Book Review: ‘Bad Men: The Hidden Roots of Sexual Deception, Harassment & Assault’ by David M. Buss (Part 2)

Bad Men by David Buss | Hachette UK

Chapter 4: More relationship trouble

The primary focus of this chapter is jealousy and how it is involved in sexual conflict. The author describes how jealousy has a motivational function as it spurs us into action if we fear losing something, or, in the case of sexual jealousy, someone. The adaptive functions of jealousy in men and women are very similar since both sexes suffer “reproductive harms” if a relationship breaks down. Jealousy can be triggered by an imbalanced welfare trade-off ratio or a mate value discrepancy as described in the previous chapter.

Sexual jealousy, however, often presents itself differently in men and women as they can suffer from a broken relationship in unique ways. If a husband and father discovers his wife has been cheating on him, he may suspect he’s a victim of paternity fraud whereas a woman many fear abandonment and loss of resources if she finds out her husband has been seeing another woman. These fears and feelings of jealousy are understandably stronger in societies that have high paternal investment and/or are poorer and more traditional than Western countries. Men lower in mate value are also said to be more controlling.

Men fear sexual jealousy more than emotional jealousy whereas the opposite is true for women which matches the potential disadvantages that both sexes may suffer from infidelity or one person ending the relationship. This difference has been found by studies conducted worldwide. However, both men and women can be sexually and emotionally jealous as both are linked. In more traditional, non-Western countries, women also strongly fear sexual infidelity by their husbands as this could lead to diversion of resources or abandonment which presents harsher consequences for them.

Members of the same sex can also be targets of jealousy as they are potential mate rivals or mate poachers. For men, a ‘rival’ who exceeds them in status or strength may be a target of their jealousy whilst in women, a female rival who is considered more attractive than them will make them feel jealous. In response, either sex may try to undermine their rival by disparaging their status or appearance. The author writes that it is important to understand the psychology of sexual jealousy as it’s the leading cause of violence within relationships:

“Male sexual jealousy is the leading cause of the murder of adult women, accounting for between 50 and 70 percent of all such homicides. Police know this. When women are murdered, the prime suspects are boyfriends, husbands, ex-boyfriends, and ex-husbands. Although jealousy sometimes motivates women to murder, only 3 percent of murdered men are killed by their romantic partners or exes, and many of these female-perpetrated homicides are women defending themselves against a jealously violent man.”

I’ll explore my own thoughts about this in more detail in the next chapter. It would be interesting to know how many male on male homicides are motivated by female sexual jealousy though.

Since jealous people in a relationship may feel under threat, they can engage in information gathering as a way to ascertain the source of their feelings and how it may affect them. This action is compared to a gazelle detecting the presence of a predator and becoming watchful and alert to evade danger. Information gathering can range from calling a partner to find out their location, looking through their personal belongings or turning up unexpectedly wherever they happen to be. Dr. Buss conducted studies with newlywed couples and found that both men and women were vigilant in mate guarding. For men, their vigilance was heightened if they perceived their wives as very attractive:

“For example, a vigilant man might introduce his partner to everyone as “my wife” and drape his arm around her when other men are around. Yes, men have a long and sordid history of treating women as possessions.”

But wouldn’t this be the same as a woman clinging to her boyfriend/husband if she saw an attractive woman nearby? Can’t women be as possessive as men? The book doesn’t say. Men who are particularly vigilant may confront and pick fights with men they think may be getting too close to their wife/girlfriend. It’s worth considering here that some women may like men who act in this way although that might have been too controversial to mention in this book. Friends can also be a danger as they are often in close proximity and can share similar interests with couples. As you can imagine, women tend to be more vigilant when their men are high in status since they will likely attract female attention.

Men high in the Dark Triad traits are particularly prone to feelings of jealousy and exhibiting controlling behaviour. They may also create jealousy in their wife/girlfriends by engaging with other women. Jealousy in these men may cause them to yell, threaten, manipulate and even attack their female partners. Women may have adapted tactics to evade men’s mate guarding if it is harmful to them, such as if they are in a controlling relationship. Mate guarding might also disadvantage women because it prevents them from starting another relationship and potentially ‘trading up.’ However, in this scenario, the men in question may be simply trying avoid being taken advantage of by a hypergamous woman.

Tactics women may use to avoid mate guarding include hiding things from their male partner, interacting with other men behind their partner’s back and avoiding places where the women can be checked up on. Women may also avoid ‘public displays of affection’ (PDAs) such as holding hands or kissing in public which signal that they are in a relationship. Women who perceive their male partner as too controlling may also become angry and threaten to end the relationship if it is too smothering.

David Buss also describes another predictor of controlling behaviour from men:

“Which men are most likely to be controlling? Those who are lower in mate value. These men ramp up heavy mate guarding because they believe they have lucked out in attracting a desirable woman and believe that she will be difficult or impossible to replace.”

Men who lack resources will find it difficult to retain a woman, especially if she considers herself more attractive than him, which makes it more likely she will try to avoid being mate guarded. A woman may get out of a relationship by establishing a new relationship then leaving her current one. This is known as “monkey branching” as it’s similar to how a monkey will let go of one branch only after it has grasped another one. According to the author, there have been no scientific studies conducted on men avoiding women’s mate guarding but he believes it is just as common and men likely use the same or similar tactics as women.

Welfare trade-off ratios (WTRs), described in Chapter 3, are a recurring feature in relationships as situations can change which alter it in favour of one half over the other. A high WTR means that you place more value on your partner’s wellbeing over your own whereas a low WTR means you will act more in your own self-interest. WTR can be ‘recalibrated’ so that one half of a couple invests more in the other half thereby increasing it. It has been speculated by psychologists like Aaron Sell that anger is used to increase WTR by making the person who is the target of that anger value the angry person more – this has been called ‘the recalibration theory of anger.’ Essentially, the angry person can prompt the other person in the relationship to try to alleviate that anger and thus invest in them more. The alternative is a downward spiral where both partners distance from each other.

The less desirable partner might also intentionally make their other half jealous by flirting with other people. This is apparently a more common strategy for women than men and common in high Dark Triad individuals. The author notes that invoking jealousy can be a dangerous tactic as it could lead to violence. Although these behaviours are prevalent in unstable relationships, David Buss points out:

“mate guarding is a serious business. In long-term relationships, partners get complacent and take each other for granted. Periodically recalibrating your partner’s WTR can be an important corrective.”

Forgiveness is also used alongside anger and jealousy to alter WTR. If anger is met with one partner increasing their WTR, the other partner may forgive them and stabilise the relationship. This can result in an upward spiral rather than a downward one.

‘The serial-mating solution’ is one alternative to deal with the problems that occur in long-term relationships. Instead of two people trying to stick together despite their difficulties, people may instead move in and out of relationships after they have “outgrown” the other person. David Buss compares this to the different friendships we experience throughout our lives which sometimes last only for a brief period of time. Serial-mating can allow for different experiences but might also make it difficult to form new relationships if you have “baggage” from the previous ones. One example is forming a new relationship after a divorce where children may be involved. The author falls back into feminist mode when he writes:

“Women are especially likely to suffer economic hardship after a marriage dissolves. Compared to men, women experience a greater loss of household income, are more likely to single parent, and are more prone to plunge below the poverty line.”

What isn’t mentioned here is the loss of income that men can suffer from paying child support and not being able, for whatever reason, to see their children.

The chapter concludes by offering another alternative to deal with potential relationship problems: becoming “irreplaceable” to your partner by maintaining mate value in relation to theirs, being more appealing than potential suitors and investing in them and their unique interests.

Chapter 5: Violence against women (and men) in relationships

As briefly mentioned, when taken to extremes, jealousy can culminate in one partner using violence against the other and is one of the causes of “intimate partner violence” (IPV) or what is more widely known as ‘domestic violence.’ As this is a book about “bad men”, most of the focus in this chapter is directed towards male violence against women. Dr. Buss describes how IPV is often thought to be caused by several factors including a pathology suffered by the perpetrator, growing up in a violent household, and gender inequality and the patriarchy. It is noted, however, that IPV is also common in the supposedly non-patriarchal Scandinavian countries so attributing IPV to the latter is insufficient.

Here the book describes how Russian law has no provisions that specifically deal with IPV which is reflected in other countries as well. I’m no expert on Russia’s legal system, but it should be noted that laws against assault and battery are commonplace in many countries and women can presumably use these laws if they are dealing with an abusive partner. IPV is illegal in all US states but is apparently so prevalent that it has to be dealt with at a federal level. Note again though that this depends on the validity of the claims made and what constitutes IPV which, increasingly, has a broad definition. Later it is claimed that IPV increased during the Covid-19 lockdowns but I’ve seen other sources that claim this is dubious.

I found reading this chapter frustrating as it was hard for me to pin down what David Buss’ perception of IPV was in terms of the prevalence of male and female perpetrators. For example, he writes:

“The more serious the abuse… the larger the gender disparity. Most IPV victims who end up in hospital are women. Men’s violence typically does substantially more damage. Every major city has shelters for battered women. In contrast, one of the country’s only shelters for battered men opened in Dallas in the year 2017. Women undoubtedly abuse men, but they generally inflict less damage.”

I knew I was going to write a review of this book so I had a response in my head ready to counter this claim. Dr. Buss, however, seemed to have anticipated a similar response because he suggests that many male victims of IPV are not taken as seriously as females:

“I know of one case in which a man called the police after being badly battered by his wife, his head bleeding profusely from a blow from a frying pan. Upon arrival, the police discouraged him from reporting the crime, despite his obvious injuries: “If she so much as broke a fingernail, you will likely be arrested, not her.” He declined to press charges.”

Later on in this chapter, he also writes:

“Some women do assault their intimate partners, and some researchers argue that female perpetrators are as common as male perpetrators. This research was ignored for many years by scholars partly because male-initiated IPV leads to greater physical injury, but also partly because it contradicted the narrative of “patriarchy” as the primary explanation.”

This at least shows that David Buss wants to be objective as much as he can about IPV so I commend him for that. It has been pointed out to me that since David Buss is an academic, he has to go along with feminist ideas to avoid damaging his career. Anonymous writers like myself and others do not have to worry about this so we have the freedom to express more controversial viewpoints. I still think Dr. Buss genuinely believes some of the feminist rhetoric but ultimately, only Dr. Buss knows what he really thinks.

The book’s focus on female victims is evident by the claim that there is a “strong gender asymmetry” in violence due to men’s greater physical strength, reflected in the previous quotes. This ignores, however, that women can use objects to compensate for their generally weaker physical strength as a way to attack their male partners. Psychological damage, such as feeling emasculated perhaps, is also not considered although this, admittedly, would be very hard to detect and quantify.

One motivation for harming an intimate partner may be as a means to prevent them from leaving – mate retention – and it is claimed that men lacking economic resources are more likely to use violence as a “last-ditch” attempt to retain mates. This link may also be due to the fact that lacking resources or being in financial trouble can cause frustration and distress which increases the possibility of violence.

Another motive for abuse is as a way to control the abuser’s spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend as their self-esteem will decline and they may become dependent on the abuser for their sense of self-worth. For women, in particular, physical abuse will damage their appearance so it is also a way to lower ‘mate value’. An abusive partner may also try to manipulate their other half psychologically by making them think they are losing their mind. This is commonly know as “gaslighting” which takes its name from the play and film Gaslight. Gaslighting allows the abuser to, in David Buss’ words, “zombify” the victim’s mind as they give up their mental perception to the abuser.

Later, Dr. Buss makes a bold and shocking claim about the likelihood of IPV against pregnant women:

“One of the most disturbing predictors of a man perpetrating partner violence is when his partner gets pregnant.”

Women who are abused whilst pregnant are more likely to be carrying a child of another man. A study from Nicaragua found this disturbing feature of violence against pregnant women: attacks directed at a woman’s abdomen in an attempt to abort the foetus. Studies have also found women with children from another man were, according to the book, five times more likely to end up in a women’s shelter. A study of a hundred women in a shelter found that 79% ended up going back to their violent boyfriend/husband for varying reasons. It won’t come as much surprise to find that men with borderline personality disorder (BPD), psychopathy or the other two Dark Triad traits are more likely to commit IPV.

What all of this makes clear is that IPV is more likely to occur in unstable family environments and often without the biological father around. The suggestion that pregnant women are more likely to be abused is a little broad in my view as it doesn’t take into account particular men and women in particular circumstances. The psychological traits of women who end up in violent relationships is also not explored.

After that fascinating – and often dark – exploration of the motives and features of IPV, Dr. Buss falls back into feminist territory by offering the suggestion put forward by Margo Wilson and Martin Daly for the reason for female IPV:

“The main motive for women, they argue, is self-defense or the protection of their children.”

This explanation conveniently makes female violence seem more understandable and sympathetic than male violence. Essentially, women commit IPV for selfless and compassionate reasons, whereas men commit violence for purely selfish and controlling reasons. Margo Wilson and Martin Daly have made some interesting contributions to our understanding of intimate violence, such as their idea of the ‘Cinderella effect’ for example, but this framing of “women’s violence as self-defence” is reflective of the ubiquitous narrative of female victimisation. Steve Stewart-Williams has pointed out that many evolutionary psychologists lean to the left politically which is my view means they tend to be more favourable towards women. I imagine many feminists must have breathed a sigh of relief when an explanation for female IPV like this one became popular so they could hold on to their worldview.

I’m not sure if David Buss has heard of Erin Pizzey (she’s not mentioned in the book), who founded the first modern women’s refuge in the 1970s, but she has stated that many of the women who came to her refuge to escape their male abusers were, in her words “as violent or in some cases more violent than the men they left.” Although Erin Pizzey has noted that there were women at her refuge who were innocent victims of violence, these cases were easier for her to deal with than the more troubled cases where violence went both ways and where most of the problems arise. For her trouble, she received death threats from feminist activists.

Similarly, the writer and former prison doctor Theodore Dalrymple has had direct experience dealing with abused women and, despite expressing sympathy for these women, claimed that many of them were “complicit” in some ways with the abuse they received. Towards the end of this interview, which is worth listening to in full, Dalrymple recalls asking an abused woman where she met her boyfriend and how much time had passed until she got into a relationship with him, to which she replied “down the pub” and “within half an hour.” He also points out that many people would be able to recognise the men who the abused women get involved with as potentially violent and dangerous, and the situation was absurd enough for the woman he was treating to “come in crying and go out laughing.” This doesn’t mean we should automatically condemn women with violence partners, but it does show that IPV cannot be simply presented as being predominantly powerful male perpetrators and powerless female victims.

David Buss cites the case of Francine Hughes as an example of “female intimate partner violence as self defence” as she was a victim of abuse by her husband James. In response, she set their bed on fire while he was sleeping in it and was acquitted on the grounds that she had “temporal insanity”:

“This true story was made into a movie, The Burning Bed, starring Farrah Fawcett as Francine. The movie, hailed as one of the ten best TV movies of all time, helped to draw attention to the pervasive problem of partner abuse and prompted more lenient sentences for women who killed their husbands in self-defense.”

I wonder if it has ever occurred to Dr. Buss, or anybody who read these lines approvingly, that this idea of “temporal insanity” would be a very useful way for women to kill their boyfriends/husbands and get away with it scot-free? James Hughes may well have been a nasty and violent man, but couldn’t Francine Hughes have simply left him and taken the kids? It would likely be argued that Francine Hughes would have been too afraid to leave in case he tried to get her back, but was burning him alive the only choice that she had?

Buss concludes the chapter by steering back towards a more balanced perspective:

“Perhaps some women use IPV for reasons parallel to those that motivate men – to keep a partner faithful, to punish suspicions or observations of infidelity, and to deter the partner from abandonment.”

Perhaps indeed.

Chapter 6: Stalking and conflict after a relationship has ended

Moving on from intimate partner violence, the book explores the issue of stalking which can occur following the break-up of a relationship.

David Buss points out that many of the features of stalking such as giving gifts and showing affection are normal parts of courtship but if such behaviours are not reciprocated than they can lead to trouble. As a crime, stalking is defined as a pattern of repeated conduct that provokes fear in a “reasonable person.”

The author even describes his own experiences of it, as he apparently received unwanted phone calls, cards and gifts from an unknown person at a university he worked for. Since he didn’t feel afraid or threatened, in the legal sense he would not be considered a victim of stalking.

Men are more likely to be prosecuted for stalking than women are. Dr. Buss notes that one reason for this is that women who experience repeated unwanted attention are more likely than men to feel fear over it. This difference could suggest that men are more likely to stalk but it could also be the case that male victims of stalking are simply less likely to report it than women. Since stalking requires persistence and risk-taking, it is possible that it is more of a male phenomenon than a female one.

According to Dr. Buss, exploring the possible evolutionary roots of stalking behaviour provides fresh insights into the psychology behind it. Stalking can take a psychological toll on victims as they may be subjected to threats of assault which a stalker may follow up on. As many stalkers can be ex-boyfriends or husbands, they may have expressed feelings of intense jealousy during the relationship reflecting what was discussed in Chapter 4. In extreme cases, stalking can lead to murder. An example given is the high profile case of OJ Simpson and the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown. Prior to her murder, Simpson had apparently stalked her and was intensely jealous during their relationship. As far as I understand though, OJ Simpson has never been confirmed as the culprit to her murder although his DNA was infamously found at the scene of the crime.

Experts of stalking have stated that threats can generate more distress than actual physical harm because the “looming vulnerability” that results from threats can cause great psychological disturbance. While I’ve never been stalked, I have some experience of dealing with threats and being vulnerable from when I worked in a mental health hospital and so can attest to this claim. Although the people I worked with were not extremely violent, some of them suffered from mood swings and could suddenly become aggressive towards others without any provocation. The harm I received was fairly minor but what was worse was not knowing when or how bad the aggression was going to be so beforehand I was often felt very tense and nervous. Therefore, I can understand in some way how victims of stalking may feel. Acts of violence from stalkers are also more likely than threats to generate a response from law enforcement which may explain why the latter causes more psychological stress.

As well as violence, stalkers may try to harm their victim’s reputation or target their friends, family members and pets. In some cases, victims of stalking may relocate or avoid socialising to deal with a stalker. I found a lot of this chapter very interesting as it explores the common psychological features of people who may engage in stalking. There are parallels with those who may commit IPV, such as having a psychological disorder or being insecure about attachment:

“According to attachment theorists, those with an insecure attachment style distrust intimates, fear rejection, and show a heavy emotional dependence on a partner. They have poor social skills and become overly clingy with romantic partners. Ironically, their fear of rejection is entirely warranted.”

Since overly attached people can become overbearing, they can inflict a “heavy relationship load” on their partners which increases the chances of the relationship ending. This rejection will obviously make the overly attached person distressed and potentially unstable. One study found that people who scored high on being insecure about attachments had a stronger proclivity to stalk. Another study showed that convicted stalkers tended to be high on the autism spectrum disorder scale which suggests that they are often poor at reading or understanding the intentions or motivations of the object of their attention. Some stalkers also have borderline or narcissistic personality disorder. These findings may explain why a lot of stalkers do not consider their behaviour to be harassing or intrusive. They believe they are just expressing interest in those they stalk and may misinterpret rejection as a test of their commitment. Other stalkers, however, may target people as a form of revenge or before attacking them – sexual predators for example.

The motives of stalkers are commonly linked to mating psychology and the most frequent of this type is the “rejected stalker”: someone who stalks their ex after their relationship has ended. Stalking behaviour might begin just before a break-up as a form of mate guarding and retention as explored in the fourth chapter. In one study, 32 percent of stalking cases were motivated by jealousy and distrust of a partner. Rejected stalkers are thought to be primarily motivated by rage and humiliation which is a way of recalibrating WTR (as explained in Chapter 4) and dealing with a decline in mate value which may affect their reputation. The rage the rejected stalker feels towards their ex may lead to the ex restarting the relationship although this is very rare.

Female victims of stalking are more likely to be young and of reproductive age and, like with IPV, more likely to be victimised by men older than them. One reason for this may be that such women are less aware of their desirability and also less experienced in relationships which may mean they form relationships with men lower in mate value than them. The men in these situations may believe that their chances of forming a new relationship are lower than their current girlfriend/wife’s:

“the stalker, being lower in mate value than his expartner, realistically perceives that it will be difficult or impossible to replace her with a mate of comparable value. “Since she loved me once,” he thinks, “perhaps I can win her back.””

Victims might receive threats of violence such as “if I can’t have you, no one can.” In addition to violence, some stalkers might also attempt suicide and self-harm to keep their partner in their life. Less extreme actions can cause distress to targets of stalking even though they appear innocuous to others, such as a stalker watching their ex from afar. All these behaviours can result in exes not forming new relationships for fear of harm coming to their new partner.

David Buss acknowledges that it would seem illogical to suggest that stalking behaviour is an evolutionary adaptation since it often has the opposite effect to what stalkers desire. However, it could succeed over countless instances across time and there are situations where it has succeeded, if only temporarily. Dr. Buss studied over two thousand stalking victims and found that 30 percent of female victims met stalkers on their request and 6 percent even had sex with them! Stalking can be successful from the stalker’s perspective as victims may devote a lot of time and energy dealing with the ramifications of such behaviour preventing them from living their life as normal. On a psychological level, stalkers “hijack…victim’s psychological space” so they can’t think about anything else. Victims engaging with stalkers in an attempt to stop their harassment can lead to stalkers controlling their victims by “rewarding” them by stopping and then stalking again to punish them.

Another form of stalking or revenge after a break-up has emerged with modern technology: revenge porn. This is where photos or videos of an ex that are erotic or pornographic can be distributed online to embarrass and provoke an ex for ending the relationship. Revenge porn can also lead to complete strangers stalking the victim. One motivation for revenge porn may be to coerce exes into resuming a relationship with the stalker or just have sex with them. Revenge porn can be particularly harmful to women as it affects their “sexual reputation” which men care more about than women for reasons already mentioned in this review.

David Buss and his colleague Joshua Duntley have developed a website to help victims of stalking which can be viewed here. He also offers tips to help victims of stalking at the end of this chapter. These include seeking support from friends and family, stopping all contact with stalkers since they find this rewarding, and documenting the stalker’s actions to increase the chance of prosecution.

Part 3 will conclude this review and deal with the often controversial subject of sexual coercion which covers sexual harassment and rape.

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