So if evolution did shape human sexuality, why do we not see men grooming themselves to show off their reproductive fitness to women? Why is it that women are the ones who are trying to show off to men? And under what conditions might we expect to see a turnaround or, at least, an evening of the playing field? To get the answers to these questions, we will look a little farther afield in the animal kingdom.
Access to reproduction is a biological compulsion. Organisms that do not seek to reproduce themselves do not survive. Because females contribute the majority of reproductive capital to the process, males are mostly seeking access to female resources. A study of reproductive strategies has revealed a basic hierarchy that most males will follow in attempting to secure reproductive access:
- Brute Force can be used in species where sexual dimorphism favors the male, which is actually relatively rare, at least partly to prevent this strategy.
- Resource Brokering is used by males that cannot secure reproductive access by force.
- Honest Signs of Genetic or Reproductive Fitness are very diverse, but can include anything from a display of elaborate plumage to a test of strength.
The reason why males would follow this hierarchy is clear: they move from greatest control over the reproductive process to least. Males and females are constantly in a struggle over who picks the partner. Males want to choose females and females want to choose males. With brute force, a male is essentially able to access whatever female he selects at any time. This is not, however, a reliable reproductive strategy in any species that requires female care of the offspring. If a female has a child that she does not believe is a good investment of time and effort, she may either kill or abandon the infant. That this is socially acceptable is shown by the exception for rape built into most anti-abortion laws.
The Dominance of Resource Brokering
Humans live in a manner unlike any other species on earth. Our lives are highly resource-intensive. Although we serve many of the same basic needs as other animals, including food, water, and shelter, the way we serve them is very complex. Think of all the resources that go into putting food on your table: you have to have a job, which is often far from home, requiring transportation, and that job probably depends on a supply of electricity, at least, and has certain demands in terms of dress not to mention skills that require years of training to obtain.
All of these complications make raising a human child more resource-intensive than raising a child of any other species. In fact, it is so resource-intensive that the resource capital necessary actually outweighs the reproductive capital contributed by the parents. As a result of this disparity, human males were able to gain control over the reproductive process by excluding women from the resource production process. Patriarchal property systems and laws against women’s ownership of property became the dominant tools for the subjugation of women.
Resource brokering also became a dominant feature of male attractiveness. Older men were seen as attractive because older men were more likely to have acquired resources. In addition, the tendency of older men to conspicuously carry fat in the front of their bodies was a strategy to show off a man’s access to resources. It was a way of saying, “Hey, I have enough food for a wife and kids.”
On the other hand, women, not allowed to broker resources were forced to depend on two other strategies: indirect resource brokering and enhanced signs of genetic fitness. Indirect resource brokering in the form of dowries is a very important characteristic in nearly every society where resources are limited, where even a strong, healthy, and wealthy man may have difficulty providing for a number of children. The main marker of genetic fitness is attractiveness, and the disparity of feminine effort into being attractive comes from the need a woman has to show that her reproductive capital is worth the resources the man will invest.
The End of Resource Brokering?
However, we may be seeing the end of masculine resource brokering as a result of two major developments. The first major development is the advent of technology which has made resource acquisition much less dependent on characteristics that favor the masculine body and mind, and more dependent on skills equally possessed by both men and women if not tending toward the feminine. Second, women have been given the right to use their skills in obtaining and maintaining resources for themselves. This combination has given women an unprecedented ability to raise children without the aid of a man. If a woman does not necessarily need a man to raise her children, resource brokering loses its reliability as a strategy for obtaining reproductive access.
“Honest” Signs of Genetic Fitness
The most common marker of genetic fitness is attractiveness. Whereas men previously counted on resource brokering to outweigh any signs of genetic fitness, women are tending more and more to pick men on the basis of attractiveness alone.
It is not an accident that Brad Pitt has become the type for the modern American male. His breakthrough role in Thelma & Louise, one of the characteristic documents of modern American feminism, is a defining one for the transformation of a man’s role in the reproductive comedy. In Thelma & Louise, Pitt’s character enacts many of the tropes utilized in characterizing women. An attractive young man, he uses his charm to gain Thelma’s (Geena Davis) trust, then taking her money. In this exchange the reproductive bargain is reversed, with the male using his genetic fitness to broker resources from the woman. Although such reversals have always been an opportunistic strategy of young men, who take advantage of the resources of other men to have the cuckoos they create with attractive wives raised for free, we can expect men to bank more and more on their appearance as this trend continues.
Evidence of a Change?
In addition to cultural texts like Thelma & Louise that show this transformation, we can deduce that it is occurring by a broad spectrum of trends. From the metrosexual wave to the generally increased emphasis on “beefcake” men, who are now changing out with almost the same frequency as young Hollywood actresses, there definitely seems to have been a ground swell in terms of promoting male attractiveness. Cosmetic products for men have begun to be advertized with ever greater frequency and insistence on youth, virility, and attractiveness, more traditionally feminine emphases. Most telling, perhaps, is the dramatic spike in cosmetic surgery procedures for men. From liposuction to blepharoplasty, men are putting more and more effort into looking better as a means of attracting women.
As the bonds of resource brokering continue to weaken, we can expect a further shift in the way men approach the whole reproductive comedy. Women will be choosier, and men will have to be more giving in terms of what they bring to the table in a relationship.
If you are a man who thinks his appearance doesn’t have the raw sex appeal necessary to win over a liberated woman, contact a local plastic surgeon for a consultation