The link between sex and dominance is age-old and pervasive. From the works of the Marquis de Sade to Vladimir Nabokov, literature is suffused with its ecstasies and tortures. Its depictions in popular cinema and print, from 9½ Weeks to Fifty Shades of Grey, suggest that this inseparable link is more than a fringe fetish, and that its dark fantasies haunt even the dungeons of respectable minds. This popular fascination also suggests that the influence of sex on dominant political movements such as fascism deserves a closer examination.
The Sexual Origins of Fascism
Fascism is a political movement or form of government marked by the complete control of individuals and military and economic institutions by a single dominant leader or ruling party. Although totalitarian communist regimes often lack the nationalistic sentiments associated with fascist regimes, their reliance on dominance and complete control of personal and social life as a political strategy often make them indistinguishable from fascism. Steven Pinker suggests that even the philosophy of National Socialism is no different from Marxism save for its reliance on the theory of historical contests between racial groups as opposed to economic classes.1
A common misconception is that fascist regimes are sexually repressive. Such was the view even among Germans who grew up after WWII, a phenomenon discussed by Dagmar Herzog in Sex After Fascism.2 Herzog writes that, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, the sexual libertinism of Nazism was effectively erased by the advent of religious conservatism in Germany. Thus, the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s was a rebellion of the youth against the sexually repressive specter of what they perceived was their parents’ fascism. In reality, the Nazis actually encouraged premarital sex, promiscuity, and sex within and outside of marriage in an effort to revive the nation and the Volk.
Of course, sexual ecstasies under fascism were solely the privilege of the Aryan elite, as Herzog notes. I believe, however, that this privilege was not merely a consequence of Nazi control of personal life, but also its cause. In other words, Nazi dominance may have been motivated by, among other influences, sexual pleasure. Herzog suggests as much with her observation that the sadomasochistic elements of post-war Nazi-themed erotica and pornography may have functioned as a connection to a buried truth ignored by the official narrative of a sexless Third Reich. Herzog writes:
…[T]he persistent linkage of pornography and Nazism in literature and film and in the popular imagination actually captures some truths about the Third Reich that are too frequently suppressed in scholarly writing about the era; it is as if these cultural phantasms serve as the repository of intuitive insights that apparently could not be integrated into academic scholarship. (p. 14)
Pinker presents a more harrowing example of the link between Nazi domination and sexual pleasure by quoting a Holocaust survivor who describes the actions of a concentration camp official as follows:
The SS camp commander stood close to the whipping post throughout the flogging…. His whole face was already red with lascivious excitement. His hands were plunged deep in his trouser pockets, and it was quite clear that he was masturbating throughout…. On more than thirty occasions, I myself have witnessed SS camp commanders masturbating during floggings. (p. 551)
It is hard to deny that much of this commander’s cruelty was directly motivated by the pleasure of sexual sadism.
There are many personal and moral reasons as to why people join political movements, fascist movements no exception. And yet, fascism’s governing principle is political and social dominance. Do sexual rewards, at least in part, motivate fascism? Suggestively, you do not see the democratic equivalent of a “Nazi fetish” in pornography.3
The Biology of Sex and Dominance
The link between sex and dominance has a deep evolutionary history. The perennial battles between males over reproductive access to females fill the annals of natural history, and are explained by evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers’ concept of parental investment.4 According to this concept, the sex that invests most in reproduction (usually females) is more vigorously pursued by the sex that invests least (usually males), leading to more frequent dominance contests among the least investing sex.
Females exhibit a preference for dominant males who can bequeath impeccable genetic pedigrees and material resources to future offspring. As such, we should expect males to increase their sexual response following a victory over a rival in anticipation of increased sexual opportunities. Indeed, as suggested by my graduate research with David Bjorklund, men who are single (and, hence, men for whom the stakes of competition over women are highest) exhibit more sexual interest in women following a victory than a defeat.5 Physiologically, dominance and sex are linked by the male hormone testosterone, as suggested by studies showing higher testosterone levels in men who win than in men who lose, whether in sports6 or politics.7 This function of testosterone is supported by research showing that presidential and congressional elections in the US were followed by increases in pornography consumption in states whose citizens overwhelmingly voted for winning candidates.8 9All of this suggests that social dominance is a common antecedent to sexual behavior. But the influence also goes in the other direction, as is indicated by Imhoff and colleagues’ finding that exposure to sexual material leads to an increase in aggression among sexually narcissistic men.10
Dominance during Sex
In nature, nothing is for free. If a link between dominance and sex did evolve, its benefits must have outweighed its costs—otherwise, natural selection would never have preserved it in our species’ gene pool. It is easy enough to explain men’s psychological and behavioral dominance directed at reproductive rivals as an antecedent to sexual behavior, but what of dominance during sexual behavior?
One possibility is that our male ancestors sometimes relied on sexual coercion to gain reproductive access to women.11 12 Capturing the enemy’s women is a well documented motivation for warfare, as judged by its sanctioning in holy books,13 14 and its practice by traditional societies such as the Yanomamö,15 historical despots such as Genghis Khan,16 and today’s Islamic State combatants.17 Albeit still controversial, this hypothesis deserves more scientific scrutiny. Contrary to the feminist narrative that rape is about power and not sex,18 the fact that young, fertile women are the primary victims of sexual assault19 suggests that sex has at least something to do with it. But contrary to naïve evolutionary accounts,20 the desire for power and dominance might be the proximate, or more immediate, means of implementing sexual coercion as an evolved reproductive strategy.21
My colleagues and I have previously suggested that dominance and submissiveness may be aspects of consensual interaction during sex.22 According to the theory of sexual selection, sexually reproducing organisms choose mates based on various indicators of reproductive fitness, be it a long and colorful tail or the production of a resonant song. Humans likewise choose mates who exhibit a variety of physical and psychological fitness indicators.23 It is possible that role-play during sex may serve as an arena wherein humans evaluate each other’s fitness by how well each one plays his or her role, whether dominant or submissive. So, for example, a man’s attractiveness may depend on whether he has the subtlety and finesse to exhibit dominance, or even aggression, during a sexual encounter without crossing over into being coercive.
I am not aware of any studies actually examining this possibility, though a substantial minority of women report having “rape fantasies” during which they are sexually aroused by the prospect of being a victim of a coercive sexual encounter.24 This does not mean that these women actually want to be raped, which would obviously be a traumatic experience whose evolutionary costs would be substantial due to the undermining of a woman’s mate choice. But such fantasies may hint at women’s evolved propensity to select mates who are agile enough to exhibit dominance without being coercive or causing harm.
Making the Link
Explaining the evolution of a link between sex and dominance is only part of the story. This is what evolutionists refer to as an “ultimate” or “distal” explanation. In this section, I propose a hypothesis for how the link between sex and dominance may develop within the lifetime of an individual.
Let us envision the following scenario. A man engages in dominance contests with other men, be it with a wooden club or a stock portfolio. Assuming he wins, he can expect an increase in sexual opportunities. If sex is the reward for dominance, then we should expect sexual pleasure to reinforce his future dominance. If, across evolutionary time, dominance is more successful at bringing about mating opportunities than alternative strategies, natural selection may co-opt sexual pleasure to reward it. This may be more effective than relying on a haphazard reward schedule that might misfire and reward dominance not followed by sex or resource acquisition, which leads to sex.
Already, we can see why sexual practices involving dominance (e.g., BDSM, S&M, etc.) are so pervasive. Assuming that sex and dominance can be switched on simultaneously, individuals may enhance their sexual pleasure with the added pleasure associated with dominance. This further reinforces the use of dominance as a behavioral strategy, both inside and outside of the bedroom.
The Politicization of Sex
This may sound like a Freudian way of thinking, but being that sex is such an important part of evolution, its influence on personal and political behavior should not be discounted. Indeed, research suggests that sexual strategies may be driving much of politics and religion.25 26 If so, the link between sexual pleasure and political dominance may be more direct in fascism than in any other political movement. Political movements, including fascism, may harness dominance as a means to non-sexual political and moral ends, from the acquisition of resources and territory to the redress of nationalistic and racial grievances. But fascism’s reliance on dominance over other political tactics may be partly explained by the sexually rewarding undertones of dominant political action, especially for men.
Humans can formulate long-term goals and plan drawn-out courses of action to reach them.27 Therefore, it is possible for dominance-based political movements motivated by sexual pleasure to emerge. Such movements may be further developed and made more sophisticated by ideological, bureaucratic, and fashionable accoutrements, and may spread within and across generations as sexually dominant individuals are drawn to their appeal. Fascism may be one such political movement, though it is probably not the only one. Any movement whose long-term political strategy is marked by dominance may be driven, in part, by sex.
Biological accounts of personal and political life are on the rise, which is an inevitable and necessary trend. If we are to promote non-destructive political movements over harmful ones, we have to acknowledge the evolutionary and physiological roots of our behavior. However speculative, I believe that the preceding account of the sexual underpinnings of fascism deservers further scrutiny.
It is not easy to recognize the signs of a rising authoritarian movement, but focusing on how central dominance and sexuality are to individuals within a movement may help us to avoid its destructive and sadistic outcomes. This neglected approach is all the more pressing amid the rising shadows of right-wing and Islamic authoritarianism. We need not paint dominant or submissive sexual behavior as wrong or unnatural, however. Consenting adults should be free to engage in whatever sexual activities they find pleasurable. The problem is making sure that fascism does not escape the bedroom.
Gregory Gorelik has a Ph.D. in Evolutionary Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryGorelik.
 Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes. Penguin UK.
 Herzog, D. (2007). Sex after fascism: Memory and morality in twentieth-century Germany. Princeton University Press.
 Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual selection and the descent of man, 1871-1971 (pp. 136-179). Chicago: Aldine-Atherton.
 Gorelik, G., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2015). The effect of competition on men’s self-reported sexual interest. Evolutionary Psychological Science. 1, 141-149.
 Bernhardt, P. C., Dabbs, J. M., Fielden, J. A., & Lutter, C. D. (1998). Testosterone changes during vicarious experiences of winning and losing among fans at sporting events. Physiology & Behavior, 65, 59-62.
 Stanton, S. J., Beehner, J. C., Saini, E. K., Kuhn, C. M., & LaBar, K. S. (2009). Dominance, politics, and physiology: Voters’ testosterone changes on the night of the 2008 United States presidential election. PLoS ONE, 4, 1-6.
 Markey, P. M., & Markey, C. N. (2010). Changes in pornography-seeking behaviors following political elections: An examination of the challenge hypothesis. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 442-446.
 Markey, P., & Markey, C. (2011). Pornography-seeking behaviors following midterm political elections in the United States: A replication of the challenge hypothesis. Computers in Human Behavior, 27, 1262-1264.
 Imhoff, R., Bergmann, X., Banse, R., & Schmidt, A. F. (2013). Exploring the automatic undercurrents of sexual narcissism: Individual differences in the sex-aggression link. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42(6), 1033-1041.
 McKibbin, W. F., Shackelford, T. K., Goetz, A. T., & Starrat, V. G. (2008). Why do men rape? An evolutionary psychological perspective. Review of General Psychology, 12, 86-97.
 Deuteronomy 21: 10-14.
 Qur’an 33: 50.
 Chagnon, N. A. (2013). Noble savages: My life among two dangerous tribes—the Yanomamö and the anthropologists. Simon and Schuster.
 Derenko et al. (2007). Distribution of the male lineages of Genghis Khan’s descendants in Northen Eurasian populations. Russian Journal of Genetics. 43, 334-337.
 Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (2011). Evolutionary psychology and feminism. Sex Roles, 64(9-10), 768-787.
 Miller, G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London: Heinemann.
 Critelli, J. W., & Bivona, J. M. (2008). Women’s erotic rape fantasies: An evaluation of theory and research. Journal of Sex Research, 45, 57-70.
 Quintelier, K. J., Ishii, K., Weeden, J., Kurzban, R., & Braeckman, J. (2013). Individual differences in reproductive strategy are related to views about recreational drug use in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Japan. Human Nature.
 Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2013). What predicts religiosity? A multinational analysis of reproductive and cooperative morals. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34, 440-445.
 Suddendorf, T., & Corballis, M. C. (2007). The evolution of foresight: What is mental time travel and is it unique to humans? Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 30, 299-351.
Latest posts by Gregory Gorelik (see all)
- What Sadomasochism Can Teach Us About Human Sexuality - April 4, 2017
- Totalitarianism Rising - February 13, 2017
- How Sexual Dominance Influences Politics - July 21, 2016