Masculine Submission

No greater love has a man than to live his life for the one he loves

Male submission is not a Greek fraternity

I have been seeing a lot of kerfluffle in certain places lately concerning the “alpha male” in regards to male submission – i.e., can an alpha male be submissive? It is something that grates on my nerves. Sometimes I just roll my eyes, but sometimes I get upset. It’s a stupid trope, and I’d love to see it die. I don’t think it will, though, for several reasons – or because it has several usages.

The first thing to start with is to try and nail down what is meant by “alpha male.” The place to start with that is to break it down even further. “Male” is simply a biological designation of sex. By itself, it has no connotative value. All the stuff that we tie to it is not about being male, but about being men, and “man” is about gender, which means its about gender roles and how society tells us who we should be based on whether we have a vagina or penis.

The designation of “alpha” is from the field of ethology, which purports to study “natural” animal behavior. It is perfectly fine to study the natural behavior of, for example, white-tailed deer – because they can and do live (somewhat) independent of human beings. However, it is impossible to do the same with human beings. I would think it would be self-evident why that is impossible, but I will get back to that later.

For now, let’s look at what “alpha” means in relation to animal behavior. Simply put, it is the animal, male or female, that holds the highest social station. Other animals show deference – chimpanzees bow to the alpha, most birds perch lower than the alpha – each species shows deference in its own way. If one rule is generalizable – and it is dubious to generalize across the entire animal kingdom – it would be that the alpha gets preferential access to food. There is absolutely NO generalizable rule for sexual activity with alphas – even if we limit ourselves only to primates.

I don’t have data to show this, but I’m willing to be that most people who talk about “alpha males” are talking about the outdated understanding of wolves that was gained by observing captive packs. In an unnatural setting, unnatural behaviors evolved.

In nature, a wolf pack consists of a mated pair and their offspring. When the young wolves approach sexual maturity, they leave and find a mate of their own to start a new pack. The lack of non-alpha males breeding isn’t due to dominance, but because they are likely not yet sexually mature. Oh, and by the way, homosexual behavior is fairly common in wolves when the alpha female comes into heat. I don’t know enough to say that every wolf takes a turn in the barrel, so to speak, but it isn’t as easy and cut-and-dried as the BDSM’ers who spout alpha-nonsense would have us believe.

This is where I say that all the stuff that comes before doesn’t matter. It only matters that those who defend the alpha-nonsense want to use the animal kingdom as defense of their nonsense. But the biology-in-comparison argument simply fails due to overwhelming facts to the contrary.

But it doesn’t matter because humans are not chimpanzees or lions or ants or any other social animal. We are humans. If the alpha-nonsense breaks down in comparison to other animals, it could still be true for humans. So if we are going to look at humans, specifically, then we are talking “alpha man.”

An alpha man, if the meaning is preserved, is a guy who is at the peak of society. I don’t know who that is, but it isn’t the vast majority of guys who bandy the term about. Let’s argue that there is a class of alpha males – they would be contained in what C. Wright Mills refers to as “the power elite.” Again, we are excluding the vast majority of men, manly or not.

In other words, the phrase CANNOT be used as it is intended, and that is my point. Stripped of its intended meaning, it has come to be a lazy crutch for people to prop themselves up with when it comes to justifying outdated gender roles. The meaning has been perverted to become a defense for a caricature of manhood. It is an amalgamation of bad stereotypes twisted in the defense of an image of manhood that never truly existed. It is the demon of “real man” that our society has created to keep men captive inside a box.

In a way, the term “alpha male” is fitting because it refers to all of the misbehaviors and bad attitudes that have become linked to Greek fraternities in American colleges. It also bears as little resemblance to reality as those institutions manage to do at their worst.

It’s time to expose this vacuous trope for what it is – a mockery of manhood created by people who were afraid of what they would find if they looked inside of themselves. Can a guy be an “alpha man” and be submissive? Hell, I’m not sure a guy can be an “alpha man” and be an adult.

What I know is this – because of the whole “alpha man” bullshit, too many men are scared of their submissive desires. And far too many (but far from all) dominant men are assholes because they believe they are the only “real” men out there. Beyond that, I told someone else earlier tonight that “When private things are used to shame and shackle men, it’s time for men to speak up.”

An elephant is eaten one bite at a time. A damaging trope is killed one voice at a time. This is my bite.

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6 thoughts on “Male submission is not a Greek fraternity

  1. Im Hers on said:

    As I read through your diatribe 🙂 I could feel your emotion mounting. You got into that post. Seriously, I enjoyed the read and agree with what you had to say. But I wonder…… might a definition change over time? What I mean by that is that the phrase ‘alpha male’ may have changed as more and more society come to associate that term with whatever picture they have concocted in their head. I interpret it to mean a guy that is an ‘in charge person’, a “don’t mess with me” guy. Now whether that is the picture others have I can’t say but I don’t take it to mean that if X calls himself an alpha male that Y and Z can’t as well – that there can be many such men, even every man by the definition that others are using. Just a thought.

    • Words have two types of meanings, denotative and connotative. Denotative is what you find in the dictionary – for instance, “diatribe” is “a bitter, sharply abusive denunciation, attack, or criticism.” That is a word that I would argue is simply not a good description of my post.

      Connotative meanings are those that are given socially, and they can, and do, change. But if everyone can have a different meaning for a word; then the usage of it is meaningless (Lewis Carroll had some great examples of this sort of thing, as well as inventing words that seem to have meaning).

      I would counter that the “in charge person” or “don’t mess with me kind of guy” is simply a kinder, gentler way to embrace the fallacy that submission can’t be masculine because those descriptors are often used as synonyms in opposition to “wimpy guys.” Is it possible for someone to not be “in charge” and still be someone not to “mess with?”

  2. Well said! A very thought provoking post on the fallacy of the “traditional” male gender role.

    It may interest you to know that in my tradition, (Judaism) the roles of men and women, though different, were essentially equal. Most Jewish scholars say that”mankind” was created with dual gender, and was later separated into male and female. God is considered to be both male and female, but is only referred to as “He” out of convenience. As Hebrew has no neutral gender; God is no more male than a table is.

    According to traditional Judaism, women are endowed with a greater degree of intuition, understanding, and intelligence than men. Some traditional sources even go on to suggest that women are closer to God’s ideal than men. The role of woman in Jewish society has traditionally been one of respect and honor where she plays a role of equal importance to the man.

    While a lot of these things became perverted over time, it is still not uncommon, in Reform Jewish households for a man (no matter how masculine) to submit to his wife in most areas of the running of the household. That would even include marital sex. It is HER right to have, or withhold, not his. The man is SUPPOSED to have submissive desires toward his beloved, irrespective of whatever else he is in relation to those outside.

    That said, even though I am not in any way religious, this is the gender role I have been taught, and the traditional “alpha male” role, with all it’s bluster and foolishness, is nothing more than the childish prattle of someone who has not grown up, and perhaps never will.

    • I cannot, obviously, lecture you about your own culture, but Judaism also looks at women as being given to men by their fathers (in a strict traditional sense – this has evolved a great deal). Traditional Jewish prayers thank God for “making me man and not woman.” So while there is a sense of respect for women, it is not based – originally – on accepting them as equal to men, but as accepting them as part of God’s plan for men. I also understand that there are many traditions within Judaism and many of them disagree fully on these parts. At any rate, I sincerely appreciate the explanation of how your brand of Judaism looks at gender roles.

      America has a dominant culture that embraces a specific view of masculinity – often embodied manly-men types from John Wayne to Dwayne Johnson. For some people, the stereotypes are simply who they are, and they should be free to embrace that. Most of us, however, are much more than the reductive silliness of the “alpha male.”

  3. I sent you a comment..but WordPress ate it!!! What I had said was that you probably cringe when I refer to ‘alpha’ males in my blog! 🙂 When I do, I’m speaking of those who in their work world are leaders and possess a strength that others lean on for guidance. It is that strength when surrendered to me is delicious. Great post and points you make here. Maybe we can come up with another term that doesn’t cause others grief.
    ~ Vista

    • WordPress gets hungry at odd times.

      I looked through your blog a bit and didn’t see where you mention alpha men, so I can’t say anything about how you use it. What I can say is the same thing I said above – while meanings change, there has to be some sort of consensus for a word or phrase to have any meaning at all. It is natural to label things as a shorthand way to reference them, but the “alpha” sets it up as a ranking system.

      Another term? I think you already used the term “strong leader,” although you split it up into two factors. It seems to me to be far more descriptive than “alpha male.” Just an observation.

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