The vulnerability gap and the collapse of courtship

Much of contemporary feminism is engaged in an unfortunate game of let’s pretend.

In any sufficiently complex and mobile species that uses conjunction of gametes to reproduce, the only evolutionary stable outcome is to have one type of gametes be small and motile (self-moving) and the other type to be large and sessile (not self-moving). Reproduction then requires the conjunction of a small gamete with a large gamete.

If there are no neuters in the species, and the species is divided into two sexes, one producing small gametes (males) and the other producing large gametes (females), then the only evolutionary stable outcome is for equal numbers of each sex, as shortage of one sex would lead to it having an evolutionary advantage, leading to production of more of that sex until the chances of being a vehicle for successful genetic replication equalise.

The existence of a small-gamete (male) sex and a large-gamete (female) sex is likely to lead to courtship behaviour, as the large gamete sex incurs more risks in reproduction. So members of the small-gamete sex have to demonstrate sufficient fitness to members of the large-gamete sex to be worth the risks of reproduction.

Courtship behaviour occurs in many species. The most extreme version being the male having to offer his body for the consumption by the female in order to mate.

Homo sapien children are, in terms of required parental investment to raise children able to also achieve successful reproduction, the most biologically expensive children in the biosphere. Among contemporary foraging populations, children do not reach calorie break-even point (providing as many calories as they consume) until around age 20. They have to be fed and taught across that time and are particularly helpless infants.

This means that Homo sapien women have particularly high risks in reproduction. This includes elevated risks of dying in childbirth due to the large heads of human babies. They also have to care for particularly helpless infants, supervising and feeding dependant children, and help socialise juveniles. (Humans have a particularly long juvenile period.)

So there are lots of risks in reproduction for Homo sapien women. It is therefore hardly surprising that human societies have tended to evolve elaborate and/or lengthy courtship practices. Given that Homo sapiens evolved grandmothers (i.e. women with particularly long post-reproduction lives, so they could invest in their children’s children, having stopped having their own children) this courtship could be also, or even mostly, directed towards the parents of the potential bride.

Lots of foraging societies required the prospective groom to provide one or two years of bride service to the parents of the prospective bride. This compensated the parents for losing services of the daughter but also demonstrated ability to provide; that the prospective groom was able to perform the food provision needed to support future children.


Courtship is therefore a product of the vulnerability gap. This vulnerability gap is not only the gap in the respective risks involved in reproduction, both child-bearing and child-rearing, it also pertains to men being about 7% taller and 13% larger, with women having on average 66% of the lower body strength of men and 52% of the upper body strength of men. (Despite the current trend towards fictional presentation of the contact-fighting capacity of men and women as equal.)

Compared to other mammals and primates, Homo sapiens are relatively under-muscled for their size, with a relatively high fat content, even in healthy, lean Homo sapiens. We are the fat ape because our very expensive brains need a high base level of energy, and our higher fat stores buffer our energy-expensive brains against fluctuations in food intake. Women have higher body fat content than men at healthy weights as they also have to cope with pregnancy and lactation: i.e. feeding a second energy-hog brain while buffering both brains’s energy intake.

Compared to other primates, Homo sapiens have relatively low levels of differences between the sexes in size and strength. This suggests that human males have invested less in muscles for mating success and more in behaviour for parenting success. (A complicated interaction, if parenting effort can also aid mating success.) In contemporary foraging societies, on average, men dominate the provision of calories to the group and overwhelmingly dominate the provision of calories to children that have been weaned.

In farming and pastoralist societies, if women were not confined to women’s quarters, and otherwise largely kept out of public spaces, and the choices of women (rather than their parents and kin) had sufficient status, various mechanisms evolved for men to signal their respect for the vulnerability gap. This was particularly a feature of Christian societies, given that Church doctrine said that a woman had to consent for a marriage to be legitimate. In Western society, the socially evolved mechanisms to show respect for the vulnerability gap involved such things as opening doors for women, letting women go first, and so on.

Muslim observers in Christian Europe were often bemused by the way Christian men publicly deferred to women. For instance, in the C17th, famed traveller Evliya Çelebi reported of Vienna that:

I saw a most extraordinary thing in this country. If the emperor encounters a woman in the street, then if he is on horseback he halts his horse and lets the woman pass. If the emperor is on foot and meets a woman, then he remains standing, in a polite posture. Then the woman greets the emperor, and he takes off his hat and shows deference to the woman, and only when she has passed does he continue on his way. This is the most extraordinary spectacle. (Bernard Lewis, The Muslim Discovery of Europe, Pp287–8.)

With (1) the legalisation of the Pill and abortion, giving women unilateral control over their own fertility, (2) advances in modern medicine massively reducing the risks of childbirth, and (3) expansion in low-risk employment opportunities outside the household available to women, the vulnerability gap has dramatically shrunk.

The result has been the collapse of courtship into a pale shadow of its former self. Indeed, the very notion became suspect. So did the everyday chivalric courtesies towards women. They were re-read as implying the incapacity of women, their lack of equality (viewed in terms of comparative anthropology, a rather extraordinary claim, as such deference was a function of the status of women being higher than in many societies), and had to go.

The decline of male enforcement

As women essentially demanded control over the policing of treatment of them, previous mechanisms whereby men enforced proper behaviour by other men towards women have largely fallen into abeyance. This may have led to a paradoxical situation of more public deference to women (and public repression of male assertiveness) yet a range of predatory behaviour by a relatively small number of men becoming less policed. It has been suggested to me that one reason for women adopting “non-binary” gender identities is that they are saying “I will not be prey”. (The evidence suggests that rape has generally become significantly less common, but there are other forms of predatory behaviour well short of rape.)

The previous normative dispensation of connecting sex strongly to marriage was a fairly easy set of norms to enforce. The enforcement was somewhat random, and was not nearly as effective at stopping rape as pretended, but it did operate to inhibit a range of predatory behaviour by men within social networks.

It is, however, hard to enforce norms that are in flux. It is even harder to enforce norms if one is not told, if men are left out of the information loop. The previous normative dispensation of sex and marriage being closely connected, with people living in relatively dense social networks, was rather simpler to enforce than one where sex and marriage had become decoupled and social networks have frayed.

Enforcement also varied with social circumstances. Lower down the socio-economic scale, people are more vulnerable to things going wrong and are more likely to deal with men with little to lose. So, normative enforcement tended to be more physical: taking the transgressing male out the back and giving him a belting.

One of the consequences of decades of feminism is that men have, on average, become happier than women. Given that (1) the obligation to provide for one’s family is increasingly shared between the sexes and (2) there are more acceptable sexual outlets, it is not surprising that male happiness has risen compared to female happiness. But being functionally relieved of the burden of enforcing norms against other men has probably also had an increased-male-happiness effect.

The other element in play is the fraying of social connections. This can be understood in terms of what I call the Granovetter effect, the importance of the pattern of connections (i.e. social capital or what anthropologists call relational wealth) for life prospects. The Granovetter effect is:

the less of other types of capital one has command of, the more important social capital, and particularly local social capital, is for life prospects.

The Granovetter effect is derived from sociologist Mark Granovetter’s classic paper The Strength of Weak Ties (~61,000 citations) and, even more, his follow-up paper The Strength of Weak Ties: a network theory revisited (~12,600 citations). The Granovetter effect happens to be particularly important in understanding the dynamics of forager societies, as patterns of connection are one of the two dominant forms of capital in forager society (the other being human capital, i.e. learnt skills).

Part of what social capital provides is enforcement of norms. As people become less connected, there is less bottom-up enforcement of norms. That gives more power to public signalling of norms but likely leaves women more vulnerable to a range of predatory behaviour.

Admitting, yet not admitting

While the vulnerability gap had shrunk, it has not vanished. Indeed, over time, the vulnerability gap has come to be (without direct acknowledgement of its existence) subject to waves of intense focus, in terms of risks of sexual harassment and assault.

On one hand, to admit the vulnerability gap seemed to be an assault on equality between the sexes. On the other hand, its reality has been the subject of intense public discourse in terms of sexual harassment and other forms of predatory or transgressive behaviour. Much of feminism seems to be playing a dual game of let’s pretend: let’s pretend there is no vulnerability gap but let’s also really talk up its (real and alleged) consequences.

Maybe the chivalric courtesies were overdone. But they were a workable way of dealing with something real. Including having men enforce them on other men. A contradictory game of let’s-pretend-there-is-no-vulnerabilty-gap-yet-let’s-also-really-worry-about-its-consequences is not the path to evolving a new, workable, way of dealing with the (smaller but still real) vulnerability gap. Nor is having such dealing being something women decide the rules for, while men just passively go along with without being invested in their enforcement.

Part of the problem is much of feminism is committed to a notion that there are no basic biological constraints, so we can write any social script we want to, if we apply enough harmonising social power to the problem. This is simply not true. There are basic biological constraints, the trick is to deal with them intelligently.

Yet there are clearly feminists who regard admitting that reality as somehow to compromise the promise of equality between the sexes. One suspects, however, that the real objection is the threat to the vision of being able to remake human society in any way one wants.

Sex is a biological reality. It is not a social construct. Sex roles, the behavioural manifestation of sex, has an element that is socially constructed, but only an element. Gender, the cultural expression of sex (i.e. narratives, framings and expectations about sex and sex roles), is even more socially constructed. Sex is binary, but gender isn’t. Nevertheless, such social construction is still an interaction between biological reality and social and other circumstances (such as technology, local ecology and the transfer of risks away from the care of children).

The basic biological constraints do not invalidate moral equality between the sexes, however large a problem they may be for over-reaching social visions seeking to achieve some transformative notion of social equality. But we will not achieve stable and effective ways of dealing with the vulnerability gap unless we acknowledge that biological constraints are real: that’s why the vulnerability gap persists.

So, the trick is to find ways to deal with its reality. Not spin around and around playing a contradictory game of pretending the vulnerability gap does not exist while being so ostentatiously concerned (from MeToo to “rape culture”) by the consequences of it existing. Especially as any effective way to deal with the reality of the vulnerability gap is going to have to be one that works for, and is enforced by, both sexes.

An accidental small businessman who reads a lot and thinks about what he reads, sometimes productively. Currently writing a book on marriage.