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Evo Psych and menstruation - The Ex-Communicator

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June 16th, 2013


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07:41 am - Evo Psych and menstruation
I've done a few posts on this blog about Evolutionary Psychology, which I despise. I don't disagree that evolution has had an impact on our psychology, but the way that EvoPsych describes that impact is quite wrong in my opinion. And, like economics and philosophy, it is tainted by modern politics.

I've wanted to write this post for ages but the best example I can think of to illustrate my point is the social example of a menstrual taboo. And I have been inhibited because it feels too, I don't know, in-your-face feminist or something. Nevertheless, I want to post more on lj, I want to stop being so inhibited. So, below the cut, is my discussion of Evo Psych, with menstruation as an example.

In Evo Psych the mind is an information processing organ, and it is organised into discrete modules, with a measurable input and an output. These modules have arisen as the result of evolutionary adaptation, related to success in reproduction. The widespread taboo against menstruation (in sex and, from that, general social hiding and shaming) is because this sex is unlikely to result in conception. Therefore an inhibition has evolved to stop it happening.

Menstruation arose quite late in human evolution (as it is not shared with our close relatives). For this theory to work, the adaptive advantage to men of avoiding the occasional bout of unreproductive sex was so great that an innate inhibition has evolved during that relatively brief time. Though male inhibition against other forms of unreproductive sex, like (say) oral sex has not evolved. Obviously.

I find this extremely unpersuasive.

Here is my alternative explanation. Seeing, tasting and smelling blood has strong emotional associations, which go back to before mammals evolved. Sharks, lizards, wolves feel it. The drive to have sex is huge and also ancient. When human beings began menstruating (due to a change in reproductive cycle) these two massive and ancient drives clashed. Feelings were complex and contradictory. The strong and confusing feelings are the psychological effects of evolution.

Social taboos about menstruation are ways of coping with those strong feelings, bringing them under control.

That is my explanation. It is also 'evolutionary' in that it acknowledges we are evolved creatures, with evolved brains. But it presents us as confused and anxious animals. We develop psychological and social strategies to reduce our anxiety. These strategies are not always rational. Some are harmful. I think that is a more accurate evolutionary psychology.

I also think that Evo Psych, by emphasising functional reproduction and de-emphasising social and emotional issues, is itself a way that men hide their own vulnerability. It is itself a strategy to reduce anxiety.

(13 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:happytune
Date:June 16th, 2013 07:01 am (UTC)
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Agree with this. I have an example of how primal it is too.

Recently, a Facebook friend (a somewhat naive chap in his 40s with no sisters or longer term girlfriends/partners, and orthodox in his religious orientation) posted about this device he'd found out about called a Mooncup. Bless him, he's not aware Mooncups and similar have been around for years.</p>

What was interesting was the response of his female friends, many if whom are well-educated and would probably call themselves some version of feminist. 'Ugh', 'gross', 'what if it spilt, wouldn't that be revolting' etc. I stuck my head over the parapet and suggested that those focus who use these devices, for cost and environmental reasons, don't find them gross at all, that as mothers we have a duty to provide a rational model of menstruation to our daughters rather than a more hysterical one that implied that menstrual blood is revolting (didn't use those words but you get the drift). Well that struck a nerve and the ensuing posts vehemently denied that they found menstrual blood yucky in any way, the Mooncup 'just wasn't for them'.

That's a social, messy response of the sort you describe. Not an Evo Psych one. I'm also not against the idea that our evolutionary process has had a profound impact on our psychological development, or that we aren't just as heavily influenced by our ecological environment. I just don't think it is a satisfactory or complete or universal in the way Evo Psych sells it. Evo Psych wouldn't be able to account empirically for the social meme of revulsion of menstruation that tracks through history.

[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:June 16th, 2013 07:20 am (UTC)
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I think it is very common to cope with the anxiety that is universal to human beings by projecting the weakness or sin outwards onto someone less powerful than yourself. Women, black people, lower caste, working class: 'those people' are irrational, greedy, dirty, over-sexual, fleshy. It's so obviously the things we fear in ourselves. I mean, that man is himself full of blood.

I'm not criticising him in particular, it's common to all people.
[User Picture]
From:happytune
Date:June 16th, 2013 07:52 am (UTC)
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To be fair the page owner was posting Mooncups as a great idea, rather than in a voyeuristic way, but he backed right away from the exchange as soon as any actual discussion of the processes involved began. It was the /women/ responding who were doing the sort of projection you're talking about here, which is interesting in itself...
[User Picture]
From:kerravonsen
Date:June 16th, 2013 07:02 am (UTC)
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Your explanation makes a LOT more sense.

I also think that Evo Psych, by emphasising functional reproduction and de-emphasising social and emotional issues, is itself a way that men hide their own vulnerability. It is itself a strategy to reduce anxiety.

The Evo Psych of Evo Psych? (smirk)
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:June 16th, 2013 07:25 am (UTC)
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I do think so. And I think that's why in the past I have had very angry reactions from men to criticism of evo psych. Why so they get to upset about this issue and not about all the other annoying things I say all the time :-)
From:emmzzi
Date:June 16th, 2013 09:04 am (UTC)
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I did not know e.p. existed and am glad I didn't.

Some men find menstrual blood icky. A few don't. In fairness its a strong colour and I can see it drying on your penis being mildly uncomfortable. And there's more laundry to do after than usual.

I'm going to suggest sex during menstruation continues to be avoided by liberated men who do their own laundry in a kind of evolutionary domesticity way. Evo Dom also explains the rise of the dishwasher and Nespresso machine. And the mini break; inevitably more sex will be had in a room someone else is cleaning with food someone else made.
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:June 18th, 2013 06:06 pm (UTC)
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'inevitably more sex will be had in a room someone else is cleaning with food someone else made'

This has been my experience to date
[User Picture]
From:steepholm
Date:June 16th, 2013 10:16 am (UTC)
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The traditional Evo Psych explanation of the taboo against sex during menstruation you describe makes no sense at all. Yours does make sense, but it still seems fairly speculative. It's not too difficult to come up with others, e.g. that the possibility of consuming menstrual blood during cunnilingus associates it (and by extension sex during menstruation in general) with the taboo against cannibalism. This scientific theory took me all of 10 seconds' Deep Thought, and while there are probably good objections to it it illustrates my more general worry about Evo Psych - which is that even once you've brought in considerations of internal coherence and what sparse data we have from paleontology and present-day biology, the field for speculation seems too wide for much science to happen.

Edited at 2013-06-16 10:23 am (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:June 18th, 2013 06:04 pm (UTC)
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My 'blood/sex' conflict theory is an overshoot of an overarching theory which is that a great deal of human behaviour is about limiting anxiety, which would otherwise overwhelm us. I think that being an intelligent animal in a flesh body is an almost intolerable state. Your mention of cannibalism is really part of the same continent of mind, I think. Flesh, meat, pain, blood, death, sex. More accurately I think we are living on top of an emotional volcano, just trying to keep it under control.

But this is not scientific. I am not sure that science has the tools to make sense of this mess.
[User Picture]
From:steepholm
Date:June 18th, 2013 07:21 pm (UTC)
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I think that being an intelligent animal in a flesh body is an almost intolerable state.

Scientific or not, this rings very true.
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From:watervole
Date:June 16th, 2013 12:00 pm (UTC)
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Makes sense to me. I'd always assumed the taboo was blood related.

An evolutionary reason of avoiding 'unproductive sex' is even less likely as many women would have spent most of the lives pregnant or breast feeding and menstruation would have been relatively rare.
[User Picture]
From:communicator
Date:June 18th, 2013 06:05 pm (UTC)
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I never thought of that, but yes, it makes evolving a new module of mind from scratch even less likely.
[User Picture]
From:tehomet
Date:June 22nd, 2013 06:43 pm (UTC)
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Your theory makes much more sense than the Evo Psych one.

I personally thought that the PIV-sex-during-menstruation taboo common to many cultures simply rose from a blend of the fear of blood with the standard patriarchal shunning of anything female. Menstruation, being something only women do, is shunned. Sex, being something that (in heterosexism) requires a woman even though women are 'bad', is shunned. Put the two together and watch the patriarchal man's head explode.

Another strand to this is that PIV-sex-during-menstruation is less likely to lead to conception, and reproduction-centrism is a feature of heterosexism.

Additionally, I have read that menstruation is actually the time when a lot of women feel a very strong surge in sexual desire, the strongest surge of their monthly cycle. This is certainly true for me.

You can see why the patriarchy would be against having PIV-sex at a time when these women would be most likely to enjoy it, and not only that but not get pregnant as a result. God forbid! :)




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