The idea that men are inherently violent beasts who need women to exercise a civilizing influence over them is a persistent assumption in modern society, one often raised for the purposes of guilt-tripping women for living independently or even just delaying marriage. “Single men have never been civilization’s most responsible actors,” Manhattan Institute fellow Kay Hymowitz argued recently, suggesting that men need “family responsibilities”—to be needed by women—in order to “grow up.” In a particularly alarming example, Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, argued that marriage “seems to cause men to behave better” and therefore is the best protection women have against male violence.* And it isn’t just conservatives who believe it. In 2012, Nicholas Kristof signed off on Steven Pinker’s argument that “young men are civilized by women and marriage.”
This notion of women’s civilizing influence on men has sparked some major alarm over the future of countries like India or China, where sex selection during pregnancy has led to excess numbers of men, putting marriage and the supposedly stabilizing effects of the female gender out of reach for many. Scottish historian Niall Ferguson dimly warned in 2011 that “there will be a chronic shortage of potential spouses” in these countries, and that these men, untamed by women, will create an “overdose on testosterone” leading to “macho militarism and even imperialism.” He concluded: “Lock up your daughters.”
There are plenty of reasons to oppose the cultural preference for boys over girls, but the fear of men’s lack of access to the soothing effects of femininity isn’t one of them. Researchers Ryan Schacht, Kristin Rauch, and Monique Borgerhoff Mulder, in a paper published at the New Scientist, looked at 20 studies examining the relationship of violence and sex ratios and found “that violence was equally likely to be associated with extra women as with extra men.” Nine studies showed more violence in societies where men outnumbered women, and nine showed the opposite. Two studies were not conclusive.
That’s not to say that gender and sexuality have nothing to do with violence. After all, men commit much more violence than women, against both men and women, in pretty much every corner of the world, a fact that all but the most stalwart Reddit misogynists accept. But, the researchers write, “the expectation of a straightforward relationship between violence and the sex ratio is overly simplistic.” In some cases, an increased number of men disincentivizes violent behavior because men have to straighten up and act right in order to attract a mate. Or, as the researchers put it, “when faced with a deficit of women, men can engage in much more positive social behaviour to attract and keep a partner.” But in other cases, excess numbers of men lead to more intimate partner violence, possibly because men become more controlling over their wives if they perceive that the women have other options.
Excessive numbers of women, meanwhile, was generally correlated with more sexual assault and male-on-male violence. Researchers theorized that it’s possible, in some circumstances, that far from exerting a civilizing influence on men, excess numbers of women might actually make men more likely to jostle for dominance over each other and over women.
“Many factors complicate the relationship between sex ratios and violence, including unique cultural and historical influences,” the researchers conclude. It would be nice if the problem of male violence were easy to solve by tinkering with gender ratios or instructing women to make themselves available as wives. But the reality is much more complex, and requires us to grapple with social constructions about what it means to “be a man,” economic opportunities, and political issues like war and incarceration.
*Correction, Oct. 13, 2014: Due to an editing error, this post misidentified Brad Wilcox as an education professor at BYU; he is the director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia.