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Alpha males and sexual abuse of women

Why powerful men abuse women

Dominique Strauss-Kahn may have been a serious contender for the French Presidency last week but today looks like something out of a French farce. In the real world, sexual abuse of women is no laughing matter of course. In a recent post, I investigated the many motives underlying sexual coercion and now consider another - high social status.

For Strauss-Kahn falls into a scenario of high-and-mighty politicians whose alleged pursuit of the fair sex could get downright literal, chasing a housemaid down hallways after the manner of Harpo Marx. Apart from the many tawdry tales of high class prostitution as typified by Elliot Spitzer and Silvio Berlosconi, there is an unfortunate pattern of great men being brought low by an apparent inability to rein in sexual impulses whether merely unwise, or actually criminal.

Some of our recent presidents fit this bill with John Kennedy and Bill Clinton immediately jumping to mind. Kennedy pursued some of the same women as mobsters did which may, or may not, have played a role in his demise. Clinton's broom-closet trysts with Monica Lewinsky almost ended his presidency to the vast amusement of the French who are now squirming themselves. Among sometime presidential hopefuls, one cannot omit Gary Hart, Newt Gingrich, or even foreign-born Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For a long time, researchers assumed that coercive sexual tactics were mainly restricted to the disadvantaged, poor young males whose lack of resources made it difficult for them to satisfy their desire for sexual contact with women. It subsequently emerged that there is biased prosecution of rape cases such that disadvantaged men are more likely to be found guilty of sexual crimes. Moreover, the sexual frustration thesis may be incorrect for there is evidence that many low-income men lead highly active sex lives.

When the legal bias against poor men is discounted by conducting victim surveys, as has been done on college campuses, it turns out that the upper crust who attend Ivy League universities have a surprisingly strong penchant for date rape. It is surprising because their social advantages likely make them more attractive to women so that with a little patience they might obtain consensual sex.

Why date rape on elite campuses is so high is a matter of conjecture but it seems plausible that having high social status could have something to do with it. After all, the key ingredient of high status is a conviction that other people are there to satisfy one's needs whether it is lawn service, room service, or escort service.

Call it a sense of entitlement, call it arrogance, call it the alpha male primate crashing around in the jungle. In the world of animal behavior, when one sees high status, intense male-male competition, and a high sex drive, one is looking at the unmistakable handiwork of testosterone (and other "male" sex hormones).

Psychologists are wont to caution us that testosterone is much less important in humans than other mammals but they do protest too much. After all, chemical castration that blocks testosterone is possibly the most effective treatment for sex offenders and allows them to be safely released from prison.

Testosterone also rises with competitive success for humans, and even with sexual intercourse so there is a positive feedback loop whereby prominent men acquire high testosterone levels along with increased social status (Archer, 2006). They are also more attractive to women who acquire status and power themselves through such pairings.

It all adds up to an arrogant sense by male leaders that they can treat women as they please. That is certainly the impression one gets from reading the history of noblemen, monarchs, emperors, and popes (Betzig, 1986).

In summary, there is little to dislike about the view that alpha-male politicians are also high-testosterone primates. If anyone has a better explanation for their sexual coercion of women, I would like to hear about it.

Archer, J. (2006). Testosterone and human aggression: an evaluation of the challenge hypothesis. Neuroscience. & Biobehavioral. Reviews, 30, 319-345.
Betzig, L. (1986). Despotism and differential reproduction: A Darwinian view of history. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.