Before the spread of Catholicism and the institutionalization of sexual shame and holy matrimony in the West, the erotic element of patriarchal power was explicit across early civilizations.

For Gilgamesh, who reigned over Sumeria roughly 4,000 years ago, being king gave him the right to rape any woman in the kingdom. That “right” — remembered now as “jus primae noctis” (“right of first night”) in Latin and “droit du siegneur” (“the lord’s right”) in French, was effectively coded into the DNA of civilization right there Mesopotamia.

That isn’t to say that the movie “Braveheart” told the truth about evil English tyrants raping innocent Scottish brides. Most historical evidence suggests the practice was never widespread in the Christian era, if it occurred in a systematic way at all. The old church may have been corrupt, but it wasn’t exactly in the business of publicly sanctioning royal rape on the eve of a holy sacrament.

What’s important today isn’t some trivial argument about how often it occurred, but remembering that the principle persisted for millennia, across all sorts of cultures. From Ottoman harems to Imperial concubines to palace courtesans, some form of erotic license seems to have been baked into our concept of power — even when conventional morality forbade such actions by anyone else. When you’re at the top, the rules no longer apply.

Today we’re talking about Harvey Weinstein. Twenty years ago we were talking about Bill Clinton. In 2000, Hollywood sleazemaster Joe Eszterhas published American Rhapsody, a tabloid-flavored book that placed Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky in the long context of a 20th century mass-media culture in which studio heads lived like Old Testament despots. Among such men, Eszterhas assures us, after-lunch office blow jobs were just a pleasant daily ritual.

Is that true? It hardly matters. In Hollywood, men in power and ambitious men seeking power believed it to be true. That’s the way cultures and subcultures work: They transmit values and beliefs — sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly — across generations. Weinstein is no anomaly. He’s a routine byproduct.

“In this weighted system, historic horror stories abound of executives taking advantage of starlets,” Pamela Hutchinson wrote earlier this month in The Guardian. “Shirley Temple recalled that Arthur Freed, a producer at MGM, exposed himself to her when she was 12 years old. Louis B Mayer insisted that his protege Judy Garland sit on his lap – she was one of a number of “’juvenile stars’ at the MGM studio, whose punishing schedule, she said, required amphetamines to get through the day, and sleeping pills to rest at night. Ginger Rogers said that Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, chased her around a desk making passes. Marilyn Monroe compared Hollywood to an ‘overcrowded brothel.’ Joan Collins, who was warned about ‘wolves’ by Monroe, says she missed out on the lead in Cleopatra because she refused to be ‘nice’ to the head of 20th Century Fox, Buddy Adler, who also reportedly harassed a 19-year-old Rita Moreno.”

And so on.

Did American society approve of such behavior? Of course not. Public outrage over the eroticism portrayed by “pre-code Hollywood” grew so intense that, beginning in 1934, every film produced in the United States required a certificate from a censorship board before public release. Studios made fortunes producing entertainment that met a public moral standard, while privately engaging in behaviors that flaunted it.

That this cultural neurosis took place tells us essentially nothing new about human eroticism, but it speaks volumes about the nature of power. Studio bosses escaped prosecution and public censure for their sexual misdeeds because they enjoyed the ability to create and destroy. An executive could destroy a starlet who reported a studio rape to the police, and he could create glamorous opportunities for the detective assigned to the case… so long as he played ball. That dynamic remains as true today as it was then, and it doesn’t just apply to the entertainment industry.

In the fall of 2017 —  a truly dreadful moment in American life on so many fronts — we’re having another mass-mediated cultural conversation about powerful men and sex. What’s different about this iteration is that most of the society seems slightly more willing to listen this time. Sure, there’s plenty of “Yes, but” responses from the usual suspects, and the expected chorus of “men are the real victims” voices can be heard from the fringes. But when the Weinstein scandal spawned the #MeToo social media campaign earlier this month, the topic left its narrow lane and became something far more significant.

Between Oct. 15 and 16th, the #MeToo hashtag appeared more than 700,000 times on Twitter. On Facebook, more than 4.7 million people used the hashtag in 12 million posts within the first 24 hours. To put that number in context: Forty-five percent of American Facebook users had a friend in their Facebook network post a #MeToo message. And that was just on Day One.

What began as a titillating Hollywood sex scandal became, in the middle of October, a national revelation of just how vast our sexual harassment/abuse problem truly is. How our society will change in response remains an open question, of course, but it’s worth recognizing milestone moments as we pass them. It’s a different conversation today than it was on Oct. 14.

There are plenty of practical things we could do to reduce the rate of these incidents, and so long as the topic maintains its momentum, this remains the moment for activists with years of thought behind their words to drive the public policy agenda.

But no matter what actions we take in the short run, if we want our culture to communicate a better set of values and beliefs to future generations, we’ll need to find some moment to address the ancient, erotic relationship between power and sex. Because it isn’t enough to talk about the obvious examples of “powerful men.” There simply aren’t enough powerful men to harass, abuse and assault most of the women in America. To reach that many lives requires millions of not-so-powerful men who somehow believe they possess some inherent right to women’s bodies (and yes, I understand that there are many men who have also experienced male sexual aggression. I hear you, but I don’t want to dilute what I’m trying to say).

The obvious response is a technical one: Define transgressive behaviors, create penalties, educate the public, and crack down on abusers. I’ve got no problem with that. A technical response defines sexual behavior as a series of physical actions, and that’s as it should be, too. Laws require material evidence. Policies function through and in response to actions. The problem isn’t that these are bad ideas: It’s that they address only our sexual behavior — and therefore exclude human eroticism.

 

The Erotic isn’t material

As Americans, we’re becoming more comfortable with sexual topics. Most of us support same-sex marriage and about six in 10 think transgender citizens deserve the right to serve in the military. I grew up in a country where the words “penis” and “vagina” were banned from television, where Lucy and Ricky slept in separate twin beds. Today most topics are open for discussion, if not true candor.

But when it comes to talking about eroticism — this notion that our sexuality is animated not only by concrete biological imperatives, but by elusive, subjective intangibles — we’re far less comfortable. I can imagine a few possible explanations for that, and they aren’t all mutually exclusive. But here’s a big one: Our erotic imaginations process all sorts of emotions related to power, and the results they produce are complicated at best and often embarrassingly contradictory.

Here’s one example from a widely cited 2014 study published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine: Fifty-two percent of women have fantasized about being tied up during a sexual encounter — but just just 29 percent have fantasized about non-consensual sex. To be clear, that doesn’t mean 29 percent of women want to be raped. Erotic thinking and rational thinking don’t play by the same rules. What turns us on in the abstract is rather routinely at odds with what we actually want in reality.

What makes those two percentages interesting is that each fantasy involves an imbalance of power, and even though the implications of each seem similar (in a rational sense, what’s the difference between forced sex and being tied up for sex?), the gap in popularity between the two fantasies is significant.

Asking “why” is probably the wrong response, since erotic fantasies are not generally something most Americans want to defend or explain to an inquisitive public. Instead, the lesson we can draw from such surveys is that many of us are processing emotions about power, permission, control, dominance and submission in the privacy of our interior erotic lives. It’s also safe to say that many Americans live public lives that are uncomfortably out of step with their erotic imaginations.

The conventional stereotype of that tension — the outwardly conservative adult struggling to cope with some closeted erotic desire — routinely appears as an antagonist in modern fiction. It’s a common trope: Failure to integrate our interior and exterior lives leads to disaster, and during the 1960s and 1970s, repressed sexuality was routinely portrayed as the root of much evil.

With the 1980s came backlash — much of it led by cultural conservatives Jerry Falwell, Ronald Reagan and Ed Meese. But what truly complicated matters was the emergence of an intertwined, hyper-politicized feminist critique of pornography, sexual objectification and violence against women. The public face of that movement was the late Andrea Dworkin, a writer and activist who combined a combative rhetorical style with the righteous zeal of a prophet. Scholars continue to debate her legacy, but during the late 1980s and early 1990s Dworkin’s speeches and books sowed a new variety of puritanical militancy across a wide swath of American feminism.

Without going too far astray on Dworkin — who, despite her frequent alliances with political conservatives, remains the Fox News archetype of the man-hating, bombastic feminist — the “sex wars” of her heyday proved particularly damaging to a generation of women’s eroticism.

On the one hand, she was a fearless fighter against the kind of rape culture we now see in distilled form via the Weinstein scandal. Like her or not, Dworkin understood in 1987 what #MeToo revealed in 2017.

But on the other hand, Dworkin’s reductive feminism demanded that women square their intellectual beliefs with their erotic identities. Needless to say, most women — including many feminists who were initially inclined toward the anti-pornography movement — ultimately concluded that amputating their non-compliant erotic imaginations in the service of second-wave political correctness was a bad bargain.

“What no one said, and what no one wrote in Dworkin’s obituaries, was this: Dworkin’s true legacy has been that far too many young women today would rather be bitten by a rabid dog than be considered a feminist,” filmmaker Havana Marking wrote just days after Dworkin’s death in April 2005.

No matter how well-intended our actions, human beings remain elusive subjects of both study and control. Sex-positive feminism was already well on its way to victory in the sex wars before Dworkin’s death at age 58, and after the surprising commercial success of Fifty Shades of Gray in 2011-12, the complex power dynamics of female eroticism are no longer hidden from view. Whether you find such fantasies innocent fun or ideologically problematic, one thing is beyond question: Bondage and control fantasies turn a lot of women on.

Of course, if the solution to rape culture was just healthy women’s eroticism, we wouldn’t be in such a story state. I’ve used women’s eroticism for my examples so far, but that’s only because women make better abstract examples, thanks to the simple fact that women aren’t the problem.

Men are the problem. If we want to fix rape culture, we’re going to have to work through men. And I suspect we’re going about it wrong, because I think we’re focusing on symptoms instead of causes.

If I’m right, then the root cause of most unwanted male sexual aggression isn’t how men feel about women, but how men understand their relationship to power.

That broad historical concept of “droit du siegneur” (the right of the lord)? When we consider it today, we’re likely to see it as the ultimate expression of patriarchal power over women. But when we take it in the context of “jus primae noctis” (the right of the first night), we see it as the ancient tyrants intended. A man’s supposedly unlimited right to a woman’s body is despotic violence against women established as a principle, yet it’s also akin to another right that noblemen supposedly claimed in the Medieval period: droit de prélassement, or “the right of lounging.” This claim held that a lord had the right to disembowel any serf merely to warm his feet in the entrails. Both “rights” are expressions of absolute power, and in that absolutism, they’re rather vague.

The Right of the First Night is a more specific and limited claim: When the ruler of a civilized patriarchy exercises the power to rape a common man’s bride on the night before their wedding, the violence is directed not only at the woman, but also at the groom. And while most historians believe that jus primae noctis was probably only rarely invoked, there isn’t much evidence that kings and lords voluntarily went around revoking that right. It makes a perverse kind of sense: If I have the right to take your bride’s virginity on the eve of your union, then the only thing standing between your emasculation and her suffering is my choice to spare you both.

Your only defense is to keep me happy by submitting to my every whim — or else.

Talk about toxic masculinity!

 

The myth of the Alpha Male

Actually, let’s talk about wolves instead. Ask most people and they’ll tell you: Every wolf pack is led by an Alpha Male who enjoys exclusive sexual access to all the pack’s females. The “lesser” males, called “betas,” get no sexual access whatsoever, and have only three options: Leave the pack to live as a “lone wolf;” submit as a subservient, asexual minion to the tyrant Alpha; or challenge the Alpha to mortal combat. Winner takes all.

Only it turns out that’s just not true — at least not among wolves living in the wild.

Instead of forming packs of unrelated individuals, in which alphas compete to rise to the top, researchers discovered that wild wolf packs actually consist of little nuclear wolf families. Wolves are in fact a generally monogamous species, in which males and females pair off and mate for life. Together they form a pack that typically consists of 5-11 members — the mate pair plus their children, who stay with the pack until they’re about a year old, and then go off to secure their own mates and form their own packs.

 

The mate pair shares in the responsibility of leading their family and tending to their pups. In 21st century human terminology, they “co-parent.” And by virtue of being parents, and leading their “subordinate” children, the mates represent a pair of “alphas.” The alpha male, or papa wolf, sits at the top of the male hierarchy in the family and the alpha female, or mamma wolf, sits atop the female hierarchy in the family.

 

In other words, male alpha wolves don’t gain their status through aggression and the dominance of other males, but because the other wolves in the pack are his mate and kiddos. He’s the pack patriarch. The Pater Familias. Dear Old Dad.

 

And like any good family man, a male alpha wolf protects his family and treats them with kindness, generosity, and love.

So where did our notion of the “Alpha Male” come from? Wolves observed in captivity. Scientists reached their original conclusions about a pack’s social structure by tossing unrelated animals into zoos and watching them from behind the safety of fences. In hindsight, it’s hardly surprising that the animals competed for dominance.

To be blunt about it, is it really that surprising that men compete for dominance in “civilized society?” Or that the more value we place on dominance and power, the more severe a crisis any degree of “failure” becomes?

We’re confined separately from nature. We’re stuck in a hierarchy that reserves most of its benefits for the top 1 percent. We’re pumped full of bullshit stories about “Alpha Males,” from which we’re reliably expected to draw all the wrong conclusions. In the natural state to which our species evolved, there were roles for every member of a hunter/gatherer band. In modern life, most young men are simply surplus labor, confused and resentful animals with no particular skills and even less power, useful only as soldiers, cannon fodder and weaponized martyrs.

Civilization offers us many gifts, but let’s not kid ourselves: It’s a form of voluntary confinement. The global power structures required to organize, feed and house 7.5 billion individuals are a miracle of human ingenuity, yet we remain biologically evolved animals, and life within a global civilization is often brutal. We adapt — it’s really our species’ super power — but every adaptation comes at a cost.

 

This American cage

As Americans, we believe in the individual. We believe in competition, social Darwinism, the survival of the fittest. But we seldom do the math. There are 160 million men in America, and by the standards of our national mythologies, that means that by most definitions, roughly 158.3 million of us are “betas:” Quasi-emasculated losers without the strength, smarts and guts to challenge the Alpha for dominance. Offer an anxious man like that nothing more than the chance to associate himself with the Alpha, and he’ll do whatever you ask so long as he continues to bathe in the warm glow of adequacy.

That’s not true, of course — but it will continue to be experienced as truth by millions of confused and resentful men for as long as we reliably accept the values and and beliefs that our culture passed down to us.

I believe, but cannot yet prove, that in the same ways that most women seem to be working out the complexities of power within the theater of their erotic imaginations, so too are men. The difference is that most women seem to have internalized some degree of the social complexity that surrounds them.

Most men, on the other hand, simply look at the world and judge themselves failures. Like a groom watching powerlessly as the kings’ men carry his bride away for her divinely sanctioned rape, we are emasculated by a system we can neither escape nor challenge. And while women tend to work out some degree of these contradictions through erotic play, men’s eroticism appears to be less functional. Perhaps that’s because it’s less about intangibles and more about physical expressions of dominance and submission.

What does that do to us?

Well, we can look at wolves for answers, but we can also look at homes were children are repeatedly abused. When those children grow up, they repeat the pattern on the next generation. Victims become victimizers in dreary procession down through the ages. Only this pathology I’m describing takes place across a civilization, not a single household.

This is not an appeal for sympathy. Far from it. What must be done first is whatever can be done to reduce sexual aggression toward women, children and vulnerable men right now. Awareness isn’t enough, but it will change elements of the equation. Law and policy and education aren’t enough, but there’s every reason to believe that writing new rules to protect the most vulnerable among us will have some effect.

But the trick we should be learning is that so many of our problems are not the result of bad people, but bad situations. In the field of addiction treatment, it’s now understood that all those studies about rats choosing cocaine until it kills them fall apart as soon as you offer rats an environment that simulates the natural world rats live in, rather than a sterile prison where the only release from boredom and pain is another hit. The new mantra is, “It’s not your addiction, it’s your cage.”

Men, if you’re angry at women, if you’re angry at the government, if you’re angry at work, if you’re angry at yourself, please understand: It’s your cage — and nobody is coming to rescue you from it. You’d probably kill them if they tried.

Men, your only way out of this panopticon prison — this endless cycle of humiliation and anxiety and anger and failure and shame — is to question why you feel like you’re not enough. And if you want to save your sons and daughters from your fate, you’re going to have to teach them something different. You’re going to look weird to the other men who persist in their surrender. You’re going to pay a social price, and possibly a financial one, too. You might not succeed.

There’s no optimistic “but” that follows that litany of bad news. That’s just the way it is. We can surrender to this inhumane reality, or we can confront it.

We can try forcing people to make their erotic selves conform to some artificial political and cultural norm. But there is no part of ourselves that’s more rebellious and insistent than our erotic selves. Religion tried to force Americans through the sieve of moral orthodoxy, and Americans rebelled. Dworkin tried to reduce sex down to authoritarian concepts of violence and power, and eroticism escaped through every crack in her theory until there was no one left inside.

That’s why modern men and women don’t need sympathy. The job ahead of us is too tough for sympathy. Validation is nice. Recognition is OK. But cooperation? Respect? Mutual appreciation, without emphasis on purity? That’s what we need. We’re not building yet another machine to crush each other, but a house with room for each of us to live in some degree of dignity.

So let’s make use of this moment, in the moment, and take the wave as far as it carries us. But let’s also remember that the real task isn’t political, but cultural. That men are the problem, but masculinity isn’t the cause. The erotic side of our nature isn’t a reliable narrator, but its health is a great indicator of the quality of our environment. Let it dance, and pay attention when it stops.

Our current civilization is nearing its limits. Let’s look for opportunities as it cracks, and use each new fissure as a chance to build a new culture, based on ancient truths we’re only now beginning to re-learn.

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