Why Sexual Harassment is a Human Characteristic

The human brain invents new methods of social control all the time.

Posted Jan 29, 2018

The human brain has an extraordinary ability to take a fundamental biological need and develop it in ways completely unknown to other species.  Many species build or inhabit shelters or nests: but only humans build houses.  Moreover, those houses have changed over the years, and in different cultures. Seventeenth century houses look very different from those of today, and we heat and cool them differently as well.  We use clothes to keep us warm, but also to proclaim our gender, status and wealth, and we change them as the climate changes.  The way we do this has changed over the years, as have the materials we invent to make them. The ability of humans to adapt, invent and vary the way we do things is an outstanding feature of our brains (and the extraordinary ability of our hands).  This applies to everything we do. Eating: we invent agriculture, foods and cooking; drinking: we invent clean and reliable water supplies; and so on. You can often see shadows of these abilities in other species, but the leap from them to humans is massive.

Our ability to invent also applies to the way we reproduce.  Interestingly, if we look at other mammalian species, we see huge variation in their methods of reproduction.  This is surprising. Reproduction is not only essential, it’s also expensive, complex and dangerous. You would think that once a good system had evolved, it would be used universally.  Not so. Even more interestingly, much of this variation between species applies to females. Some species have numerous, immature young: others a few, more mature.  Some females have short reproductive cycles, others much longer ones. Some only ovulate (produce a fertile egg) when they mate: others ovulate spontaneously. There are even species that carry their immature embryos in their wombs for months in a state of suspended animation, only starting development at the most advantageous season.

But if we look at the process of getting a mate, we see a much more consistent pattern. It can be summarized as: males compete with each other for access to females, then females make their choice. The males of some species compete by displaying their gorgeous colors, or defending desirable territories or offering food; others engage in actual combat (stags locking horns, elephants charging, giraffes flailing each other with their necks and so on). In general, the strongest, most aggressive or socially dominant male is the most sexually successful but also the most attractive. Only very rarely, if at all, does a male try to compel (as opposed to persuade) a female to mate with him: orang-utans are supposed to rape occasionally, though this is disputed.

Humans have complicated and elaborated this process, as all others. We use many more ways of advertising our sexual attractiveness: some are close to other species, for example, displaying our wealth (assets), though we may do this is indirect ways, or our attractiveness, including the use of clothes and make-up. Others are more complex: for example, using marriage to build collaborations, maintain hierarchies, classes or dynasties, or wealth.  We also use sex in ways unknown to other species: to sell goods, for example, or as a commercial transaction. Animals regulate patterns of sexuality in their societies by using individual characteristics like aggression, pecking orders or prowess in displays etc. We use laws, customs, traditions and social class to limit who mates with whom, but also individual features such as physical attractiveness or competition between males.  In some societies the role of social structure was formalized: the Incas allowed aristocrats to have 50 wives, the heads of 100,000 men had twenty, but those who commanded 10 men had only three.   

But within our system lies another feature: just as power (strength) enhances the chances of the males of other species to find a mate, so it does in us. But is our case, we take sexual strategies to a level unknown in other species.  Power in humans includes the ability to promote careers, determine the fates of others, and enhance the social status of females. The difference is the cognitive recognition that this can be forcefully applied: the brain of a human male is able to realize that simple persuasion – though the most usual tactic – can be overridden by other, more coercive means. Not only physical force (though this occurs as well) but psychological force. The two have a common feature: they compel women to have sex and thus deprive them of their biological heritage of choice and their right to choose. The complex nature of human society makes psychological force an attractive option.  Historically this has been a recognized method for some males to get sex: nowadays, we call it harassment. Other patterns of behavior that were once accepted and commonplace (eg slavery, child abuse, unequal political rights) are also now becoming prohibited: although, as for all behaviors, this varies in different societies. This is social evolution and a prominent feature of human behavior in all its varieties. 

None of this is an excuse for sexual harassment, nor does it trivialize the real problem of drawing lines between persuading a female to have sex or harassing her, which is not always as clear as some make out – though there are obvious instances of indisputable harassment.  But the unique ingenuity of the human brain, responsible for the world we now live in, with its computers, planes, medicines and mobile phones, would inevitably have given rise to complex and subtle methods of sexual advancement and competition, some acceptable (candle-lit dinners, persuasion) others not (harassment, coercion). Another unique ability of the human brain is to define and change the boundaries between these categories, though this is sometimes not so easy.

We should not despair.  The same remarkable brain that created the opportunities, techniques and motivation for sexual harassment is also responsible for the realization that this is not an acceptable behavior, and devising the means of reducing or eliminating it. So it is that, incomplete though it may be, this and other injustices foisted by men onto women are slowly being recognized and corrected.  But there is always the tendency, when emotions run hot, to over-simplify the real difficulties of re-defining what is acceptable and what is not, and vilifying those who point this out.  They are not framing excuses for those aspects of traditional male behavior that have become unacceptable, but asking for a grown-up discussion on matters which are not always black and white, but varying shades of grey, particularly difficult to define in a changing world. Furthermore, a true democracy allows those who may hold opinions that may outrage others to be expressed, without fear of assault or repression, but countered only by argument and persuasion.  It’s the price we pay for a tolerant society. Harassment is unacceptable, in whatever context.

Females have been at the forefront of campaigns to change the way that males treat females, including related ones for gender equality. But the males of other species seem to accept the roles and controls of females in sexual selection more readily than do we. We have, it seems, something to learn from baboons.