Heard this argument? Men don't really want to be domineering jerks. Guys play at being assholes only because women reward arrogant alpha males with sex. Women's sexual choices create bad male behavior; the ladies have only themselves to blame for the seeming epidemic of masculine boorishness. Uh-huh.
This old argument emerged again this week on two of the most popular sites in the (predictably) overlapping online worlds of the Men's Rights Movement and the Pick-Up Artist community. On Tuesday at In Male Fide, a writer by the name of "Wizard Corpse" offers a piece called "Women Who Love Jerks and the Nice Guys Who Love Them," while on Monday at Chateau Heartiste, "Roissy" (one of the best-known purveyors of "game" in the blogosphere) wrote What Do Women Want? A Master.
Wizard Corpse relies on the familiar pop evo-psych theory that women know instinctively that domineering men have healthier genes. "If you aren't an asshole naturally," he suggests, you need to study the characteristics of alpha-male jerks. Roissy, meanwhile, appeals to literature (The Story of O) and film (9 ½ Weeks) to make his case that "women want a man who takes charge…Adopt the attitude of the master, and women will revert to their naturally submissive essence faster and more profoundly than you can scarcely imagine."
Never mind that the research on what heterosexual women actually want doesn't bear this out. For years, studies have shown that women do rate kindness as a particularly attractive quality in a man. Along with humor and intelligence, generosity is a particularly valuable trait; as one study showed earlier this month, guys become more selfless (read: less assholish) when in the presence of women they find attractive.
When confronted with this research — or a woman's emphatic claim that she doesn't want a jerk — guys in the pick-up artist (PUA) and men's rights communities proclaim that women are either dishonest or fundamentally ignorant of their own wants. Ethan, a 29-year-old film editor who's been studying pick-up artistry since he was in college, says, "Most women have ‘bad boy syndrome' but are reluctant to admit it. They don't want to fall into the stereotype of the woman who can't resist the asshole. But their own desires betray them." At In Male Fide, Wizard Corpse says much the same thing, remarking to the women he imagines might take him seriously, "you are not aware that you are attracted to the qualities of an asshole."
I've heard variations on this argument over the years from guys in my Men and Masculinity course. When we debate whether "bad boy" behavior is driven by the homosocial desire to win approval from other men or is primarily a strategy that men are forced to adopt in order to give women what they really want, I invariably hear from male students who insist that the latter is the real reason. Assholedom, a few of my students argue, is a necessary pretense. "Most guys would be a lot nicer," a student once said, "if we thought that niceness was what women actually wanted." When several female students challenged him on his theory, he insisted that they were either lying or deceived as to their own desires.
It's true that the culture socializes some young women to be attracted to disaffected, hostile, and brooding young men. Sometimes, it's about encouraging girls to buy into the "my love can change him" trope. For women taught to believe that their most valuable asset is their own capacity to love, what better way to prove the depths of one's devotion than to transform the bad boy into the nice guy? Just as doctors demonstrate their skill by healing the sick rather than keeping the already healthy well, so too some young women may think that their worth is better measured by taming the asshole than by sustaining a relationship with a man who is already kind, present, and emotionally aware. Many men point triumphantly to examples of women who think this way as evidence that their own consequent douchebaggery is simply a rational sexual strategy.
The idea that women are the architects of their own sexual adversity is massively oversold by pick-up artists and men's rights activists alike. Guys like Roissy, Ethan, and Wizard push the "good girls only want bad boys" theory because they sense the obvious benefit: If they then themselves mistreat women, they are not doing it out of any defect in their natures, but out of a rational strategy for improving their mating odds. It is women themselves who have made these rules, these guys claim with varying degrees of sincerity; we fellas just have to adapt as best we can. Bad male behavior gets cunningly reframed as an evolutionary adaptation to female desire — and the blame for everything falls once again on the shoulders (and hearts, and libidos) of women who don't know (or won't admit) the truth.
It's not news that pop psychologists, conservative politicians, and aspiring pick-up artists in their mothers' basements seek to blame women for rotten male conduct. If only women wouldn't reward jerks with sex and attention, their arguments go, men would be ever so much nicer and more reliable. What's different now is that this blame game is contradicted by the growing research consensus that women's private sexual desires are not, in fact, at odds with their egalitarian public aspirations.
The evidence is compelling that the sexual appeal of assholes is wildly exaggerated. But that doesn't seem to stop those who long to justify their own bad behavior from making the case that they're ijust giving the ladies what they really want. As if.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. You can see more of his work at his eponymous site.
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