Sex at Dawn

Exploring the evolutionary origins of modern sexuality

On Sex and Violence

Does sexual frustration make some men killers?
Stephen A. Diamond
This post is a response to Anger Disorder (Part Four): Frustration, Madness and Misogyny by Stephen A. Diamond, Ph.D.

imageFellow PT blogger Dr. Stephen Diamond has posted another interesting essay in his series about the existential rage that fuels the sorts of outbursts like what happened in the Pittsburgh gym recently, where several women were shot and killed by a lonely, angry, frustrated man. The murderer had written quite extensively about his inability to find a woman who was attracted to him (or willing to fake it) and reading his words now, it's pretty easy to see how his frustration and shame were converted to rage over time.

The killer, George Sodini, wrote that he hadn't had sex since 1990. He was confused about his inability to attract a girlfriend. “I actually look good. I dress good, am clean-shaven, bathe, touch of cologne – yet 30 million women rejected me – over an 18 or 25-year period. That is how I see it. Thirty million is my rough guesstimate of how many desirable single women there are. A man needs a woman for confidence. . . Thanks for nada, bitches! Bye.”

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Diamond asks: "Could chronic sexual frustration have caused this catastrophe?" Diamond doesn't think so, writing, "To conclude so would be a gross oversimplification of this and other violent offenders' profound existential embitterment, fury and frustration."

True enough. To attribute this or any other killing to sexual frustration alone would certainly be an oversimplification. But we'd be equally mistaken in arguing sexual frustration wasn't an important component in the rage. After all, Sodini, like many of these sick men, targeted only women. He attacked women because he felt rejected and humiliated by them.

One could argue that war-like societies intentionally cultivate sexual frustration in young men because their resulting aggressiveness makes them better soldiers, much like boxing trainers making fighters swear off women. Criminologists have long known that unmarried young men commit the bulk of the crimes in the United States. The best way to end a criminal's career is to get him married -- or at least laid regularly.

The relationship between sexual frustration and violence is evident in chimps, where most of the male/male conflict arises over access to ovulating females. Among free-loving bonobos on the other hand, there is little, if any, male sexual frustration and thus little, if any, violence. This is no coincidence.

If our culture's distorted relationship with human sexuality is the source of much of this frustration, confusion, and ignorance, societies with less conflicted views should confirm the causal connection. Turns out they do.

Developmental neuropsychologist James Prescott found that bodily pleasure and violence have an either/or relationship. The presence of one inhibits development of the other. In 1975, Prescott published a paper in which he argued that, "certain sensory experiences during the formative periods of development will create a neuropsychological predisposition for either violence-seeking or pleasure-seeking behaviors later in life." On the level of individual development, this finding seems obvious: adults who abuse children were almost always victims of childhood abuse themselves, and every junkyard owner knows that if you want a mean dog, beat the puppy.

Prescott applied this logic on a cross-cultural level. He performed a meta-analysis of previously gathered data on physical affection shown to infants (years of breast-feeding, percentage of time in direct physical contact with mother, being fondled and played with by other adults) and overall tolerance for adolescent sexual behavior. After comparing these data with levels of violence within and between societies, Prescott concluded that in all but one of the cultures for which these data were available (48 of 49), "deprivation of body pleasure throughout life-but particularly during the formative periods of infancy, childhood, and adolescence-is very closely related to the amount of warfare and interpersonal violence." Cultures that don't interfere in the physical bonding between mother and child or prohibit the expression of adolescent sexuality show far lower levels of violence-both between individuals and between societies.

If we accept that our species is and always has been optimized for a highly sexual life and that adolescent boys and young men are especially primed for action, why should we be surprised by the destructive frustration that results when this primal drive is thwarted?

 

* Images: www.danstiles.com and http://yourreturn.blogspot.com/2005/12/raising-your-child-natural...

Update: Sex advice columnist Dan Savage has a few things to say about the Sodini rampage in his most recent column here:

http://www.avclub.com/articles/august-12-2009,31502/

Christopher Ryan, Ph.D., is co-author of Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality (HarperCollins 2010).

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