Evolutionary psychology has come a long way in recent years when it comes to more realistic representations of women. Far from the early theories of female sexuality, which stereotyped women as primarily coy and monogamous, newer hypotheses present a broader view. Whilst this might seem like a win for both science and feminism, a new study has found that antifeminist online communities, collectively known as the “manosphere” have been misappropriating this research to reinforce their own views.
Analyzing the manosphere
The term “manosphere” has been in the media a lot lately, whether in heated debates about the influence of self-proclaimed misogynist Andrew Tate, or documentaries exploring “incel” culture. It’s a primarily online community, connecting people all over the world in their misogynistic and anti-feminist beliefs.
Researchers from the University of Kent analyzed over 9,000 pages of online manosphere discourse, including transcripts of audio and video content, Reddit posts, books, forum threads, and web articles. They approached the analysis by asking two primary questions: what academic concepts get appropriated in the manosphere and to what end, and if so, has the scientific literature been distorted or misinterpreted?
The study found that appropriation of evolutionary psychology is ubiquitous within the manosphere, but is most shared and discussed by the “incel” (involuntary celibate) community – one entry to an online incel encyclopedia cited over 100 evolutionary and behavioral science studies from mainstream journals.
Misappropriating the dual-mating strategy theory
The bulk of the paper focuses on a case study demonstrating how the dual mating strategy hypothesis is often misused by the manosphere. This theory suggests that, on an unconscious level, ancestral women may have taken on extra partners as a way of ensuring both security from their primary partner, and “fitter” genes for their offspring from additional partners.
The researchers found that within the manosphere, this theory is frequently misunderstood as scientific truth. Although they acknowledged that not all in the community may agree with extremely misogynistic views, many members were still using the theory to reinforce or add apparent legitimacy to their negative beliefs about women and female sexuality.
As an example, one forum post read: “Further proves that foids [women] are brainless primates that can’t control their biological behaviour that could lead to other people suffering from their actions. This is why they shouldn’t be allowed to control society or else this world will go to shit.”
The paper also points out that within their analysis, there were no mentions of extra-pair mating behavior in males, despite similar theories being well-established in scientific literature. As the authors describe: “[T]he age-old sexual double standard is reproduced in these seemingly scientific discussions.”
“The hypothetical nature of evolutionary behavioural science is always obscured. The ‘manosphere’ is taking hypotheses out of context and embedding them in their broader grievances, personal experiences, and sexist tropes,” said Louis Bachaud, who led the research, in a statement. “There is a bias towards presenting women as more determined by biology than men, and mostly applying the evolutionary lens towards women, but more rarely towards men and their behaviour.”
Is prevention the cure?
Whilst the researchers acknowledge that it’s fairly unlikely that we can fully avoid research being misused by the manosphere, they suggest that some steps can be taken to make it more difficult. For example, they recommend that researchers should be careful in how they frame their writing, adopting neutral language where possible and emphasizing that evolutionary psychology theories focus on past behavior. They also propose that researchers take an active and public approach to debunking misinterpretations of their research.
There’s also an emphasis that the manosphere is large and complicated, and more research is required to fully understand how its members are misusing research. “This research is just a first milestone in the direction of disentangling the complex appropriations of science in the ‘manosphere’,” concluded Bachaud.
The study is published in Evolutionary Human Sciences.