February 8, 2010

The evolutionary advantages of feminine men and masculine women

In an earlier post I noted that crossdreamers ("autogynephiliacs", men who dream about being women) may actually be at an evolutionary advantage. I criticized Joan Roughgarden for not doing the obvious: exploring the possible social and evolutionary role of the crossdreamer within her theory of social selection.

(If the sentence above makes absolutely no sense to you, do read the post about Roughgarden and autogynephilia.)


Since this blog post was written I have stopped using the terms "autogynephilia" and "autoandrophilia" to describe people. The reason for this is that the terms implicitly communicates an explanation for why some people get aroused by imagining themselves as the opposite sex . This explanation, that this is some kind of autoerotic paraphilia,  is both wrong and stigmatizing. Instead I use the neutral term "crossdreamers".

Bailey and the feminine man

It turns out I am not the only one who has looked into this possibility. I have found a paper written by J. Michael Bailey and his friends, where they try to explain how homosexuality can survive as a genetic trait. Homosexuals are, after all, less likely to get offspring.

Their hypothesis is that there are other family members that get some -- but not all -- of the same genes. These are feminine, but heterosexual men, who for some reason have more sexual partners than the average Joe, and who are therefore able to spread their seed more liberally.

Notice the irony in all of this. Roughgarden has really nothing good to say about Bailey -- the man who popularized the autogynephilia (AGP) concept in his "Queen" book. But here he is, presenting a theory that fits well with Roughgarden's new approach.

Here is the summary:
"We show that psychologically masculine females and feminine men are (a) more likely to be nonheterosexual but (b), when heterosexual, have more opposite-sex sexual partners. With statistical modelling of the twin data, we show that both these relationships are partly due to pleiotropic [more than one effect] genetic influences common to each trait.

"We also find a trend for heterosexuals with a nonheterosexual twin to have more opposite-sex partners than do heterosexual twin pairs. Taken together, these results suggest that genes predisposing to homosexuality may confer a mating advantage in heterosexuals, which could help explain the evolution and maintenance of homosexuality in the population."

The amazing thing about this article is that in order to explain this phenomenon Bailey and Co have to turn the traditional narrative of the strong and manly man conquering the coy and passive woman upside down. By doing so they actually make room for the alternative male roles Roughgarden are looking for.

They ask:
"The traits most reliably associated with homosexuality relate to masculinity–femininity; homosexual men tend to be more feminine than heterosexual men, and homosexual women tend to more masculine than heterosexual women. Could this sex atypicality be advantageous when expressed in heterosexuals?"

The sexual success of the feminine man

And the answer is:
"Although perhaps counterintuitive, there is evidence that females are more attracted to males with certain feminine behavioral traits such as tenderness, considerateness, and kindness. They also prefer men with feminized faces , although the preferred degree of feminization differs across the menstrual cycle and between short-term and long-term mating goals.

"There has been less research on what masculine traits in females may be attractive to men, but it should be noted that masculine traits such as competitiveness and unrestricted sociosexuality (willingness to engage in uncommitted sexual relations) could contribute to a mating advantage. Indeed, psychologically more masculine women have a greater number of opposite-sex sexual partners in their lifetime." (References removed for readability)
If you do not know evolutionary biology this may not sound so revolutionary to you, but I can tell you that this is more than "counter-intuitive". What Bailey and Co do here is to break with the stereotypical gender roles this research field is dominated by. I don't know whether they are right or not, but I salute their bravery!

But this case also displays the weakness of modern evolutionary biology. It seems to me anything can be explained by anything, even if you undermine the very foundation sexual selection theory is built on.

If women are attracted to feminine men as much as they are attracted to masculine men, it is -- in fact -- impossible to say that one male configuration is more optimal than another. That also means that the idea that women use the looks and manners of men to determine who's most genetically fit, is hard to uphold. After all, these men have so little in common. They cannot all be equally fit.

However, the results are clear if we are to believe the researchers: Feminine men and masculine women are more likely to get laid!

Gay genes give you feminine heterosexual men

The genetic influences on the different traits are more correlated with each other than the environmental influences.

Bailey and Co again:

"Our evidence is consistent with a mechanism whereby some genetic variation underlying homosexuality could have been maintained over evolutionary time. The genes influencing homosexuality have two effects.

"First, and most obviously, these genes increase the risk for homosexuality, which ostensibly has decreased Darwinian fitness.

"Countervailing this, however, these same genes appear to increase sex-atypical gender identity, which our results suggest may increase mating success in heterosexuals.

"This mechanism, called antagonistic pleiotropy, might maintain genes that increase the risk for homosexuality because they increase the number of sex partners in the relatives of homosexuals."
Bailey & Co are not the first to suggest something like this. Jim McKnight proposed that there exists a marginal group of females who drop the optimal males for "homosexually-enabled heterosexuals" with charm, intelligence and empathy. The difference between McKnight and Bailey & Co seems to be -- interestingly enough -- that Bailey is open for the idea that a large proportion of women may go for the sensitive men.


The problem with this counter-theory is, of course, that it doesn't explain why there are not more feminine men around. If women find feminine men so attractive, these should be able to out-compete the muscular football brutes.

Traditional evolutionary biology believes in an optimal situation where the differences between individuals disappears as the strongest traits survive.The real answer to this question is probably found in Roughgarden's work: Nature loves variation, because the flexibility leaves more alternative routes of survival.

Bailey and Co, however, try to explain this by saying that what we are seeing is a snapshot in an evolutionary process towards "fixation at the genotype". In time homosexuals and feminine men will disappear from the gene pool, Darwinian losers as they are.

"(...) antagonistic pleiotropy may considerably slow the progression towards genetic fixation, thereby maintaining genetic variation for a much longer time than would be predicted solely from the genes' fitness-lowering phenotype (homosexuality in this case). Given that we are observing only a snapshot of evolution, antagonistic pleiotropy may help to explain extant observations of genetic variation. It should be noted that linkage disequilibrium between separate genes influencing the different traits here cannot be distinguished from genuine pleiotropy in the current design."


The weak spot of much of this research is that it is based on clichés. Although Bailey is actually leaving the dominant heterosexual male model in this paper, elsewhere Bailey loves the stereotypes, and especially the one of the feminine gay man.

McKnight even mentions "charm" as a gay trait. I find such oversimplifications questionable. For each feminine, charming, gay man I know, I find five others who are more bland, to put it that way. This seems to be the case for heterosexual men as well.

And how do you measure femininity? Bailey & Co focus on outward appearance and mannerisms in his "Queen" book. In this paper he and his colleagues widen the scope to include inner traits like tenderness and kindness, but I still have the feeling that this has to be coupled with feminine looks in order to pass the muster.

The feminine man

I must be one weird person who finds this extremely entertaining.

Bailey & Co present a theory that fits well with our discussion on metrosexuals and Natalie's theory of a common innate femininity of gay males and "autogynephiliacs".

Natalie claims that gay men and "autogynephiliacs" share a "camp gene" or a complex of genes that give them an inborn femininity, but since male to female (MTF) crossdreamers are women-lovers, their femininity get another expression that the one of gay men.

Still, we may be talking about the same complex of genes. If we are to believe Bailey & Co, and given that the feminine men and masculine women get more offspring than the average, they make sure that the "camp genes" and the"gay genes" are carried over to the next generation. Not all genetic combinations will lead to gay and lesbian kids. There will be more heterosexual boys and girls with "sex-atypical gender identities" as well.

The Dawn of Aquarius

I am taking the liberty of adding some pure blue sky speculation here.

We are now in the midst of a cultural shift, where women are becoming financially independent. They have higher levels of education than men in many industrialized countries. They seem to be moving from the submissive over to the dominant position in society.

This trend may increase the genetic survival rate of "masculine" heterosexual women. This is no longer a male dominated society where the coy and timid women are more likely to find mates. We will have new generations of assertive women who have the power to chose who they want, and who -- because of their financial independence -- can make stronger demands on the men they chose to live with.

I am pretty sure that this is going to happen, because I live in a Nordic country where this already has happened. Not that Nordic women in any way look masculine, but they have their own kind of independence and assertiveness.

Assertive women may go for the gentle type, as such partnerships are more likely to survive. Indeed, the divorce rates in the US are now going down at the same rate as the traditional house wives are disappearing.

The next bit is anecdotal, but I have observed that liberated Scandinavian women find it harder to establish long lasting relationships with men raised in societies with more traditional gender roles, like Germany and Austria. Assertive German and Austrian women, on the other hand, just love the feminine flexibility of Scandinavian men. They don't even have to ask them to do the dishes.

If the new assertive women go for the feminine easy maintenance guys, we may actually see that these genetic traits (feminine men and masculine women) become even more successful in the evolutionary race for survival.

Men with strong inner women will continue to be harassed by men following the traditional male role, but if the "fem-males" survive up till high school they should have good chances at outperforming their competitors.

The crossdreamers

But Bailey & Co do not mention MTF crossdreamers ("autogynephiliacs") in this paper. Given all that he and we know about "autogynephiliacs", it says a lot that he doesn't. After all, aren't the "autogynephiliacs" the most feminine of heterosexual men? These men dream about being women! What more can you ask for?

The reason Bailey does not make this connection, is that he is locked into the "autogynephilia as a fetish" theory. Even if this paper argues that women look for "tenderness, considerateness, and kindness", in his "Queen" book he is focusing on femininity as outward appearance. According to him the autogynephiliacs look and act masculine. That's why their "femininity" cannot be real. And compared to androphile transsexuals they also find it harder to pass as women if they chose to transition. The AGP transsexual women look and act like men, according to Bailey.

Bailey is using the autogynephilia theory to explain the differences between man-loving and woman-loving transsexual women, and when you have chosen that trajectory it isn't easy to contemplate the similarities between the two groups.

If Natalie is right, however, the reason the MTF crossdreamers act in a masculine manner is that they have learned that displaying feminine gestures will scare women away. The women may still be attracted to the feminine parts of their personality, though.

As for the argument that MTF crossdreamers in general (including the majority that even does not contemplate transitioning) look more masculine than gay men, it is simply a theory that cannot be proved or disproved. I am not even sure if it is relevant, as femininity is so much more than looks.

It is likely that gynephilic (woman loving) transsexual women on average look more mannish than classic transsexuals. They do, after all, transition much later in life, and older women normally look less feminine than the younger ones. Moreover, if you have spent 40 years training to behave like a man, feminine mannerism and a good dress sense may not come easy. That does not stop her from being a woman.

Gynephilic MTF crossdreamers as a sub group of feminine men

It is certainly true that we cannot say that all of these successful feminine straight men are MTF crossdreamers. These crossdreamers are probably at one end of the feminine heterosexual male spectrum, and many of them are indeed love shy virgins with "reduced Darwinian fitness" (Don't you just love that term?). There are quite a few socially awkward crossdreaming techno-nerds who need to work hard on the feminine charm bit if they are to get lucky.

Still, as I noted in my previous post, a large number of MTF crossdreamers have girl friends and wives, and they do get kids. Even the crossdreaming nerds find mates. I did!

Moreover, given the new woman dominated society, the shy and inhibited crossdreamermay suddenly find himself hunted down by aggressive women looking for helpful and loyal life partners. Who knows, maybe this kind of evolution will give us more female to male crossdreamers, giving the male to female one their perfect lovers?

If this is the case we will also find that these amazing couples get an increasing number of homosexual kids. I do hope the Pope is not reading this blog! This post will confirm his worst fears.

OK, I am joking -- at least partly. As always, when I present research of this kind it is not necessarily because it "proves" anything, but because alternative theories help us get beyond the traditional view of the autogynephiliac as a fetish freak. And I believe this paper does, in spite of what Bailey may be thinking.


The article, "Genetic factors predisposing to homosexuality may increase mating success in heterosexuals", is written by Brendan P. Zietsch, Katherine I. Morley, Sri N. Shekar, Karin J.H. Verweij, Matthew C. Keller, Stuart Macgregor, Margaret J. Wright, J. Michael Bailey and Nicholas G. Martin and can be found in Evolution and Human Behavior Volume 29, Issue 6, November 2008, Pages 424-433.

The study was based on a questionnaire sent to a community-based sample consisting of 4904 (1824 male and 3080 female) Australian twins reared together, ranging in age from 19 to 52 years. We can only hope that they answered truthfully when asked about their sexual orientation, gender identity and number of opposite-sex partners.

For a broad discussion on straight and gay feminine men, see Edward M. Miller: "Homosexuality, Birth Order, and Evolution: Towards a Equilibrium Reproductive Economics of Homosexuality"

Click here for a discussion of the dark side of the autogynephilia theory.

Minor edits of March 2014: "autogynephiliac" has been replaced with "MTF crossdreamer".


  1. Jack Molay,
    I really got elated on this view of yours:
    "but if the "fem-males" survive up till high school they should have good chances at outperforming their competitors"

    I must say I have myself experienced this. As a feminine man who has been always the eyesore of many brute guys of my school because I cannot be their friend, something always makes girls cling more to me than to those very masculine guys who work so hard to be the ideal man. And most of these girls themselves are not too coy and submissive either. Today, girls no longer remain in that traditional role. However, only the films and TV commercials continue to portray males and female sin the traditional roles, but, I guess that's only to increase viewership ratings.

  2. GREAT post. I think you can take it a step further and suggest that perhaps homosexuality and/or AGP can offer 'meta-survival' traits , which is why these genes persist through time. That is , through mechanisms such as influencing the frequency and stability of pair-bonding, mediation of social-altruistic behaviour, and conferring survival advantage to children, the existence of these genes may offer bloodlines and families survival advantage.

  3. What if "survival of the fittest" is not working? Could it be that maybe some of the not so fit and some of the weak have survived? How would we know? How much would all these calculations need to be adjusted?

    (How come someone in the Department of Economics and Finance published this study? Should they be bean counting instead of gene counting?)


  4. The problem with the idea of "survival of the fittest" is that it presupposes that there is one and only one optimal way of being "the fittest" in a given setting.

    This is why Bailey & Co makes the "snapshot" argument. Given enough time all men will be athletic brutes with broad shoulders and narrow hips.

    Roughgarden and others have shown that this is not how nature works. The reason we have sex in the first place is because the mixing of genes give birth to new variation all the time.

    That variation leaves room for flexibility, so if the environment change (like in climate change or the arrival of a new disease) the large number of different men and women ensures that there are some who are better adapted to the new environment. But that very variation also leaves room for different roles for different types of men and women.

    Many environmental biologist find it hard to handle that complexity.

    To Bailey's credit, this paper shows that he is actually willing to consider such variety, even if it is to salvage what can be salvaged of evolutionary orthodoxy.

    (Just to make sure: I am not an anti-Darwinist. I just believe the Darwinian theory has to be renewed and widened.)

  5. Perhaps this innate ability of feminine, straight male to form successful partnerships with strong, successful women explains a couple of things:

    (a) the reason that traditional gender roles (strong men / submissive women) exist in conservative patriarchal societies against the backdrop of persecution of any non-normative behaviour.

    (b) in these "more enlightened" times a straight, openly feminine guy is likely to be ridiculed and/or harassed more frequently than an openly gay guy.

    Perhaps it's this deep-seated, subconscious realisation that strong, self-assured females are more likely to pair with their equals in such a favourable environment that causes traditional males to see their more "girly" peers as a more potent threat to their breeding success.

    Very interesting article and a somewhat late contribution from me :)

  6. @Iain

    Interesting! The masculine men are bullying the less assertive ones, because the feminine men are a real -- not an imagined -- threat!

    It says a lot that such an argument sounds surprising.

    When I think of all my male classmates in school, few of them fit the hypermasculine pattern and few of them were particularly good looking. Still, most of them got married and most of them have kids. It did not end that well for the most brutal of the bullies, however.

  7. Wow I didn't think i'd find anything when I googled my question, but I'm happy to know now that it's okay that, as a woman, I love imagining I have a penis and I have fantasies of having sex with women but also with men, imagining that I am a man. However, I also enjoy fantasies of having sex with women with me being myself too. In reality though, I consider myself straight and do not wish to be a man. I just get off on the fantasy of it, in the moment of arousal.
    Sometimes it disturbs me, and I don't feel like there's anyone I can tell this to...which makes it feel dirty and I wonder if I'm right in the head. I wish I knew why I'm like this, in my head.

  8. You are definitely right in your head. You are another example of the amazing diversity of life. As for understanding why we are like this: We are working on it. And I hope you can contribute to the discussion.

    The more we know about the lives of crossdreamers, the easier it will be to develop a narrative that makes sense for both us and others.

  9. Masculine men are the bottom of the pile, they know there on the way out, there bad for women and for children, and there ugly. I bet that the brain has a default setting, which appears feminine when its in a man and masculine when in a woman. But only because society expects too much gender difference. hypermasculine men probably have more of there brain allocated to gender, aggression and mating, so they have less room to be fully human. They want to own and dominate everything, they are incapable of loving even there own children, instead they see them as objects and protect them like property. I think women weather masculine or feminine have better more balanced brains, and are better evolved. If i was to become a man, i would be a feminine one, i would stand on the traditional masculine role just as i stand on the traditional feminine one. I would go as far as to say that modern feminine men are not feminine, what they are is a new type of masculinity, they re-define it.

  10. @anonymous

    I think you are on to something.

    Men (and women) who balance traditional feminine and masculine traits are more likely to succeed and are richer people, intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.

    We probably have to distinguish between the inner world of the psyche and the outer world of symbols, though.

    I live in the second most "feminine" country in the world, as basic values go. Men and women share more and more of types of work, values and rights.

    At the same time men and women continue to look for ways of making their role as women and men clear. As one researcher said it: "Girls still want to be girlish, and boys want to be boyish."

    A wonderful example of this is what happened when men started taking control of child care in this country. Suddenly the baby carriages became masculine, with strong aluminium, black decorations and fat tires.

  11. I would like to add,as a feminine man in RSA,its true to an exstent that we get more women then the typical man.since we take more time understanding women,since we are some-what related/inter-linked with women,we are the best in bed thus causing women to be attracted to us more.since feminine men have female friends it's easy for these two parties to mate since they act as homosexuals(lesbians) subconsiously.

  12. I think this is a very interesting article, and I definitely see a shift in acceptance in different kinds of energies in men and women, straight and gay (and bisexual!) alike.

    However, I think there is room for us all! Masculine men, feminine women, feminine men, and masculine women. That's the beauty of the world - it takes all kinds, and if one is true to oneself, one can find one's perfect match. I consider myself a feminine woman and I love masculine men still! I think there is a purpose for us all, and I do think it is important to not vilify what had been considered the "norm" thus far in our attempts to make what was less tradtional and less accepted in the past normal.

  13. It doesn't feel to me that masculine men are dying out. Quite the opposite, it feels like there's a rebound with all the hype recently about men getting strong (but not huge) bodies, chiseled facial features and growing beards.
    I'm a pretty feminine guy I guess. I'm not strong and don't have these strong masculine facial features. I don't act dominant most of the time. This hasn't made me successful with women, in fact I feel the exact opposite. I feel great pressure to "man up" get a stronger body, better face and be more socially dominant.
    At the moment it's quite easy to befriend women but they never look at me in a sexual way or as relationship material. I might as well be one of there girl friends (don't get me wrong, I like having women as friends but I'd like one to share my life with too).

    I think there are phases. You have phases where women grow tired of hyper masculinity and want men to become more feminine. Then you have phases where masculinity is all the rage like now.
    I don't even know if I should bother with it all any more, it's like neither gender can decide what men should be. So maybe like the majority of men I should just sit somewhere in between.

  14. There are quite a few women out there like the ones you describe. They become friends with the more feminine guys, but are not sexually attracted to them. But there are also quite a few who prefer the more sensitive and helpful ones, and who definitely prefer to marry them rather than some hypermasculine insensitive bloke.

    Then there are the FTM crossdreamers, girlfags, genderqueer women who get turned on by feminine men. The trick is to find them, I guess. In other words: I am glad people cannot agree on what men should be. That might give us all more leeway as regards gender traits and gender expressions.

    Maybe the main problem with being a quiet, introvert, sensitive guys is not that there are no one out there for them, but that we find it so much harder to make ourselves known to the right women (or men, all things considered).

    By the way: I have noticed something interesting as regards the "new" symbol of masculinity: The hipster beard. This may be a Scandinavian thing, but in general the hipsters I know aren't really that masculine, at least not in the traditional sense. I often see them with a baby stroller bringing their kids to the kinder garten. Maybe they use the beard to compensate. If that is the case, it seems to be working.

  15. I have to testify how hard it may be to seek a girlfriend and to find girls who want to be our friends...

    As for the beard to compensate, you may be on something. At least in my case.

  16. Lots of unfounded statements and conflations about homosexuality here.

    Sexual orientation and gende expression are two different things and they are not related or determined by the other. Sexual orientation is a fixed trait determine din the womb whereas gender expression is for the most part a learnt pattern.

    Association of femininity with homosexuality is recent in history. In fact, homosexual men wer,e in older times, associated with masculinity. For example, in ancient Greece, it was homosexual and bisexual men who were considred masculine/manly. It was them who conceptualized and promoted ideas of masculinity thate were passed down to younger generations of guys. Sports, gym culture, the military, they were all promoted by homosexual and bisexual men as ideals for men to acquire masculinity. Examples of masculinity associated with homsoexuality were common all across the globe in ancient times before the spreading of Judeo-christianity.

    Just like most heterosexual men are attracted to feminine women most gay men are attracted to masculine men and they look for each other. Homosexuality doesn't work as heterosexuality works, that is, a masculine doens't look for a feminine; instead a masculine looks for a masculine. This is why usually feminine gay men are alonebecause gay men are naturally attrcated to masculinity; not femininity.

    People associate homosexuality with feminine men because your average masculine gay man doesn't stand out among the crowd; you only set your eyes on the ones who scape the norm because, obviously, they scape the norm and that leads you to overrepresent your perception of homosexuality as feminine.

    Answers regarding why some gay men behave feminine are not found in their homsoexuality. For example. we live in societies that look down on homosexuality which makes it invisible. All kids of all sexual orientations experience romantic feelings. A gay kid with no gay role models is likely to model his personality after that of women (mother, sister, aunt, etc) because he sees that men (heterosexual) feel attracted to femininity so in his child's mind he sees femininity as the mechanism to attract men.


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