Misogyny Is Not Human Nature

Online spaces shouldn’t be dominated by bitter baboons.

Illustration by Nathaniel Gold

Light from the monitors cast lurid shadows upon their pallid, staring faces as their right hands pumped rhythmically up and down over the F5 key to reload their screens. “I can’t refresh fast enough,” one commenter typed ecstatically, while another announced, “This is the best night of my life!” Many of the men in this online forum attempted to outdo one another by bragging about how many times they had “fapped” that night—a euphemism for masturbation. They went to great lengths to assert their masculinity by insisting how often they had jerked off in front of a screen being watched by other men. Like baboons sitting with their legs spread wide so that passing males could witness their small red phalluses, there was a mixture of sex and status involved in this public display.

There was also a darkly sinister side to this hedonistic fervor. While some reveled in a shared orgasmic intensity, others tried to be as descriptively misogynistic as possible, to the delight of lurking males. The more dehumanizing and demeaning the commentary about women, the more popular it would be, as demonstrated through the upvote feature on the website. The online gathering was called “The Fappening” by users on the digital bulletin boards Reddit and 4chan. But the event was not really about the hacked celebrity photographs of Jennifer Lawrence, Rihanna, Kate Upton, and many others that became the focus of mainstream discussion. Ultimately, this was a virtual sex crime in which men sought to outdo one another and gain popularity for themselves through the objectification of women’s bodies. It was the same performance of gender and power they had learned from the wider culture.

It has been widely discussed in recent weeks that the Internet is not a safe place for women. More A-list celebrities are having their privacy violated by hackers and users on 4chan have targeted Emma Watson to shame her for speaking out in favor of feminism at the United Nations. (The latter was apparently a hoax, but many 4chan users took it seriously and delighted in attacking the actress for being an outspoken woman.) At the same time, feminist gamers have been experiencing death threats from men who oppose their critiques of video game sexism. In the latter case, known as GamerGate, video game developer Zoe Quinn and feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian experienced an onslaught of virtual attacks and were forced to go into hiding after their addresses, phone numbers, and other personal details were revealed—or doxed—by online hackers. As in the case of the leaked photographs, young men gained status among their peers by using the most violent, sexually explicit, and demeaning language possible to abuse these women.

“There is no question that these are vile, exploitative, misogynistic behaviors that reduce women to fetishized, digitized objects,” said Whitney Phillips, lecturer in communications at Humboldt State University. Her forthcoming book from MIT Press, This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, investigates the culture of power and cyberbullying among people who have come to be known as trolls, Internet users who intentionally provoke or even assault others online. This is a culture that follows what is called “the logic of lulz,” a digital remixing of schadenfreude in which the misfortune of others is publicly exploited for maximum amusement and personal prestige. In this way, lulz (the phonetic plural form of LOL, or laugh out loud) are a kind of cultural currency that these trolls use as their stock in trade. Their targets are women, people of color, so-called white knights who criticize their behavior, and virtually anyone that does not belong to the trolls’ cultural in-group.

Phillips argues that the misogyny and belligerent attacks merely represent an exaggeration of what already exists within mainstream culture. We need only look to the thriving industry of celebrity paparazzi that profit in sideboob shots or the explicitly sexist song “We Saw Your Boobs” performed by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane at the 2013 Oscars to witness the cultural norms that trolls accept as commonplace. It should be no surprise therefore that analysts in the National Security Agency were engaging in exactly the same behavior as hackers online, intercepting naked photographs through illegal surveillance and then sharing the files among themselves. Reddit and 4chan merely represent a distillation of the culture of patriarchy we see around us.

In discussion threads among men on Reddit devoted to The Fappening, a common justification is that there is “something inherent about human nature that makes this kind of thing inevitable,” as one user named TheHunter234 wrote. Likewise, according to colourofawesome, “It seems everyone is so quick to attribute the interest to some misogynistic perversion, but it’s really just human nature.” This attitude was even used to explain the outrage over the U.S. government’s invasion of privacy. “One of the big reasons people are so against NSA spying is because they know this human nature,” wrote dksfpensm, “and know very well the inevitable damage that will come of giving many people unlimited access to large amounts of everyone’s private data.”

If this is the case than are men off the hook? If natural selection has caused male behavior to be fixed, then men would be denying their evolutionary programming if they acted differently. This would also mean there is no way to change it without dismantling the very Internet freedoms these men hold dear.

A troop of baboons in Kenya would disagree with this sentiment. Baboons live in a highly patriarchal society in which high-ranking males dominate those males who are subordinate to them. Of all primates, baboons are notorious for the aggressive behavior that males display toward females, and they have been known to viciously attack any who reject their sexual advances. Since male baboons are about twice the size of females and have 2-inch-long canines that they use to eviscerate their opponents, they would seem to justify the assumption that “might is right” in the natural world. But nature is not monolithic. Within every population, whether we are looking at baboons or humans, there is a range of variation in traits. Some individuals are highly aggressive and seek dominance, whereas others are more content to socialize with their peers. These traits become enhanced or reduced based on the environment in which the population lives.

In the early 1980s, a group of olive baboons known as “Forest Troop” underwent a unique natural experiment. The territory of their neighbors, “Garbage Dump Troop,” overlapped with that of a tourist lodge. The Garbage Dump Troop had access to the leftover meat that had been discarded into the lodge’s dump. The most aggressive males from Forest Troop began invading their neighbors’ territory to access the meat for themselves. Soon afterward, tuberculosis ravaged the baboons from both troops who had been feeding at the garbage dump. Because it was only the most aggressive males of Forest Troop that died out, the results were twofold: Less aggressive males were more common in the population, and the female-to-male ratio had now doubled.

The social consequences were startling. According to Stanford University primatologist Robert Sapolsky, who documented the event and followed the troop for the next 20 years, the brutal hierarchy that was common among male baboons disappeared, and the amount of affiliative behaviors—such as males and females grooming one another—increased markedly. What was most surprising was what followed over the intervening years. Males always migrate to other troops at puberty, and new immigrant males to the Forest Troop adopted the local culture that they encountered. Even though none of the original population is alive today, this highly cooperative baboon society remains intact. As Sapolsky wrote in Foreign Affairs, “Forest Troop’s low aggression/high affiliation society constitutes nothing less than a multigenerational benign culture.”

Something similar has been found in human societies today. According to a study published this year in the journal Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences by Daniel Kruger, Maryanne Fisher, and Paula Wright, there are dramatic differences between societies based on the relative culture of patriarchy. The authors examined demographic data from the World Health Organization, United Nations, CIA World Factbook, and Encyclopedia of World Cultures and found a strong association between female empowerment and the level of early mortality among both women and men. In highly patriarchal societies, men control resources and female sexuality. The outcome of this is that there are increased levels of competition between males that result in higher rates of early death. But when female empowerment is increased, this highly unequal environment is relaxed and aggression against others is reduced. Ultimately, patriarchy hurts men as well as women. But does this also extend to online environments?

These harmful effects of patriarchy were experienced directly by one of the men thought responsible for the leaking of celebrity photos in the first place. Bryan Hamade, a 26-year-old systems administrator in Georgia, got doxed by hackers after he accidentally left identifying information in a screenshot he posted of celebrity images on his computer while trying to make money selling them on Reddit and 4chan. After he was identified, hackers harassed him mercilessly both for lulz and to try and acquire the naked photos they assumed he had. On a secure hacker chat forum devoted to The Fappening, Hamade debased himself in the best way he knew how. Amid ongoing cyberattacks, he repeatedly referred to himself as “a faggot,” the lowest of the low for males in a patriarchal society, and begged for the harassment to end.

“I apologize for my indiscretions,” Hamade wrote, “Please let everyone else know I am just a fag and to please let us be. Our lives are shitty enough as is.”

Others in the forum refused to stop until he gave up information about the original leaker so they could acquire photos for themselves. It was only then that the headline “OP [Original Poster] IS A FAGGOT” was added so that all new entrants to the forum would see it. In a classic display of primate patriarchal dominance, these males “mounted” a subordinate member of their group in a performance of their own power. But such a display is only as natural as the environment that promotes it.

“Cultures of domination attack self-esteem, replacing it with a notion that we derive our sense of being from dominion over another,” wrote feminist theorist Bell Hooks (who stylizes her name as bell hooks) in her book Feminism Is for Everybody. “Patriarchal masculinity teaches men that their sense of self and identity, their reason for being, resides in their capacity to dominate others.” According to Hooks, the only solution is for men to recognize how the system of patriarchy they have brought into being is used to keep them subordinate to other men in the same way they desire to subordinate women.

Perhaps there is a solution to the problem of online misogyny that does not require invasive government surveillance or restrictive practices like those taken by authoritarian countries. If female empowerment is ultimately better for everybody, then male Internet users would be helping themselves by opposing misogyny and harassment in online forums. A supportive environment would go hand-in-hand with increasing the number of women in those spaces currently dominated by bitter baboons. Patriarchy gains support from the passive acceptance of men who are actively hurt by its influence. If baboon societies are able to change the interaction between males and females based on the influence of culture, surely we can too.