Rousey v. Correia and the Science of Female Combat

On August 1st, Ronda Rousey, the first female UFC champion, will defend her title against Bethe Correia. At the same time, the first female Marines to undergo infantry training have completed the course and are waiting for Marine Corps officials to decide whether they will actually be deployed in ground combat troops. Both situations ask us to assess women’s physical and psychological capacities in an evolutionarily novel context: physical combat.

The Marines are already doing this by investigating whether and/or how gender affects the fighting effectiveness of a unit. To determine this, researchers have been collecting comparative data on the physical strength, endurance, speed and marksmanship of male and female Marines. Several women have shown that they can pass the rigorous infantry training course, but one sex difference is already apparent: injury rates are much higher for women than for men, especially stress fractures from carrying heavy loads. This does not bode well for would-be female soldiers, as combat is much harder on the body than a training course.

Female injury rates point to another, equally important issue: how the presence of female soldiers affects unit cohesion. If, as evidence suggests, some male Marines lack confidence in the abilities of their female comrades-in-arms, female participation in combat may increase the already high stress levels endured by male soldiers, and negatively impact unit morale. Other psychological unknowns are whether female psychology will be activated in the same way as male psychology in the heat of combat, and how male psychology will respond to the sight of female soldiers being wounded and killed in battle.

Attitudes towards women’s combat-related sports may shed light on some of these questions. Research shows that both sexes would rather watch male than female athletic competitions. Evolutionary biology offers —> Read More