Parents dropping their daughters off for their first term at Old Dominion University in Virginia earlier this year were horrified to be confronted with banners hanging out of the student residences scrawled with the words: “Freshman Daughter Drop Off”, “Rowdy & Fun, Hope Your Baby Girl is Ready for a Good Time”… and another, “Go Ahead and Drop Off Mom Too”.
After that, parents understandably didn’t really feel like letting go of their precious babies. In fact they might have felt tempted to find a place for their girls in a convent, or at least a female dominated University where things should be a whole lot more wholesome, yes?
Well, actually no.
Most universities are female dominated as it happens (including Old Dominion where 55% of students are women) and the gender gap in admissions at UK institutions is at a record level. According to the Guardian, UK figures from last year show that women outnumber male students by a margin of 58,000 with women in the majority for two-thirds of subject areas. The picture is similar in other western countries. The exceptions to this occur, predictably, in the STEM subjects of computer science, engineering and technology where men still dominate.
But in spite of the surplus of women on University campuses, a casual sex culture is thriving.
Well, hasn’t that always been the case, you might say, and why shouldn’t students enjoy a bit of fun? Well quite. I’m not about to moralize, but much more of a concern is the apparent rise in unwanted sexual attention from young men at Universities. Commentaries abound on the rising “rape culture” on US college campuses as well as increasing reports of sexual assault (although it should be noted that an increase in reports doesn’t necessarily mean increase in incidence). In the UK a third of female students say they have endured a sexual assault or unwanted advances at University according to a poll by YouthSight for the Telegraph.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, it seems that it could actually be the surplus of women, or rather the shortage of men, that is at least partly fuelling this behaviour. A growing body of research suggests that gender ratio is key in predicting the kind of sexual relationships we have and that whichever sex is in short supply calls the shots. So if there’s a surplus of men, women can afford to be picky and make demands in terms of investment and commitment from men. But when men are in the minority what men usually demand is casual sex and women must fall into line or find themselves having to forego any sort of heterosexual relationship. For instance, in a recent study researchers asked nearly 24 thousand US students whether or not they agree with the statement “I would not have sex with someone unless I was in love with them”. Thirty seven per cent of male and 52% of female students said yes. But when comparing different college campuses, they found that as the ratio of women to men on campus increases, that is, when men are in short supply, both genders become more open to casual sex.
Men and women change their behaviour and their demands from the opposite sex dramatically and readily depending on how many people of each sex are around. Chris Watkins of the University of Abertay in Dundee has shown that simply priming female students with photos suggesting a surplus of men on campus makes them more fussy about guys’ looks. We can change quickly to suit the local ratio, he says. It makes sense to be able to recalibrate our preferences in relation to the mating competition in the place we’re at.
So the other night I met up with a few friends in a bar and it just happened that I was the only woman in a group of about seven or eight, and I have to say I was feeling very attractive and popular because everybody seemed to want to talk to me and they were all very gentlemanly (had there been a few other women in the group I can’t kid myself that it wouldn’t have been another story). But imagine walking into a crowded student bar with 70% women – it’s going to be a different ball game; there’s going to be a lot of flesh on show, there’s going to be hair flicking, and there’s going to be a lot of competition to give the guys what they want.
With that sort of backdrop, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to suspect that sexual coercion could result from men having the feeling they can do whatever they want.
Indeed, in a cross cultural review of male violence and gender ratio, anthropologist Ryan Schacht of the University of Utah and his colleagues find that where there are fewer men, there are generally higher rates of men killing men, and of sexual assault and rape.
It’s a complicated relationship and depends on how exactly men compete for women in the particular society, but in the realms of western university campuses, it seems that fewer men may spell more trouble.
Of course, none of this lets men off the hook for bad behaviour, it just explains when and where it might be more likely to happen. And I wouldn’t want to suggest for a minute that girls should limit their options when it comes to choosing a university – but they might want to do their homework on the campus and subject sex ratios. That way they can predict the situation they’ll be up against and realise that university might not be where they’re going to meet their prince charming (if they want one).
Still, I can’t help thinking that careers in a nice STEM subject could be good for my teenage daughters… 😉
For workshops on the Science of Attraction & Relationships, see here.