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How Sexual Dominance Influences Politics

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Endnotes

[1] Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: The decline of violence in history and its causes. Penguin UK.

[2] Herzog, D. (2007). Sex after fascism: Memory and morality in twentieth-century Germany. Princeton University Press.

[3] Griffiths, M. (2015). The Reich Stuff: A brief look at Nazi fetishism

[4] 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.

[5] Gorelik, G., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2015). The effect of competition on men’s self-reported sexual interest. Evolutionary Psychological Science. 1, 141-149.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] 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.

[9] 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.

[10] 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.

[11] Thornhill, R., & Palmer, C. T. (2000). A natural history of rape. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[12] 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.

[13] Deuteronomy 21: 10-14.

[14] Qur’an 33: 50.

[15] Chagnon, N. A. (2013). Noble savages: My life among two dangerous tribes—the Yanomamö and the anthropologists. Simon and Schuster.

[16] 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.

[17] Callimachi, R. (2015). ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape. The New York Times.

[18] Filipovic, J. (2013). Rape is about power not sex. The Guardian.

[19] Felson, R. B., & Cundiff, P. R. (2012). Age and sexual assault during robberiesEvolution and Human Behavior33, 10-16.

[20] Felson, R., & Moran, R. (2016). To Rape is to Want Sex Not PowerQuillette. 

[21] Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (2011). Evolutionary psychology and feminism. Sex Roles64(9-10), 768-787.

[22] Gorelik, G., Shackelford, T. K, & Weekes-Shackelford, V. A. (2012). Human violence and evolutionary consciousness. Review of General Psychology, 16, 343-356.

[23] Miller, G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London: Heinemann.

[24] 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.

[25] 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.

[26] Weeden, J., & Kurzban, R. (2013). What predicts religiosity? A multinational analysis of reproductive and cooperative morals. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34, 440-445.

[27] 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.

12 Comments

  1. Pingback: How Sexual Dominance Influences Politics « Khannea Suntzu

  2. Worth taking a look at the changes in consumption of porn during the Republican National Convention. Porn traffic 184% higher, allegedly. This is relatively superficial information, and increased viewership due to visitors from other places hasn’t quite been controlled for. It’s also worth noting that the GOP officially has an anti-porn stance, and that xhamster has something of an anti-GOP stance.

    http://www.askmen.com/news/entertainment/porn-searches-for-trump-increased-700-in-cleveland-during-rnc.html

    http://www.dailydot.com/layer8/cleveland-porn-rnc-donald-trump/

  3. “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.”

    These phantasies come in three groups, aversive, erotic, and aversive-erotic. And they are about coercion, specifically. I think it’s the fault-line between women’s long-term and short-term desires/mating strategies, and that it manifests itself in an actual inner-conflict, something they feel. There’s no perfect personal unity.

    In this, and the broader context, you should ponder how victims respond to “their” perpetrators, after coerced sex: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/5468110_Perpetrators_of_Sexual_Assault_Continuing_to_Have_Sex_With_Their_Victims_Following_the_Initial_Assault_Evidence_for_Evolved_Reproductive_Strategies ; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/278968755_Consensual_Victim-Perpetrator_Intercourse_after_Nonconsensual_Sex_The_Impact_of_Prior_Relationship

    Futher, more thought should be given to the levels of selection, and the differences between (sexual) tyranny, oligarchy, and egalitarianism. Nor should fascists want indiscriminate promiscuity. Women are a rare thing (bottleneck and hourglass figures). If you will, such regimes should resort to market-based strategies, matching the genetically best men with the best women (that would also be in line with eugenics), and using women as incentive for men. Actually, Plato in his Republic delivered a fairly timeless sketch of that.
    The only reason to let merely average men have access to women is incentive and crowd control. That means avoiding the establishment of a stronger reverse-dominance hierarchy (see something like Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest). Opium für das Volk. Sex is the opium of the people — well, of men.

    That said, I also suggest considering men in isolation, that is: their same-sex relationships, groups most importantly. Men have systems of hierarchy free of any sexual component. Well, interestingly enough, male homosexuality plays a role, but a seemingly confined one. (See Benenson for such a Warrior hypothesis.

    More things to put into this framework: female sexual fluidity, bonobo-type social systems, (“Hippie”) communes (Kibbutzim; Amish), and family systems. Particularly, the whole thing is not limited to facisms. That’d merely be an extreme and corrupted form. Sex – sexual selection – is a part of all spheres of (social) life, be it in the form of desire, tension, flirting, romance or sex narrowly. When parity in bed is illusionary, it is so elsewhere. This is meaningful to every type of society, to every structure.

    Oh, and some stuff of the ancients would have been nice. Say Iliad, and Odyssey.

    • Gregory Gorelik says

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I am aware that I confined myself to a limited scope, but, being as how I’m working on turning this into a book-length topic, I will definitely try to touch on all of these issues.

      Your comment on fascism not being about indiscriminate promiscuity is well taken. As I mentioned in the article, Herzog states that sexual openness was an Aryan privilege. This privilege was obviously not extended to homosexuals (though it was quite common among the ranks of the SS), Jews, and other non-Aryans.

      Thanks again for your comments!

  4. Crescent says

    Is there a particular reason why sexual dominance in the realm of role play is discussed as only happening with men with women being the submissive party?

    For one, this completely erases submissive men in BDSM, where in porn the genre of femdom (female dominance) and cuckold fantasies make a sizable share of the porn market.

    Secondly, this discussion assumes that sexual dominance is quintessential in men. This erases gay men completely from the picture, because it then assumes that between gay men one of the men is not actually being a man, that he’s imitating female qualities when in fact many gay men who are submissive in the relationship strongly identify as men and do not see their masculinity compromised by submission.

  5. Male submission should be accounted for. But it is not the standard. (As for cuckold fantasies, much of them may be about male bonding, and male dominance [making her have sex with another men].) Cf. frequency-dependent selection.

    “Secondly, this discussion assumes that sexual dominance is quintessential in men.”

    Does it do that? Even if so, why would it have to accept someone else’s definition of manliness (and if there are conflicting ones, which of them?

  6. Yandoodan says

    I am going to crab about your conflating fascism with “Marxism” (as your Pinker paraphrase calls it) — and then using “fascism” as a synonym for totalitarianism. I don’t actually disagree with this, but I think it further dilutes an already nearly useless word. Or maybe two nearly useless words.

    Out of the many definitions of fascism I would suggest one of these two: (1) A an economy run by collusion between corporate powers and the government, combined with radical nationalism. Or (2) whatever Mussolini was doing, as he invented the term.

    “Totalitarian communist” (your term) is good for the Marx-inspired statist totalitarians of the last century. A latter day Marxist would argue that you can be a Marxist without being a totalitarian. I disagree, but this is well beyond the point of your essay.

    So — does this analysis extend to all totalitarian states? That makes sense to me. Totalitarians don’t just want compliance, they want to climb into your brain and control it, the ultimate in dominance with personal violation. But counter-examples are the tell. What about Stalinist Russia? Should we be digging beneath the stereotype of the grey and fearful Apparatchik and his lumpy wife?

    • Gregory Gorelik says

      I acknowledge your points about the distinctions between different political movements. Perhaps the topic is as broad as you suggest in that it is applicable to all totalitarian states. I did, however, want to call attention to what I perceived were clear examples of sexual sadism in Nazism.

      I don’t know too much about the sex lives of KGB agents, but I wouldn’t be surprised if sex didn’t affect their political and social life. It would also be interesting to see if guards at the Siberian gulags engaged in any sexually sadistic practices.

      • Gregory Gorelik says

        “…I wouldn’t be surprised if sex *did* affect their political and social life.”

  7. Mark says

    “raped . . . would obviously be a traumatic experience whose evolutionary costs would be substantial”

    Women do get raped. Then what? There would be an evolutionary advantage for women who are not killed by the experience, and who are not too terribly traumatized by it.

    This does not mean they’d seek it out, but it does mean they’d survive it, and do so on terms favorable to their own reproductive success.

    Thus, evolution would favor women who could cope with rape if it did happen, over those who could not, more so if it happened more often. A society that featured rape ought to produce women who can cope with it, which might mean both avoid it, and deal with it if it happened.

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