Courtship in Humans

Is heterosexual courtship and mating behavior naturally initiated and controlled mostly by the man or mostly by the woman?

In a way, the question is an easy one to answer.  It has been suspected by science since at least the 1970s, and known to science since at least the 1980s, that in humans, women naturally initiate and control courtship and mating behaviors.  But what complicates that answer to our question is the perhaps better known fact that humans have, in one society after the other,  and through-out our history, employed various methods to severely limit, and to even destroy, women’s ability to initiate and control sexual relationships.  Consequently, anyone who looks around the world today is apt to find the question at least a little confusing.

In some societies, they will find women possess a great deal of power over courtship and mating.  In other societies, they will find child brides forced against their wills into marriages with much older men.   And then they will find everything in between those extremes.  So what is really the case, here?  Is it more natural for women or for men to initiate and control courtship and mating behavior?

Well, if the science is to be believed, it is more natural for women to initiate and control courtship and mating behavior.  As one scientist somewhere says, “Men seek sex and women control the access to it.”

Of course, if women did not — ever — initiate and control courtship and mating, then why would some societies ever find it necessary to oppress women’s ability to initiate and control it?  I think it can be reasonably argued that the fact so many societies and cultures find it necessary to oppress women’s choice in this matter is moderate evidence that women — unlike the females of some species — are naturally prone to managing their own courtship and mating.

I suppose that someday we will know precisely which gene or genes are responsible for the ubiquitous courting behaviors — the behaviors that are found the world over as opposed to the behaviors that are found only in certain cultures or societies.  It seems highly implausible to me that the ubiquitous courting behaviors would lack a genetic basis.   In other words, I think we can expect women to be genetically predisposed to managing their own courtship and mating.   After all, the ubiquitous courting behaviors — as opposed to those found only in specific societies and cultures — are almost always initiated and controlled by the woman.

Some of the ubiquitous courtship behaviors were first described as long ago as 1971:

Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1971) used two approaches to describe flirting behavior in people from diverse cultural backgrounds (Balinese, Papuans, French, and Wakiu Indians). Employing a camera fitted with right-angle lenses to film people without their knowledge, he found that an eyebrow flash combined with a smile was a common courtship behavior. Secondly, through comments made to women, Eibl-Eibesfeldt was able to elicit the “coy glance”–an expression combining a half-smile and lowered eyes. Looking at a variety of cultures, he found flirting to be prevalent and very much the same the world over. People attracted to one another also made small touching movements, moved closer together than normal, nodded in agreement, used their hands to emphasize points, moistened their lips often, and held the other’s gaze.

By the middle of the decade, it was beginning to be documented that the woman, and not the man, initiated and controlled the behaviors:

Kendon (1975) then covertly filmed a couple seated on a park bench in order to record the role of facial expressions during a kissing round. It was the woman’s behaviors, particularly her facial expressions, that functioned as a determinant in modulating the behaviors of the man. Similarly, Cary (1976) showed that it was the woman’s behavior that was important in initiating conversation between strangers. Both in laboratory settings and in singles’ bars or dance clubs, conversation was initiated only after the woman glanced at the man more than once. Cary argued that experienced men looked for the woman who signaled her interest in them and that her glances and smiles, in essence, granted them permission to start a conversation.

Later studies confirmed the earlier observations.   So much so that, by 1989, scientists were able to reliably predict the outcome of courtships based on observations of the woman’s behavior alone.

To be sure, there is evidence that courtship and mating behaviors are not entirely controlled by the woman.  At least one study has suggested that, during the late phases of courtship, immediately prior to sex, the woman typically hands off control to the man and he takes over.

Just how important is courtship to humans?  Every generation or so, someone rises up to declare “courtship is dead”.  In America, this has been going on since at least the 1800s.  But what such people mean by “courtship” is almost always the sort of courtship behavior that is determined by culture, rather than by genes.

Such culturally determined courtship behaviors are not nearly so important to us humans as our genetically predisposed behaviors.   It does not seem to profoundly matter to us whether we receive chocolate instead of sugar plums,  or roses instead of orchids.   But that we receive some kind of gifts is far more crucial to the human psyche.  So, fundamentally, courtship does matter.  Two psychologists, after studying the issue for some time, concluded thatdysfunctional courtships led directly to dysfunctional relationships.”

All of the above has strong implications for any ideology of marriage and family life.  While it cannot be said that anything which is natural is morally right, it can be said that one is wise to oppose nature only reluctantly and with great caution.  If women naturally initiate and control the early to middle stages of courtship and mating, then that does not mean any and all efforts to limit women’s management of those things are automatically immoral — but I think it certainly does mean that the burden of proving such limits are right and moral lies with those who propose such limits.   Recall, the price for going against nature in this case might well be a twisted, dysfunctional marriage.

We should not mess with nature lightly.

 

11 thoughts on “Courtship in Humans

  1. Environment is a huge factor here obviously. I mean, how do you create an “in a vacuum” environment to test humans. Might be interesting and I can’t believe someone hasn’t already done this test.

  2. I remember a California psychiatrist I met in the early 60s. He was working on a computer model to mimick the delinquent mind in a stimuli free context. Never heard of his program afterward.
    In 1967 a learned medical doctor in Montreal had equipped a staff of nurses with sensors during their working hours to record their reactions OUTSIDE OF ANY EMOTIONAL CONTEXT???? Never read his findings anywhere.
    I guess “in vacuum” experiments on humans would have the same success. We may be a set of genes but those genes are controled by a human mind that is more than an intricate electric panel. It has an immaterial component nobody has ever seen, tested nor totally controled.

  3. This is fascinating to me, and something I had never really given much thought to. My mind immediately jumped to the relative speed of lesbian relationships and wondered if one can shed light on the other. Or maybe they’re tangential. I’m a rank novice when it comes to questions of sociology, but I’m not sure I believe this can be studied outside of any emotional context, since I’ve always thought of courtship behaviors as emotionally motivated. I’m probably wrong, but I’d be interested in reading more about this.

    • Hi Grasshopper! The science of courtship seems to be relatively new and I’m sure there are many surprises yet to come. But, so far as I know, there have been few — most likely no — studies done on homosexual courtships yet. That would be a fascinating area of study though!

  4. I simply do not buy the control perspective of either gender. Courtship is a mutual interaction, as is mating. Both parties benefit equally by the encounter, in different ways. What needs to be controlled?

  5. It is telling in cultures where women are almost absent in written record, that you can find out what they were doing by laws that forbid them to do things. And controlling women’s sexuality and autonomy seems to be a most common theme. It would make sense that women are the ones initiating or at least participating in relationships at a subconscious level when there are so many laws trying to stop them from that process.

    I have noticed that in fundy Christian groups where men are constantly told to be the initiators that courtships do not start well. Often the girls will be friendly with any boy but the one they like since they are afraid of ‘stealing’ the role of leader.
    The girls then complain that the guys are not initiating. The guys complain that they don’t know who likes them. They ask the girls out who are talking to them and get rejected nearly every time. I once suggested that the girls should initiate and it was not recieved well.

    I chased my husband until he got the hint (I told him I would marry him before we were dating) and then I waited until he proved that he wanted me just as badly. I thought we were weird. I guess we are normal.

  6. Very interesting.

    In the case of gifts, I would say that they are appropriate when appropriate to the culture and the expectations that are present in the culture. They may be symbolic of that culture’s understanding, or tie to what nature says is appropriate, or they may represent the degree of remove a culture’ ideas are from what at least seems to be nature’s appropriateness.

    As far as “control” is mentioned, I am not sure what the word means, nor did I really “get it” back in a psychology course at university. This too would seem to be greatly influenced by a number of factors, culture, the environment, individual personalities, and the interaction of those personalities. I’d like to know more.

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