Review: When Men Behave Badly

When Men Behave Badly, David M. Buss. New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2021.

Summary: A discussion of sexual violence, deception, harassment and abuse, largely on the part of men, grounded in evolutionary sexual conflict theory that helps explain why so many relationships between men and women go bad.

Harassment. Intimate partner violence. Controlling behavior. Stalking. Sexual coercion and rape. We hear reports in our daily news of these sexual offenses, and indeed, some version of these offenses occur in every culture. And in most cases, the perpetrators are men. As a male, this is troubling. Are we all rapists, as Marilyn French has asserted? Certainly many women are wary of all men. Beyond this lies the question of how we explain the universality of sexual oppression and violence.

In When Men Behave Badly, psychologist David M. Buss proposes that sexual conflict theory provides an explanation for these behaviors. In brief, sexual conflict theory roots these behaviors in our evolutionary struggles to reproduce, in which males and females have conflicting strategies for passing along our germ lines. Optimal strategies for men involve multiple matings. For women, the optimal strategy is a long term relationship with a mate. Each gender has developed strategies to counter the other and hence conflict that can turn oppressive, manipulative and violent. These traits are deeply engrained in us. Yet these do not determine or warrant men behaving badly. And not all men do.

It is a battle of the sexes, and largely, a battle over the bodies of women. Buss begins by showing how this works out in the mating market. Buss explores how man assess sexual exploitability, how each gender practices deception and how men and women think differently about what is desirable. It is here that Buss introduces the Dark Triad of traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Men with this triad are much more prone to abuse. Weirdly, perhaps, they are attractive to many women, and there may be evolutionary reasons for this, although they make for terrible long-term relationships. He looks at conflict within mateships–backup mates, and affairs and mate retention through sexual withdrawal and bestowal.

Buss then gets into relationship conflict and the role of jealousy that may be the source of mate guarding, intimate partner violence, stalking and partner rape. All of these may be seen as a form of protectiveness of their investment and guarding partners from other male poachers. Buss goes into the ways perpetrators hijack their victim’s psychology, making it less likely that they will leave. When partners do break up, it may lead to stalking and revenge, including revenge porn.

Buss examines the claim that all men are rapists. Sadly, many men do fantasize about forced sex. Many fewer will act on it. Buss looks at why men who rape do so. Narcissism and lack of empathy, hostility toward women, and disposition to short-term relationships all contribute to a proneness to rape. He also discusses how women defend against sexual coercion, how they avoid assault or escape from it. There is a blind spot. Women most fear stranger rape when in fact most rapes are from men with whom they are acquainted.

The final chapter discusses “minding the sex gap.” He observes some of the misperceptions of desirability and what is attractive (and disgusting) that men do well to understand, the importance of closing legal gaps in terms of harassment and sex crimes, and changing the norms around patriarchy. Learning to recognize the Dark Triad traits mentioned earlier and to protect oneself from them is important.

I found this a bleak book. It is a grim “butchers’ bill” of all the ways men transgress against women, supposedly for some evolutionary reproductive advantage. The back and forth of strategies and counter-strategies felt to me a reduction of relationships between men and women to power games cloaked as sexual transactions. While I think the author would deny it, especially in terms of legal culpability, there is a strong element of evolutionary determinism that underlies the explanations of behavior. It seems the remedy is less self-control as it is evolutionary counter-measures and social and legal controls. I will grant that sexual conflict theory does offer a compelling explanation for the bad behavior of men across cultures. But it reduces human sexuality and all the mating behavior around it to reproductive instincts.

While reproduction is a big part of sexuality for humans as well as animals, this seems an inadequate account of the many beautiful, though always flawed, relationships between men and women that endure long past reproduction, and for the school of character that is marriage, forging mutually sacrificial love, shared and complimentary interests, and generative bonds that not only create families but enrich communities. Buss explains the ways men and women go wrong, and perhaps this is what he most sees. I hope perhaps someday he will have occasion to write about “when men behave well.” I suspect it is to this he aspires, and there are many others I know who have been models of listening to the “better angels of their natures.” Although less noticed, I think asking why this is so is equally worth careful study.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

One thought on “Review: When Men Behave Badly

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: July 2021 | Bob on Books

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