Is There a Battle of the Sexes?

Arms races between men and women have honed our psychologies.

Posted Aug 18, 2020

We often hear about “the battle of the sexes”—the idea that men and women are in a perpetual and even archetypal conflict. The battle of the sexes isn’t like other battles, where two groups cooperate in order to compete. Men aren’t cooperating with one another as a group to get one over on women, and women aren’t cooperating with one another to get one over on men. Fierce individual competition is more often within sex, with men competing with other men and women competing with other women for mates and status. The real battle of the sexes is between men’s strategies and women’s strategies, and both have been honed by millions of years of evolution.

 L.L. Kern/Unsplash
Competing trees.
Source: L.L. Kern/Unsplash

An arms race is a scenario where both sides of some conflict increase their capacity to inflict damage to one another by developing and collecting weapons. Some of the most beautiful, innovative, effective, smart, and horrifying characteristics of plants and animals have been shaped by arms races in nature, also known as The Red Queen Effect. Trees are in competition with one another to get taller to reach the sunlight until they can’t reach any further up into the sky.

 Thomson's gazelle in flight from a cheetah attack by Lee R. Berger/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0
A Thomson's gazelle fleeing from a cheetah.
Source: Thomson's gazelle in flight from a cheetah attack by Lee R. Berger/Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0

Cheetahs want to eat gazelles and gazelles don’t want to get eaten—each species gets faster until they reach the limit of their speed abilities.

There are also arms races between the sexes in many species. This is called sexual antagonistic co-evolution. For example in many insect species, there has been a coevolutionary arms race with sex organs, like these "weaponized penises."

But are there arms races between the sexes in humans?

Evolutionary psychologists have hypothesized that there are also psychological arms races between men and women, especially in the sexual domain. Women alone have the responsibility of growing and feeding new human beings. This doesn’t just affect the evolution of the body but also the mind.

When evaluating a man as a potential long-term partner, women are interested in cues of commitment—the likelihood that he will help her both while she’s pregnant and vulnerable and while she’s caring for a helpless infant. She wants to know that he is going to offset the significant burden of a potential pregnancy.

Because women often evaluate men for cues of commitment before they risk having sex, men often misrepresent how committed they are. For example, men are more likely to overstate their desire for a relationship, like saying “I love you” in order to have sex.

There is potential for an arms race here. It has been hypothesized that, because men are likely to overstate their commitment, women demonstrate “commitment skepticism.” The antagonistic process here can help men’s deception improve (for example, men may not even consciously realize they’re being deceptive). This, in turn, will cause women's skepticism or cue sensitivity to improve. 

 Diana Fleischman
The coevolutionary arms race between men's commitment deception and women's commitment skepticism.
Source: Diana Fleischman

Is there also an arms race when it comes to training?

The evolutionary premise of “How to Train Your Boyfriend” is that, for women, influencing behavior was more important than it was for men. Over deep history, a woman’s life and the life of her children depended on how well she could recruit other people to help her. The person who would have been the most dangerous or most helpful was often her male partner, aka the boyfriend.

Women have a special talent for training others because they had to teach their children to survive and thrive and they had to train men to protect them, to provision them, to show temperance, and to pay attention. Women often had to influence men to care for and protect her and her kids, whether those kids were related or unrelated to the man and in the face of other competing demands, like other women and children. If a woman failed at this, the man could pursue other interests, neglect her, abandon her, or even kill her children.

Men have some interest in training women too, but they generally don’t have to train women to care for children or not kill unrelated children. Men are mostly interested in preventing women from having sex with other men, and jealousy is one of the major reasons for domestic abuse. Most of men's training is focused on resisting training and not being controlled by women.

Here we see a possible arms race—women are trying to change men's behavior and men are resisting training. This arms race, like the arms race in deception above, could improve women's training abilities over time. But this arms race has a difference as well. Men may also have a vested interest in women who are good at training. A woman who excels at training will be able to raise more successful kids, raise a man’s status with others (who they will also be good at training) and help him to achieve his goals by improving his ability to manage himself. A woman who can train a man, especially if she figures out how to get through his resistance, could be a uniquely valuable asset as a long-term mate. A man who wants a girlfriend to “make him a better man” is essentially saying he wants a woman who is good at training.

 arbyreed/Flickr
The lasso of truth.
Source: arbyreed/Flickr

A woman who is good at training isn’t necessarily disagreeable, punishing, or difficult. Consider the modern archetype of a powerful woman, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman doesn’t beat her enemies into submission like other superheroes. Instead, she has a magic lariat, the lasso of truth that makes people want to do what she wants them to do, from telling the truth to turning against their own henchmen. Wonder Woman’s superpowers are an idealized version of women’s superior training ability—a power that pushes on open doors and that evades resistance. 

In follow-up posts, I'm going to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly of how this arms race of training between men and women shaped human psychology. 

References

Haselton, M. G., Buss, D. M., Oubaid, V., & Angleitner, A. (2005). Sex, lies, and strategic interference: The psychology of deception between the sexes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(1), 3-23.

Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2000). Error management theory: a new perspective on biases in cross-sex mind reading. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 81–91. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.78.1.81.

Marelich, W. D., Lundquist, J., Painter, K., & Mechanic, M. B. (2008). Sexual deception as a social-exchange process: Development of a behavior-based sexual deception scale. Journal of Sex Research, 45(1), 27-35.

Tooke, W. & Camire, L. (1991) Patterns of Deception in Intersexual and Intrasexual Mating Strategies. Ethology and Sociobiology, 12: 345-364.