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.


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.

Let’s Retire This “Christmas” Song!

We’ve heard the song countless times. A duet between a suave, seemingly caring, and emotionally persuasive male and a reticent female torn between going out in the cold night, her sense that it would not be right to stay for that drink, and the seemingly caring overtures of her male host. The renditions all seem to be “in good fun” with a “wink and a nod”.

The song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” has been covered by some of the most famous in the music business. According to Wikipedia, the song was first sung in the movie Neptune’s Daughter by Ricardo Montalban and Esther Williams. In the same movie, Red Skelton and Betty Garrett also sing this “with the roles of wolf and mouse reversed” (telling language!). Since then, among others, it has been sung by Louis Jordan and Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis and Carmen McRae, Dean Martin and a female chorus, Ray Charles and Betty Carter (later also with Dionne Warwick), and more recently by James Taylor and Natalie Cole, and Seth MacFarlane and Sara Bareilles.

When you get past the performers and listen to the lyrics, the song is truly disturbing. It is a song about unwelcomed seduction. The female singer says the following at different points in the song, “I really can’t stay”, “I’ve got to go away”, “I ought to say no, no, no, sir”, “I simply must go”, “The answer is no” (notice the intensification of the “No” as the song progresses). But “no” is not accepted as “no” in this song. The man doesn’t lend his coat and escort the woman on a cold night back to her parents. He continues to pressure in these phrases that intensify from “listen to the fireplace roar” to “what’s the sense in hurting my pride” to “Gosh your lips look so delicious” to “how can you do this thing to me?” Even more insidious is the use of alcohol and perhaps a doctored drink (“Say what’s in this drink?”) to break down the woman’s resistance.

All this seems like it is just in “good fun” except that it isn’t. It is the script that is replayed in the acquaintance rape scenarios that occur over and over not only in our society but in many parts of the world. It is a script that doesn’t respect “no”, that doesn’t flinch at using alcohol to impair judgment, and tells a story that has an ending that says, “she really consented after all” as the singers in unison sing “Baby it’s cold outside.”

Another question that occurs to me is, what does this have to do with Christmas? What does a song that celebrates seduction and, implicitly, rape have to do with the Son of God who became the Savior of the world, other than by illustrating what needs redeeming? Even if Christmas is just a secular holiday for you, what does this have to do with any kind of “spirit of giving” other than the fact that “she gives in and he takes” (to put it bluntly)?

What can be done? Well to start, we could ask radio stations to remove any version of this song from their playlists. We could refuse to buy any selection of Christmas music that includes this song. And we could send a message to performers to find some other material for duets. Whatever we think Christmas means, I think we can all agree that it is not a celebration of rape. Let’s retire this song.


Ending Sexual Violence on Campus

beerLet me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

If my language seems blunt, it is because of the history of blaming victims, usually women, for “wearing that dress” or “drinking too much.” It saddles victims with guilt and mitigates the responsibility of the perpetrator, both in court and in the public eye. Men often use strategies of “getting her drunk” as an approach to sexual exploitation. There is no excuse for any of this, and frankly, as a male, I think that far from demonstrating virility, it is a demonstration of a kind of emotional, if not physical, impotence.

All this said, The Chronicle of Higher Education raised what I think is a key barrier to at least reducing sexual violence on campuses in an article titled, “Why Campuses Can’t Talk About Alcohol When It Comes to Sexual Assault.”  Why, you may ask, can’t we talk about alcohol even though at least half the sexual assaults that occur (and many go unreported) involve alcohol use by both parties? What it comes down to is that even attempts to educate about this in terms of safety and prevention, particularly with women, can be perceived as “blaming the victim.”

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

However, public safety officers often warn students at universities in urban environments about the dangers of crime and various safety practices from using campus escort services to avoiding walking alone in certain areas after certain times to locking doors and windows. If a crime against persons or property occurs, have these public safety officers been guilty of “blaming the victim”? No. Does any of this mitigate the responsibility of the person committing a crime against persons or property? No.

However, in the area of sexual assault, campus professionals tend to limit themselves to talking about “bystander intervention” and educating students about consent. I do think these can be important parts of a strategy to protect against sexual violence. My problem with this is in an alcohol-fueled atmosphere, will there be bystanders (designated bystanders?) whose judgment is unimpaired to intervene? And the giving and granting of consent involves sober judgment as well as restraint in the absence of consent–two things that tend to go out the window in an alcohol fueled atmosphere. What is even more insidious is that in most alcohol-related incidents of sexual assault, there is a greater likelihood that the parties do not know each other well.

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

Yet it seems that until we find a way to talk with students candidly about alcohol in a way that educates for risk-reduction (including the risk to perpetrators of carrying a sexual offender status through life) without blaming victims, I don’t believe we will make a real dent in the incidence of sexual violence on university campuses. Sexual predators will intentionally use alcohol to perpetrate rape. Other perpetrators will simply make bad decisions and may end up with a criminal record they carry through life. And victims, even in the most accepting and supportive atmospheres, will carry the wounds of these encounters.

I’ve spent a career in collegiate ministry working with students. This is one of the most disturbing aspects of student life. In our work we seek to educate both men and women in the meaning of persons, including our sexuality, and the qualities of respect, responsibility, and restraint in the use of alcohol and the expression of our sexuality that leads to rich and joyful relationships and campus life. Sadly, we also sometimes deal with the victims of sexual violence, or even those simply bearing the scars of alcohol fueled hookups. And I get the “no-blame” thing. Victims blame themselves enough as it is. They need hope and support that life can begin anew.

Let me be clear: to force a sexual act upon a person who cannot give consent, has not given consent, or refuses consent is sexual assault. If it involves vaginal intercourse, it is rape. Period. This is a crime and is the responsibility of the perpetrator and no blame attaches to the victim. Period.

I just hope for the day where we don’t have to say this as much.