Report: Fear of Promiscuity Could Be Fueling Anti-Abortion Sentiment

UCLA‘s Dr. Martie Haselton says research indicates a connection between the mating strategies of anti-abortion activists and their beliefs

Anti-abortion beliefs could be caused by a fear of promiscuity, according to the authors of a newly published paper in academic journal The Conversation.

In “What really drives anti-abortion beliefs? Research suggests it’s a matter of sexual strategies,” Dr. Martie Haselton, a UCLA social psychology professor who specializes in evolution and human behavior, and Dr. Jaime Arona Krems, an assistant professor of psychology at Oklahoma State University, argue that “sexually-restricted people” are likely to unconsciously oppose abortion in order to make casual sex more costly for those who engage in it.

Based on research from 2016, they found that for the sexually-restricted, abortion represents something other than the loss of a life—it represents a threat to the way they reproduce, or their “mating strategy.” Anti-abortion policies, the authors contend, are about making promiscuity harder and more costly, because when it comes to being cuckolded or losing a partner to another, a sexually unrestricted lifestyle can be threatening to those who adhere to more conservative strategies.

LAMag spoke with Dr. Haselton, who says it comes down to sparking conversations in order to understand the contradictory beliefs that fuel the kind of regressive policies that state after state are imposing following the end of Roe v. Wade.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you think people react when they hear that opinions on same-sex marriage, abortion, and drug use, could be linked to their relationship with sex?

I think this is an ah-ha moment. When we present this perspective and show how it resolves some awkward contradictions such as being anti-abortion and anti-contraception, people are like, “Oh, well, that kind of makes sense.” It explains why some people who are opposed to abortion rights might also be opposed to gay marriage and recreational drug use.

But the rationale behind people’s moral attitudes (or opinions on hot button social issues) is largely non-conscious. For example, we don’t walk around assessing people based on their potential to reproduce, we are simply attracted to them. Likewise, we do not ponder how our moral attitudes about abortion are linked to sexual strategies, we just have a gut sense of right and wrong. Our behaviors have, in the evolutionary past, resulted in us being successful, meaning we’ve reproduced more, so our conscious mind doesn’t need to be aware of the evolutionary rationale behind our sexual strategies.

Isn’t it important for us to be aware of our evolutionary strategies? Especially if they are negatively impacting others?

If we know that these behaviors were forged in the ancestral past and that they might not work well with our current goals, then we can decide what to do with them. In this sense, I hope that the knowledge is freeing. A lot of my work has looked at hormone cycles and how women’s desires change in ways that would have produced a reproductive advantage in the ancestral past. Even now that we have the pill and other ways of controlling reproduction, those desires don’t go away.

If we have insight into why those desires exist then we can make better decisions about whether to follow them or ditch them in the dustbin of evolutionary history. If we slavishly follow all of our desires, we might think that they are serving us in beneficial ways—and we find a reasons to justify them. But if we understand the deep evolutionary logic of why they may have developed, we can better decide whether or not they serve our modern goals and whether or not to follow them.

What do you think your article provides that people can apply to their own lives—whether or not they securely fit in either end of this spectrum?

My hope is that it provides some insight into otherwise confusing patterns. Being anti-abortion can be based on the sanctity of life, and I’m sure there are people whose beliefs do emerge from this basic principle. Nonetheless, the prevailing pattern is that people who oppose abortion access are also often in favor of the death penalty, opposed to access to contraception, and opposed to child welfare policies that would support women after they have been compelled to have a child. Holding all of these attitudes at the same time is contradictory. Opposing contraception and child welfare doesn’t save lives.

I do hope the perspective we offer helps us understand where other people are coming from, and perhaps to have more empathy for their positions when they differ from our own.

But I also think it is important to scrutinize attitudes when they are impacting the rights of women, and we are offering a tool for doing that. For many women, it’s deeply troubling that these policies are enacted on them—that they are asymmetrical to how policies affect men. I hope that this insight is helpful but I also hope it reveals some of the harmful hypocrisy, which could, in turn, help to fuel women’s advocacy for themselves.

For policy makers and politicians, this perspective might help to pinpoint the people who will be in favor or opposed to abortion access—or who are on the fence and could be persuaded in one direction or the other. And it’s not just about being a Democrat or a Republican—there is variation in sexual strategies within each party.

You mention that people want to make sex more costly by banning abortions, and make non-hetero relationships more costly by withholding the benefits of marriage. Does any of this come down to a desire to punish?

There are certain situations where punishment might drive the policy but it’s not just about “I just want the world to be more orderly,” it’s really about guarding your perimeter from the possibility that your mating strategy—your reproductive strategy—will be compromised by the behavior of others or by shifting policies. It’s about the fear that broader social norms such as gay marriage or abortion will erode what people have crafted for themselves in the most traditional arrangements.

Your article states that people become more conservative during parenthood—do you think that they also become more sexually restricted during parenthood?

They probably do but that hasn’t been directly tested. It makes theoretical sense that there are tradeoffs—you can’t spend the same calories on parenting and mating. So, we evolved to switch our focus depending on the current challenge we face. When you have a needy infant, mating is not top-of-mind, and that makes good sense. Fortunately, we’ve pressed the gas pedal on this research about hot-button issues because of its pertinence in our polarized world. So, we may have an answer to that soon.

Do you think the fear of sexually-unrestricted people is growing as casual sex, same-sex marriage, polyamory, and non-binary gender identities become normalized?

We’re clearly pushing a lot of boundaries—gender boundaries, how we define gender, and sexual boundaries. There are many more gender and sexual orientations that are available as options that people can adopt. For traditional or sexually restricted people, that is probably threatening in part because it’s been such a rapid change and is a challenge to traditional gender norms of male breadwinner and female caregiver that support a sexually restricted strategy. I also think social change means that we are reaching a sort of crescendo in the conflict between restricted and unrestricted strategies here, which might be what the Dobb’s decision was about.

The Dobb’s decision removed what once seemed to be an unequivocal right for millions of Americans. For some areas of the country, it’s life-threatening as access is removed. Where are we headed and what can your research do for a country that is increasingly limiting abortion rights?

Women across the political spectrum are upset by the decision. There are certainly some differences, but you will find women on both sides of the political divide who want to preserve their sexual and reproductive freedoms—and have the same opportunities as men to develop their education and careers and wait on childrearing or skip it altogether. It’s just deeply, deeply troubling for anyone who faces the prospect of being pregnant or having a child to lack safe, legal access to abortion, and contraception. The selfish morality perspective provides us a framework for knowing which people are going to endorse different attitudes.

I hope it creates conversation. My sister is a minister and talking to her about this has been illuminating. Her perspective is that as long as we are not supporting those moms, why are we restricting access, especially if we are basing our beliefs off the sanctity of life? And maybe that’s the message, that there are too many blatant contradictions in the beliefs of people who are restricting the rights of women. We have to question why.

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