Overview: David Buss’ book is interesting, but is ultimately let down by falling into feminist thinking and talking points.
I bought this book on a whim after reading a review of it on the website Aero by William Costello. What interested me was not so much the review itself but the comments underneath it which were critical of what Mr. Costello had written and the details of the book. One of the commenters was Steve Moxon, author of the book The Woman Racket who has done his own research and studies into human sex differences that goes against the feminist narrative. The general feeling in the comments was that, despite Aero claiming to challenge conventional thinking, the book and reviewer basically upheld the status quo idea that male violence against women was widespread and society had to find ways of dealing with it.
I concurred with the comments under the article but I was intrigued enough to read the book myself and draw my own conclusions. I believe both William Costello and the book’s author, David Buss, want to be impartial and objective in this discussion but they may be too entrenched in academia to challenge the current consensus and present an alternative or opposing viewpoint. William Costello appears to be sympathetic and open-minded regarding issues affecting men but I still differ in some ways from his point of view.
David Buss is a prominent evolutionary psychologist working at the University of Texas in Austin whose career began in the 1970s and has written books such as The Evolution of Desire and The Murderer Next Door. Bad Men is the first book I’ve read by Dr. Buss which explores sexual conflict between men and women and the psychology of male perpetrators of sexual violence in particular.
For whatever reason, the book has been published under two different names as it has also been published with the title When Men Behave Badly which also has a different cover. Bad Men is the UK title.
Chapter 1: Biology and sexual conflict
David Buss begins by explaining that sexual conflict between men and women is rooted in “evolved sex differences” in sexual psychology. This is related to the distinctive gametes that men and women uniquely possess. For more information, you can read my description of Chapter 3 of The Ape That Understood the Universe. One of the most obvious differences between the sexes, to everybody except trans fanatics at least, is that women get pregnant and men do not. This means that women bear potential metabolic costs after sexual intercourse which men don’t since men can successfully reproduce just by impregnating a woman. In other words, in terms of reproduction, men are the ‘outsiders’ and women are the ‘insiders’ which means they both have advantages and disadvantages in the domain of sex and reproduction. Dr. Buss believes an “evolutionary lens” helps identify when sexual conflict may occur between men and women and says one goal of the book is to highlight circumstances that may increase or decrease its likelihood.
It is pointed out in the first chapter, titled ‘The Battle of the Sexes’, that the increasing conflict surrounding men and women has been blamed on many things from the patriarchy and toxic masculinity to feminism. David Buss even addresses the ‘manosphere’ writing:
“Manosphere bloggers… blame women who seek sex with “alpha chads” (high status males) and exploit lower-status males who are “betas” for their investment.”
I don’t know if I meet the definition of a ‘manosphere blogger’ but David Buss’ perception of the manosphere seems to focus on one area of a very large and loosely connected group(s) rather than encapsulating the whole of it. The issue of hypergamy, which Dr. Buss is basically referring to, is more of an interest of certain groups of men who arguably make up the manosphere, such as incels but not only them, whilst other so-called manosphere bloggers may be focussed on issues such as family court bias or misandry in general. David Buss does acknowledge that women are attracted to men with high power and status but writes:
“Missing from these manosphere accounts, however, is that women’s mate preferences are enormously complex and include qualities such as honesty, intelligence, dependability, moral character, sense of humor, and many more.”
Again though, other figures in the manosphere may agree with this statement and be more interested in other topics relating to men.
The author also considers the feminist idea of patriarchy as the source of conflict between the sexes but argues against it by stating, in his opinion, that both sides – that is, feminists and the manosphere – fail to recognise biology and how it relates to the modern world. David Buss essentially argues for a ‘centre ground’ as a way to understand male-female sexual conflict. However, this isn’t entirely true as many of the individuals who have influenced my thinking and consider themselves part of the manosphere have read about evolutionary psychology themselves.
Likewise, in his attempt to strike a balance between feminism and the manosphere, Dr. Buss states:
“Patriarchal institutions such as laws that give husbands control over their spouses’ sexuality for example are still on the books in some countries and have lingering pernicious effects in others.”
This is clearly to appease any feminists who could be reading and might be troubled by his accusing them of denying biology. The problem here though is that Dr. Buss states a feminist position but doesn’t give any alternative theories why such institutions and laws exist other than an apparent male desire to control women. Unlike the arguments by bloggers in the manosphere, this is presented as self-evident and something that does not require further scrutiny. Undoubtedly, men in some countries may use particular laws as a means to oppress women, but the motivations behind ‘patriarchal’ laws, in Western countries at least, are partly to deal with the aforementioned fact that men are the outsiders of reproduction and their role in their children’s lives can be diminished if these laws are altered without thinking about this. These feminist-influenced statements are a recurring feature of the book so I’ll explore this a little more later.
Here the book takes a more interesting detour into sexual conflict in other species, for example, spiders of the family Pisaura mirabilis and how they interact during courtships. Typically, the male engages in the arduous task of capturing an insect and offering it as a gift to the female to initiate mating. This isn’t always straightforward, however, as a number of scenarios can occur such as the female taking the gift and leaving without mating with the male or the male wrapping something worthless in silk and mating with the female while she unwraps the gift.
I found this description darkly amusing in a way and we can probably think of human examples that are not dissimilar! Other examples of sexual conflict amongst insects in particular include water striders of which the males have penile spines which can damage the female’s reproductive tract. Another more well known example is the female black widow spider which can consume the male after mating.
Buss then writes about men and women being in a ‘sexual conflict co-evolution’ whereby one sex develops a tactic to exploit the other sex resulting in the latter developing an evolved tactic to avoid the exploitation. This is compared to predators like cheetahs evolving tactics to capture prey like gazelles which, in turn, evolved a response against it – i.e. both use speed, habitat, vigilance, etc. to prey on or avoid being preyed on by the other. In terms of men and women, Dr. Buss writes:
“adaptations in women to avoid subpar males or to require extensive courtship displays before consenting to sex have created selection pressures on men to circumvent these barriers. Defensive adaptations to deflect sexual advances are countered by sexual persistence adaptations.”
One problem I have with this argument is how closely this falls into the now standard narrative of ‘female victims’ and ‘male perpetrators’. Using the predator-prey analogy makes this more likely and discourages interpreting sexual conflict in other ways. We could just as well interpret the ‘battle of the sexes’ as a form of ‘one-upmanship’ in which each sex simultaneously takes advantage and is taken advantage of. The previous example of the male and female Mirabilis spider illustrates this idea more than the cheetah vs. gazelle one.
A notable ‘battleground’ where sexual conflict can arise is the differing sex drives between men and women. As women’s sex drive is generally lower than men’s, ‘female choosiness’ comes into play which inevitably creates tension, misunderstanding and potentially violence. The often cited statistics about online dating sites are presented which show that most men rate most women as attractive whereas women rate only around 20% of men as attractive. One reason for female choosiness is of course because women face costlier consequences if they have sex and become pregnant. The author notes that men and women tend to differ in how soon after meeting they desire to have sex, with men desiring it earlier than women:
“1 scientist analogized this to having 2 pairs of hands on the same steering wheel of a car, each having a somewhat different destination, each trying to turn the wheel towards its own destination but being forced to contend with pulls from the other.”
To manage these biological realities, many civilisations have found unique ways to order relations between the sexes. The book describes how men in the Tiwi tribe, a group from an island near Australia, use women and girls like currency by bestowing them to other men at birth. When the girls reach adolescence, they move in with their bestowed husband. Men who are given women as brides can reciprocate by offering their own daughters in return. If this sounds highly demeaning and exploitative towards women, it’s worth noting that this system results in a lot of young men without any women whilst a small group of older men have three or four. Also, many of the younger women can become widows when their older husband dies and may have a say in their next husband. Not surprisingly, there is also infidelity between young brides and younger men and the tribe have found their own ways to manage this. Although this is an extreme example, it shows that women are often a resource that men compete for.
Regardless of men’s desire for more sex and with more partners than women, men also face costs which can lead to sexual conflict. The most obvious is that they could be a victim of ‘paternity fraud’ – i.e. a man can unknowingly acknowledge and raise a child that isn’t actually his own. This is not only costly in terms of mating opportunities, but also in time, resources and possibly psychological damage. This can lead to ‘sexual jealousy’ in which men are suspicious about women’s sexual activity and proximity to other men. To manage this, men may engage in ‘mate guarding’ by monitoring women’s activity and location. The book describes an app available in Saudi Arabia called Absher whereby men can track their wives’ movements! It is also noted that this suspicion from men hasn’t altered even though many women use contraceptive pills to prevent getting pregnant.
The restrictive practices towards women in countries like Saudi Arabia is contrasted here with a tribe in Brazil called Yanomamo in which men spend a lot of time away from their wives hunting for big game. This means that women have more influence to make decisions as they are not ‘guarded’ by their husbands. This is interesting considering that this kind of arrangement is more or less identical to traditional hunter-gatherer societies or, more recently, the traditional gender roles of men going out to work and women staying at home. We are often told that women were oppressed in this situation but if women’s husbands were away at work most of the time, doesn’t this mean women had the same freedoms as Dr. Buss argues Yanomamo women have? We could draw two conclusions from this: either, feminism falsely portrayed women staying at home as oppressed or, feminism naturally developed from this environment, particularly as technological advances reduced women’s dependency on men for resources. I actually think both are true even though they appear contradictory.
Other sources of conflict include men’s superior size and strength, the proximity of friends and family or ‘allies’ and the choice of potential partners available to either sex. In addition, individual differences can determine the likelihood and severity of sexual conflict occurring. For example, people who score highly on the so-called ‘dark triad’ traits of psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism are said to be more likely to be sexual exploitative. I’ll explore this in a little bit
more detail later.
Given the topic of this book, most of the exploration of sexual conflict focusses on male perpetrators and female victims but, to his credit, Dr. Buss states:
“Can women be sexual predators? Our research on the Dark Triad suggests yes, but in somewhat different ways. Women who score high in Dark Triad traits are more likely to engage in mate poaching, luring men away from existing relationships for sexual encounters. High scoring women are also more likely to use sex as a tactic for getting ahead in the workplace.”
Chapter 2: Attraction, Dating and Mating
In the second chapter: ‘The Mating Market’, David Buss argues that conflict arises between the two sexes due to them pursuing different mating strategies. In addition to men having a higher sex drive, they also have a greater desire for sexual variety. This has been shown not only across cultures, but in homosexual men as well (see Chapter 3 link for more details).
According to the book, men also overestimate their attractiveness in the mating market and have higher self-esteem than women. Men also appear to have a ‘sexual over-perception bias’ in which they perceive sexual interest in a woman that is not actually there. Men might also underestimate how upsetting their actions are towards women. In my view, I can’t help thinking that men simply assume women are as attracted to them as vice versa. However, in the event of a low risk casual encounter, men may lower their standards. It is pointed out that both men and women attempt to secure a partner on dating sites who is 25% more desirable than them.
What explains this behaviour? One explanation is female choosiness. Here the author writes:
“‘Men are one long breeding experiment run by women’ according to some evolutionary anthropologists. Men have evolved to be fiercely motivated to acquire the resources and status women desire in a mate and to embody the qualities women want, such as kindness, dependability and physical fitness.”
Note that survival is also an effective motivator for acquiring resources and status as well as the traits mentioned if only to work in a group or evade conflicts. Women could simply be more receptive to traits that would aid survival, which is something both sexes desire. In other words, men’s motivations for obtaining status and resources might not just be motivated by female approval.
Much like the spiders described in the first chapter, both sexes try to find short-cuts to attract the opposite sex. Men may deceive by posing next to expensive cars, wearing expensive items of clothing, or even posing with attractive women in order to impress other women. Women may deceive by ‘catfishing’ whereby fake photos of an attractive woman are presented on a dating site and then used to fraud the victim in some way. Indeed, Dr. Buss writes:
“Neither sex has a monopoly on deception. One study found that an astonishing 81 percent of online dating profiles contained at least one lie about a verifiable characteristic such as age, height or weight.”
The book veers into more feminist-tinged territory with the idea that men are particularly attracted to women deemed to be ‘exploitable’, reflecting that perpetrators will target people they consider to be more vulnerable. This is true not just for sexual assault but for many crimes. Traits that favour exploitability include low intelligence and being younger. Evidence of this purportedly comes from men perceiving women who are intelligent as attractive in a long-term relationship but not in a more short-term scenario.
I don’t entirely agree with this argument about intelligence and exploitation as it is possible for somebody to be intelligent but also naïve and suggestable – especially younger people. While it’s true that more intelligent people will be better equipped mentally to avoid being taken advantage of or manipulated, a young, educated woman from a protected, privileged background may be less prepared to deal with certain kinds of men than a less educated, less intelligent woman from a poorer background who may have experience of predatory, exploitative men. This is the difference between a woman who is ‘booksmart’ and a woman who is ‘streetsmart’.
Alcohol consumption is another way in which women can be vulnerable; it is easier for them to get drunk as they have less of the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase than men. It is not pointed out in the book, however, that people individually, and regardless of sex, can differ in how much alcohol they can consume before becoming drunk as some men can be classed as ‘lightweights’ and so can equally be exploited. Here again, the book presents women as poor, helpless victims and men as potential predators and perpetrators. Dr. Buss writes:
“Because alcohol stimulates bonding endorphins, women are more likely to misread interactions and relationships with men when intoxicated. They overestimate the likelihood of an emotional bond and a long-term relationship – what Dr. Andy Thomson calls the Prosecco perception bias.”
Since alcohol affects our judgement and increases our impulsivity, which would favour short-term desires over long-term ones, I’m not entirely sure how accurate that statement is, but it’s perhaps not a good idea for women, or anyone, to believe that they’ll make sound decisions whilst drunk. A good piece of advice to women would be to watch how much they are drinking so they are less likely to find themselves in unfortunate situations. This may nowadays be misconstrued as victim blaming.
David Buss continues the ‘female victim, male perpetrators’ perception by describing male college students drinking as “high testosterone, alcohol-fueled men” as if they are big bad wolves preying on Little Red Riding Hoods. But if young college women were so vulnerable and afraid of their male peers, they would never go out at all.
In reality, women can take advantage of sexually aroused men just as some men may take advantage of women. The author concedes this, noting that women can benefit from short-term mating via access to resources, but describes them as “exploiting the exploiters” as if such women are simply retaliating towards male offenders.
Indicative of what could be called ‘feminist thinking’, Dr. Buss writes:
“Women’s manner of dress does not excuse men legally or morally from being guilty of sexual exploitation, although historically it has been misused by defense lawyers for this purpose.”
But this depends on what we would define as ‘sexual exploitation’, such as if a man and a woman had mutually consented to sex or not. A woman who dresses a certain way, particularly on a night out, is inviting certain attention from the opposite sex even if she may not consciously intend to do so. If she is sexually assaulted, it doesn’t mean that she ‘deserves’ to be, but dressing in certain ways will generate responses she may or may not want. Is it wrong to expect women to have some responsibility over this?
The book turns to the more interesting topic of women’s attraction to men high on the aforementioned ‘Dark Triad’ traits (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism) which is called the ‘bad boy paradox’. This is apparently evident in dating profiles as such men are rated higher by women than men lacking in these traits. One explanation for this is that Dark Triad men are often charming and confident which conveys high mate value. This makes sense as this is what women find attractive in men in general. These traits would have also benefitted men in surviving our more chaotic and unstable ancestral past. Women who mated with such men may have passed these traits on and had ‘sexy sons’ who passed them on as well. However the author notes:
“The hypothesis would have to pass a high empirical hurdle, because these reproductive benefits would have to outweigh the costs that women vulnerable to high-level Dark Triad men are known to suffer.”
The phenomenon and the possible explanation behind it make sense to me, but I still have issues with how personality traits like the Dark Triad are ‘measured’ by psychologists, since they appear to be based on a subjective assessment. It is hard to imagine people high in psychopathy, narcissism or Machiavellianism being willing and able to give an accurate evaluation of themselves, in much the same way that it would be hard for a compulsive liar to admit they are a compulsive liar. It wouldn’t be surprising, after all, if compulsive liars were high on the Dark Triad traits! I doubt a genuine psychopath, if asked if he was psychopathic, would reply: “Why, yes. Yes I am” although this of course is an extreme example.
In this section, some of the statements used as measurements of the Dark Triad traits, which people are asked how much they agree with, are presented. Nevertheless, a lot of these statements are, in my opinion, hints of the traits at best.
For psychopathy, the statements presented include: ‘payback needs to be quick and nasty’, ‘people who mess with me always regret it’ and ‘I like to pick on losers.’ Whilst these statements correlate with psychopathy, I think you could agree with these without necessarily having psychopathic traits. For me, the closest example to a psychopathic mindset given is ‘I’ll say anything to get what I want’.
Similarly, statements measuring narcissism include: ‘I like to be the centre of attention’ and ‘I know that I’m special because everyone keeps telling me so’. While these are certainly how a narcissist might think, I don’t know if a genuine narcissist would be so self-aware, or so honest and self-critical, to agree with them. For Machiavellianism, statements provided include: ‘It’s wise to keep track of information that you can use against people later’ and ‘make sure you plan benefits you, not others’ which might hint at the trait but, to me, needs to be more specific to be an accurate assessment.
Chapter 3: Trouble in paradise
In Chapter 3, the book delves into the conflicts that can arise after a relationship has been established. Any long-term relationship inevitably has its struggles and conflicts as couples have to live together and face life’s trials and tribulations.
In the case of sexual conflict, one problem that can present itself is the changing desirability or ‘mate value’ of one partner relative to the other as nothing remains static. As people grow older, they may become less attractive to their partner and face competition from younger suitors. Situations can also change and make one partner more attractive and, crucially, more attractive to others. The case of Dorothy Stratten, for example, highlights what can happen when someone’s mate value increased to the detriment of their partner. She became an actress and left her husband Paul Snider for the director Peter Bogdanovich in a classic case of ‘trading up’. In response, Snider murdered her and then killed himself.
According to the book though, even stable and committed relationships can cultivate people who act as ‘back-up mates’ in case the relationship turns sour or suddenly ends due to death or other circumstances. These back-up mates can turn into affairs and Dr. Buss notes that men and women may pursue affairs for differing reasons. As already stated, men may pursue an affair or affairs to satisfy their desire for sexual variety whereas women may have an affair to obtain a ‘better’ partner. David Buss writes:
“women are more likely to cite emotional involvement as a reason for the affair. Men are more likely to cite pure sexual pleasure.”
It is also claimed that women are more likely than men to fall in love with the person they are having an affair with. While it is not stated in this book, this is basically the principle that ‘women want love and men want sex’ which is a conclusion that a lot of people come to. In my opinion, this is a flawed assumption. The reason I believe this is because of the declining marriage and birth rates that have accompanied ‘women’s liberation’. Additionally, there has been a rise in births outside of marriage and the growth of areas described in one report as ‘men deserts’ in many towns and cities.
This is in no way to say that these developments are all women’s fault, but if most women naturally desired long-term relationships, wouldn’t giving women ‘more control over their bodies’ result in them choosing men who also wanted long-term relationships? Also, why did societies in the past stigmatise women who had children outside of marriage or without a father around? The feminist answer would be because of ‘patriarchal oppression of women’ but the plausible answer would be that without these stigmas, some women would have chosen to have sex and get pregnant without thinking of the consequences. These women are now usually provided welfare in place of a husband meaning they are, effectively, ‘married to the state.’ It is likely there were women in these circumstances who didn’t deserve to be shunned, but these attitudes must have emerged for a reason.
To be clear, I don’t believe men in these situations were always innocent and blameless. It is important to point out that men who impregnated and abandoned women were stigmatised as well so this is not about ‘female victim blaming’ or misogyny.
According to Michelle Langley in her book Why Women Cheat, although women claim they want an emotionally involved man, they may in fact pursue men who are not interested in them, at least not in the romantic sense, as this creates tension and excitement which may link with women’s attraction to ‘bad boys’. In contrast, a man who openly shows his love for a woman may appear needy and too dependent on them. Obviously, many women also desire love and commitment from men but this shows that, in both sexes, there is often a disconnect between our sexual desires and our romantic ones. The author does point out though that women who have affairs may also score high on the Dark Triad traits.
Returning to the book, Dr. Buss writes that humans have evolved strategies to switch mates if needed in response to environmental changes:
“we come from a long and unbroken line of ancestors who went through mating crises – ancestors who monitored mate value, tracked satisfaction with their current unions, cultivated backups, appraised alternatives, and switched mates when conditions proved propitious.”
Mate value can be thought of as a balance between the value one person places on themselves and the value they place on their partner. This is called a ‘welfare trade-off ratio’ or WTR. If WTR is balanced then the relationship is likely to be stable and healthy as neither person is self-centred nor entirely dependent on the other person. In long-term relationships, mate value may change suddenly or regularly fluctuate. An example given is women’s ovulation cycle which may make them more attractive due to physical changes like a lower waist-to-hip ratio.
The so-called ‘double standard’ in attitudes towards sexual infidelity might also be a source of conflict. Generally, people consider women cheating on a man as worse than a man cheating on a woman which some women consider to be wrong. The author states this is partly due to men’s desire for sexual variety but does not mention that another reason is that men reasonably fear paternity fraud if they discover their wives have cheated on them with another man although he mentions this earlier in the book. There is also a ‘me versus thee’ double standard in that people tend to judge their partner kissing, performing a sex act or having sex with someone else more harshly than they would if they did it.
The final source of conflict covered in this chapter is sexual withdrawal which is usually thought of as done by women as a way to control men. This is true, but Dr. Buss points out that men can also do this to women. Many cultures expect there to be sexual relations in marriages so one person denying their other half sex, or having sex with somebody else, is obviously considered to be wrong. Historically, adultery committed by women was considered a ‘property violation’ of one man against another which suggests to some that this was a form of patriarchal oppression of women. David Buss falls back into feminist thinking when he writes:
“the male sexual psychology that gave rise to the laws to begin with – specifically male sexual proprietariness – continues to be fully activated within committed relationships. Cultural
shifts towards greater gender equality within relationships have dramatically reduced men’s entitlements. Western marriage no longer grants men unconstrained sexual access whenever and wherever they want. Women within committed relationships have the rights and freedoms to consent to sex or to withdraw sex. And this gives women a critical lever of power – the power to reward and the power to punish.”
This implies men created such laws as a kind of ‘ego trip’ to exert power over women rather than to deal with many of the conflicts David Buss described in this chapter. Since men are the outsiders of reproduction, their relationship with their children can be threatened if women are not honest about their sexual discretions, and many men would assume that their wives want to have sex with them and would, understandably, be suspicious if they didn’t – over the long-term at least. Withdrawing sex may allow women to get what they want but this can also create resentment as the man might emotionally withdraw. As already mentioned, men can also withdraw sex which can lead to women fearing the relationship is falling apart or there’s another woman involved.
Underlying many of these relationship conflicts is feelings of jealousy which is explored in the next chapter.
To be continued…