The Toxic Alpha Male

Every once in a while, I like to go browse through some various blogs, forums and subreddits specializing in men’s dating advice to see what theories are being espoused.

It’s not terribly surprising (to me) to see that the idea of “being alpha” is continuing to be tossed around as the end-all/be-all of dating; it’s a part of the DNA of men’s dating advice – the complaints of Nice Guys lamenting the popularity of assholes, nerds complaining about jocks getting all the girls and of course, the obsession in PUA circles with status games and “shit tests” – that is, acting in such a manner as to “test” a man’s status by trying to make him supplicate or otherwise disqualify a man from being a potential sexual partner.

More often than not, it gets mixed in with evolutionary psychology – the idea that men and women act a specific way because of evolution. According to the standard script, women are attracted to “alphas” because they are looking for prime genetic material who can also protect and provide for them, thus ensuring the continuation of their genetic line.

"Attention ladies! My body is ready! Please form an orderly line!"

“Attention ladies! My body is ready! Please form an orderly line!”

The idea of the “high-value, alpha male” is a popular one – in fact, it’s one of the regular arguments in the comments sections, especially whenever I post about masculinity or what makes men attractive to women.

The problem, unfortunately, is that the cultish worship of “alpha” is incredibly toxic, poisoning interactions between men and women and actually making it harder for men to improve their dating lives.

The Mistaken Sexual Narrative

It’s tempting to ascribe behaviors to “nature” as a way to give the the gloss of authority and excuse one’s desires with “we’ll, this is just how it’s supposed to be, can’t do nuthin’ about it.” But if one is going to attempt this, it helps to actually understand what the real natural behavior is instead of making assumptions based on what we WANT to be true and ultimately begging the question. Evolutionary psychology is frequently used to justify certain behaviors in men and women, insisting that certain behaviors are not only natural but inevitable and thus are the way that things are supposed to be. Such is the case of the worship of the alpha male: an attempt by people to justify what they want to be true via an appeal to nature through misunderstandings of evolution, psychology and sociological development.

The problem with the worship of the alpha male starts with the current fad of explaining male and female sexual behaviors via evolutionary psychology and involves two disparite beliefs.

The first belief is the modern narrative of sexual behavior in men and women.

The current standard narrative simplified is that sperm is metaphorically cheap while eggs are metaphorically expensive. According to this theory, it is therefore the natural order of things for men to spread their seed far and wide in hopes of impregnating as many women as possible. Meanwhile women must husband1 their eggs, granting sexual access only to those males who exhibit the greatest level of genetic and sociable desirability: that is, men who not only exhibit exterior signs of health and fitness but who are also sufficiently “alpha”.  However, because of the need for protection as well as supporting the child until it reaches maturity, a woman may choose to pair up with a “beta” for material gain while sneaking off to have sex with the more desirable alpha males. The woman and the alpha – in this view – gets the best of both worlds; the alpha gets to spread his genes while the woman gets not just superior genetic stock for her offspring but also physical and material support as well. Meanwhile the poor cuckolded beta is stuck having his genetic line cut off while expending resources raising another man’s child.

It’s an appealing idea in many ways; it provides the gloss of an appeal to nature- it nicely coincides with the macro perception of human sexual interaction and provides justification for promiscuous male behavior and an explanation for hypergamous females.

Too bad it’s also bullshit.

The narrative that men are naturally promiscuous (the better to ensure the survival of their genetic line) while women are naturally monogamous is the result of a cultural fallacy dating back as far as Charles Darwin; scientists and anthropologists of the time tended to use Western cultural morality as the prism through which they viewed natural discoveries – a problem that occasionally crops up today, as a matter of fact.  In fact, the idea of sexual exclusivity – of humans being concerned with genetic lineage and trying to avoid raising another man’s child – is a relatively recent development, evolutionarily speaking. Up until about 10,000 years ago (a not even a blink of the eye, evolutionarily speaking), humans lived in small disparate communal groups with no real concept of individual ownership or even parentage. Sexual relationships weren’t a question of monogamy or harem-like structures but polygynous and polyandrous. Even amongst modern stone-age tribes, such as the ones in the Amazon and South-East Asia,  parential lineage isn’t a strict binary; most believe in the concept of multiple fathers contributing to the creation of a child.

One benefit to this system: WAY more birthday presents.

One benefit to this system: WAY more birthday presents.

Sexual exclusivity and the obsession with genetic lineage didn’t come about until the development of agriculture – and with it, the idea of private ownership. The idea of sex and parentage in a hunter-gatherer society was one of community; in an agricultural society, it became one of strict possession. Once food became something that could be owned, as opposed to shared with the tribe, it became something to be hoarded because now it could be taken away. So it was with women – when you have property, it became of ultimate importance to know who would ultimately benefit from one’s efforts. Why waste energy and resources only to benefit someone else rather than your own family? Women – and potential children – became possessions, with sexual access becoming something to be strictly controlled and regulated.

Everything about humans from the size of our testicles to the shape of our pensises to the noises we make during sex is evolutionary testament to the fact that sexual exclusivity is not the natural state. It’s a cultural creation that we have mistakenly attributed to nature.

(Worth noting: this narrative also doesn’t account for homosexuality. Yes, there will be the inevitable quipster who says something about the stereotypical promiscuity of gay males, but gay men aren’t instinctively trying to spread their genes to as many females as possible. Similarly, lesbians aren’t seeking out alpha males for their genetic superiority. If neither side is attempting to reproduce, how does one fit them into the model? Is the more dominant partner presumed to be the masculine role and the submissive one the feminine? What if the dominant man is also a bottom, sexually? What if they’re switches?)

So how does this tie into the worship of being “alpha”? Stick with me for a second.

The Myth of Alphas And Betas

I’ve touched on the idea of alpha and beta behavior before, but let’s explore it again.

Amongst primates that live in social groups (baboons, chimpanzees, gorillas), the largest, strongest of the male apes is the alpha male; the others are betas. The alpha rules the pack by dint of his strength and furious violence; he gets the greatest amount of food and unlimited sexual access to the females. The betas subsist on the scraps that are left over once the alpha has moved on and are excluded from sex with any of the females on threat of death. The alpha alone gets to pass along his genes; many apes – chimps and gorillas especially – will outright murder the children of competing males in order to ensure that his genes and his alone will survive.

“Who you think lies more, males or females? TRICK QUESTION! Korg get rid of other males!”

When this gets translated onto human mating patterns (humans, after all, are just hairless apes), the idea is that women are naturally attracted to alpha males – dominant, powerful, high-status men – while disdaining the weaker, less dominant betas. When women do decide to hook up with a beta – so the theory goes – it’s a matter of convenience and materialism; she’s trading sex for material support when secretly in her heart of hearts, she learns for a big hairy-chested manly man to come and bang the ever-loving shit out of her… bonus if he’s also high-status so she can upgrade and ditch the beta.

It’s an idea with appeal2: it is easy to apply in the macro view – submissive, needy men aren’t terribly appealing to the majority of women after all – and offers a one-size-fits-all solution to sex and dating. Want more women? Just be more “alpha” and they’ll come flocking to your door like mice to peanut butter.

Unfortunately  once again: this is an an intellectual fallacy, an attempt to use nature and evolution as a way to justify the way one wants things to be. The idea breaks down as soon as you take the most cursory look at actual evolution. Yes, chimpanzees – our genetic near-relatives – have an alpha caste who enforce sexual restrictions through violence…but we’re not chimps. We are much much closer to bonobos – a primate species who doesn’t have and alpha/beta social structure. Bonobos – in as much as they have a social hierarchy – are matriarchal, with relative status determined by age rather than muscle and violence. Sex amongst bonobos is a free-for-all; males and females have equal access to one another and participate in sex regularly with both troop members and apes from other social groups. Females will have sex with almost any of the other males – barring actual incest – and vice versa.

While we’re equidistant, genetically speaking, from chimpanzees and bonobos, we bear far more in common with the hypersexual bonobos – in both behavior and anatomy – than we do with chimps, never mind gorillas. Human and bonobo males have larger testicles than chimpanzees do, while human and bonobo females have vulva that are oriented towards the front; chimpanzee females have rear-oriented vulva. Chimpanzees mate exclusively in estrus, strictly for the purpose of reproduction while humans and bonobos both have sex throughout the female’s menstrual cycle and during lactation; in fact, humans and bonobos are the only land mammals that have sex strictly for pleasure.

Even more telling is the difference in our brains. Humans and bonobos have receptor sites in our brains for the hormone oxytocin, which encourages social bonding and feelings of affection and is produced during orgasm. Chimpanzees lack these receptors.

Looking to evolution to understand why we have sex and with whom is not a bad idea, but it helps if you look in the right direction in the first place.

(Plus, the alpha/beta divide fails to apply cleanly even amongst chimps; females in chimp troops will mate quite happily with betas and frequently do so as soon as the alpha’s attention is diverted elsewhere).

What Is Alpha?

One of the continuing issues with the worship of the “alpha male” is that nobody can agree on what “alpha” is. Clearly alpha behavior as implied by various dating and pick-up sites isn’t a direct translation of chimp behavior3 ; after all chimp alphas enforce their exclusive access to women via violence.

So the definition of what is alpha becomes a weird Rorsharch test, exposing what the individual believes defines “masculinity” combined with a “don’t give a fuck” attitude. Most forms of recommended “alpha” behavior waver between “cocky/funny” responses to basic questions (the aforementioned “shit tests”), ignoring what women are saying and being as socially domineering as possible. The obsession with alpha behavior carries over into mixed groups or even all-male groups; there can be only one alpha after all, and even friendly hang-outs can turn into constant competitions for status as people try to assume the socially dominant position.

A special emphasis is placed on avoiding any behavior that could be seen as “supplicating” to women. To supplicate to a woman – such as by buying a woman a drink at a bar, for example or being willing to hold her purse or drink – is seen as the greatest indicator of beta status; it means that the man is showing that he’s willing to sacrifice his value (which apparently is incredibly fragile) in order to appease the woman in hopes of getting sexual favors from her. There seems to be a very slippery slope amongst these beliefs between, say, buying a drink or paying for dinner and becoming a spineless, sexless blob of neediness that no woman would touch with a ten-foot pole.

But once you get beyond the broad swaths of proscribed behavior and into the weeds of the specifics, things start to vary immensely. Is it more alpha to have lots of sex or to make the choice to commit to one woman? Is it more alpha to cheat on one’s spouse or to stay faithful in the face of temptation? Who is more alpha, the singer in a band, the popular artist, the banker or the cage-fighter? If the banker loses his job, is he still alpha?

What if that singer is Henry fuckin' Rollins?

What if that singer is Henry fuckin’ Rollins?

Who is more alpha, the man who has his wife’s complete devotion and fidelity or one whose wife sleeps with other men. If it turns out that he’s in an open marriage, does that change the alpha equation? What if he’s into cuckolding and is using that other male as part of his own sexual pleasure? Sure, other people are fucking his wife… but they’re doing it at his sufferance and in turn making his sex life even more pleasurable and intense. Is the macho type-A personality high-powered executive less alpha if he’s the sub in an S&M relationship? Is he more or less alpha if he’s into prostate stimulation? What about if he’s into pegging?

What about biologically? Testosterone levels are frequently held up as a measure of manliness – but testosterone production plummets after 25. Is a man in his 30s less alpha than one in his 20s? What if the man in his 30s is a politician and the 20 year old is a busboy?

The idea of alpha as a social dominant is equally as unclear. Is someone alpha if they can wedge their way in between a girl and the guy talking to her and hang in until the guy leaves? Is he less alpha if he can’t convince said girl to abandon her male friend? If the alpha male is the one who’s dominant, is it more alpha or less alpha to give way to others’ desires? Is the person who agrees to go to a restaurant other than the one he wants to visit less alpha for being willing to accede to his friends’ wishes? Is someone who doesn’t get his way in all things not alpha? What if he seeks the advice of others? How many times can a person give way to someone else before they are no longer alpha? Are they only alpha for as long as people are willing for them to lead? What if they’re not the leader of the group but the one who influences the leader?

At what point does someone go from being “alpha” to “an insufferable selfish dick”?

The Problem With The Obsession With Being Alpha

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be more assertive and dynamic, to have the respect of your peers and to be desired by others. Learning how to be more confident, how to be more socially adept and to have stronger personal boundaries is good thing, something I encourage.

The problem is the way that the obsession with being “alpha” manifests itself; it encourages simplistic and at times downright mysoginistic thinking. Let’s be honest, when you’re modeling your behavior on the assumption that women instinctively trade sex in exchange for material support, you’re saying – flat out – that you believe all women are whores. This includes your mother, sister, cousins and every single woman you’ve ever loved or lusted after.

Men, on the other hand can only be one way; deviating from the path of the alpha means that you are less of a man by definition. There is no room for variation – you must fit into this very narrow definition of masculinity or else resign yourself to getting fucked over by everybody else. There’s no real room for intimate male friendships because to open up too much is to be beta… not to mention making yourself vulnerable to someone else taking your place on the mountain of testosterone. 

Buying into the cult of the Alpha is to buy into a binary world of nothing but stereotypes and gender policing. Men are alpha or they aren’t, women are either hypergamous status-chasers or they’re uggos who’re settling for betas because they can’t snag a high-value man. Betas only exist to be cheated on and rejected while alphas rule the world. It narrows the world to a deterministic universe without nuance or uniqueness. Men and women are reduced to sexualized robots, ruled by their immutable sexual needs with no individuality to speak of.

This is an attitude that’s going to fuck you over. When you buy into the idea that all women are game-playing shrews who will only be faithful until a better option comes along, that’s all you’re ever going to find. You will be effectively screening out all of the incredible women who might otherwise be interested in you while you’re too busy trying to make sure that you’re not about to lose value to another more manly man. Your attitude and misguided views of women will ultimately sabotage any actual emotional connection you might want to form and leave you angry, bitter and alone.

The real world doesn’t work this way. As has been demonstrated over and over again, women are not some monolithic uniform entity or hive-mind; trying to force the world to fit in the alpha/beta midset only means that you will be unable to actually relate, empathize or even understand women and what they want or are attracted to. Some women like macho, take-charge men. Others like soft-spoken intellectuals or floppy-haired mods or wiry musicians, tattooed greasers, chubby hairy teddy-bears or yes, giant-ass nerds.

"Damn straight."

“Damn straight.”

What’s A Real Man To Do?

Whenever I write about issues surrounding masculinity and gender identity, I get a lot of heated reactions. There are inevitable people who will insist that I’m trying to “pussify men” or that if I would just take the Red Pill I would see the world as it really is instead of this femme, faggy, supplicating model that I’m pushing onto impressionable men. More power to them. I hope they find happiness some day; it’s pretty clear to me that they don’t have it now.

I’m a firm believer that one of the key elements to having greater social success is simple: don’t be an asshole. Treating others like shit because you’re trying to force your life into a bullshit model of behavior that doesn’t even have a basis in reality is the very definition of being an asshole. It’s counter-productive, it makes you an obnoxious dick and it hurts others – women especially.

The obsession with alpha status is – more often than not – an obsession born out of insecurity. A person who spends all of his time trying to be alpha is someone who doesn’t have a strong emotional foundation; he is too busy seeking validation by trying to get others to acknowledge his position.

Someone who’s mature, secure in his identity and values, in touch with his emotions and comfortable with being vulnerable is isn’t going to worry about being alpha. He’s not going to need to get into territorial pissing matches in order to prove himself, nor is he reduced to acting like a sarcastic dick to women in order to conform to a bogus definition of masculinity. He doesn’t need to get wrapped up in labels or assume that every woman is just looking for the next social upgrade.

It doesn’t matter whether he’s a muscle-bound fireman who can down whiskey by the quart or a hundred and twenty pound accountant who plays Pathfinder on the weekends with his buddies… he’s the real man.

 

  1. see what I did there? []
  2. MONKEY JOKE! []
  3. although some of the MRA sites I’ve seen come pretty damn close []