Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"Alpha male" or narcissistic loser with a teddy bear

Those who have been following the very ugly Jian Ghomeshi story will have noticed that he, like Sebastian Flyte, had a teddy bear. Some of the women who have come forward and made allegations against him say that he turned the teddy bear towards the wall and said that it should not see what was about to happen before he beat them.

When people encounter a phenomenon like this, they don't know how to handle it. They have a series of familiar categories and they desperately try to cram this story into it. That will make them feel better. CBC host Michael Enright blames it on alpha males and says that we need to have a national conversation on violence against women. Well, we were already having that conversation and the painful irony is that Ghomeshi was one of the people leading it. Just last March, Ghomeshi led a debate about the "rape culture". He prepared himself for years to be one of the sensitive, caring guys who knows how to talk the feminist talk. As a student, he did a minor in women's studies and, you'll want to sit down for this, used to go to abortion clinics to "protect" women from pro-life demonstrators when he was in high school.

What should really trouble Enright, but doesn't, is that Ghomeshi moved in the circles where people care most about issues like violence against women and sexual violence. You couldn't find a more pro-feminist, empathetic, caring and sensitive bunch of guys anywhere on the planet. Nor could you find women more devoted to the idea that something needs to be done to stop violence against women and sexual abuse. And these men and women did absolutely nothing about this situation for years even though they now tell us that "everyone knew". 

A little closer to the mark is Gabor Maté who writes that the alleged behaviour can be explained in terms of male narcissistic rage. But Maté, like Enright, cannot see Ghomeshi as an individual and attributes the alleged behaviour not to his individual personality but to society at large. As a consequence, an article that looks like it's going to deal with the actual problem quickly slides into the very same general male-bashing that Enright engages in.

If we're going to deal with this in an even half-way honest fashion we need to start with sex. If Ghomeshi did what a significant and growing set of women say he did, he did it for erotic reasons. You may want to say, "That's not erotic" or "I don't find that erotic" but the point is that he did find it erotic and while he does seem to have realized that the women didn't share his excitement, he did these things anyway. It aroused him, gave him an erection and ultimately brought him to orgasm to think about and then to do these things. That's important because that's not male narcissistic rage. It's narcissistic to be certain but it's not, in fact, rage of any sort.

One of the spooky things about male sexual development is that both normal and abnormal male sexual development follow the same patterns. Flashback with me to teenage years. There is a boy somewhere between 13 to 16 years of age and he is into girls. For a long time he wasn't and now he is. He does his best to talk to them but he isn't very good at it. They all seem more mature and they are much better at conversation than he is. Fortunately for him, girls unaccountably return his interest which is staggering because he spends most of his time feeling like a loser around them.

Because they return his interest, he makes progress despite his many failures. The first time he tries to kiss a girl he makes a horrible hash of it. He feels like more of a loser. But there is a string of girls willing to give him a chance and he slowly starts figuring stuff out.

At the same time, there is a weird force in his life that drives him to more and more sexual thrills. It works like this. The first time a girl flirts with him he goes home walking on a cloud. He doesn't think he will ever need more than this to make him happy. Until a girl actually lets him kiss her. After that, merely flirting will never be enough. Then a girl will let him push his body against hers while kissing. Sometime later, she or another girl will let him put his hands on her breasts. And so forth. And never will the incredible thrill of the previous stages be enough again.

The thing that is happening is that dopamine is released every time he reaches one of these new thrill levels. That internal reward system drives us on to repeat that thrill and not to settle for anything less.

The same process happens with abnormal development. Take voyeurism for example. Men like to look at women and we all do it. Some men, however, develop a special thrill for sneaking around peering through windows to look at women. But we need to be precise here. Almost any man would get a thrill out of secretly watching a woman take her clothes off. But most of us don't develop the strong reward that makes us become window-peeping voyeurs. We might even find ourselves in a position to see something and watch but we don't seek to repeat the experience. Some other guys are different. They get that thrill and nothing else will ever be enough for them again.

What makes the difference? I don't think anyone knows the whole answer. We can say with certainty that a big part of the answer is going to revolve around the ability to make social connections with women we get sexual thrills from. The voyeur has no social connection; he imagines and projects some sort of mutual interaction.

And so does the man who punches a woman during sex. The thrill, the thing that makes the dopamine fire comes from making her react. That's a thrill that millions of normal men want to get but want to get by seeing a woman lose control and have an orgasm. They want something mutual and shared and, ultimately, part of a larger relationship that isn't just about sex.

Just as all men want to see women naked it is also the case that a lot of men get a thrill from the use of force during sex. There is a lot of game playing that involves pinning arms down, mild spanking, driving really hard and the like in sex. And a lot of women respond positively. But, just as there is a difference between looking at a woman who knows you are looking and is responding positively to it and sneaking through the bushes outside her home to peer through her window blinds at night, there is a huge difference between playing a game with someone who actively wants to play and just forcing something on her and getting off on that even though she is hurt and frightened.

Read the stories that are coming out and you can see that some of these women discussed being "kinky" with Ghomeshi before getting into bed with him. They expected something but were overwhelmed, hurt and horrified by what actually happened. But he wasn't looking for anything mutual, he was only looking for his thrill. He has the ability to recognize the reactions of another independent human being and even to exploit them to his advantage. If anything, he is better at seeing and understanding others reactions than most of the rest of us are. The thing is that he only cares about his desires and excitement. Hers only exist for him insofar as they are useful for him to manipulate her into a situation where he can get his thrill. That's what makes it narcissism!

(By the way, this is also exactly what made him such a powerful interviewer. Normal people don't get to be celebrities! it takes a twisted person to push themselves to that level.)

How does someone get like that? It's hard to say. There might be something wrong with the actual brain. I doubt that but it's possible. It's tempting to think that he never got over being the boy who felt like a loser but none of us do and yet most of us don't do what he is alleged to have done. 

I'd attribute the problems not to his failures but to what a lot of people would consider his successes. He figured out how to thrive in that hip, caring, sensitive, pro-feminist urban culture. And then he became a pop musician and found that he could get all the sex he wanted. But he never bothered to learn how to really connect with the woman he was with emotionally so his sexual thrill was a purely erotic thing with no commitment, caring or love involved.

Of course, the entire pop culture backed him up on this.

Without that deeper sense of purpose, his sex life remained entirely about the thrill. He needed to make the dopamine fire and that required more and more as it was the only thing he was getting out of it. And he looked for and found these thrills in porn. At first that was enough. Unfortunately, being a celebrity, it was also possible for him to act out these fantasies and get away with it. Once he had done that, the porn was never enough to make the dopamine fire again.

And that sort of sex was all he wanted and all he needed. And he pursued it and got it. The women he did these things to didn't want to see him again but they didn't call the police and, being a celebrity, there was a steady stream of new women for him to do these things to.

And he kept getting away with it until he didn't. 

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