Recently I visited Devils at Cradle, a sanctuary for Tasmanian devils (Sarcophilus harisii). These Tassie devils are carnivorous scavengers of the food-chain, feeding on dead and injured wildlife including the carcasses of their own. They’ll even eat smaller devils when hungry enough. To watch them snarling, screaming and fighting over food and sex is both fascinating and disturbing. Like many species that relate through pecking orders, dominance is displayed by fighting and physical size. Males fight other males over access to females. Females fight off males and males forcibly subdue females during sex. As devils age, their bodies amass the wounds and scars of these battles. They appear damaged quite quickly in their short 5-6 year lives.
‘Damaged’ is a word some men use when they are speak to me about their relationships with women. They tell me they have struggled to meet, and even to talk to, women and say they feel disappointed, sometimes ashamed, even confused about their identity or sexuality. Men who want to be ‘more masculine’ are not a minority either. By most accounts, masculinity is a sought after quality despite it being subject to vastly different interpretations. With current fashion, appearing masculine can have men sculpting their abs or grooming a beard. Others indicate it is a performance: acting and talking tough, aggression or violence, the epitome of not caring. Still other men relate it to the capacity to ‘get a woman’, as if women are objects of sexual gratification, status symbols of masculinity, rather than other human beings.
At the devil sanctuary, I felt somewhat jarred when I heard the guide referring to dominant animals as the ‘alpha-males’. That’s because I’ve read lots of stuff on the Internet that extends the ‘alpha-male’ concept to human behaviour. According to particular web commentators, all men can be divided into either ‘alphas’ and ‘betas’. Alphas are described as the dominant variation, men who achieve their choice of partner by behaving in certain ways including competing with other men. It’s evolutionary biology they say. The underlying theory behind their argument is the oft quoted but vastly misunderstood ‘survival of the fittest’.
Many of these bloggers – if you are interested, you can find their articles by Googling ‘Manosphere’ – claim it’s men’s genetic programming to find a female mate and attempt to procreate. They preach a creed of biological fundamentalism that positions human beings on par with, or at least not barely different to, other animals when it comes to sexuality and relationships. And they use this to justify antagonistic attitudes towards women and their ways of relating to women and other men. But how therapeutic is it for men who think of themselves as damaged or deficient to be striving to be ‘alpha-males’?
The Alpha-Male ‘Helpfulness Test’ For Unhappy Men
The ‘alpha-male’ model might provide some useful explanations for devil behaviour but I reckon it gets clunky when applied to relations between men and women. Let’s start with the question of how helpful it is. I’m very used to undertaking therapy over webcam and in-person with unhappy and disturbed men as they confide in me about their anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns. And in my professional experience I’d say that splitting guys into these two categories and then instructing them they must choose between ‘the red pill’ or ‘the blue pill’ tends to do a lot more harm than good. This is despite claims of manosphere bloggers who often hide behind pen-names (that doesn’t seem so alpha does it?). Some insist men will not be happy unless they participate in their supposed ‘natural role’ or they promise happiness to men who do. So making a conquest of one’s relationship with a woman becomes the entire point of associating with her. I’ve seen men who start following these ideas set themselves completely in opposition to women. And then, like the Tassie devils, we have a battle going on. Someone is going to get injured.
Self-Reflection and Cognitive Capacity: The Difference Between Humans and Devils
Watching devil behaviour it might be easy to imagine their existence parallels that of humans albeit at a very primitive level. They forage, they fight, they fornicate. Then they fall asleep. But, according to the guide at the sanctuary, female devils are actually the dominant creatures in mixed-sex groupings. This shakes up the assumption that dominance is a male trait. The complexity of nature is not such that it is possible to explain either animal or human behaviour in terms that are limited to dominance and submission. Try Googling ‘dominance in female animals’ if you want some evidence.
And the Manosphere authors tend to be skip over a few important differences between humans and animals. Take human ethics for instance. Some might say it’s the human capacity to self-reflect that sets us apart from other animals. And the extension of that capacity for self-reflection is that we create values and make moral choices. We are driven, or not driven, by ethics as well as whatever descends through us down genetic lines. Our cognitive capacity might be said to be a product of our evolution but whether or not we choose to use it, or to consider and be guided by particular ethics, is up to us. It’s what separates a rational male from an instinctive one. By the way, when I refer to ethics or morality I’m not referring to the passed down, unquestioned dogma of a church, government or even one’s parents. Most people are in a bit of a mess about what they really believe and it doesn’t work so well to blindly follow what someone else says is right. I’d say testing it out with your own experience and checking in with your gut-feeling are important too.
Pseudo-Science: Finding Evidence for What you Want to Believe
Simply explaining heterosexual relations through a frame of competitive evolutionary biology doesn’t make for a scientific argument. There are plenty of instances of animal behaviour that demonstrates co-operation, collective care, harmony, equality and egalitarianism between males and females as well as between same sex mates. But you won’t discover these examples if you start out Googling ‘alpha-males’ or ‘biological reasons for sexual behaviour’, you will only find what you are looking for! Science happens when we look for evidence to try to prove an idea false. Simply going after evidence to confirm an idea is known as pseudoscience.
Men who are struggling to meet up with popular expectations of manhood and masculinity, not to mention the human desire for intimacy and companionship, are often won over by what seem to be convincing arguments supposedly based on science.
Pick Up Artists, Game and Sexual Manipulation
Some of the most convoluted pseudo-science around alpha-males’ and men’s relationships with women is coming out of the Pick Up Artist (PUA) movement. It produces books and runs courses advocating manipulation of women, aspects of which are known as ‘Game’: the techniques of picking up women. Those running PUA courses purport to be helping men to learn strategies and tactics, develop self-esteem and feel better about themselves as men. Others say PUA is basically a scheme to profit from men who view themselves as somehow deficient when it comes to engaging with women. From what I have seen and heard, men who get involved in Game end up more confused, with a heightened sense of conflict around what is ethically right for them. They also seem to become dependent on the dogma of the movement to continue to feel good about themselves. One of the most extreme cases is Elliot Rodger who cites his frustration over not being able to find a girlfriend and his hatred of women to justify taking a murderous course of revenge.
Let me offer a question, particularly to anyone reading this who might be at least partly convinced by ramblings from the Manosphere and starting to try out Game on women. What would you think about your sister, or your niece, your daughter or even your mother being on the receiving end of the tricks and tactics of Pick Up Artists?
Such a question often has men in a double-take. Guys who start exploring Game and the PUA movement are often thinking only short-term about their ‘success’. They might be focussed on convincing a woman to accept a date, have sex with them or on ‘getting’ a girlfriend. But they aren’t necessarily considering how living this ideology might affect them in the longer term. What happens for the man who becomes a successful Pick-Up Artist? How does he proceed with his life if in the future, for instance, he becomes interested in living with someone or raising children? How does the PUA and Game dogma affect him when transitioning into new and different roles as a man: as an uncle, a partner or a father, for example? Or does he become trapped in Game, contained by the identity of ‘seducer’ he has tried so hard to construct?
I also wonder what happens to our relationships with other men when we judge masculinity primarily through the alpha male-beta male model of evolutionary biology in the animal world. For a start, it doesn’t leave much space for closeness or intimacy between men, including that which is fraternal rather than sexual. Do we really want our relations with other men to be limited to those that are competitive?
Red Pill or Blue Pill? Or Some Heart to Heart?
It strikes me that, if you want to meet women, it probably won’t happen reading books or absorbing ideas while on your computer in your bedroom. It’s more likely to happen if you physically put yourself in environments where there a relatively large number of women. In other words, not places where there are a few women and a relatively large number of men competitively ‘hunting’ for them (I’m aware that this is a chilling concept for many people but it is the language that is used by Game and the so-called Pick-up Artist Movement, not something I endorse in any way).
The fact that many men are convinced they must compete with other men for the attention of women has me wondering what is more important to them: their relationships with women or how they are perceived by other men. Or perhaps how their masculinity is perceived by other men. Do you think you are less masculine in a yoga or pilates class full of women, for example? If so, isn’t that ironic?
It’s said that Tasmanian devils differ hugely in personality. They aren’t all as much into fighting or motivated by food or sex as each other either. When we consider animals or humans simply as species without taking account of individual diversity or difference, it’s likely we will overlook aspects that might be quite important. Some devils make a lot of noise to bluff and intimidate their peers and some will sustain more damage than others. Like people, their personalities depend on whether they have been frightened or hurt in the past and how they have been raised. But, unlike people, devils don’t reflect on their experiences and rationally choose to become more manipulative towards their mates.
I’ve no doubt those from the PUA movement may dismiss my article as ‘Beta Game’. But whatever line the so called dating-coaches and ‘seduction artists’ are pushing, no man should have to compromise his integrity and exercise power over another human being just because he feels frustrated. It’s quite human to want to experience intimacy, companionship and a sense of well-being. Start by sharing what you want for your life and talking over your fears with a person you can trust. Learn to relax in unfamiliar environments. Practise being true to yourself and your own ideals rather than trying to live up to the man someone else says you should be. That’s a much better strategy for the long term.
© Ash Rehn, 2015.
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