Friday, April 15, 2011

On Dating Tall Men: Rationality and romantic/sexual selection

Okay, so Kay Steiger wrote a blog post called "Dating Tall Men", arguing that when women relentlessly select tall men over short ones, they're actually exhibiting a form of old-school bigotry.

Naturally, a lot of people don't like this. After all, it's a widespread method of selection among women, and nobody likes having their romantic and sexual criteria questioned. We're pretty protective of that particular liberty! And here's this Kay Steiger woman, calling a very common sexual requirement "irrational." Among the responses is this one by Andrew Sullivan, who says that sexual selection isn't a rational process, and shouldn't be – that it needs to be discriminatory – so Kay needs to put her PC pitchfork away.

But here's the thing -- this blog post makes perfect sense, as long as you look at it with a little subtlety. Granted, the Internet is bad for that kind of thing, but that's why you've got Benefit of the Doubt here to give you some perspective. Miss Steiger's argument is entirely justified from a pragmatic perspective, and it's even credible from a theoretical perspective, if slightly overstated.

Among the commentors, and even in Sullivan's response, there's a general claim that sexual preferences are in-born (one of the commentors calls it "hard-wired"), so we can't change them any more than we can change our height. But a couple things here. First, even if our preferences themselves were genetically determined (yay evo psych![/sarcasm]), our behavior isn't pre-determined, and self-control can do amazing things. But also, as Kay says toward the end of her post, our preferences – our ways of perceiving and judging the opposite sex – aren't just hard-wired, built into our neurons from birth. They're also conditioned by what we're told is acceptable, whether for health reasons, or simply as a nod to convention. You can try to write off all the nuance here, but it's all of these things at once.

So, in short: contrary to Andrew Sullivan's flippant dismissal, sexual selection is not "irrational." It's not done entirely by conscious calculation, but it is relentlessly rational, built on a whole massive algorithm of biological, evolutionary, and cultural "reasons." Kay Steiger: 0, Andrew Sullivan: -1. Having made this fairly banal observation, let us continue!

And I've got no data to back this shit up (lol! Do I ever?!?), but I'd guess that the "height" bias among women is one of the more socially-conditioned preferences. I'm sure there are evolutionary reasons for it, but as Kay said, these reasons aren't terribly important in the modern age, when we don't need to be protected from predators and we don't need to inherit the most physically dominant genes. On a behavioral level, I'm guessing the bias against short men is kind of like many mens' bias against muscular women, or mens' bias for small waists and big boobs. I mean, it's plausible that there's a natural component to it, but it's mostly the result of a constant bombardment of underwear ads and Bond girls in the media. It's something that's worth looking at critically.

It's a little bizarre to me that people like Andrew Sullivan seem to be suggesting that we totally abandon any critical thinking about our own romantic and sexual preferences. After all, that's the process that's allowed people to start dating across, for instance, racial lines, and the process that's created new spaces for homosexual couples. Call it PC if you want, but it's really a genuinely positive cultural thing that's been happening to human society over time.

Now, don't get defensive... I'm not in the business of blaming people for following their gut instinct. Our reasons will always be somewhat opaque, even to ourselves, and some people won't be able to get over their lack of attraction for short men, or for women who are over a size 2, or for Caucasians with freckles. Or their preference for men with beards who sweat a lot. Or their preference for people with visible scars. Or whatever. I mean, you've still gotta have your criteria, for whatever reasons you have them, and a woman who likes tall guys isn't de facto immoral (which is where I can see that Miss Steiger may have overreached a little). But there's no reason we shouldn't ask where our preferences are coming from, and try to work through them a little.We've been achieving positive outcomes in the face of natural tendencies for a long time!

I know I shouldn't take it for granted that you're a progressive or a rationalist, dear reader, but I know my expected audience... and I think the logical, progressive, rationalist position is that if we can recognize our socially-conditioned, convention-driven reasons for something, we can often get over them. This will create a stronger, more adaptable, more tolerant society, and it will also broaden our own individual pool of potential mates. So it's not just navel-gazing here... there's a real pragmatic reason to consider the issue that Kay Steiger is addressing.


Big Men Dating said...

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Mr.Willson said...

Thank you for posting this. I learned a lot from it.

Sam said...

I think most women prefer taller men because they want to have that sense of security. Yet, the romantic characteristics of men do not rely on their heights.

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Alt Com said...

Women like dating tall men because it is evolutionary in nature. During the prehistoric age our female ancestors chooses to mate with the "alpha male" which is the dominant male in their group (which most of the time is the tallest and strongest one). This behavior ensures survival of the species. Yes it is "hard wired".

YeahYeahYeah said...

"tall, dark, and handsome" marketing. a lot of people do what they're told. the culture values sports over all. today. but things change.