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Sexual Bullying and the Power of Norms
David Sloan Wilson
David Sloan Wilson
is the SUNY Distinguished Professor of Biology and Anthropology at Binghamton University and Arne Næss Chair in Global Justice and the Environment at the University of Oslo

Suddenly, it has become unacceptable for powerful men to bully less powerful women and men into performing unwanted sexual acts. While president Trump, the Groper-in-Chief, might be immune, other captains of government, industry, entertainment, and even academia are being toppled from their pedestals. The offenders span all political and religious divides. Some deny the allegations, others employ the “boys will be boys” defense, and others such as Louis C.K. and Alex Baldwin plead guilty and express contrition, throwing themselves on the mercy of the court of public opinion.

What’s going on? Not the bullying behavior, which has taken place since time immemorial, but the reaction to bullying behavior. What previously was tolerated, if not actually approved, has become inadmissible, like imposing physical harm and theft of property. A norm is being created and enforced, much more strongly than before.

Evolutionary theory can tell us a lot about norms. In any animal or human society, social status can be achieved in two ways: by physical intimidation or by cultivating a reputation as a cooperator. Status is taken in the first case and bestowed in the second case. In most animal societies, status is mostly of the taken variety. If overt bullying is rare, it is because the hierarchy was previously established and is no longer challenged. In most hunter-gatherer societies and many other small-scale human groups, status is mostly of the bestowed variety. Bullying doesn’t work because those being bullied have the collective power to resist.1,2

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Unsurprisingly, societies where status is bestowed work much better than societies where status is taken. In fact, the human ability to bestow status and resist having it taken is arguably our most distinctive quality as a species and a precursor to most of our other distinctive qualities, which are all forms of cooperation that are disrupted by bullying behaviors.

Norms establish what behaviors count as acceptable for any given group and therefore the deciding criteria for bestowing status. Any behavior can potentially qualify as a norm, giving groups tremendous flexibility in how they behave in any given environment. Also, norms dramatically constrain behavioral variation among individuals within groups while amplifying behavioral variation among groups, making groups the dominant unit of selection in cultural evolution.3-5

Norms operate most strongly and effortlessly in small human groups with a relatively equal balance of power among their members, which was the most common social environment for most of our evolutionary history. However, “effortless” does not mean “simple”. Seeing is effortless for us, but thanks only to an enormous amount of computational machinery that evolved by genetic evolution and operates beneath our conscious awareness. The same can be said for the psychological mechanisms required to suppress bullying behaviors, bestow status on cooperators, and establish norms that define what counts as cooperative behavior. The great French social theorist Alexis d’Toqueville got it right when he said “The village or township is the only association so perfectly natural that, wherever a number of men are collected, it seems to constitute itself.”6

Large human societies, such as 19th Century France and America that were Tocqueville’s main objects of interest, are different. They too function as largely cooperative units based on the establishment and enforcement of norms, but the underlying mechanisms are based on both the genetic psychological adaptations that evolved in the context of small-scale society and culturally evolved mechanisms that evolved over a period of roughly 10,000 years. When this history is examined in detail, it can be seen as an eternal contest between status of taken variety, benefitting the elites at the expense of the common good, and status of the bestowed variety, leading to the restraint of power and norms that benefit the common good.7

Let’s drop in on a previous era in human history where sexual bullying was even more rampant. Have you ever wondered why the early Christian church took a strong stand against homosexual behavior? It turns out that this was part of a broader cultural trend that had nothing to do with Christianity per se. Homosexuality back then was all about power and not gender. According to Craig A. Williams, author of “Roman Homosexuality”:

Roman assumptions about masculine identity rested, as we will see, on a binary opposition: men, the penetrators, as opposed to everyone else, the penetrated. The penetrated included women, boys, and slaves; adult Roman men who displayed a desire to be penetrated were consequently labeled deviants and anomalies. This hierarchical structure, in which sexual practices are so clearly implicated in broader issues of power, reflects a worldwide tendency according to which acceptable sexual partners for adult men of the dominant class never belong to the same social grouping as themselves; they are either females or males who are in turn either boys or men not fully gendered as “men”.

In other words, both heterosexuality and homosexuality were all about power taken and not power bestowed. Since the powerful segment of society dictated the norms, sex with men was openly accepted and compared to sex with women, like comparing the virtues of different types of wine.

What happened to cause a shift in these norms? The following lengthy passage from “Bisexuality in the Ancient World” by Eva Cantarella and Cormac O. Cuilleanain, based on the work of the French archeologist and historian Paul Veyne, is worth quoting in full:

Paul Veyne writes that between the age of Cicero and the century of the Antonines, Rome saw a sea-change in sexual relations, by the end of which pagan morality was identical to future Christian morality of marriage. And this transformation, he argues, happened quite independently of any Christian influence. When Christian morality emerged, it merely reiterated (one might say took over) the new late pagan morality. According to Veyne, there were two main factors in this transformation: the first was the move from a “competitive aristocracy” to an “aristocracy of service;” the second was a phenomenon which Veyne defines as ‘reactive self-repression’ on the part of the plebs.
During the first two centuries of the Christian era, Veyne observes, the Roman ruling class underwent profound change. The heads of the different family groups (which for centuries led groups opposed to each other, each of which saw its prestige and power in its ability to impose its will on others) became in substance servants of the prince. Their prestige and success now depended on their ability to maintain good relations with their peers. And this brought a far-reaching change in their psychological attitudes and behavior.
Formerly, the head of a family group—whose sexuality was based on rampant aggression—had no problems or remorse in subjecting his wife, female slaves, and male slaves to his will. The new nobleman was no longer capable of such behavior. Outside the family, in society, he was part of a network of equal relations, and dealt with people whom he was necessarily obliged to respect. In this new situation, his morality changed completely.

In other words, the shift in sexual norms was part of a broader shift from status taken to status bestowed, which allowed cooperation to take place at a larger scale in Roman society than it did before.

What was normative for the Roman elites is still unthinkable today, although Milo Yiannopoulos tested the boundaries with his defense of pedophilia. Homosexuality has acquired a consensual form that would be unrecognizable to the Romans. Nevertheless, modern society is suffering from an excess of status taken, calling for norms that reestablish the primacy of status bestowed. I therefore regard the new norm prohibiting sexual bullying as a welcome development, with one important caveat. Allegations of sexual bullying can become a weapon in its own right unless they are validated. So far, the press seems to be exercising responsibility in this regard, drawing upon multiple sources, validating accounts, and so on. Insofar as sexual bullying has been an “open secret” in the past, based on the fact that strong norms against it were not in place, validation is often not a problem.

While we’re at it, why stop at sexual bullying? In Norway, a CEO who earned several hundred times the salary of the average employee would be regarded as reprehensible. Norms such as these are one reason why Norway functions so well at the national scale. Let’s work toward a worldwide consensus that obscene income disparities are cases of status taken and not status bestowed, therefore in need of normative control. It’s worth noting that orthodox economic theory is tone deaf about the very concept of norms. Don’t take my word for it. In 2007, Nobel prize laureate George Akerlof delivered his presidential address to the American Economic Association titled “The Missing Motivation of Macroeconomics 8”. The missing motivation was norms. This is yet another example of how “This View of Life”—a worldview informed by evolutionary theory—makes sense out of what other perspectives have obscured.

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References:

  1. Boehm, C. (2011). Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. New York: Basic Books.
  2. Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. J. (2001). The evolution of prestige: freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(3), 165–196. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1090-5138(00)00071-4
  3. Wilson, D. S. (2015). Does Altruism Exist? Culture, Genes, and the Welfare of Others. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  4. Richerson, P. J., & Boyd, R. (2005). Not by genes alone: how culture transformed human evolution. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  5. Henrich, J. (2015). The Secret of Our Success: How culture is driving human evolution, domesticating our species, and making us smarter. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  6. Tocqueville, A. de. (1835). Democracy in America. New York: Penguin Classic.
  7. Turchin, P. (2015). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 years of war made humans the greatest cooperators on earth. Storrs, CT: Baresta Books.
  1. Akerlof, G. A. (2007). The missing motivation in macroeconomics. American Economics Review, 97, 3–36.
9 Comments

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9 Comments

  1. Peter Chapman says:

    Is there any evidence pointing to Trump being a groper? Has anyone made a complaint? The media in both the US and UK is so overwhelmingly anti-Trump that, were someone to come forward, they would be propelled straight onto the front pages.

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      Have there not been numerous allegations against Trump, not to speak of his own boastful account? In any case, I wouldn’t want this one person to distract from the main argument.

  2. Rory Short says:

    From status bestowed on leaders, like Nelson Mandela and others in the early years of our freedom we have definitely shifted, under Jacob Zuma, to a status taken mode. I say this because JZ is reliant on patronage networks to maintain his power and position

    • David Sloan Wilson says:

      It is an unfortunate but common pattern for the social control required for status bestowed to assert itself over status taken to erode, so that social change is required for it to be reasserted again. A clearer theoretical understanding can help us remain vigilant.

  3. Professor Ferrel Christensen says:

    I am deeply troubled when an intellectually responsible source such as this one quickly joins a moral panic. Abusive sexual behavior has NOT been socially tolerated–as is best proven by how quickly this panic is spreading. The genuinely abusive behavior has been behind closed doors, or involved uniquely isolated enclaves of power. It needs to be, and is being, (over-) addressed. But more in evidence just now is the madness of crowds.

    • Rory Short says:

      I am afraid i do not agree with Ferrel. Of course abusive sexual behaviour had to take place behind closed doors for two reasons. One being that it is a social norm for sexual activity to take place out of the public eye. Two, that very fact opens the way to sexual misbehaviour which would not be condoned by the community if it really confronted it. At last that is what is happening with #metoo etc.. We are sexual beings and until we fully and openly embrace that fact not only in our private spaces but also in the public domain we will not be able to fully benefit from our sexuality as is true every other human attribute.

  4. Rory Short says:

    “While we’re at it, why stop at sexual bullying? In Norway, a CEO who earned several hundred times the salary of the average employee would be regarded as reprehensible. Norms such as these are one reason why Norway functions so well at the national scale. ”

    The social power of money lies in its universal exchangeability for goods and/or services. That is why the accumulation of money gives the accumulator of money increased social power. The only problem I see with this is that the increased power is not individually bestowed and is thus open to abuse. With the aid of modern technology we can change this however. By attaching lists of the identities of successive holders of every Unit of Currency[UoC] to each UoC the anonymity of money would no longer be a given. Then a person being offered a UoC in payment for a good or service could interrogate the list of previous holders of the UoC and decide whether they wanted to accept it in payment or not. This would bring the bestowing of the social power of money under the control of the individual rather than giving it to money itself as is presently the case.

  5. David Sloan Wilson says:

    Disagree with me if you like, but please acknowledge that my argument about norm shifts is intellectually responsible!

  6. David G says:

    I agree with you, David, both for your intellectually responsible argument and especially your points about power taken vs. power bestowed. When status, influence, or wealth are taken (or perceived to have been taken) unfairly, people protest through accusations of corruption and exploitation. This can work well in small communities. Not so much in huge institutions.

    I would add that ‘bullying’ spreads in far more pervasive and often invisible ways than our media has so far exposed. People and institutions that are supposed to maintain equality and justice (e.g. human resource divisions, police, courts, investigative councils) are often either complicit with leaders’ abuses or silenced through intimidation.

    A society in which the abused cannot speak and be heard is not just unequal, it tends to be one that silences and/or stigmatizes both the abused and those who defend them. Stigmatization uses previously established, undesirable qualities to disempower people who are already suffering. A man who has been raped fears being viewed as a homosexual. A woman who has been raped risks being labeled a slut. People who reveal abuse and corruption have, quite often, been targeted as trouble makers, traitors, or criminals.

    The power taken (and abused) by our own Joseph McCarthy rested on an already heavily stigmatized category in the United States. His accusations against supposed communists in the US government, military, media, etc. His victims lost their jobs, allies, and reputations as the people around them distanced themselves, or suffer similar treatment. To speak against him was to admit your guilt.

    To this end, a ‘new norm’ would require new perspectives on stigmatization – I’m thinking Robert Kurzban’s work on stigma would help us here, along with classic arguments by Erving Goffman. It seems like we are entering a period in which being a bully is now more stigmatizing than exposing him, and perhaps we will also see an end to the stigma of being a ‘victim’. While these recent revelations have certainly toppled some powerful manipulators, it is – I think – the protective systems of law, policing, human resources, social work etc. can make fear of punishment into a real deterrent for those who abuse their status.