Me Too Movement Confronts an Ancient Problem

Sexual conflict pervades nature as well as the workplace.

Posted Feb 21, 2018

More than a third of female workers (35%) report being sexually harassed at work, explaining why the #MeToo movement is so influential. Women so traumatized may suffer serious effects from anxiety and on careers. But why is the problem so common?

Conflict between males and females over sexual access crops up all over the animal kingdom, from scorpion flies with their specialized claspers for forcible mating to praying mantis females eating their mates.

Sexual harassment at work is generally not this extreme and typically involves some quid pro quo such as a fast food restaurant manager demanding sexual favors in return for more favorable shift assignments for an employee.

Males are generally more eager to mate than females (known as Bateman's principle) because females invest more in offspring than males do.

Amongst humans, the conflict often plays out as men wanting intercourse earlier in a relationship than women do. Men have often used social power to extract sexual favors, so that those close to the top of the tree often have an unjustified sense of entitlement.

That such issues are widespread in nature does not justify coercive sexuality but establishes the context in which it may be more fully understood, and corrected.

Social Status and Sexual Access to Women

High status men are more attractive to women for various reasons, even in the Internet age, judging from research into online dating preferences (1).

From a practical perspective, women who marry wealthy men have greater access to economic resources that makes it easier to raise children, especially given that mothers pay a career price for devoting themselves to raising youngsters.

The reproductive options of high status men were not limited to marriage, even in the rigidly monogamous societies of European history. Laura Betzig describes many sexual privileges accorded to wealthy men (2). In some feudal societies, the lord of the manor was entitled to spend the first night with each of the brides in his parish. Moreover, the design of medieval homes probably facilitated sexual access by the squire to single servant women living in his household.

Scions of the nobility often abducted peasant women for sexual gratification. Such crimes were rarely prosecuted and the worst perpetrators were sometimes priests and clerics who were nominally celibate (3).

Abusive relationships between men and women are exacerbated by status inequality, as illustrated by allegations against theater director director Israel Horovitz.

Gender Differences in Status

This phenomenon is all too familiar today and the biggest culprits are men of power and privilege. Highly prominent men took sexual liberties with their employees and used money to intimidate, and silence, the victims.

All power relationships are relative, and lower-level managers in the fast food industry may abuse their short-term employees by obtaining sexual favors in return for giving a woman more hours of work

As women climb professional and business ladders, such inequalities of power shrink and women can both expect, and receive fairer treatment at work. Being treated more fairly at work does not mean that all the problems of masculine sexual assertiveness will disappear overnight.

Humans follow a similar courtship protocol to other species where females attract and males pursue and this pattern favors masculine assertiveness.

Men Approaching Women

For most mammals, females attract mates using olfactory cues that signal readiness to mate. For humans, much of the signaling is visual. As a group, women are substantially more physically attractive than men are (whether evaluated by female or male raters), reflecting an evolutionary history where men who selected young, highly fertile mates were more reproductively successful (4).

This simple fact has a number of practical implications, each of which are relevant to sexual harassment. One is that women use their appearance to attract partners, whether by exploiting their inherent beauty, or artificially enhancing it through clothing, makeup, or flirtatious behavior. Moreover men pay a great deal of attention to women's appearance. Women who are unusually attractive can receive a great deal of unwanted attention that can be bothersome, or even seem threatening.

In a work setting, courtship behavior is considered inappropriate so that male and female employees are expected, and now legally required, to inhibit their sexual feelings. Men are expected to be reserved in their approaches to female co-workers. For their part, women are expected to be restrained in their dress and seductive behavior.

Such restraint frequently breaks down in practice and there are many office romances. When men stumble, it is labeled sexual harassment. When women lapse, there is generally no legal issue unless they require sexual favors of men they supervise, which is rare, but their careers can suffer from seeming unprofessional.

Gender conflict at work likely has a hormonal influence that is under emphasized by most scholars.

Development of Sexual Assertiveness and Sex Hormones

The timing of sexual maturity in males is linked to a surge in testosterone and men are significantly more aggressive, and more reckless, in early adulthood when their testosterone levels are highest (5,6). Men are responsible for most of the violent crime during this phase of their lives, including violent sexual assaults. Interestingly, contemporary women are just as physically aggressive as men in relationships perhaps more so - but their aggression is less damaging.

When men divorce, they become more active in dating, their testosterone levels rise, and they are more likely to commit violent crimes (7). High social status of primates is correlated with testosterone levels and dominant individuals are more sexually active.

Of course, high status men are responsible for much sexual harassment because they have the means of bending others to their will.

None of this is intended to justify the abuse of female workers by bosses or mentors. But it can help us to understand why some men act as though their workplace subordinates were their sexual property. Just because men benefited from sexual assertiveness in the past does not mean that this cannot change: it will change and is already changing before our eyes.​


Hitsch, G., Hortacsu, A., & Ariely, D. (2010). What makes you click? - Mate preferences in online dating. Quantitative Marketing and Economics, 8, 393-427.

Betzig, L. (1986). Despotism and differential reproduction: A Darwinian view of history. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

 Betzig, L. (1995). Medieval monogamy. Journal of Family History, 20, 181-216.

Barber, N. (1995). The evolutionary psychology of physical attractiveness. Ethology and Sociobiology, 16, 395-424.

Archer, J. (2006). Testosterone and human aggression: an evaluation of the challenge hypothesis. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 30, 319-345.

Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

Mazur, A., & Michalek, J. (1998). Marriage, divorce, and male testosterone. Social Forces, 77, 315-330.