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Artist, Heather Oliver             

What’s Sex Got to Do with It?

(sung to Tina Turner’s à propos catchy tune)

Two events unfolded simultaneously in the last few days: Arnold Schwarzenegger’s admission that he left a household servant with a “love child” and Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s arrest for attempting to rape a hotel maid. Before that, we had the almost weekly litany of celebrity/tycoon/politician/figurehead caught with barely-of-age girl(s)/boy(s). In a sadly familiar refrain, an ostensibly liberal commentator said:

“…we know that powerful men do stupid, self-destructive things for sexual reasons every single day. If we’re looking for a science-based explanation, it probably has more to do with evolutionarily induced alpha-male reproductive mandates than any rational weighing of pros and cons.”

Now I hate to break it to self-labeled liberal men but neither love nor sex have anything to do with sexual coercion and Kanazawa-style Tarzanism trying to pass for “evolutionary science” won’t cut it. Everyone with a functioning frontal cortex knows by now that rape is totally decoupled from reproduction. The term “love child”, repeated ad nauseam by the media, is obscene in this context.

Leaving love aside, such encounters are not about sex either. For one, coerced sex is always lousy; for another, no reproductive mandate is involved, as the gang rapes of invading armies show. What such encounters are about, of course, is entitlement, power and control: the prerogative of men in privileged positions to use others (women in particular) as toilet paper with no consequences to themselves short of the indulgent “He’s such a ladies’ man…” and its extension: “This was a trap. Such men don’t need to rape. Women fling themselves in droves at alpha males!”

As I keep having to point out, there are no biological alpha males in humans no matter what Evo-Psycho prophet-wannabees preach under the false mantra of “Real science is not PC, let the chips fall where they may”. Gorillas have them. Baboons have them, with variances between subgroups. Our closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, don’t. What they have are shifting power alliances for both genders (differing in detail in each species). They also have maternally-based status because paternity is not defined and females choose their partners. Humans have so-called “alpha males” only culturally, and only since hoarding of surplus goods made pyramidal societies possible.

The repercussions of such behavior highlight another point. Men of this type basically tell the world “I dare you to stop my incredibly important work to listen to the grievances of a thrall. What is the life and reputation of a minimum-wage African immigrant woman compared to the mighty deeds I (think I can) perform?” Those who argue that the personal should be separate from the political choose to ignore the fact that the mindset that deems a maid part of the furniture thinks the same of most of humanity — Larry Summers is a perfect example of this. In fact, you can predict how a man will behave in just about any situation once you see how he treats his female partner. This makes the treatment of nations by the IMF and its ilk much less mysterious, if no less destructive.

Contrary to the wet dreams of dorks aspiring to “alpha malehood”, women generally will only interact with such specimens under duress. They’re far more popular with men who (like to) think that being a real man means “to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Civilization came into existence and has precariously survived in spite of such men, not because of them. If we hope to ever truly thrive, we will have to eradicate cultural alpha-malehood as thoroughly as we did smallpox — and figure out how we can inculcate snachismo as the default behavioral model instead.

Images: Top, Malcolm McDowell as Caligula in the 1979 eponymous film; bottom, Biotest’s “Alpha Male” pills.

31 Responses to “What’s Sex Got to Do with It?”

  1. Asakiyume says:

    I think it may have been Jon Stewary who, about the Strauss-Kahn thing, said that it was a metaphor come to life, with Mr. First World IMF attempting to screw Ms. Third World.

  2. Athena says:

    Les mots justes… though the IMF has been busily doing so to European countries as well: Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain.

  3. intrigued_scribe says:

    Sadly true. And:

    If we hope to ever truly thrive, we will have to eradicate cultural alpha-malehood as thoroughly as we did smallpox — and figure out how we can inculcate snachismo as the default behavioral model instead.

    Yes. As the case is too often, it seems that the most equitable long-term solutions are the also most elusive.

  4. Dylan Fox says:

    Sadly, the way our society is set up at the moment rewards behaviour that treats others like property, and so the people who are ‘best’ at that get to the top, and the system continues… Still, as Miss Woolf says, the only way to affect social change is through personal change. Time to re-read that snachismo post again…

    Thanks for this post. Succinct and insightful.

  5. eilidh says:

    I’ve not yet heard the ‘she was asking for it’ line for this case. But it’s always lurking there somewhere.

  6. Hannah Nicklin says:

    I believe this, but that’s because I want to, just as an aspirational alpha male wants to believe evo-psych bullshit. Could you link to sources for your suggestions, and make it clear why it’s evidentially not causally linked? Then I can feel better about agreeing :)

  7. Athena says:

    Heather, exactly. Opting for the lazy out is the default response, and it has served us very poorly.

    Dylan, personal change is crucial but social rewards for being “bad boys” should also stop. Can you imagine a professional woman going around proudly bearing the epithet “the great seducer”?

    Eleni, they haven’t said that (yet) but they’ve been circling it, including the complaints about how “harshly” Strauss-Kahn has been treated — he’s too respectable to be handcuffed, apparently, for such a “minor” transgression. Also, the wives are always humiliated by being made to “stand by their man” — why? To reciprocate the loyalty and consideration?

    Hannah, read the Sarah Blaffer Hrdy’s three books and Lucy’s Legacy by Alison Jolly. Then, if your stamina is still holding, check the books of Anna Fausto-Sterling. The fact that humans don’t have biological alpha males is not even disputed in scientific circles — except by EvoPsychos, many of whom are not biologists but such things as economists, SF writers, “futurists”… in short, eminently qualified in the domain (not). The fact that their “research” comes to the conclusion that fifties family and social dynamics are “built-in” should make you suspicious from the get-go.

  8. Caliban says:

    Somewhat tangentially (but still relevant, I think) I remember an online discussion with a conservative writer, who made the snide comment that homosexuality had been delisted as a mental illness primarily due to “political correctness” (implying it was not due to any scientific studies).

    I observed that homosexuality had been listed as a mental illness in the first place also not due to any science whatsoever but due to a previous era’s “political correctness.”

    There was of course no reply.

  9. Athena says:

    Exactly. Scientists are not free of the blinkers of their era (“Elephants — and bees — are led by powerful older males” is an example I never tire of quoting). What saves science is that it keeps asking the questions. Academia, of course, is another beast entirely.

  10. Walden2 says:

    Humans need to admit and accept that we are all animals who just happen to be smart enough to have some fancy tools and a bit of self-awareness. Other higher animals on this planet also share these same qualities, but many people tend to ignore this fact or otherwise remain unaware.

    Until then we will keep having these kinds of serious problems which are obviously incompatible with so-called modern civilization. The question is, can humans *really* mature beyond their base instincts and fears, and if so does that mean they will no longer be human?

    I know we have made a number of big positive strides over the last few thousand years but these remaining issues from our primitive ancestry remain and end up being either swept under the rug or accepted with a boys-will-be-boys attitude.

    Slavery used to be both acceptable and lucrative but most people now see it for the horrible thing that it is. Even something like smoking which was once so pervasive is finally being culturally ostracized. So now we must tackle these final things if we really want to be “above” the mere animals.

  11. Athena says:

    Slavery is an interesting point to consider, Larry, especially in connection with arguments against banning such practices as female genital mutilation. I’ve been thinking about this a lot — an essay will eventually appear.

    The question of whether humans will still be human if they go past instincts is moot. I suspect that we’ll still be all there is when that happens (unless SETI gets a call). This means we won’t have another standard of comparison and also that we’ll find other ways of making others miserable, as we have ever since culture became prominent in our behaviors instead of biology.

  12. Sue Lange says:

    What, no comment on Biotest’s alpha male pills? Like what it is that is lost when someone builds up all those muscles with testosterone pills. Come on Athena, I await a nice caustic consumer review.

  13. Athena says:

    Well, the Doofinator is a walking ad for testosterone pills… an alpha-male wannabee who lived the Dork Dream — and as an example of how humans are evaluated, people were seriously considering changing the presidency laws to accommodate his bigness… er, greatness.

    ETA: Come to think of it, this was also Strauss-Kahn’s trajectory before his arrest. Le plus ça change…

  14. Jim F. says:

    > [T]he mindset that deems a maid part of the furniture
    > thinks the same of most of humanity. . .

    Remember the movie _Soylent Green_, in which the VIP whose
    murder the Charlton Heston character is investigating lived
    in an upscale apartment building, where women provided as
    entertainment by the building management were referred
    to as “furniture”?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soylent_Green

    “Shirl. . . Officially, she’s furniture. She comes with
    the apartment. She belongs to the tenant.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SVpN312hYgU

  15. Athena says:

    I haven’t seen the film, though I knew its gist. Upon reading the synopsis, the correspondences become obvious.

  16. Walden2 says:

    What I find most disappointing about people is the potential for so much greater things that is lost every day. That includes myself.

  17. Athena says:

    Nobody gets to fulfill their potential in any dimension — life tends to plow you under. Which is why noblesse oblige is a must: the more privileges you have, the more aware you should be. Or, as they say in Spiderman… (insert well-known quote). For one, if you have a privileged existence you usually have the time and resources to be considerate and examine your behavior. But the concept is almost invariably honored in the breach.

  18. Astronist says:

    “What such encounters are about, of course, is entitlement, power and control: the prerogative of men in privileged positions to use others (women in particular) as toilet paper with no consequences to themselves”

    My own view, Athena, for what it’s worth, is that they are probably more an expression of anger. I feel a great deal of suppressed anger against the women in my life, and I can easily imagine that spilling out into a physical attack on a woman by someone less culturally conditioned than I am. So I think it’s not so much a question of wanting to use someone “as toilet paper” as a question of wanting revenge for one’s disappointments and agonies.

    Stephen
    Oxford, UK

  19. Athena says:

    I really hope you are not serious, Stephen. What disappointments and agonies justify rape? Specifically, what disappointments and agonies did Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn go through? The former in particular ended up getting rewards that were totally disproportionate to his talents. And I guarantee you that women feel a good deal more suppressed anger than men, considering their usual status. When they express it, they tend to get killed.

  20. Astronist says:

    Hi, Athena. I’m not thinking in terms of whether to justify sexual attacks on women (or on men) in a moral sense, just thinking on the level of psychological cause and effect. I don’t know any specifics about the two guys you’re blogging about. But I suspect from anecdotal evidence, as well as my own experience, that the vast majority of romantic relationships are tragic failures from the point of view of one or both participants, and that there’s a lot of suppressed anger in most people. Broken dreams. Clearly, as you say, this applies to women no less than to men.

    Actually, the cause and effect needn’t even make much rational sense. A personal hero of mine is the sax player Stan Getz. I read his biography once: it’s about a quarter jazz, a quarter alcohol, a quarter hard drugs, and a quarter domestic violence. And yet he played the most gorgeous melodic solos ever. The complexity of human nature. Clearly he had unresolved issues that hurt him inside (maybe that had something to do with his artistry, maybe not, who knows?) and that spilled out into drugs and violence. In the end he was certainly as successful in jazz as Schwarzenegger in movies.

    I hasten to add: a hero thru his music, not his personal life!

    Stephen

  21. Athena says:

    I’m surprised we’re discussing level 101 stuff here, Stephen.

    Both Schwarzenegger and Strauss-Kahn repeatedly mistreated women in their professional environments. Schwarzenegger’s behavior was so well known when he ran for governor of California that Gary Trudeau who writes the comic strip Doonesbury called him “The Groppenführer” and showed him as a giant pinching hand.

    Women don’t beat men into a pulp because of “broken dreams”. Men feel entitled no matter what their own level of talent/attractiveness/whathaveyou is, and that is a cultural attribute, not a biological one. In particular, men feel entitled to treating the women in their lives as furniture that does not have autonomous rights and can be used for venting (aka: toilet paper). As per my original entry, Getz became a talented sax player despite his anger — by overcoming or harnessing it constructively — not because of it. There are plenty of men who play beautiful music without being abusive, so it’s not a cause and effect in any way, shape or form.

  22. Brian M says:

    I’ll put in a plug here for an intriguing novel by left wing Scottish author Richard K. Morgan http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Man (“Thirteen” in the United States) which posits genetically created and rigidly trained superhuman “Alpha Males”. The main themes include the whole nature versus nurture question and the veruy nature of “masculinity”, One might not agree with the author here, but it is a very interesting, in some ways, discussion.

  23. Athena says:

    I read Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs trilogy (which I found interesting, though less original than people generally considered it) and started Thirteen but couldn’t finish it. The obvious derivation from Blade Runner and the essentialist faux-genetics eroded my interest. All of Morgan’s books focus on alpha males and conflate genes with childhood conditioning. Much of Morgan’s work (except for being SF instead of fantasy) is a poster case of the fathers-versus-sons pseudo-dichotomy I discussed in A Plague on Both Your Houses.

    Not so incidentally, the “alpha male survival traits” so celebrated by Morgan’s hero and Tin Johns of all stripes are anything but. Women had to be as good at them if not better — much of survival depended on registering minute changes in your environment and adapting to them. EvoPsychos conveniently choose to forget that we were not predators for most of our life as a species, but instead were prey or — at best — scavengers.

  24. Brian M says:

    Ah, Athena…interesting but I cannot fully agree with many of your points. What is wrong with me in that I still find his works interesting? (LOL)

    I think he (his character) also express quite a bit of skepticism about the themes you outline. If you had read further, the strongest characters (from a character/morality/personal toughness standpoint) is not the alpha male, who is quite conflicted, but several female characters. And, I don’t think he conflates nurture and nature so baldly…there is quite a lot of discussion/dispute about on about what really made this man a “MAN”. So, Mr. Morgan is not completely “hopeless”

    Anyway…I couldn’t finish one of his novels, Market Forces, because the kind of Uber-Capitalism outlined in that novel did hit me too close to home. The accused rapist here would fit in very well in the near future world of Market Forces.

  25. Athena says:

    You don’t have to agree with me, Brian. Besides, I did say I found the Kovacs trilogy interesting.

    I read a long discussion Morgan had about Thirteen and he conflated genes with childhood conditioning there as well. Also, I’m not the only reader of his fiction who has noticed that he likes to have his cake and eat it too as far as alpha males are concerned: namely, depict them admiringly (including worship from female characters) while arguing that he’s critiquing the species.

  26. Brian M says:

    Ah…good points, Athena. I can see how he conflates “genes” with culture quite egregiously (with the caveat that there is much hand wringing about the topic)

    His blog is rather swaggeringly macho, too.

    The main character in Market Forces was also pretty macho. Not really 100% a hero, though…more an antihero. The capitalism-run-amuck world view is fascinating, though.

  27. Astronist says:

    Clearly I’ve touched a raw nerve of yours. (Just as your original post touched a raw nerve of mine.) Our experiences of life and of personal relationships must be very different.

    Stephen

  28. Athena says:

    My post has little to do with personal experiences, Stephen, and I’m surprised you took it personally — unless you consider yourself an “alpha male” entitled to the privileges often unquestioningly assigned to such a specimen. Nevertheless, I agree that the experiences of a white male Anglosaxon must indeed be quite different from that of a dark female ferengi who lived her life first among a culture that is almost Islamic and later among Anglosaxons who consider themselves the default state of first class humanity.

    ETA: Several of my points are made, at greater length, by Rebecca Solnit in Salon.

  29. Jim F. says:

    > As I keep having to point out, there are no
    > biological alpha males in humans no matter what
    > Evo-Psycho prophet-wannabees preach under the
    > false mantra of “Real science is not PC, let
    > the chips fall where they may”.

    A typical example of pop-ethology lingo, from
    a cryonics enthusiast’s blog I just happened
    to stumble on. I suspect “game” here, as something
    that “alpha males have going for them”
    alludes to the attributes described in
    _The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society
    of Pickup Artists_.

    ;->

    http://thelifeofmanquamanonearth.blogspot.com/
    2010/09/cryonics-disappoints-as-cult.html

    Cryonics tends to attract mostly ingregarious and
    often geeky or frumpy individuals, mainly beta
    males who outnumber the women in cryonics by something
    like 4 to 1. I suspect that if cryonics attracted
    more alpha males who had game going for them,
    stories about them would tend to generate fewer
    hostile responses, and possibly even more respectful
    ones. After all, humans organically form dominance
    hierarchies, and we naturally feel inhibited about
    challenging dominant males. And if cryonics attracted
    more alpha males, I suspect that more women would
    follow them into the movement.

    The “female Kryptonite” aspect of cryonics poses
    one of the greater dangers for its survival as
    a social movement, in my opinion.

  30. Athena says:

    You know my views of transhumorists and their views, Jim… whether they’re “alpha”, “beta” or “omega”.

    *snerk*

  31. Astronist says:

    On the subject of amazing women from repressive “ferengi” cultures (if tangential to your original blog post), I wonder if I could introduce you to another of my great heroes? – the astonishingly talented Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, born in Azerbaijan, now living mostly in Germany:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-tconosa5Iw

    (30 secs or so of interview in German, followed by music).

    Stephen