To Tend and Befriend, part 3
The myths about male dominance and female submissiveness are not the only current social issues, however, that I believe merit thoughtful scientific consideration — or rather, already have been studied, but should definitely have the derived data become part of the general public’s knowledge base. For example, as mentioned in previous postings, there is currently a vague belief that women and children need men for protection. However, as the author painfully clearly notes: “When strong female bonds are absent, males are often aggressive, even abusive, toward females” (96). Indeed, women and children have stayed alive throughout history due to an evolutionary predisposition towards mutually supportive, inter-female friendships (90). Further, in researching what predators women and children still need fear in this time and age, it was discovered that the best protectors for women and children are other women — because women’s primary predators today are men themselves (101).
This is not just a mythical “foolish” woman walking alone at night, either; in North America alone, between 20% and an astonishing 50% of women have been assaulted by their partner, the person who purports to love them — and it is their partner who is most likely to murder them as well. Despite our desire to cling to the comforting fable that rape is something violent strangers do, it is overwhelmingly perpetrated by a man the woman knows and trusts.
Curiously, the answer to the question, “What prevents domestic violence?” is startlingly straightforward, if also difficult to implement: in communities where the women are closely bonded and provide economically for themselves, they themselves act to prevent men from harming their kin and network sisters (102-103). This is true amongst all the primates — in times of stress and trouble, ordinarily loose female bonds are strengthened to protect themselves and their offspring from hostile, frustrated, or aggressive males (96-97). In fact, the major indicator of potential domestic abuse is a woman moving away from her home and family to live with her husband’s family — because she is thrown upon their uncaring mercies.
What makes situations like this so sad is that they become self-sustaining vicious cycles, since families at risk for high stress lead to children suffering both emotional and physical damage (54-55). It is now clear that a stressed, abused, and/or powerless woman gives birth to hormonally and chemically disadvantaged children; she is not always capable of being a truly good mother, despite her best efforts. Her children grow up under-socialized, unable to understand their internal pain, and prone to risk-taking and overly aggressive behavior; lather, rinse, repeat. It is noteworthy that the social group most likely to both cause and receive harm in such situations is that of juvenile & young adult males (144). For example, one study showed that stressed mothers during war-time gave birth to baby boys who were:
more difficult and harder to console… more withdrawn, irritable, and hyperactive… walked and talked a little later, and took longer to toilet train. As they grew older, some more subtle and disturbing difficulties emerged. Compared to their peers, the war boys were more aggressive and antisocial. The stress hormones, so evident in their mothers and unrelieved because of the absence of social support from their fathers, took a modest but permanent toll. (71)
In a similar vein, the high numbers of mothers living in poverty in the US are simply appalling — and these are precisely the women most at risk for high levels of stress. Further, when men are stressed their aggression looks for an enemy, and as Taylor notes: “Financial trouble is one of the main triggers of family strain, abuse, and divorce. The lower a man’s income, education, occupational prestige, and job security, the more likely he is to physically or verbally abuse his wife” (169). We used to argue that men and women were the same, in an attempt to forestall the straitjacket of dogmatic cultural and social roles (4); now we know better. What is particularly tragic about this situation — aside from how needlessly common it is in both the US and the world today — is how easily the cycle can be changed.
We now know pregnant women with supportive social ties have fewer and less damaging hormonal and chemical reactions to stress, all of which affect the fetus (13). Further, even more than food supplements, love and nurturant caring encourages the growth of strong and healthy children (9). It is happy and caring mothers who remarkably and positively affect their offspring: the children have less physically and emotionally damaging stress in their lives, which leads to them feeling the freedom to explore their world rather than hiding from it, and being better able to recognize what is safe and what is not (49). Perhaps most importantly, these children are also more empathetic, able to recognize the emotions of others without getting dangerously drawn into them (51).
How do we lessen stress for women, especially pregnant women and mothers? An interesting experiment, where the participants were told they’d receive small electric shocks, gives a significant clue. These women and men knew they were facing incipient pain, and were then asked if they wished to wait with someone for the test — which, thankfully, was not actually administered. Curiously, men chose to wait alone. Women, however, wished to wait with other women when offered the option — even when offered the opportunity to wait with a man, they preferred to wait alone (106). Perhaps most fascinating, when stress responses were measured, women’s stress rose while men were present — even when it was their male spouses or partners who were present (120) — but lowered with other women. Clearly, women calm most and best with other women.