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Barry X. Kuhle Ph.D.

Giving Feminism a Bad Name

Equity feminists give feminism a good name.

Let’s start with two simple questions:

(1) Do you consider yourself to be a feminist, or not?

(2) A feminist is someone who believes in social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. Do you think of yourself as a feminist or not? 

If you’re like many people from a study my RAs and I conducted recently and those polled by CBS News in 2005, then your answer to question one bore little resemblance to your answer to question two. In CBS’s nationwide random sample of 1,150 U.S. adults, 65% of women and 58% of men identified as feminist when an equal-rights definition was provided, but only 24% of women and 14% of men considered themselves feminist in the absence of a definition (Alfano, 2009, February 11).

At first glance this is paradoxical. Why did nearly two-thirds of people polled consider themselves feminists in the presence of the definition but less than one-in-five do so when the definition was omitted?  What is feminism other than the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes? Regrettably to feminists like myself, far too many other feminists believe that being one means believing in far more than equality for women. These “gender feminists” cling to an ideologically driven, theoretically unsound, and empirically unsupported perspective on the origin and development of sex differences (Kuhle, 2012). To paraphrase New Jersey philosopher J. B. Jovi, they give feminism a bad name. In so doing, they have discouraged women and men who support sexual equality from self-identifying as feminists. When less than a quarter of your prime constituents (women) are willing to support your cause by identifying outright as feminists, your movement has a huge public relations problem. Delve deeper into the CBS poll and the scope of the PR nightmare becomes even more stark: 17% of women reported that calling a fellow woman a feminist was an INSULT! (While only 12% saw the label as a compliment.) The reluctance most women and men have to embrace the feminist label in the absence of a definitional nudge is due in no small part to gender feminists’ untenable position on sex differences.

As an evolutionary psychologist, I believe that much light can be shed on psychology by considering how the information-processing mechanisms underlying our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors affected our ancestors’ abilities to survive and reproduce. As an “equity feminist” (Sommers, 1994), I believe that women should have the full civil and social equalities that are afforded men. Equity feminism has no a priori stance on the origin or existence of differences between the sexes; it is solely a sociopolitical desire for men’s and women’s legal and social equality. Defined in these ways, there is no rational reason why one cannot be both an evolutionary psychologist and a feminist.

Gender feminism is an alternative version of feminism and is the dominant feminist voice in academia (Sommers, 1994) and online (e.g., And boy (er, I mean girl, er, I mean womyn) do they take issue with feminism being compatible with evolutionary psychology. They ardently argue that psychological differences between the sexes have little or nothing to do with evolution, but instead are largely or solely socially constructed (Pinker, 2002; Sommers, 1994). Whereas equity feminism “makes no commitment regarding open empirical issues in psychology or biology… gender feminism is an empirical doctrine” committed to several unsubstantiated claims about human nature, especially that of the psychological blank slate where sex differences are concerned (Pinker, 2002, p. 341).

Gender feminism and its untenable conception of human nature is evident in many feminist psychologists’ scholarship. Take for example Alice Eagly and Wendy Wood’s biosocial constructionist evolutionary theory (BCET; 1999, 2011). Although this theory allows for evolved physical differences between men and women (Eagly & Wood, 2011) and evolved psychological similarities in men and women (e.g., language; Eagly & Wood, 1999), it fails to even consider evolutionary accounts of psychological sex differences. By limiting the realms within which evolution has shaped humans, BCET invokes a variant of Cartesian dualism. Whereas Descartes (1641/1993) advocated a mind/body dualism in which the mind is a non-physical substance, BCET advocates a “mind differences/everything-else” dualism in which the sex differentiated brain is a non-result of physical evolution (Friedman, Bleske, & Scheyd, 2000).

According to gender feminism and its unwarranted claims about human nature, psychological sex differences are uniquely immune to natural selection. This convoluted conceptualization of evolution misunderstands how adaptations are fashioned and function. An adaptation is an “inherited and reliably developing characteristic that came into existence as a feature of a species through natural selection because it helped to directly or indirectly facilitate reproduction during the period of its evolution” (Buss, Haselton, Shackelford, Bleske, & Wakefield, 1998, p. 535). In domains in which the sexes recurrently faced different adaptive problems, selection is likely to have fashioned different adaptive solutions. These adaptations often involve the intertwining of physical and psychological traits.

An example of the complementary nature of physical and psychological adaptations can be seen in pregnancy sickness. Just as women, but not men, faced the adaptive problem of avoiding the ingestion of teratogens that could harm a developing fetus, women but not men evolved physiological adaptations (e.g., vomiting to expel teratogens) and psychological adaptations (e.g., food-specific disgust to avoid teratogens) to help solve the problem (Profet, 1988, 1992). Similarly, just as men, but not women, faced the adaptive problems of sperm competition and cuckoldry, men but not women evolved physiological adaptations (e.g., variations in sperm production and insemination as a function of time spent apart from partner; Baker & Bellis, 1995) and psychological adaptations (e.g., variation in desire to copulate with partner as a function of time spent apart from partner; Shackelford, Goetz, McKibbin, & Starratt, 2007) to help solve the problems, thereby reducing their likelihood of being duped into raising offspring that weren't theirs (Shackelford, Pound, & Goetz, 2005).

An important question for future research is why gender feminists unnecessarily wed themselves to a dualistic conceptualization of evolution and human nature that is theoretically untenable and empirically unsupported. I suspect that their reluctance to acknowledge that evolution has left different fingerprints on men’s and women’s bodies and brains stems from two common misunderstandings of evolutionary psychology (Buss, 2012; Confer, Easton, Fleischman, Goetz, Lewis, Perilloux, & Buss, 2010).

The first misunderstanding, the myth of immutability, is evidenced when one erroneously concludes that “if it’s evolutionary, then we can’t change it.” As has been discussed at length elsewhere, evolutionary psychology does not view human behavior as impervious to change. In fact, evolutionary psychologists have cogently argued that knowledge of the informational inputs to evolved  psychological mechanisms is a crucial first step toward changing the behavioral output of these mechanisms (Buss, 1996; Buss, 2012; Confer et al., 2010; DeKay & Buss, 1992; Geher, 2006).

The second pervasive misunderstanding is the naturalistic fallacy, which rears its illogical head when one concludes that “if it’s evolutionary and hence natural, then it’s okay and hence good.” Numerous evolutionary psychologists have unpacked the mistaken inference that if something is the case then it ought to be the case (Buss, 2003; Geher, 2006; Pinker, 2002). Evolutionary psychology does not excuse, justify, or rationalize any human’s thoughts, feelings, or actions (Buss, 1996; Geher, 2006). It merely seeks to discover and detail the design of the information-processing mechanisms that underlie our psychology.

If some women have been subjugated because they were regarded as different than and inferior to men and some men have excused their misogynistic behavior as being an inevitable consequence of their genes, then a reluctance to embrace a discipline which viewed such pernicious behavior as immutable and excusable would be understandable. But evolutionary psychology is not that discipline (Buss, 1996). Not that you’d know this from reading’s renderings of evolutionary psychologists’ findings. As noted in a recent top story on the blog, evolutionary psychologists are “weirdos” who publish “idiotic” studies in Evolution and Human Behavior, “which looks to be the sort of publication that pats men on the head for being assholes and tells them that it's not their fault that they're dicks — that's evolution, baby!—and this sexual exploitability study is no exception” (Ryan, 2012, May 24).

The study in gender feminists’ ideological crosshairs this time is an exploration of observable cues to sexual exploitability and their link to sexual attraction by evolutionary psychologists Cari Goetz, Judy Easton, David Lewis, and David Buss. Shortly after stating that men’s use of sexually exploitative tactics is “morally reprehensible” and sometimes "criminal," Goetz et al. emphasize that, “This study provides a first step towards understanding the psychological mechanisms underlying men's sexually exploitative strategies. By examining the specific design features of mechanisms for sexual exploitation, this research reveals particular cues that activate these mechanisms, allowing the prediction of which cues put women at risk for sexual exploitation.” Goetz et al. do not rationalize, excuse, or justify some men’s strategic use of visual and behavioral cues to identify women to target for opportunistic casual sex. Rather, they seek to understand the nature of men’s evolved psychological mechanisms as a means of protecting women from the morally reprehensible and  (sometimes) criminal behavioral output of these mechanisms, which includes rape. Goetz et al. eschew the naturalistic fallacy and myth of immutability and instead look to curb sexual abuse of women by fleshing-out a mechanism that may give rise to it in certain situations.

I wish gender feminists were as careful as Goetz et al. were to avoid promulgating such fallacies and myths. But they are not. In fact, they commonly employ strategic use of both canards when they encounter findings that counter their theoretically and empirically bankrupt contention that evolution has molded identical sexual psychologies in women and men. For example, Jezebel’s humorous but misguided blog on Goetz et al.’s study appears motivated to misunderstand the study’s intentions by embracing instead of avoiding the naturalistic fallacy and myth of immutability. The blog’s gist could easily be summarized with (insert indignant tone here): 'How dare these weird evolutionary psychologists suggest in their iditoic study that women naturally want meaningless casual romps less than men do! That’s ridiculous! Worse still, these weirdos argue that it’s men’s natural right to sexually exploit women and that, due to evolution, they can’t help but do otherwise!' I suppose this passes for logical when your perspective on sex differences is so illogical.  

So, to recap: A female journalist with apparent gender feminist leanings writing for a gender feminist blog about women's issues has attacked an idiotic study co-authored by two weirdos female scientists that may help women avoid falling prey to predatory sexual abuse by men.  If that passes for feminism, then what in the world constitutes misogyny?  Is there really any wonder why the overwhelming majority of American women and men want nothing to do with the feminist label?  Why one-in-five people consider calling someone a feminist an insult? 

As illustrated by the pioneering work of Darwinian feminist Griet Vandermassen (2004, 2005, 2008, 2011) and the emergence of the Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society, evolutionary psychology and equity feminism are eminently compatible. However, evolutionary psychology and gender feminists will always conflict as long as the latter remains unwilling to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence (Buss, 2003; Geary, 2010; Mealey, 2000; Pinker, 2002) for evolved psychological sex differences. It is tragically ironic that the gender feminism-infested discipline known as feminist psychology—a discipline in part dedicated to shedding light on women's struggles with inequity—struggles to consider any and all insights into the origin of the inequities faced by women. Gender feminism’s dualistic view of evolution hinders the search for and understanding of the proximate and ultimate causes of inequality. Like much of standard social science model psychology (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992), feminist psychology needs to evolve. Near the close of On the Origin of Species (1859, p. 449) Darwin envisions that, “In the distant future I see open fields for far more important researches. Psychology will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation” (i.e., gradual natural selection). Please indulge me this forced paraphrase because, ‘In the distant future I, too, see open fields for far more important researches. Feminist psychology will be based on equity feminism, that of the necessary civil and social liberties of both sexes, and not the untenable perspective that psychological sex differences did not evolve.’

This future will not be realized until we acknowledge that for far too many people and for far too many years, feminism has been a dirty word. This is shameful. And much of this shame falls squarely on gender feminists’ (unpadded) round shoulders. To save feminism from the Svengali-like grip that gender feminism has on it, I encourage fellow humans who hold that women should have the same social, political, and economic rights as men to wholeheartedly and proudly identify as equity feminists (Friedman, 1997). To do otherwise is to align with misogynists, or worse still, gender feminists. The latter purport to represent all women but only speak for and are embraced by those who toe their ideologically untenable party-line. At best, they are irrelevant. At worst, they alienate women from embracing a label and movement designed by women, for women. That is absurd! It only begins to make sense when one realizes that many gender feminists are not women at all. They're self-described womyn. Just as college women and men have joined hands to Take Back the Night, here’s hoping they soon come together to take back feminism from the womynists and the Womyn’s Studies departments they populate. Say it loud: I’m an equity feminist and I’m proud!

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Portions of this blog were taken from Kuhle, 2012.

"Naturalistic Fallacy Ahead" drawing taken from Paula Wright's Darwinian Gender Studies Blog

Recommended Readings 

For level-headed blogs on Goetz et al.’s important article on sexual exploitability, see Jesse Bering’s piece at Slate and Jamie Krems’ offering at Bang!  Those interested in reading Goetz et al.’s actual article can find it here. Gad Saad’s insighful PT blog on “The Pros and Cons of Feminism” can be found here.


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Copyright © 2012 Barry X. Kuhle. All rights reserved.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of Psychology Today and the University of Scranton, or my friends, family, probation officer, gut bacteria, darkest thoughts, and personal mohel.


About the Author

Barry X. Kuhle, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Scranton.