When a gunman opened fire on an Aurora, Colorado movie theater earlier this month, three men died protecting their girlfriends, while another ran from the theater, got in his truck, and drove away, saying later that he "went to get help." The media (us included) heaped praise on the the dead men, extolling them as examples of how a guy should behave in the face of tragedy. But according to a new study, men who face disaster by taking care of the needs of others aren't the norm — in fact, throughout the last 160 years or so, it seems that many, many more men are in the "get in the truck and get the hell out of dodge" category than those who would take the bullet. Women and children first? More like looking out for number one.
A new study of shipwrecks dating back to 1850 has shown that not only has the "women and children first" mantra fallen out of favor, it probably was never in favor in the first place, or if it was in favor, it was in favor for, like, a second. A pair of Swedish economists examined the survival records of 18 disasters and found that women and children are actually less likely to survive disasters than men, and the people most likely to survive are the people who are, according to chivalrous rules, supposed to go down with the ship: the crew. While 61% of the crew and 37% of men typically survived shipwrecks, only 27% of women did, and only 17% of children made it.
According to the LA Times, the initial reasoning behind letting women and children access lifeboats before men was that men ostensibly had a "survival advantage;" they tend to be more physically hardy and stronger, and crew members should have a familiarity with the vessel and the water that would allow them a greater chance of survival without lifeboats. Therefore theoretically, men giving women and children access to help first would increase the overall survival rate in maritime disasters. In Role/Reboot today, Hugo Schwyzer points out that on a more philosophical level, handing one's survival advantage over to women is only fair, given that, until very recently, every time a woman has had sex with a man, she's put herself at risk of pregnancy, and, by extension at risk of dying during childbirth.
Not every seafaring disaster resulted in men scrambling to save their own asses at the expense of the younger and physically weaker. "Women and children first" was coined during an 1852 disaster involving the British ship the Birkenhead. When the boat hit a rock in shark-heavy waters, the men dutifully loaded women and children onto the lifeboats and stood on the deck as the vessel sank. During the Titanic disaster in 1912, crew members made sure that women were allowed the ship's limited lifeboats. Additionally, Leonardo DiCaprio floated there shivering to death in the water like a chivalrous idiot while Kate Winslet hogged an entire piece of floating jetsam that they totally could have shared.
But all human beings are wild-eyed, limb-chewing forest creatures when faced with the possibility of imminent death, and even though it's unpleasant to think about, it makes sense that when animal instincts take over, a guy may feel compelled to shove a kid down some stairs so he can get one of the last remaining life vests. The Swedish researchers behind the analysis call this "every man for himself." I call it a proto-Ayn Randian paradise. Ron Paul for President!