Take Two #46 The Gender Effect

By Kyra-lin Hom

This last week I stumbled across an article in Discover magazine that was just too fascinating not to share. The article, “Sex and the Society” by Robert Epstein, outlines a little known social and political theory casually referred to as the 'availability sex ratio.' This theory proposes that any given country's (or any geographical region, I assume) social and political climate can be explained, predicted and projected by the ratio of available men to available women in that country at that point in time. Sounds almost too good, straightforward and simple to be true, doesn't it? Let's investigate.

First conceived by Harvard social psychologist Marcia Guttentag in 1975, this theory rests on the idea that too many men or too many women in the dating pool has population-wide consequences. It makes sense. Men and women are fairly different creatures with different habits, instincts and inclinations (to name a few). And single individuals do demonstrate different behaviors than people in committed relationships. You don't have to take my word for it, the changes are chemical. You get different hormone levels, different levels of stress and overall health, and even different lifespans. So, again, it makes sense that extreme men/women ratios would effect the tone of a nation.

Starting by comparing popular songs from Mozart's 1790's to those of America's 1970's, Guttentag painstakingly compiled her data, reaching far and wide into history and across the globe. An example of her findings provided in the Discovery article regards 4th century B.C. Greece: the classic Athens vs. Sparta.

As you most likely know, the Athens city-state of that time was the center of literature, philosophy and art. Sparta on the other hand was known – and is still known – as the near perfect martial society. Every boy and even some girls would begin their military training at the age of seven. Guttentag believes these two city-states tell an important tale about the sex ratio; however not the one you're probably expecting. See, women are automatically associated with the arts and passivity. So you would expect Athens to be a feminized nation compared to its burly Spartan cousin. Not so.

After much research, Guttentag found Athens to have a sex ratio of between 1.43 and 1.74, which equates about three men for every two women. Athens had too many men. These men kept their women subjugated and hidden away. Athens may have been a cultural center, but it was an extremely male-dominated, 'traditional' value kind of place.

Sparta was much more equal and much less 'traditional.' It would have had far fewer men available for marriage because so many of them were off to war or dying in battle. It had too many women. Because of this, women were educated and trained similarly to their Y chromosome-carrying brethren. Spartan women owned 40% of the property. Athenian women owned none.

Now hold on a minute, doesn't this sound familiar? Does the post-World War II women's rights movement ring any bells? What about the explosion of 'free love' during and post Vietnam War? These are extreme examples, but they do illustrate that there just might be something to Guttentag's theory.

Nigel Barber, an evolutionary psychologist, thinks so too and has investigated the mysterious powers of the sex ratio more than anyone else. So far he's found that sex ratios seem to affect women's body types, the “rate of nonmarital births, the practice of polygamy, and even the likelihood that men will grow facial hair.” Low sex ratios (too many women) in largely male-orientated nations such as the US and most of the developed world tend to result in social and political liberalism and upheaval – though of varying degrees of course. Violence against women increases and tension between the sexes snaps tight. If you throw everything to the other side of the court – too many men – conservatism and 'old-fashioned' values reign supreme.

The article goes into much more depth, and I really recommend it if I've at all piqued your interest. After all, this might be the most accurate form of national fortune telling I've ever seen.

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