Editor’s note: This article is also available in Romanian.
Like many men, I remember feeling my heart break a little, as an adolescent, sitting at a cafeteria table. I listened to the beautiful girl I had a crush on as she told me what a great friend I was, then gushed about her interest in one of my best friends. I’ve never really wanted to be the “nice guy,” though it is apparently just in my nature. And sadly the nice guy often doesn’t walk away with the girl, at least in the short term. Increasing psychological and biological evidence suggests that the “bad boy,” sometimes called the “cad,” often gets hot, spontaneous sex from women while the “nice guy” has a very different kind of relationship.
I was interviewed recently about whether the “nice guys” could benefit from an understanding of the traits and qualities that attract women. Basically, for those men out there who worry that they are too “nice,” are there ways that they could borrow some of the bad boy sexiness while not losing their integrity? It was a provocative and fun interview, though as often happens, the finished article only used a bit of my discussion. The interview, and the question, led me to think about this issue and ponder whether there were ways to help men out there without resorting to the sometimes manipulative, deceptive strategies of the “pick-up culture” in which men are taught to use psychological principles to create and exploit insecurities in women.
Much of the bad-boy versus nice-guy dynamic is based upon an understanding of the complex interplay of biology and psychology, which emerges from exploration of the concepts of evolutionary psychology. Now, when we talk about the evolutionary traits that influence women’s selection of mates, we are talking about the hypothetical average person, a composite of all people, in a way that washes across individual differences. It can be deceptively easy to use these traits and dispositions to explain the actions or choices of individuals, but this is ultimately little more than a creative narrative that may or may not offer any real, verifiable explanation. I find this evolutionary theorizing useful and helpful in inviting people to consider and explore unconscious motivations behind their sexual desires and preferences. This allows them to look at these desires, such as a desire for multiple partners, as normal, even when the desire is socially stigmatized.
That said, I think that one of the subtle ripple effects of the feminist revolution is that women now have the freedom to express and explore some of these sexual desires. Throughout human history, the ability of women to explore a greater range of sexual desires and freedoms has been intrinsically related to economic freedoms. So, today, from both a social and individual perspective, economic independence is connected to the ability of women to pursue an individualized exploration of their sexual desires. Women who have more financial and social independence are more likely to engage in infidelity, seeking sex with different kinds of men than their primary partner, because that financial independence gives the women some protection from the losses and consequences that could result from infidelity.
We can look at the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey as an expression of the greater acceptability of women desiring both sexual freedom and desiring to sometimes be with that dominant, assertive, take-charge male. What is different now is that in Victorian times women were “told” by society that the traditional sexist paradigm was the only acceptable desire. Now, decades after the feminist revolution, women are allowed a greater range of desires and allowed to sometimes want the freedom to be independent and assertive in their sexual desires, like men, and to also sometimes want to be taken, to be overcome by the raw force of masculine desire.
But women, and men too, are not all alike in these unconscious desires and the expression of these evolutionary sexual pressures. There is tremendous individual variation, and even variation within a certain person, across time and context. For instance, women’s desire for different kinds of mates varies across biological cycles, where women may prefer a stable, good provider as mate for much of the month but be drawn to the more aggressive, dominant, and tempestuous male when they are ovulating. But the conscious, behavioral expression of these desires is also modulated by social context—for instance, women might be more likely to take this risk if they have already had children with their primary mate. Having done so might decrease some of the male reaction to infidelity, as he has already had children by the woman. For the woman, an evolutionary explanation suggests that she is unconsciously looking for a diverse, robust range of genetic differences in her children. By mating with different men, and different kinds of men, she offers her children (and her genes) a greater diversity and thus a better chance of overcoming different kinds of environmental challenges such as disease.
Masculinity is intensely connected to testosterone. I’m not reducing masculinity to that single hormone, but the biology and unconscious evolutionary expressions of mating desires are intrinsically connected to levels of this hormone. When women are ovulating, and attracted to that very masculine man, they find the body odor of men with high testosterone very attractive. In non-medical situations, I’m not in favor of things like testosterone replacement or supplements. But testosterone levels are not a fixed variable. Men (and women) can manipulate their levels of testosterone through activities, such as exercise or competition. Levels of testosterone fluctuate in men in response to competitive challenges like sports, even politics and business. Men who are interested in connecting to that internal masculinity—and having it “ooze out their pores,” so to speak—would do well to consider engaging in activities like martial arts, bodybuilding, competitive sports, even adrenaline-type activities like skydiving. All of these increase a man’s libido, increase his levels of testosterone, increase his confidence, and bolster that male swagger, making him more attractive to that woman who is seeking, consciously or unconsciously, that highly masculine partner.
Rather than talking about the “bad boy,” I suggest talking and thinking about these men as being highly expressive of a traditional masculine ideal. For these men, that masculinity comes out in a more unconscious, confident, even brash and arrogant manner. These types of men are not self-conscious about their desires and their dominating tendencies. Their impulsivity, aggressiveness, and even selfishness are expressions of an internal lack of self-consciousness or self-questioning. In The Empire Strikes Back, when Han Solo first sees Darth Vader, there’s absolutely no hesitation as Han pulls out his blaster and starts firing away. In contrast, Shakespeare’s Hamlet spends the entire play questioning himself, his thoughts, desires, and beliefs. This isn’t to say that Hamlet is not masculine, but it shows that these are two sides of the same coin and are two good examples of the different types of male expression that women are drawn to in different ways and times.
But I think it’s important to recognize that some men (and women) may be more disposed to one side or the other. And it is healthiest for an individual to understand and accept who they are and what their internal dispositions are. Self-acceptance is attractive as well. When I think about these things, with patients and even in myself, I believe that we need to help men define for themselves what masculinity is and to try to explore a greater level of internal acceptance of their masculinity.
A sad dilemma is that society currently characterizes masculinity as dangerous, beastly, even morally and intellectually deficient. I see many men come into my office with internal feelings of shame and guilt about their masculine desires, about their internal inclinations toward assertiveness or aggression. These men have been programmed to fear these desires, and view them as dangerous, because that is how society characterizes them—the television character of Al Bundy is a great example of the modern view of maleness: bumbling, slave to sexual desires, and stupefied by masculinity. And so, many men try to overcome these desires, be better than them, suppress them, and reject them. These are often the men who then end up questioning how and why that jackass swaggering thug gets the girl while they are just a “friend.” Men can identify that internal conflict and become more comfortable and confident in themselves. A man can be both a male with very masculine desires and attitudes and a self-aware, responsible, and thoughtful person. The two are not mutually exclusive—a man can be both Hamlet and Han Solo, in other words, and can still get the girl.