“If He Doesn’t Hit You, He Doesn’t Love You.” So runs an African proverb. Or a Russian proverb, according to other sources. Or a Bolivian proverb, according to still others. Perhaps it is all three. A similar Latin American saying, “The more you hit me, the more I love you,” turns up over 100,000 hits on Google.
It is hardly a new idea that female sexuality has a masochistic component. Indeed, this seems to be part of the folk wisdom of the world; in other words, it corresponds the observations of many persons of both sexes across many generations. Yet it is not easy to find extended discussion of it. Within the past century, most writing on the subject has been beholden to the Freudian tradition, a circumstance that does not inspire confidence. A more hopeful sign may be the sizable feminist literature aimed at refuting “the myth of female masochism.” If nothing else, such literature is testimony to the enduring reality of the corresponding folk belief; no one writes polemics against things that have absolutely no basis in reality.
It is not hard to understand why persons of both sexes are reluctant to talk about female masochism. No one wants to appear to be condoning the abuse of women. A prime component of masculinity is the instinct to protect women. In the European tradition, this has given rise to the principle that “a gentlemen never strikes a lady.” Pushing gallantry to the point of silliness, as usual, Thomas Fleming writes in Chronicles that “there is something unmanly about beating women, unmanly and sickening.”
But what if there is something in at least some women that responds positively to male violence? The British anti-feminist “Angry Harry” shares this anecdote:
Emma Humphreys (a cause célèbre for feminists in the UK) had served some time in prison for killing her boyfriend. But, following vociferous claims from various wimmin’s groups that she had acted in self-defense against his violence, she was released.
When she was interviewed by the BBC on Radio 4 she had been out of prison only for ten days. And yet she admitted that she was already in another abusive relationship with a man who ‘slapped her about’ frequently.
Further, she stated that love and abuse were part and parcel of each other, and that you couldn’t have one without the other. “If he doesn’t hit you then he doesn’t love you.” [my emphasis]
The interview was cut short at this point with a very embarrassed female interviewer having to cover for the missing time.
Another example: Hollywood earns its profits by appealing to the fantasies of its audience, including women; if the product fails to strike the audience’s imagination, it flops. Some lessons about what female audiences like can be drawn from the early career of Clark Gable. The film that made him a star was A Free Soul (1931), in which he played a gangster who pushes Norma Shearer around to let her know who’s boss.
As a fan site puts it, previous male leads had been “suave and svelte, romantic and tender.” Gable’s character:
was supposed to be the villain, the evil corrupt criminal that you are supposed to root against–it’s Leslie Howard you are supposed to hope Norma ends up with–plain vanilla Leslie Howard. Well, the fans spoke and spoke loudly–the 1931 woman didn’t want plain vanilla and no longer wanted “powder puff” men with styled hair and ruffles on their shirts–they wanted a real man, a rough man, a man who was a bit dirty and not afraid to put them in their place.
Gable followed up this role with that of a sinister chauffeur who knocks Barbara Stanwyck out cold with one punch in Night Nurse. These were the last supporting roles he was ever to play. Bushels of fan mail began arriving at the studio. Some breathless women are said to have offered to let Gable hit them!
Or consider this real-life Hollywood story, quoted by Steven E. Rhoads in his valuable book Taking Sex Differences Seriously (New York: Encounter Books, 2005):
Eddy Fisher and Debbie Reynolds both tell of a dinner party at their house where Mike Todd and Elizabeth Taylor started belting each other. Todd ended up dragging Taylor across the floor by her hair as she kicked and scratched. When Reynolds became alarmed and jumped on Todd’s back to get him to stop, Todd and Taylor both turned on her. According to Fisher, Taylor said, “Oh Debbie . . . Don’t be such a Girl Scout. Really, Debbie, you’re so square.”
Many of the “battered women” we are encouraged to sympathize with have a remarkable tendency to suffer from abuse at the hands of every man with whom they become involved. Tammy Wynette, the Country singer who gained fame with the song “Stand By Your Man,” was married to five men and left four of them (managing to die with her fifth marriage still intact). Most of her husbands are said to have abused her in some way, and teary-eyed retellings of her “tragic” life have been offered to the public.
I remind the reader of the central principle of male-female relations: women choose. They represent the supply; men represent the demand. If Tammy Wynette never took up with a man who failed to abuse her, there can be only one explanation: Tammy had a thing for nasty boys.
If you put a woman like this in a room with a dozen men, within five minutes she would be exclusively focused on the meanest, most domineering and brutal fellow in the room. Some women who had alcoholic fathers have a similar uncanny ability to detect the alcoholic in a room full of men, even if he is sober at the moment. “Women’s intuition” is a reality: it is an ability to pick up on tiny signals, slight nuances of facial expression that would go unnoticed by a man.
We are attracted to qualities in the opposite sex which our own sex lacks. For many women, this means an attraction to male brutality. Such women may claim to want a sensitive fellow who is in touch with his feelings, but this bears no relation to their behavior. What women say about men comes from their cerebral cortex; how they choose men depends upon their evolutionary more primitive limbic system. Even campus feminists choose arrogant jocks to “hook up” with, not male feminists in touch with their emotions. I have heard it suggested that the best reason not to strike a woman today is that you will never be able to get rid of her afterwards.
Why don’t such women simply tell their men that they find violence and dominance exciting? Perhaps it would destroy the fantasy to say “I’m in the mood, so could you please slap me around for a bit?” In most cases, the women are probably just behaving instinctively, not understanding their own motivations. In any case, it would obviously be useful for well-intentioned husbands to understand this aspect of women’s sexuality. It might prevent more serious violence and even save a few marriages.
The very first thing contemporary dating gurus teach men is not to be a “nice guy.” Nor is this aversion to “niceness” exclusive to feminine psychology: even men understand the pejorative connotations of the word innocuous.
Perhaps more important than piling up more examples to attest the phenomenon is giving a little thought to why female masochism occurs. Like other sex traits, it is an evolutionary adaptation. I am going to go way out on a limb and suggest that early hominid males may not have been quite so delicate as Tom Fleming, who becomes ill at the very thought of a woman being struck. African men are, by all accounts, pretty quick with their fists to this day. Gallantry is an achievement of civilization, not a part of our primitive nature.
Now, females in our “environment of evolutionary adaptation” were dependent on males for mating, protection, and access to resources. These males were bigger and stronger than females and could easily hurt them if angered or displeased. If our female ancestors had been delicate snowflakes unable to endure life with such brutes, we would not be here today. In other words, women adapted to male brutality, including occasional violence, learning how to get through or around it.
Think for a moment, men, how you would learn to behave if you were dependent for survival on an unpredictable and often violent creature larger and stronger than yourself. You would learn not simply to take what you wanted. You would learn to act when his back is turned, to use indirection, deception, manipulation. You would learn to conceal your true thoughts and keep Big Boy confused as to your true intentions. You would, in short, learn to act like a woman.
The battle of the sexes is a contest of force vs. cunning. Yes, civilized men learn to control their aggressive impulses and not beat women up every time they feel irritation with them. In the modern West, men have largely renounced the use of their natural weapon for controlling women, i.e., force. Have women renounced the use of their own weapons against men? Certainly we cannot expect women to shed millennial evolutionary adaptations automatically the instant men learn to behave.
Women’s basic strategy during courtship is still to keep suitors confused. Their primary method of getting what they want is still the indirect route through influencing their men. When they express aggression, it still usually takes the form of passive aggression. And they are still both more frequent and more effective liars than men.
To judge by self-help literature aimed at women, most conceive the task of finding a mate as one of figuring out “how to flatter, tease, dupe, and otherwise manipulate a man into marriage” (Rhoads, p. 120). Does it never occur to women that if they really were loyal, sincere, and feminine, men might not need to be duped into marrying them?
While I am not holding my breath for feminism to demand an end to feminine wiles, I think it possible for women to overcome the uglier side of their nature just as men learn to control their temper and instinct for aggression. Women who relied on trickery and deception in their dealings with the opposite sex used to be referred to pejoratively as “designing women”—an expression which has largely disappeared from our language.
In short, I would be more inclined to sympathize with all the campaigns opposing “violence against women” if they were coupled with their logical counterpart: opposing “fraud against men.”
Another interesting aspect of campaigns against domestic abuse to consider is: Why now? Are men behaving more violently today than they used to? There seems to be no evidence for this. As early as 2000, Massachusetts District Court Judge Milton H. Raphaelson declared that there exists “not an epidemic of domestic violence, but an epidemic of hysteria about domestic violence.” Insofar as there is any real problem of women being brutalized in Western countries, it mainly involves recent non-Western immigrant populations, a fact systematically ignored or concealed by feminists.
Popular concerns are often weirdly unrelated to actual circumstances. It was only in the 1960s, after the percentage of Americans failing to complete secondary school had been falling for decades and had reached an historic low, that Americans discovered the problem of “high school dropouts.” Political and economic conditions in France steadily improved in the decades leading up to the French Revolution; as Tocqueville explained, expectations rose faster than conditions could improve, so more humane government was accompanied by growing dissatisfaction over “despotism.” A similar process may underlie contemporary hysteria over “intimate partner violence.”
Many have commented on the “irony” that the most pampered women in history are the ones complaining most about oppression. Perhaps we should consider whether this does not represent an irony but a direct causal relation: whether modern woman complains of her lot because—rather than in spite of—its being so favorable.
Writer Jack Donovan has made an ethological argument in favor of such an interpretation. Bonobos, or pygmy chimpanzees, are physically not very different from other chimps, but they are now classed as a separate species because of radical differences in their behavior. Bonobo males are not very aggressive. They compete less for status than do male chimps, and they do not compete at all for mates. Sex is promiscuous, and males are not possessive. Homosexual mating is common. All parenting is done by mothers. Female bonds are stronger and more enduring than male bonds. In short, bonobo society is a feminist paradise.
Chimpanzee behavior is the opposite of bonobo behavior in almost every respect. Male chimps form hierarchical gangs and compete constantly for status and access to females. They are violent and territorial, forming alliances both to defend their own territory and raid that of other chimpanzee bands. They kill stray males from other bands when the opportunity presents itself. They push females around, and females are expected to display submission to males. Homosexuality is uncommon among them. Chimpanzee social behavior is a feminist’s worst nightmare.
Evolutionary theory would lead us to look for a difference in the living environments of bonobos and chimps to which their radically different behavior could represent adaptations. And the primatologists have found such a difference: chimps must compete with other species, especially gorillas, for food. The bonobos live in a food-rich, gorilla-free environment where the living is easy. It is this lack of competitors which makes violence, hierarchy, competition, and male bonding unnecessary for bonobos.
Western man is like a chimp who has done his job too well. Having defeated nearly all his dangerous competitors, he finds himself without much of a function in a prosperous society that no longer needs to be defended. It is only to be expected that his women are going to start bitching that he needs to learn to act more like a bonobo. Feminism is a byproduct of peace and prosperity, not a response to patriarchy and oppression.
Some contemporary female behavior, such as that catalogued by Michelle Langley, seems more akin to sadism than to masochism. But this does not necessarily contradict what we have written: sadism is merely the opposite face of masochism. I would suggest that female sadism might be expected to emerge in a society where men refuse to or are prevented from displaying dominance. A society-wide failure of men to take charge of women is likely to produce a great deal of conscious or unconscious sexual frustration in women which may express itself as sadism.
Is the Violence Against Women Act an attempt to get back at men for their failure to put women in their place? Surely women would rather have Clark Gable than take out more restraining orders, force men to take more anger management classes, enjoy more absurd police-state protections from men who are increasingly wimpy anyway.
I do not know if frustrated masochistic instincts cause sadism in women—it is just my hunch. What I do feel confident in stating is that female masochism is a critically important subject which neither feminist denial nor the sanctimonious gallantry of Christian traditionalists should dissuade us from investigating.
The Populist Moment, Chapter 11, Part 4: “Multitudes” Against the People
The Populist Moment, Chapter 11, Part 3: “Multitudes” Against the People
The Populist Moment, Chapter 11, Part 2: “Multitudes” Against the People
The Populist Moment, Chapter 11, Part 1: “Multitudes” Against the People
The Populist Moment, Chapter 10, Part 2: The Ambiguity of “Communitarianism”
The Populist Moment, Chapter 9, Part 1: “Conservatives of the Left” & the Critique of Value
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