were fined, given prison terms, or assigned hard labor. Many states followed with “little Comstock laws” that outlawed giving away contraception or even verbally passing on information about birth control. Connecticut even made using contraceptives illegal. While men too were targets of these laws of repression, restricting women's sexuality was a central concern, just as we see in Sharia law. American constitutional law scholar Geoffrey Stone explains:

[The prevailing question was] “If women and men need no longer fear pregnancy as an outcome of sexual intercourse, what would keep wives faithful and daughters chaste?” As women gained control over their own reproductive destinies, the seemingly pernicious thought began to creep into the public consciousness that even for women, sex could be separated from reproduction and that freedom from pregnancy could unleash women's biblical lasciviousness.27

During this era, men often voiced the fear that contraceptives would lead to adultery—sex outside the marital contract that gave men ownership of their wives’ reproductive capacity, and a potential route to cuckoldry. Comstock argued that contraceptives could reduce venereal disease or unwanted pregnancy, thus removing potential negative consequences preventing premarital or extramarital sex.28 In 1917, women's reproductive right activist Ethel Byrne (sister of Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood) was arrested for distributing birth control to women at her and her sister's Brooklyn clinic. At Byrne's trial her lawyer argued that prohibiting women access to contraception deprived them the pleasures of sex without the fear of pregnancy, and was therefore unconstitutional, violating the clause guaranteeing “free exercise of conscience and the pursuit of happiness.” The judge ridiculed the argument, insisting that the fear of pregnancy is an important obstacle to fornication, and gave Byrne thirty days in Blackwell Island Prison.29

Comstock laws endured well into the 1960s. Astonishingly, it was not until 1965 that the Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the government to prevent married couples from using birth control, and 1972 when the Court extended this protection to non-married couples. Even then there were fears about turning reproductive control over to women. Of the birth control pill, a 1966 headline of a U.S. News & World Report cover story asked, “Is the Pill regarded as a license for promiscuity? Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy?”30

While attitudes about women's sexual freedom, including access to birth control, have progressed since the Victorian age in recent decades, cuckoldry was an important selective force shaping male jealousy across our ancestral history. That legacy continues to be expressed as resistance to birth control. Given the connection between conservatism and mate competition, it follows that we find anti-contraception attitudes most strongly expressed by modern-day conservatives. In the United States, this resistance takes several forms: insisting on abstinence-only sex education in schools; blocking access to certain contraceptives, such as the “morning-after pill”; fighting the mandate that insurance companies cover birth control; and fighting to shut down reproductive health clinics across the nation. There are other reasons for this resistance, as I discuss below, but sexual control of women is a prominent one.

Republican (male) legislators have taken the trouble to explain this connection. Former Pennsylvania Republican senator Rick Santorum, for example, has lectured on the “dangers of contraception,” saying, “Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that's okay, contraception is okay. It's not okay. It's a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”31 Others have blatantly described the availability of contraception as a threat to male dominance. Former Florida Republican congressman Allen West argued that reproductive health clinics castrate men and make them subservient to women: “These Planned Parenthood women, the Code Pink women, and all of these women that have been neutering American men and bringing us to the point of this incredible weakness—[we need] to let them know that we are not going to have our men become subservient.”32 Birth control has in some instances become a symbol of the terrible perils of modern society, as when former Republican House majority leader Tom DeLay linked birth control (and evolutionary science) to the Columbine High School massacre: “Guns have little or nothing to do with juvenile violence. The causes of youth violence are…the teaching of evolution in the schools, and working mothers who take birth control pills.”33

It should be obvious that the pill doesn't cause mass shootings, but that such a link would be proffered betrays (certain) men's reproductive urgency to scare women away from sexual independence. Moreover, conservatives have shown their willingness to legislate punishment for sexual freedom. Reminiscent of the sentiments of Anthony Comstock over a century earlier, in 2009 Colorado Republican state senator Dave Schultheis insisted that he would block a bill requiring HIV tests for pregnant women because the disease “stems from sexual promiscuity” and that the legislature shouldn't “remove the negative consequences of poor behavior, unacceptable behavior.”34

The divide on contraception is seen between liberals and conservatives in expected ways. For example, a 2012 Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about whether insurance companies should be given a religious exemption to a mandate requiring that they provide birth control. Among those surveyed, 73 percent of Republicans said that insurance companies should be given an exemption, compared to 29 percent of Democrats.35

In the religious justifications given for this opposition, we can see the ancient male primate concern over sexual control. For instance, R. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and also a highly influential Evangelical theologian, wrote,

[The birth control pill] became almost an assured form of contraception, something humans had never encountered before in history. Prior to it, every time a couple had sex, there was a good chance of pregnancy. Once that is removed, the entire horizon of the sexual act changes. I think there could be no question that the pill gave incredible license to everything from adultery and affairs to premarital sex and within marriage to a separation of the sex act and procreation.36

As with Islam, in considering religiously motivated opposition to birth control in America, we cannot ignore how loudly man's sexual control of women is prescribed in scripture: “Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”37 This privilege is handed down to men, who are God's male proxies on Earth, e.g., “He [man] is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man…. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.”38 Or, more to the point, “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.”39 The emphasis on female sexual control is more subtly, but perhaps most profoundly expressed through the foundational story of the Abrahamic religions, which holds the woman, Eve, responsible for the expulsion from paradise and for bringing suffering and death to all people thereafter. How did Eve sin? By eating the forbidden fruit—an allegory for sexual freedom that hasn't escaped much of anyone.