Human Nature 2: Sexual Harassment

(Last Updated On: August 16, 2018)

sexual harassmentSexual harassment is the topic of today’s blog. This is Part 2 of a blog about Human Nature, meaning behavior shown by today’s humans, whether or not we approve of it. Part 1 discussed some less controversial human behavior, namely the sleep habits of teenagers and seniors.

Both are relevant when we seek the meaning of life. That’s because both deal with how our minds operate, and how much of what we do may be unconscious (“inherited”) rather than voluntary.

Sexual harassment dates far back in recorded human history. Ancient Romans called it the crime of accosting, stalking or abducting. However, we will see that it probably dates to prehistoric humanity, and even before.

Title VII of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 forbids all aggressive, domineering or shaming behavior related to sex. The term “sexual harassment” for this behavior appears to date from the early 1970s. However, Wikipedia states that this particular terminology became generally known only after Anita Hill’s testimony to the US Senate in 1991.

Sexual harassment need not be one-on-one, it can involve more than two people.

Sexual Harassment Defined

Merriam-Webster defines sexual harassment as “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate (such as an employee or student).” The Equal Employment Opportunities Commission broadens the definition to include any conduct that leads to an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

As Wikipedia points out, the legal and social understanding of sexual harassment varies by country and by culture. Moreover, what constitutes a hostile work environment depends on how the victim perceives it. Therefore, even within the US the practical definition of sexual harassment becomes very slippery.

The Google Gender Diversity Firestorm

A recent controversy within Google illustrates how sensitive gender issues in the workplace can become. James Damore, a politically conservative employee, posted a ten-page blog widely circulated within and outside of Google. The blog complained that Google’s policies supporting staff diversity and gender equality inappropriately discriminated against conservative male employees such as himself.

One of the blog’s fieriest assertions was that men receive better software engineering jobs, not because of discrimination against women, but because men may be biologically superior to women in developing software. Google responded by firing Damore for “advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.” Although many criticized Google for its apparent slap at freedom of speech, on balance its liberal-leaning constituency gave the company a pass on its extreme reaction.

Returning to the definition of sexual harassment: For this blog, it’s sufficient to stick with Webster and the EEOC. We don’t need a precise definition because our real focus is on recent research results that help us understand sexual harassment during the evolution of early humans.

Primates As Models for Human Nature

Evolutionary anthropologists have recently started asking an unpopular and risky question. That question is: Does the sexual harassment opposed by law and society actually represent “normal” human behavior? That is, did sexual harassment evolve in early mankind because it had survival value for its perpetrators?

We have practically no information about social and sexual relationships in prehistoric human societies. Archaeologists have tried their best, but the fossils and caves don’t yield much evidence.

In order to tackle their unpopular, even radioactive, question, anthropologists have turned to studies of other primates. There are two recent studies whose results point in the same direction:
Chacma baboons in Namibia, studied over a nine-year period by French zoologist Elise Huchard and colleagues.
Eastern chimpanzees in Tanzania, analyzed from a seventeen-year data record by a team of scientists from Duke University, Stanford University, the National Institutes of Health and two other universities. This study included genetic analysis to confirm whether mating in fact led to offspring.

These primate studies inspired the leading photo for this blog. Taken from the 1931 film’s novelization, it shows King Kong carrying a helpless Ann Darrow as he snarls at his human attackers. Not exactly harassment, but certainly aggression!

In Apes, Sexual Harassment Improves Reproductive Success

Some results were consistent in both of the studies cited above:
– Aggressive males had more opportunity to mate with females than non-aggressive males.
– Aggressive males sired more offspring, that is, had higher reproductive success.
– Aggression occurred at different times than mating; repeated aggression toward a female led to more mating with that female at times when the male was not being aggressive.

These results suggest that at least in some primates, sexual harassment improves the harasser’s chance to pass on his genes and therefore has survival value for the harasser’s DNA. It’s not clear from these studies whether harassment also improves the evolutionary fitness of the harassee’s DNA.

Because sexual harassment improves survival value for some primates, it could have been selected for as these animals evolved. Humans and other primates are genetically similar. Thus sexual intimidation may have evolved in our distant ancestors as part of human nature.

However, Ape Sexual Harassment Is Very Complex

We should not jump to conclusions quite yet. Sexual harassment may in fact be intrinsic to human nature, much as we might loathe the thought. However, there are many other factors in the ape studies that we also need to consider:

Dimorphism: Male chacma baboons are considerably larger than the females, having about twice the average body weight. Male eastern chimpanzees are about 37% heavier1 than females. In both of these species, the male seems better equipped to be physically dominant than the female. (Humans are less sexually dimorphic, with men on average weighing 16.5% more than women.)

Harassment is Long-Term: In these studies, sexual harassment occurs primarily when the female is not fertile, followed days later by mating when she becomes fertile. Thus males follow sexual coercion as a long-term strategy, not as a one-time episode leading at once to mating.

Harassees Seek Out Harassers? Both studies found no evidence that female apes generally prefer dominant or aggressive males. However, female baboons who had been harassed tended to seek out the specific male who harassed them when they were ready to mate. Researchers don’t have a clear understanding of these relationships. However, they suggest2 that the harassed females mated with their harassers because they feared injury if they refused.

Some Chimps Don’t Harass: A study of western chimpanzees found no evidence of sexual coercion. Western chimpanzees differ in several ways from eastern chimps: they live in smaller groups, they are more gregarious and the females have more power to determine with whom they will mate. Researchers think that one or more of these factors may suppress sexual harassment in the western species.

            The Bottom Line

We Are Not Monkeys. Modern apes may not be a good model by which to understand early human development. Animal behavior depends on many factors, including the ratio of males to females, the amount of competition for mates and resources, and group social dynamics. We should use much caution if we want to extrapolate from today’s apes to the evolution of early humans.

What Can We Conclude About Sexual Harassment?

  1. Studies of baboons, chimpanzee and other animals suggest that sexual harassment can improve the reproductive success of the (male) harasser.
  2. Animal social and mating patterns are complex, species-specific, and vary in ways not well understood by human researchers. In addition, our understanding of prehistoric humans depends on a smattering of evidence and a great deal of speculation. Therefore, drawing conclusions about people from studies of apes is still quite a stretch.
  3. Nevertheless, it’s plausible that sexual harassment today originated in part as a survival tactic adopted by some early humans.

Sapiens Falls Short When Addressing Male Dominance

I have previously described in positive terms Prof Yuval Harari’s creative blend of history and speculation in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. One of the features of human nature that Harari addresses is male dominance over females in most societies. Sexual harassment is of course a specific kind of male dominant behavior.

Harari wonders why women should have been assigned a subordinate role in so many places and times. He mentions three primary proposals that others have raised:
– Superior male physical strength.
– Greater male aggression.
– The demands on women of pregnancy and child-raising.

Harari discusses each of these, then casts it aside without ever coming to a conclusion. This is one of the few parts of Sapiens that falls short of the book’s own standard. Not even Harari can give a logical explanation of the asymmetrical access to power of the sexes.

Sapiens does not mention the sexual harassment studies carried out on primates and other animals. Of course that research is far from complete. However, it may be the missing ingredient that Harari needed for an overall theory of male-female roles. Perhaps Harari or another author will finish the job of weaving these threads into an overall model. Such a model could help us understand and even improve human behavior.

Human Nature: Do We Accept It?

Let’s return to the basic question we posed in the Part 1 blog that dealt with sleep patterns. When we study an aspect of human nature that seems to be inborn, we must ask: Given that this habit evolved to help our ancestors survive, do we want to keep it or not?

No one requires us to accept the hand that evolution dealt us, we are free to decide. Our decision can be based on the good or harm that may be done by the habit.

When we looked at sleeping behavior, I suggested that as long as people can accept their sleep patterns as normal, they don’t need to worry about them and can leave them be. We can learn from the research, but we don’t need to take active steps to re-train ourselves to sleep differently.

This is not the case with sexual harassment. In baboons and chimpanzees, sexual dominance may help the harasser’s genetic success, and therefore give survival value to his DNA. But even if sexual harassment is “human nature,” we do not have to accept it as normal or permissible today.

Thus we can accept or even embrace sleep patterns that evolved with our ancestors. We can also reject sexual aggression that may have evolved similarly but which does not match our current social values.

Have you observed sexual harassment that seemed to be instinctive rather than intentional? How can we counter or re-direct such behavior?

Image Credit:
Cropped cover of the 1932 novelization of the film King Kong. Wikipedia states that due to non-renewal of the copyright, this work is in the public domain.

Other References:


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