21 August 2014

Women are not "naturally" submissive

Thousands of years of misogyny has created an internalized narrative of women as inherent victims that we all on some level want to continue to believe, and keeping women weak on purpose helps to keep the illusion alive.

It appears that the potential for physical dominance of men over women has only very small roots in biology, that instead the vast majority of it comes from culture. 
In my last post I showed that, at least in terms of physical differences, male dominance in the modern western world is not something men are forcing onto women, as much as something women are seeking out.

The common explanation for this relies on the assumption that our nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in nuclear families with male "bread-winners" (mastodon-hunters?) and female home-makers.
There is no reason to believe this has ever been true.
The one place anthropologist don't see female selection for height and strength in mates is primitive nomadic societies, which is where we should expect to see it the most, if the popular theory were true.
Across all species, sexual dimorphism in size and strength is inversely proportional to paternal investment.  In other words, in species where males are much larger and stronger than females (much more than the naturally occurring 10% in humans), the males never stick around to help raise young.  In more egalitarian species, where both parents invest in the offspring, the males and females tend to be the exact same size.
Sexual dimorphism in size and strength is not a natural result of a predestined male role as protector and provider.  Those roles are relatively modern cultural ones that likely developed tens of thousands of years more recently than the times of our savannah roaming ancestors.  It is more likely to have developed because of our (small) natural dimorphism than in order to facilitate it.

Or perhaps biology is just a convenient excuse, and female preferences for a partner who is able to physically overpower them may be entirely an extension of the misogynistic cultural dynamic of male dominance in general.

Just as women enforce the physical differences within couples, there is plenty of evidence that it is actually largely women, not men, that enforce male dominance in interpersonal relations as well, at least in modern Western society.

That suggestion is, of course, the polar opposite of most normal thinking on patriarchal society.

For most of recorded history, in most parts of the world, civil society has been male dominated.
Given that, it has always been reasonable to assume that the roles of dominance and submission were enforced by men - since, after all, they had the power to enforce roles.

Rarely has anyone stepped back far enough from that which we've always known to ask how this could have come about in the first place; since women make up half of society, how did men get into power without women's consent?

Prior to the existence of a patriarchal society, men wouldn't have had any power with which to create a patriarchal society.  We generally assume that prehistoric man had the advantage of brute force over prehistoric woman, but as was shown in my last post, almost all of the differences in size and strength between men and women is actually due to behavioral choices, not biology - and in fact those behavioral choices are driven more by female choices than by male ones.

The same thinking has frequently been applied to social dominance as to physical dominance - that the gender bias is somehow a manifestation of, or at least in some way related to, something biological - despite the fact that nothing in the protector-provider / domestic-child rearer model requires men to be socially dominant.

Those who (I believe, rightly) reject that this dynamic is "natural" normally fall back on "patriarchy" to explain it, suggesting it is something which was forced on women by men, in what one can only assume was some sort of massive worldwide conspiracy by all men in the world, tens of thousands of years ago.

In the modern world patriarchal traditions have been eroding for the past century, giving us for the first time a good opportunity to examine closer who is really enforcing the gender roles on the individual level.

Multiple generations of people alive today have grown up in a world where it was totally normal for women to work in pretty much every field of employment.  Even in industries that are mostly male dominated, the occasional woman is not cause for shock.  Its considered normal for women to work as police officers and judges, politicians and business executives.  Women currently earn more advanced degrees even than men do in the US and many other countries in the developed world. Contrary to popular belief, adjusted for working hours and chosen field, there is almost no gender wage gap.
But just as women won the right to wear pants while men never won the right to wear skirts, the changes in acceptable domestic gender roles have been entirely one sided.

It is often assumed that the reason the men in couples almost always earn more money than their partners, even as the wage gap disappears, is because men feel intimidated or threatened by a partner making more than them.  However, when researchers look deeper than anecdote, it turns out men for the most don't care how much their partner makes either way, or are even happy to "marry-up"


Just as short men are willing to date taller women but most women are unwilling to date shorter men, the resistance to allowing men's domestic role to change is apparently almost entirely female driven - most women who have their own careers and sufficient income to support a family insist none-the-less that their husband have similar or greater status and/or income as themselves:
"45% of men declare they are ready to step up to the challenges of being a “househusband,” the partner primarily taking care of home and childcare duties, only one out of three women say they are ready to accept men in that role."http://matchuptodate.wordpress.com/2011/02/04/what-does-the-match-com-2011-survey-tell-us-about-singles-and-money/
"Despite years of equality campaigning and advances for women in the workplace, 64 per cent said they aspire to find a husband who brings home a larger pay packet than they do. None wanted to marry a man who earned less. "
"...professional women prefer to date and marry men whose incomes and job status were equal to theirs or higher, and the farther up the socioeconomic ladder they climb themselves, the higher their standards are."
"If she works in the business or professional world, where income and occupational rank determine status, she usually prefers men who exceed her in these characteristics.  Some authors have predicted that as women gain access to better paying, more prestigious jobs, they will begin to de-emphasize economic criteria and more strongly emphasize physical characteristics in their selection of partners.  This does not seem to be happening.  Studies of marriage patterns indicate the opposite is true: women with more education, occupational status, and earning power tend to raise their socioeconomic standards for partners accordingly
"Eighty-five percent of the women
[medical students] indicated that 'As my status increases, my pool of acceptable partners decreases'
"attitudes toward sex roles...do not correlate with people's actual partner selections.  Women who espouse feminist ideology are just as likely to emphasize socioeconomic criteria in their choice of partners as women with more traditional attitudes"

"...when the journalist Liza Mundy interviewed young women for her forthcoming book on female breadwinners, she found that most wanted a mate they could “look up to” or “admire” — and didn't think they could admire a man who was less educated than they were."
"The more traditional the division of labor, meaning the greater the husband’s share of masculine chores compared with feminine ones, the greater his wife’s reported sexual satisfaction."http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/magazine/does-a-more-equal-marriage-mean-less-sex.html

Actually, that last link is so relevant, it deserves to be front and center, and full-sized:

Of course, (as with every other gross generalization in this post and the last), there are many individual exceptions, but on average it seems that, at least in our culture, women seem to get off on being dominated.  Literally.

“...most of us get turned on at night by the very things that we’ll demonstrate against during the day."
"...many studies show that women often report fantasies, like those involving submission, that tend to be inconsistent with our notion of progressive relationships."

"status, confidence, and competence” (p. 95). Each of these traits contributes to his overall dominance—and such male authority, or ascendance, is what most women appear hard-wired to be susceptible to, as well as willing to submit to. Ogas and Gaddam, observing that studies have repeatedly demonstrated the erotic appeal of alpha dominance to women" http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201205/the-triggers-sexual-desire-part-2-what-s-erotic-women
 "Ogas and Gaddam find substantial evidence from Web searches, posts, and many 1,000s of romance novels that women demonstrate a strong erotic preference for dominant men. Or toward what’s now commonly referred to as alpha males—in the authors’ words, men who are “strong, confident, [and] swaggering.” Unfortunately, what these descriptors often imply is behavior sufficiently bearish, self-centered, and insensitive as to often cross the line into a physical, mental, and emotional abuse that can be downright brutal...  Consciously, most women would like their men to be kind, empathic, understanding, and respectful. But there’s something in their native wiring that makes a great many of them susceptible to “bad boys.” Possibly because, as the authors quote Angela Knight as reflecting (in a sentiment that echoes the conclusions of most evolutionary psychologists): “[Their] inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order” (p.97)."   http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/evolution-the-self/201204/why-do-women-fall-serial-killers

The assumption that our culture's expected dominance and submission roles are innate are so strong that even scientists - those few individuals whose entire job is to be as neutral and objective as possible - start out with the assumption that female submission is a given.

This is best illustrated with an (otherwise excellent) recent comprehensive report on human sexuality by Ogas and Gaddam:
"all of us, along with several other mammal species, appear to possess subcortical circuits for sexual dominance as well as submission. One example that we can probably relate to pertains to female dogs, who sometimes mount other females or (for that matter) legs of humans"

This implies that the act of mounting is itself a "dominant" behavior, instead of just being a "male" behavior.  

"The fact of the matter is that most heterosexual women are wired to find sexual submission arousing--and so are most female mammals.
Consider Rattus norvegicus, the Norwegian rat. The female performs stereotyped physical actions associated with sexual interest. First is pacing: running and stopping, inducing a male to chase her. This culminates in lordosis: assuming a submissive stationary posture with arched back and raised hips. Lordosis is controlled by a specific region of the hypothalamus, a subcortical brain structure. An analogous part of the brain controls submission postures in female primates.
In male rats, another part of the hypothalamus controls stereotyped dominance activity, such as mounting a female and performing intromission."


Here they are using the term "submission" as if it were simply a given that the physical reality of the position that facilitates intercourse is de-facto "submissive"

But the word "submissive" doesn't mean "on the bottom during intercourse".
Someone submissive is someone who submits.

Submit doesn't mean "have sex".
It means giving in to something which you didn't actually want to do.

So, for example, when you give your lunch money to the playground bully, that is submissive behavior.
When you agree to the upgrade you didn't really want because the high-pressure salesman wouldn't let it go, that is submissive behavior.
When the black and white sedan behind you turns on the red and blue lights on its roof and you pull over your car and stop, that is submissive behavior.

Dominance means imposing your will on another person - a person who has their own free will but does what you demand, even though they didn't want to.

In the example above from Ogas, the female rat was the one to initiate the mating dance.
If she was the one to initiate it, that automatically means she is not being submissive.

Simply because of the anatomy of most animals, most intercourse involves a male physically on top of a female.  From that we make assumptions about dominance and submission that implies it is always the male that wants sex, and that he somehow forces the female to agree to it, when she doesn't really want to.

In reality, in most species males are fertile at all times, but females are only fertile in cycles, and mating happens almost exclusively when she is fertile.  In other words, when she wants to.  In other words, it is the female that tends to control when, and if, mating occurs.
In fact, females frequently are the ones to initiate the sex act:


 In the three examples in the videos above the female in each case is very clearly and unambiguously the initiator of mating. She goes up to him, while he passively stands there, she turns and puts herself in position - and she also decides when she's had enough and its over.

By virtue of mammal anatomy, almost all mammal species mate in a "doggy-style" position, with the male mounting the female, but that is irrelevant to the question of dominance and submission.  If the act of sex is something both partners want, then neither is being submissive, anymore than there is a dominance / submission relationship between two friends exchanging a hug or a merchant and customer exchanging goods for cash.

Going back to human mating; since we made the transition to walk on just two of our legs, we don't even have the biological requirement to mate with the male behind and above the female.


This completely invalidates the unspoken assumption that Ogas and Gaddam have that position automatically implies dominance or submission.

Which brings us to the next assumption we make about the implications of anatomy, one so taken for granted it is even more rarely spoken: that the act of one thing going into another is what sets up an inherent power dynamic.

As with every other example in this post and my last, if we can step outside of our cultural assumptions, it is easy to see that this idea isn't based on anything fundamentally true.
We have created it.

It starts with language.  
The "proper", clinical term for the act of penile/vaginal intercourse, (the only act which, in the strictest sense of the word, is actually sex) is "penetration".

The bias is built right into the term.

Penetration, in any other context, refers to something forcing its way into a place it shouldn't be.

A needle penetrates the skin.  
A spy penetrates a countries defenses.
We don't say that food "penetrates" your mouth, and when you get home you don't "penetrate" your house.

There is no universal expectation of dominance based on which thing goes into another thing.
When a snake swallows a rat, we don't think of the rat as dominating the snake just because the rat is the one entering inside of the snake.
When an amoeba or a white blood cell envelopes a paramecium or a bacteria, it is clearly the one doing the enveloping that is dominant.

Now that was an interesting word: Envelop.  

To put one's self around something.
That one small change of vocabulary can completely reframe the act of sex from one in which it is something that a male does to a female, (and a female submits to), to one which a female does to a male, (and the male submits to).

When I wrote my last post on the false equating of power with penetration over 5 years ago, the vast majority of "femdom" (female dominant) fetish porn consisted exclusively of women using a strap-on dildo to have anal "sex" with men, continuing the prejudice that "dominance" and "penetration" were interchangeable concepts, that masculinity inherently implied dominance by virtue of anatomy, and that in order to become dominant a woman had to take on a physical approximation of a male.

Thankfully society continues to advance, and today plenty of femdom includes actual all-natural intercourse.

According to traditional thinking, all of these men...

...are dominant, simply by virtue of being male and having penises,

while these women...

(warning: for those of you reading this at work or with your kids: softcore sexual imagery below, including *gasp* female nipples!!)

...are all being "submissive" just because they are all "being penetrated".

Except they aren't "being" anything; they are the active ones, doing something to their partners.

Here's a couple more examples... you know, for the purposes of science, sociology, and philosophy....

[Warning: You probably shouldn't click the link below at work.  Also, if you are less than 18 years old.  For some weird reason many people in our society believe it is somehow "inappropriate" for you to see imagery of human sexuality.  Maybe I'll address that someday in a future blog post...
Anyway, the examples on the following link are a bit more explicit than the images above]

We all know that it is possible for human sex to happen in contexts like the images above and on the link, yet we all continue to pretend that intercourse inherently implies a particular power dynamic.

The next assumption to break down is that the nature of the genitals themselves is what makes females vulnerable and males powerful.

The phallic symbol is a symbol of power and strength and dominance.

All culturally constructed - the actual human penis, unlike most mammals, doesn't even have a bone inside to help give it strength or structure, nor does it retract inside the body for protection when not in use, as among most other animals. 

The male genitals are the single most vulnerable body part on the human body.
Men are injured from sexual intercourse at higher rates than women.
Men make up 70% of all genital injuries (from all causes) .
The vagina, in contrast, can accommodate a 15 inch diameter infant, almost always with minor or no injury.

Consider the act of fellatio, from a cultural versus a biological perspective:
The cultural view is one of a dominant man, standing tall above a woman on her knees, her giving him pleasure while getting no direct stimulation of her own.
The biological one has the male with his most sensitive and vulnerable body part in between teeth that are harder than iron, powered by the muscles with the highest strength to size ratio in the human body -  up to 160 pounds of force concentrated on little knife edge teeth.

Not only does she have the power to either satisfy him... or not... she also has the ability to literally emasculate him.

Who really has the power and control in that situation?

If you remove the assumption that anatomy itself implies dominant and submissive roles, than there is insufficient evidence for the claim that "a man, [has] desire software ... biologically and socially programmed to be dominant

On what basis can we claim that any of our gender roles are biological? 

Perhaps 100% of the dominance is coming from social programming, and none of it is nature.  

That would do at least as good - if not better - a job of explaining why so very many men prefer to be submissive, many women are dominant, and a great many of each prefer both or neither role.

The same report by Ogas and Gaddam admits later that as many as 40% of "men find sexual submission as arousing—or, quite often, far more arousing—than sexual dominance."

They attempt to explain this by claiming that these men are expressing behaviors that are really female, and are supposed to be dormant, but were activated in the womb by hormonal imbalances:

"men and women's brains each come wired with the neural circuitry for both sexual dominance and sexual submission. When Nature builds our brains, it installs both the "male" and "female" subcortical circuits, but apparently only links one of these circuits to the arousal system... In humans, the hormonal vagaries of prenatal development appear to cause a substantial portion of men to be born with active submissive circuitry."http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/billion-wicked-thoughts/201104/why-gender-equality-does-not-always-work-in-the-bedroom

Rather than take that enormous 40% number - just less than half - and considering that maybe the idea that male dominance is "natural" might be completely wrong, they try to explain it by suggesting it is a case of "crossed wires", of female brain circuitry being activated in males. 
40% is way too high to be explained by the occasional genetic accident.

Transgenderism, which affects about 0.3% of the population, might be explained by the fact that most hormones and neural pathways are present in both sexes and sometimes for various reasons the wrong ones get activated.  Homosexuality, 1-5% of the population, could possibly have some similar explanation.  40% of males preferring to be submissive - even in the face of overwhelming cultural pressure to conform to the dominant role - clearly means the theory is simply wrong.

The gender associations with dominance and submission appear to be entirely cultural, and not at all biological.

Every single thing about the power dynamics of gender relations turn out to be attributable if not entirely, at least 90%, to culture, not biology.  From entirely imaginary differences in victimization to physical strength and size, from income and social status differences in couples to the mechanics of intercourse, male dominance and female submission is driven primarily by (largely conscious!) individual choices we all make, all of us buying into the cultural assumptions around us and living our own lives accordingly.

Since it is so extremely pervasive, covers so many of areas of life - and is completely without any objective merit - it kind of begs the question of where did the whole idea come from to begin with?

I suspect the answer lies in the one part of all this that actually IS biological.

The defining feature of the sex binary is simple, universal, and not open to debate: across all species that reproduce sexually (almost all multicellular life), there are exactly two kinds of sex cells: eggs and sperm.

Among humans (like all mammals, and all vertebrates except a few fish) any given individual produces either sperm or eggs.  Some mutations, diseases or accidents may cause an individual to produce neither, but no one individual, not even middlesex or transgender people, produce both.  A multicellular life form with testes and no ovaries is male.  A multi-cellular life form with ovaries but no testes is female.

In all species the egg requires at least slightly more resources to produce than sperm, but in humans especially the minimum mandatory investment for females to produce successful offspring (generally 12-20 years) by far outweighs the minimum investment for males (a few minutes of sex).

That simple biological fact originally set the stage for literally every sexual double-standard and gender role ever developed in every human society.  Ever.

Recently humans have invented a wide variety of safe, inexpensive, and (at least in the developed world) easy to attain birth control methods.

Thanks largely to that - coupled with the unusual human trait of being able to enjoy the act of mating even when the female isn't fertile - the vast majority of human sex is not reproductive.

Which means the differing minimum parental investment is almost always entirely irrelevant.

Now we're just holding on to our assumptions about gender because its what we've always done.
Personally, I don't think that's a good enough reason.

There has been a lot of online attention paid recently to women who are explicitly anti-feminist, making posts of their reasoning on twitter and facebook and tumblr.

I have to wonder, all the women - whether they claim to be feminist or not - who prefer a dominant partner in bed, or who feel they can't "respect" a partner who doesn't have as good or better an education or job then themselves, who won't accept (or accept on principal, but then aren't sexually attracted to) a stay-at-home-husband, who won't date a man shorter than themselves, or who acknowledge the benefits of exercise and take the time to do it but deliberately avoid progressive resistance strength training - how are they really so different from #womenagainstfeminism?

Well, actually...
If you read what those women have to say, they aren't really against feminism at all.  They are against what the most vocal of people who claim to be feminists say.  If you look at what the women are saying, they are generally advocating for equality, for valuing all social roles, for freedom for women.  They are arguing against the culture of treating women as automatic victims - kind of like I'm trying to do with this essay and my last.
The confusion is in the use of language - and how the term feminism has been largely co-opted by so-called "social justice warrior" types and activists.

The thing is, believing - and trying to convince the world - that women are weak and helpless and inherently prone to be victims isn't feminism.  It is literally the exact opposite of the belief that women should be respected as people, the opposite of egalitarianism.  It is misogyny.

The underlying assumptions behind how most who consider the topics look at something like cat calling, or intoxicated consent to sex, are completely dependant on the view of women as inherent victims, due to sexual dimorphism, or cultural dominance, or the mechanics of sex.  And since these things are almost entirely culturally constructed, the very way we look at the issues serves to reinforce those misogynistic underlying assumptions.

I'll dive into those examples next, but before we could address those issues with reasonable objectivity, we had to bring our assumptions about sexuality and gender to light first.
Women are only as weak as they choose to be.
Women are not "naturally" submissive.
Women are not automatically prone to being victims simply by being women.
Women are humans who have ovaries.
Nearly everything beyond that is behavioral choices.

(Next: Protective or Patronizing? Framing women as victims is anti-empowering http://biodieselhauling.blogspot.com/2014/08/protective-or-patronizing-framing.html )


  1. Very interesting perspective on gender roles and submission/dominance. I think there are even more complex reasons for why so many women desire men who are physically stronger and more economically successful than they are, but this is a good start in the attempt to uncover the whole truth.

  2. Thank you so much for your post. I am an 18 year old chick who, likes you, thinks critically about "things which people take for granted". It blows my mind that people seem to think they can ignore the influence of not only societal norms, but the biological/evolutionary changes that undoubtedly take place because of them. Even just acknowledging the HUGE changes in human behavior that result from societal advancements is proof of the fact that behaviors we think are "innate" are, sometimes, learned.

    Again, really appreciate the post.:-)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, I have very few readers but when even one random person comes across what I've written and appreciates it, it makes it feel like it was worth the (many hours!) time it took to research and write

  3. i am a man and, since I can remember, I always felt really uncomfortable with male gender roles. On the other side, I also felt uncomfortable with female gender roles. Not so much out of personal dislike, but because it just disgusted me to paint one sex as so weak when I want everyone to be happy and well treated. This article is great. I often engage in this "feministic" debate, and now I have a few things to quote and reference I did not have before. You are amazing!


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