Sex, Power, and Partisanship: How Evolutionary Science Makes Sense of Our Political Divide - Hector A. Garcia 2019
Why All Women Aren't Democrats
Women, Sex, and Politics
Despite the fact that women tend to lean liberal,30 clearly not all women are liberal—there are many millions of politically conservative women in the world today. While various factors influence conservatism among women, our evolved reproductive psychology lies at the heart of them. Across history, infectious disease has posed one of the greatest threats to child survival and, therefore, to successful transmission of genes to the next generation. The fight against microorganisms itself plays a role in women's mate selection.
Testosterone, which drives both dominance behaviors and the formation of masculine features, is also an immunosuppressant.31 High testosterone, then, can signal not only physical prowess but also resistance to disease, another crucial marker of genetic fitness.32 In other words, if you're able to maintain high levels of testosterone, your immune system has to be strong enough to fight off diseases even while hampered by excess testosterone. This strong immune system is a desirable trait for potential offspring. Research has found that germ resistance is something humans subconsciously look for in mates. For example, American psychologists Steven Gangestad and David Buss examined mate preference among men and women in twenty-nine cultures around the world.33 They found that a higher prevalence of pathogens predicted greater emphasis on mates who were physically attractive, which suggests physical health. Tellingly, in another study Gangestad also found pathogen prevalence was negatively correlated with women's desire for attributes associated with greater parental investment: “dependable character,” “pleasing disposition,” “emotional stability and maturity,” and “desire for home and children”—all characteristic of empathic, “feminine,” lower-testosterone, liberal men, as we have been discussing.34 This suggests that in high-pathogen environments, women may trade off parental investment for fit genes. A similar study of 186 societies found that higher-pathogen prevalence is associated with greater polygyny.35 Researchers have argued this is evidence of women trading off exclusive parental investment for disease-resistant offspring.36 Perhaps not surprising then, we see more polygyny practiced in the world's most male-oriented, most politically conservative societies. Finally, one large worldwide study (4,794 women across thirty countries) found that in nations with poorer health, as measured by various indices including death from communicable diseases, women preferred men with more masculine faces.37 Microbes may be tiny, but their moral, sexual, and political influence is not.
Let's pause for a moment to briefly summarize the complex interplay between germs and our reproductive and political psychologies. As we discussed in chapter 2, germy environments drive conservatism—conservatives tend to be more germophobic and fearful of potential human vectors of disease. The further we move from high-pathogen environments, the more people show personality traits associated with political liberalism, such as sexual openness among women. Germ-ridden environments also can drive women's attraction to high-testosterone males. But seeking a high-testosterone mate comes at a cost: higher testosterone is also associated with lower parenting effort and higher likelihood of having multiple partners (including through polygyny), meaning that women in high-pathogen environments may exchange a degree of male investment for disease-resistant children. Women may also exert more sexual restraint in high-pathogen environments to avoid disease. Germs, in other words, fuel conservatism in women by multiple pathways—encouraging choice of higher-testosterone mates, giving disease-resistant males greater advantage in the mating market, and also by increasing monogamous sexual behavior.
Women and Their Male Alliances
Another font of women's conservatism is female mate competition. Women are increasingly bringing financial capital to the mating exchange. But women also bring genes, and fertility, including the physical attributes required to endure the high risks of pregnancy and childbirth. For most of our history, the most reliable route to assessing these assets in women has been physical appearance, which explains the relatively high value men place on good looks.38 The fact that women use their beauty to compete for mates is uncontroversial. However, what is less known is that beauty among women often translates to political conservatism. Does this mean all conservative women are gorgeous or that all liberal women are not? Certainly not. But beauty and conservatism are linked nonetheless, and by competition.
In one study, researchers measured sex-typical features among congresswomen in the 111th US House of Representatives.39 The researchers found that Republican congresswomen had far more feminine faces than Democratic counterparts—what became known as the Michele Bachman effect, after the attractive and feminine former Republican representative from Minnesota.40 In addition, the researchers also discovered that the more feminine the congresswoman's face, the more conservative her voting record. Remarkably, the researchers also found that among faces that were previously rated as highly masculine or highly feminine, undergrads could guess congresswomen's political affiliation with high accuracy.
But what do we make of these findings? Why would feminine, attractive congresswomen be more conservative—or, conversely, why would women with masculine faces affiliate with liberal parties or support liberal policies? Research consistently finds that people belonging to ethnic or racial groups that hold more power, or those in higher socioeconomic classes, tend to endorse more favorable views of social inequality.41 The idea is that if you have an advantage, you are inclined to support the conditions that help you maintain it. Research even finds that this effect can be experimentally manipulated—when subjects are assigned to a hypothetical economically advantaged group, they endorse higher social dominance orientation (SDO).42
Just as belonging to a privileged ethnic group or economic class can provide a competitive advantage, so can good looks. Research finds, for example, that “beautiful” men and women get hired faster, move up in the corporate ranks more, and make more money.43 And so, as with money or power, people will use beauty to their advantage in competition. This sort of nature-driven opportunism translates into politically conservative ideology, which is generally positioned against redistribution and in preserving high rank status. Conversely, if you have fewer assets—whether power, social class, money, or beauty—you are more likely to support redistribution, share resources, and reject group-based hierarchies.44
In another study, subjects rated the attractiveness of both male and female politicians in Australia, the European Union, Finland, and the United States. Across this wide breadth of political cultures, politicians on the Right were rated as significantly more attractive than those on the Left.45 This study also found that when information is limited, voters use beauty as a cue for candidates’ political ideology and that voters will infer that more beautiful candidates fall more to the Right. In other words, we seem to know, instinctively, that beauty means conservatism, which may translate to “social dominance.”
Indeed, one study found that both men and women who rate themselves as more attractive tend to score higher on SDO.46 This relationship was also found when self-perceived beauty was manipulated. The researchers primed subjects’ perception of their own attractiveness by having them write an essay recalling a time when they felt attractive or a time when they felt unattractive. Subjects primed to feel attractive were more likely to feel that they had more power, higher social class, and greater status, and they scored higher on SDO. In addition, these manipulations appeared to impact one's attitudes about economic inequality; subjects primed to feel attractive were more likely to claim dispositional reasons for inequality, such as “ability and skills,” “money management,” “hard work,” “ambition,” “talent,” and “effort,” whereas those primed to feel less attractive tended to claim contextual reasons, such as “economic policy,” “prejudice and discrimination,” “political influence,” and “inheritance.” Moreover, the researchers found that those primed to see themselves as more beautiful were less likely to donate to a hypothetical social equality movement.
So women's good looks translate to better-paying jobs, which may induce support for conservative policies that allow women to maintain their hierarchical advantage. But women's route to higher socioeconomic status doesn't always come by way of the job market—it may also come from wealthy men. Unequal pay for women, discrimination in the workplace, the absence of social services such as paid maternity leave or childcare, and the time and energy demands of child-rearing all may contribute to women choosing wealthy men as a route to acquiring resources. In such circumstances, rather than supporting liberal policies that benefit women, women may be inclined to support policies that benefit their husbands. Indeed, longitudinal research has found that after women get married, they tend to develop more socially conservative attitudes.47 Marriage may lead to different voting habits as well, with married women tending to vote conservative more often than unmarried women.48
In many cases around the world, married women are influenced or coerced into adopting their husbands’ conservative political views. But this is not the whole story. Research has found that married women tend to see their fate as less linked to that of other women, asking them questions such as, “Do you think that what happens generally to women in this country will have something to do with what happens in your life?”49 In the words of our competitive biology, when women form alliances with men in the context of marriage, the politics they espouse may shift toward those based on male alliances (i.e., conservatism), sometimes at the expense of single women, who may have a greater incentive to lobby for resource redistribution. Once again, attractiveness connotes good genes, which have bargaining power.
But the demands of child-rearing, disease, and female mate competition have not been the only pressures shaping the political psychology of women. Women have also had to contend with male violence. Men have developed groupish, hierarchy-favoring, authoritarian psychologies in order to contend with the tyranny of outside males—men who would gladly kill them and sexually enchain their wives and daughters. But the same psychologies also evolved to perpetrate such tyrannies. The resulting cycles of war and oppression have in turn shaped the political psychology of women. In many ways, women's political psychology reflects efforts to survive the maelstrom that male competition has always been.
Sexy Sons: How Women Can Love a Despot
Donald Trump has had a complex relationship with women, and one that has left mouths agape across the political spectrum. In January 2017, millions of women in the United States marched in the streets to protest Trump's election, fearing he and the Republican-led Congress posed a credible threat to reproductive, civil, and human rights. Millions of women around the globe joined the march in solidarity. Throughout the campaign that preceded his election, Trump's history with women was also a bone of contention. Adding to the groping, and trying to bed married women, in a 1991 interview with Esquire magazine, Trump said of the media, “You know, it doesn't really matter what [the media] write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” In an interview with New York Magazine, Trump said of women, “You have to treat them like shit!”50
Trump's ownership of the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants also drew scrutiny. For instance, in a radio interview with Howard Stern, Trump bragged that he used his high status to gain entrance to contestant dressing rooms while they were naked: “You know they're standing there with no clothes. Is everybody OK? And you see these incredible looking women. And so I sort of get away with things like that.”51
One of the contestants, Tasha Dixon, who was eighteen years old at the time, complained that Trump's employees pressured the girls to “fawn over him, go walk up to him, talk to him, get his attention” before fully dressing. Dixon told CBS that she believed Trump owned the pageant for so long (nineteen years) because he could “utilize his power around beautiful women” and that there was no one above him to make him stop.52 Alicia Machado, the Miss Universe 1996 pageant winner, complained that Trump continually demeaned her about her ethnicity and weight, calling her “Miss Housekeeping” and “Miss Piggy.” Twenty years later during the 2016 campaign, Machado said, “This man behaved like a tyrant when I was Miss Universe and has behaved like a potential despot during this campaign.”53
There have been far different reactions to Trump. For one, he won 42 percent of the women's vote,54 and for many women Trump had a mesmerizing draw. As one example, before the 2016 election, an NBC reporter interviewed two women at a Trump rally in Novi, Michigan, both wearing pink T-shirts reading, “Trumpette.” The reporter asked the Trumpettes to weigh in on Trump's history with Machado. One replied, “It doesn't matter. She got overweight. It's true. He wasn't lying.” The other woman added, “So we finally have this god who's going to come down and help us all.” Seeming incredulous, the reporter replied, “You just referred to Trump as a god.” Smiling, she responded, “Yes, he is. Well, like she just said, ’Jesus, then Trump.’”55 How can some women see men like Trump as despots while others see them as gods? Once again the answer may lie in our genes.
In 1930, British biologist Ronald Fisher realized that, across the animal kingdom, females choose mates whose genes would produce male offspring with the greatest potential for reproductive success, sons who in turn would deliver the most copies of her genes into the gene pool (for all the reasons we've discussed, male offspring have an exponentially larger potential to disperse genes than female offspring).56 This became known as the sexy son hypothesis. A common example is the male peacock, which drags a weighty, enormous, but brilliantly iridescent tail plume behind him. The ability to maintain such a costly display signifies good health, which peahens prefer. If the peahen chooses the male with the most impressive plume, she is more likely to have impressively plumaged, sexy sons. Her future sons are more likely to be successful in mate competition, attracting peahens with their sexy tails and passing on her genes in turn.
“Sexy sons” provide a fitness advantage to female humans as well. This advantage may explain the seeming paradox of how some women may deify Trump, despite his unsavory track record with women. First, mate competition requires dispensing with rivals. Research has found that during the most fertile phases of their menstrual cycles, women tend to prefer men displaying competitive behaviors, such as derogating their rivals.57 Recall that Trump called his competitors, variously, “pussy,” “little Marco,” and “weak” on live television.58 Also during the fertile phase, women rate the odors of men scoring high on measures of social dominance as more arousing and more masculine.59 Research also finds that women who rate their partners as being dominant have more frequent and sooner orgasms,60 a pattern associated with greater sperm retention,61 which may suggest a similar sort of “alpha son” effect in which domineering men would on average produce more competitive male offspring. In this light, Trump's braggadocio, while repellent to many women, may suggest future fitness in male mate competition.
Because successful male mate competitions involve acquiring females, for some women Trump's womanizing may also be viewed as a sign of fitness. Mate copying is a widely observed pattern among nonhuman animals in which females prefer males who have previously mated, and reject males that other females have rejected.62 Research has consistently found similar patterns among humans,63 with mate copying more pronounced in women.64 Studies also show that women rate photographs of men who are surrounded by women as more attractive than photographs of men who are alone,65 and that women's attraction to men increases when they are seen with attractive women.66 And so, Trump's association with models and beauty contestants, his multiple wives, and all his other womanizing behaviors may convey signals of great interest to female reproductive psychology. The brutal truth of nature is that mating with a womanizing man has the potential to produce womanizing sons with a greater capacity to pass on a woman's DNA. Mating with a dud, however, runs the risk of producing sexually timid, awkward, or otherwise unappealing sons ill-equipped to pass on a woman's genes.
However disturbing it is to ponder, similar evolutionary fitness advantages have been suggested of sexually aggressive men. Female sexual resistance has been examined as a strategy for mate selection among nonhuman species.67 The idea is that males who demonstrate high motivation for sex by pushing past some degree of sexual resistance may have a selective advantage to be passed on to their sons. American psychologist Linda Mealey has put forward the possibility that “male coercive sexuality is actually selected through the process of female choice.” She goes on to propose that whatever traits led to this form of mate choice among women would be passed on to daughters, which would benefit their fitness as well. Continues Mealey,
Evidence that this form of selection might occur in humans rests in the fact that an identifiable minority of women (women labeled “hyperfeminine” based on their scores on personality and sex roles questionnaires) are specifically attracted to “macho” and “sexually coercive men.”
Canadian psychologist Martin Lalumiére further explains how a trait for sexual coerciveness might persist:
Compared with other women, those who preferentially mated with men who exhibited the ability to overcome some degree of female resistance had more offspring, who also had more offspring than other women; and therefore the tendency for women to “test” their potential sexual partners became widespread in the population.
Importantly, Lalumiére goes on to note,
The hypothesis really says little about the subjective feelings of women when doing the testing. Finally, even if this testing sometimes occurs, it remains absolutely appropriate for society to legally and morally proscribe the use of sexual coercion and force by men.
Of course, Lalumiére is correct—even if there were evidence for this kind of mate testing among humans, it would in no way suggest that it is somehow morally acceptable for men to ignore sexual boundaries. But this dynamic could at least partially explain why a man who bragged of grabbing women “by the pussy” without consent, forcing his way into women's dressing rooms, and trying to sleep with married women could garner such a large percentage of women voters.68
By this same dark logic, taken to its fullest extreme, females also stand to gain from mating with infanticidal males, even after those males kill their offspring. The evidence for this conclusion is worth repeating here, if only to show how deeply the psychology of women seems to have been shaped by the selective pressure of violent male mate competition.
Like our chimpanzee cousins, our species’ past was characterized by frequent, savage regime changes, and our female ancestors were pressured to adapt to these changes. Many mammals, numerous monkey species, all the great apes, and humans are all known to commit infanticide. This is almost exclusively a male behavior, and it most commonly occurs during takeovers. As we've already discussed, males stand to gain by killing off potential competitors to their offspring. Killing them sends females into estrus more quickly, and also removes the males’ offspring's potential competitors from the gene pool. This is startling but effective evolutionary logic.
In the 1950s, Hilda Margaret Bruce discovered that pregnant mice will spontaneously abort fetuses upon exposure to outside males.69 The Bruce Effect, as this phenomenon became known, has also been found to occur in other animals, including nonhuman primates, when a new male overthrows the reigning alpha.70 The most common explanation for this effect is that in species where females risk infanticide by usurper males, spontaneous abortion allows females to avoid investing precious time and energy in offspring with a high likelihood of being killed.71
Research has found a significant male birth decline in humans in times of stress, such as periods of economic downturns or collapse, or war.72 More recent male birth declines have allowed researchers to identify causes. For example, there were significant declines in male births across the United States after the 9/11 attacks, and research has tied those declines to an increase in the deaths of male fetuses.73 We humans have a long history in which male children have been killed in human warfare, whereas female children were taken as spoils. Jettisoning male fetuses, then, while costly, is less costly than pouring resources into a male infant likely to be murdered.
The takeaway message is that women's reproductive biology is tied to the vicissitudes of living among violent males. The ugly math of evolution, driven by the violent history of our species, has imparted women with the capacity to, under the right circumstances, opt for womanizing, sexually aggressive, or even infanticidal males. The high and bloody stakes of male competition have forced that preference.
Getting raped comes at fitness cost to women, particularly those made pregnant by rape. Researchers Sandra Petralia and Gordon Gallup have enumerated those costs: “(1) inability to exercise mate choice, (2) lack of provisioning and protection by the father, (3) possible abandonment or punishment by her current mate, and (4) reduced likelihood of attracting future mates.”74
Rape by out-group males appears to have been common enough in our ancestral history that today women's rape fears are linked to fear of outside men. And so another path to women's conservatism may be the same path as for men—xenophobia.
One study by American anthropologist Carlos Navarette and his colleagues presented white women with a scale designed to measure fear of being raped; it included agreement on statements such as, “I am wary of men,” and “I am afraid of being sexually assaulted.”75 The researchers also presented scales measuring race bias and fear of out-group men—e.g., “Black men are dangerous.” The researchers then gave subjects an identical version of the out-group men scale but replaced “black men” with “white men, white women, and black women.” The researchers found that black men were more fear inducing than the other demographic categories, and that fear of being raped uniquely explained fear of black men. Also revealing, one study found that during the fertile phase of their cycles, women showed more unconscious bias against an outside race, rated men from an outside race more frightening than men from the in-group, and rated out-group men as less attractive.76
Another study found that the impulse to avoid out-group rape is so strong that it extends to arbitrary, meaningless group differences. In this study, women who filled out a rape fear questionnaire were randomly assigned to either a red, blue, or yellow group, and wore corresponding colored T-shirts. The researchers then digitally enhanced a photo of an attractive man to include either a red, blue, or yellow border. The women chatted online with confederates posing as the attractive man, who, following a script, asked the women on a date. When fertile, women with high rape fear were less likely to date men from a different-color category. Interestingly, rape fear was positively associated with willingness to date the “in-group” member.77
How can this fear translate into political stances? Ann Coulter, a hardline conservative political commentator, offers one striking example. Coulter has gained a rather notorious reputation for her racially charged comments, as well as her enthusiasm for attacks on the out-group—after 9/11, for example, she suggested, “We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.”78 Coulter also wrote a book about Donald Trump. With a play on the maxim “In God We Trust,” Coulter titled her book In Trump We Trust.79 In an interview, she disclosed that Trump's alpha god status stems from a single issue—his protection from rape by outsiders: “My worship for him is like the people of North Korea worship their Dear Leader—blind loyalty. Once he gave that Mexican rapist speech, I'll walk across glass for him. That's basically it.”80
Coulter's writing suggests high rape fear. In Coulter's earlier book, Adios America: The Left's Plan to Turn America into a Third World Nightmare,81 she argued that “America is just bringing in a lot of rapists.” The book is full of references to “Latin American rape culture” and “the gusto for gang rape, incest and child rape of our main immigrant groups.” She even writes, “The rape of little girls isn't even considered a crime in Latino culture” and “Another few years of our current immigration policies, and we'll all have to move to Canada to escape the rapes.” Sidling next to Trump, in the context of Coulter's rape fears, then, makes sense, since she perceives him as a strong man who can protect her from what she perceives as threats from an out-group.
The impulse to seek the protection of alpha males is old and observable not just in Ann Coulter but also among other female primates. For example, primatologist Frans de Waal reported of chimpanzees that “a female who is feeling threatened may run to the most dominant male and sit down beside him, whereupon the attacker will not dare proceed.”82 Primatologist Barbara Smuts reported female savanna baboons will befriend and offer sex to males who protect them and their offspring.83
It should be no surprise, then, that women tend to be attracted to larger, more physically formidable men, particularly in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle.84 These men would likely be more able to provide protection. Studies have also found that women prefer men with light facial scars,85 which suggests a fighting history, and soldiers, particularly if the soldier had won a medal of honor for bravery in combat, the most brutal form of competition between rival males.86 In this light, Donald Trump's boisterous promise to protect against rape has ancient, emotionally intuitive appeal that may have drawn in xenophobic females.