The trouble with men
The Washington Post, May 18, 2011
What is it with men and sex?
As a man I'm hardly qualified to approach this subject with the disinterested inquiry it demands, but attention must be paid. The revelation that Arnold Schwarzennegger fathered a 10-year-old child with a household staffer (who still worked for the family until a few months agopoor Maria!), plus IMF chief and "caviar socialist" Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged sexual assault of a young hotel maid, are just the latest reminders that there's something seriously wrong with at least a few members of my gender.
Arnold and DSK join a long line of powerful men laid low by primal urges. To be sure, distinctions must be drawn. Consensual affairs are one thing. Abuse of power with underlingslet alone criminal attacksare quite another. But the variety of alpha-male sexual shenanigans never ceases to amaze.
Think Bill Clinton. John Edwards. Newt Gingrich. Mark Sanford. John Ensign. So much frolicking. So little time.
Even Osama bin Laden had several wives and his stash of porn. Does behavior like this just go with alpha-male territory?
From what we know thus far, the cases of Arnold and DSK are particularly disturbing because of the abuse of power they involve. But are these merely extreme examples of a beast that lurks within all men?
Unsure on this terrainafter all, I'm just one man trapped inside his own limitationsI turned to the two authorities I respect most on these questions for insight. One is Robert Wright, whose book, The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology And Everyday Life
, was so brilliant I literally read it aloud to my wife on an island vacation in 1996. The second is that selfsame wife, Jody, whose maddeningly astute insights into male shortcomings (or at least my own) have been the object of my grudging admiration for nearly two decades.
"The problem with men," Jody says, "is that too often it looks like once they are in a position to take advantage of women, whether it's because they're celebrities, they're rich, or they're powerfulthey doand they do it in the most disturbing ways. So you begin to ask yourself, are they really bad at the core?"
In other words, are Arnold and DSK just a few bad applesor is there something bigger, badder and fundamentally difficult to control going on inside men?
Jody has long thought that there's at least some evidence of the latter. She cites the men across the world who pay to have sex with women they know are underage and who have been forced into sex slavery. When men can nonetheless presumably enjoy that experienceand then be viewed as "normal" as they go about the rest of their liveswhat more proof do you need of the horror at the bottom of the breed?
"The idea that someone in your species could do that is upsetting," she says. "The fact that men are capable of this is more than I can process."
I know Jody's not alone. Thirty years ago, while a student in London, I had a girlfriend who told me, after reading a novel (The White Hotel
by D.M. Thomas) whose details about male behavior I've long forgotten, that she couldn't be with me, or any man, again. Nothing personal, she said. It was something about men. (That feeling eventually passed.)
"That drive for sex seems to overcome every rational, moral anchor that otherwise 'good' men have," Jody says. Because men are so susceptible to this, it gives some women enormous poweras Cleopatra and others through the ages have shrewdly sensed. But most women are subject to abuse because of these male urges.
The pattern seems so pervasive that at some point you have to wonder how any woman can look at any man and not be occasionally disgusted, if not afraid.
I'm hardly a self-loathing male. But it does get one thinking.
"The question for Bob Wright," says Jody, "is, is there a beast in men?"
"Men are by nature a little less discerning about the circumstances under which sex happens," Wright says dryly. "That's why societies have developed various moral and legal sanctions for modifying male behavior." Wright hastens to add that not all men would enjoy sex with slaves or prostitutes, but still, he says, Jody is on to something.
Evolutionary psychologists start with the fundamental fact that males can reproduce many times a year and females can't; many consequences flow from this in terms of natural selection and sexual psychology. "Emotions and feelings that are conducive to getting genes into the next generation persist," Wright explains. "For men, over the course of history, more sex partners at more frequent intervals meant more offspring."
"This doesn't mean men can't fall in love," Wright adds, "or that all men are creeps, like DSK manifestly is. But that's why you get, in extreme cases, people like Schwarzenegger and DSK. It's a mistake for us to underestimate human badness. That's why I'm a bit of a defender of Anglo Saxon uptightness."
Translation: The extent to which such behavior is seen as scandalous matters. Will Arnold now be shunned? We'll see.
For now, for this flawed man, it remains mystifying how much love, trust and dignity is routinely squandered by powerful men for a relatively few moments of pleasure and release. Not to mention how much power and status they thereby ironically forfeit.
"Everything I think is mocked by everything I do," says Sergius in George Bernard Shaw's Arms and the Man
. Maybe that's the right epitaph for alpha males who aspired to leave a constructive thumbprint on the world, only to fall when they failed to tame the beast within.