Prominent conservative political pundit Ben Shapiro has waded into waters in which he cannot swim—human nature and sexual violence. We have invited Dr. Agustin Fuentes, an expert in human nature and human evolution, to refute Shapiro’s argument that the abundance of recent sexual abuse and harassment allegations (#metoo) is directly related to the breakdown of conservative cultural values (or as he states it, cultural values that conservatives have not created but have advocated) at the hands of the political Left. We acknowledge that sexual violence occurs across the continuum of gender. But, Shapiro’s column is written with a heteronormative perspective. Thus, Fuentes’ response is also heteronormative in perspective because it approaches the evolution of humans and the arguments around sexual violence between men and women, as traditionally defined. That said, we advise that this post (and pages it links to) contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors. –JMO
By Agustin Fuentes, PhD, University of Notre Dame
A recent column at the National Review by Ben Shapiro bemoans reactions to the spike in reports of sexual harassment and sexual assault. In particular, Shapiro writes “Men are built with a certain capacity for Sin… men tend to see women as potential sex objects and, without social boundaries, will treat women that way.” He suggests that the current plague of sexual abusers is, in part, due to the abandoning of conservative cultural values (traditions) that keep men in check.
In making these claims, Shapiro demonstrates his clear lack of understanding of human nature and disregards our evolutionary history. Shapiro has strong academic credentials as an attorney (with degrees from UCLA and Harvard). Unfortunately, he does not have the credentials to write with authority about human nature. This is highly problematic because he has over 800,000 Twitter followers, his podcasts routinely get 750,000 hits per day, and his website the Daily Wire garners over 80 million visitors per month. Shapiro has a voice, and people listen. They shouldn’t in this case…
Having a Y chromosome may facilitate certain patterns of sexual abuse and coercion, but it does not cause them. Humans have a hell of a lot more agency, and responsibility, than that.
Sexual violence and coercion, sexual harassment, public masturbation, sexual intimidation, abusive comments, and unwanted touching, are neither explained, nor justified, by invoking male “nature” or “sin.”
Let me break this down.
First, let us acknowledge that men commit sexual abuse at much higher rates than women. But, it is not that all men do so equally or simply because they have a penis. Why humans abuse is a very serious and complicated subject, and our biology is only one facet of that complexity.
Second, if sexual aggression is really core to male nature, then humans already would be extinct. Non-consensual sex (rape) is a very poor reproductive strategy for a species to employ in the long term. Rape is not more likely to result in fertilization than consensual sex, and there are many ways pre- and post-birth that a woman (or others) can make a coerced reproductive outcome be negative. And, rape is dangerous. In many human societies, if one attacks and rapes someone, that person’s family, friends, and community frequently track down the rapist and extract some form of severe punishment, often lethal or otherwise reproductive-capacity-ending, which certainly is a bad evolutionary move on the part of the rapist. So, while rape and sexual coercion do occur and are a serious problem, they are not successful reproductive strategies for a majority of male humans on this planet, in the past or in the present.
Third, orgasms can be a lot of fun, and males often have a fairly easy time achieving them…that is a biological reality. If the orgasm is the driving force (the engine of the “urge”), it can be achieved all on one’s own. But most instances of sexual aggression involve the use of power, abuse, disrespect, and control against another person, and are not just seeking to achieve an orgasm. And, many cases of sexual violence do not include an attempt at reproductive copulation. It is not as if sexuality and physical sensation have nothing to do with sexual coercion and abuse. Rather, they don’t explain, justify, drive, or even offer much insight into why it happens.
I am not stating that biology does not matter or that this is all the fault of a specific culture. Whatever we might call a human nature is really, really complicated, as are the patterns and contexts of sexual violence. I am arguing, however, via the points above, that in the case of sexual abuse, violence, and harassment, there is compelling evidence rejecting the assertion that males are naturally driven to sexually abuse females unless controlled by societal restrictions.
And what about those conservative traditions that Shapiro suggests control men? Restricting sex outside of marriage, specific rules of conduct keeping men and women ‘behaving’ around one another, and that “men would protect women in chivalrous fashion.” Well, it turns out that they are not reflective of the vast majority of human history and much of contemporary humanity. They are not even really reflective of the USA. A study of premarital sex between 1954 and 2003 concluded “[a]lmost all Americans have sex before marrying” then and now. And, a large percentage of serious sexual violence (rape) happens within the confines of the traditional marriage. Finally, the conservative “rules” that Shapiro idealizes do not prevent any of the many, many conservative men espousing those same values from the very sexual misconduct being decried.
Today we are seeing an uptick in the calling out of sexual aggressors because women, for a range of historical and contemporary reasons, are standing up for their right to be respected and not abused, and refusing to back down or shut up. Invoking “nature” or “sin” to explain the actions of sexual abusers naturalizes the actions of those abusers, diminishes their responsibility, and disempowers the women risking so much to stand up for themselves. Hopefully, Shapiro’s audience will turn to a broad range of informed voices when appropriate to see that he is out of his league in this argument.
Dr. Agustin Fuentes is professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. His current research includes cooperation and creativity in human evolution, ethnoprimatology and multispecies anthropology, evolutionary theory, and interdisciplinary approaches to human nature(s). His most recent book is The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (Dutton, 2017). Follow Agustin on Twitter.