Dissecting the Modern American Male Win or Woo Returns: Debunking the Sexual Exploitation Theory Yoav Fisher

Boy, am I ever excited to write about this!

Over the last two weeks there has been a little internet spark surrounding a pair of interesting academic pieces that address “sexual exploitation theory.”

The theory states that human males have evolved an ability to seek out females that are more vulnerable, and therefore more prone to being “bedded” (for lack of a better word).  In order to test this, researchers from the first article (full paper here) got a bunch of college kids at UT Austin to make a list of what attributes indicate a woman who is more receptive to being hit on.  Then they showed a different batch of UT Austin guys photos with said attributes to see which ones guys prefer.

Guess what? Photos where the girl looks “immature,” “easy,” “intoxicated,” “reckless” or “promiscuous” were more attractive to the guys. Shocker, right? And another shocker – photos where the girl looks “intelligent,” “shy,” “old” or “anxious” were less attractive. (Makes you wonder if grad students are running out of things to research…)

The second article, also from psychology grad students at UT Austin (full paper here), extended the first study and found that guys who are more promiscuous and have less empathy are more attracted to these “exploitable” girls. Again, I don’t think any of us need an academic study to prove this point, we see it happening every night we go out.

Interestingly, there has been a lot of web chatter about these papers, most recently in Slate and in Gawker.  But because I am such a fan of the biology/evolution of dating, I had to share my thoughts with you about this.

As I wrote previously, from a biological/evolutionary perspective, it is typically the female who chooses the male. The males either try to win over the woman through their physical strength or woo the females through charm. In birds, mammals and most primates, it is the female who chooses the mate because the males will “bed” anything that moves, not the other way around.

Let’s say “sexual exploitation theory” is true, that males choose the dumbest female of the species because they are the easiest to mate with.  That would mean the offspring from that pairing would be dumb, and so would the following generation and so forth.  This contradicts almost everything we know about evolution: The strongest and smartest survive, not the dumbest.  Humans evolved from primates because of increasing intellectual capacity from generation to generation, not the other way around.  It’s survival of the fittest, not extinction of the inadequate.  Therefore, I don’t see any biological basis for the academic papers.

Secondly, back when we were all hunter/gatherers, females and males both had to work hard to survive.  There were no Ladies Nights and free shots of tequila thousands of years ago, and vulnerable females quickly perished.  So I don’t see any evolutionary basis for “sexual exploitation theory” either.

Therefore, I think the authors of the academic papers are missing one key ingredient in their hypothesis:  This whole phenomenon of “sexual exploitation theory” is a totally new cultural construct:  Guys today have been trained to think this way.  Blame pornography, blame the internet, blame Brittany Spears’ music videos, but The Modern American Male of today has it engrained in his head that certain women are more “gettable” than others.  They think that just because a girl is out having a drink with friends she is “easy” because society today has trained him to think so.

And so, ladies, what is the moral to the story?  Guys who only hit on drunken sloppy girls should be avoided at all costs because they have the highest correlation to being insensitive douchebags.

Now where is my honorary doctorate from the psych department at UT Austin?

Thoughts?

Bridesmaids movie photo via Sandwich John Films

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  1. I think you bring up some excellent points in this article; however, the theory does hold some legitimacy because as it showed in the data tables of the paper, men were also assessed on how these traits compared in a short time versus long term mate. Intelligence, for example, got bashed in the short term relationship, and was treated completely oppositely in the long term. While it being somewhat obvious in and of itself, hookups are nothing but men looking for pleasure. When they actually want a family or children, they look for characteristics that would be favored by natural selection.to post a comment

  2. As a disclaimer, I’m a psychology graduate student (not associated with UT Austin or David Buss the main researcher) with an interest in biology and evolution. I think you raise some good point, we should always be evaluating our theories in a real world context as well as our very contrived academic environment. However, I think we need to keep some things in mind particularly when evaluating evolutionary research.

    First, in defense of all psychology researchers, we get that the public doesn’t always see the point in conducting a study on phenomena that we all may think of general common sense. But in order to explore said phenomena or thing that the general public may accept we have to break it down and conduct experiments, and do research. I think one of the best explanations of science I’ve ever heard is that science is like a wall, each paper, each piece of evidence is like a brick. We add a new brick when we find new things to support a theory, and can tear it down if the bricks and evidence aren’t well supported. Thus, take each paper or each new finding as just one piece of evidence for a particular idea. One publication does not make a solid theory, years of excellent research makes a good theory.

    Second, I think a common misconception when talking about evolution is the Darwin maxim of “survival of the fittest”. Fitness is actually how much you can reproduce viable offspring and their survivability (and can actually be calculated in population genetics and other areas of biology). Therefore, unfortunately fitness does not equal intelligence, it means your ability to reproduce good offspring. I think you make a good point that the biological basis of the papers is questionable and there has been some good academic debate about applying evolutionary theory to the current population (I have to admit I’m not an expert on this theory and cannot claim a side).

    I’ll step off my little science soapbox, I just caution making any grand statements about theories. I absolutely commend you for questioning research and the general media response to said scientific research! I think the dialogue between the scientific community and the public is often hazy with both sides feeling like they are misunderstood.

    Side note: if you are super interested in evolutionary theory and applying it to the real world read David Sloan Wilson’s, “Evolutionary for Everyone: How Darwin’s Theory Can Change the Way We Think About Our Lives”. I’m not associated with him, or trying to plug, it is just a good book that uses great examples about how to apply evolutionary thinking to the real world.

  3. I think your mistake is to think that these studies are researching males mating for breeding purposes when in fact is males are looking to satisfy to their sexual needs only with pleasure.
    These males look for vulnerable easy girls not to mate and multiply but just for pure satisfaction.
    Dolphins are another form of mammals that only seeks females for sexual pleasure and guess what? they too look for vulnerable easy preys. So -though I agree this study doesn’t say anything new- for you to classify this study as having no biological basis or to say the researches are missing a key ingredient based on the fact that it contradicts breeding techniques it’s completely inaccurate and unrelated to the study.

    • also, i would be interested to find out more information about the type of males that participated in the study… their majors, their age, their relationship status, number of sexual partners… stuff like that… and then seeing what men from ‘different’ backgrounds perceive to be ‘attractive’…. you know!!??

  4. Good post!!!

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