Don Juan, Porn & the Male Mating Strategy

Conflict between the sexes is inevitable. In the sexual arena, the typical male mating strategy clashes with women’s. Generally, men tend toward low-investment, high-frequency mating opportunities; a reflection of their profuse sex cells. Women, however, tend to be far more discriminating; which is precisely what you would expect given their disproportionate contribution to the reproductive process. Most of us acknowledge these differences, but still find it difficult to see things from the competing perspective. Rather than empathising, we create caricatures of the opposite sex — masking the extent to which we are all just puppets of our reproductive processes. In one of my favourite Freud quips, he writes that, ‘[Man] supposes sexuality to be one of his own designs — whereas on an alternative view he appears as a mere appendage of his [sex cells]’. Is that what we are? A 'mere appendage’?

The typical male mating strategy is particularly maligned. It is not uncommon to hear men compared to dogs, or to say that their brains are located somewhere in their crotch. In his book, The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, the evolutionary psychologist, David M. Buss, argues that men’s inclination to ‘count their “conquests” and to “put notches on their belt,”’ is incorrectly attributed to ‘male immaturity or masculine insecurity’. In actuality, it ‘reflects an adaptation to motivate brief sexual encounters’. This satyriasis (excessive sexual desire in a man) may interfere with many women’s long-term goals but it is arguably in the best interest of the species. According to Camille Paglia:

It is in nature’s best interests to goad dominant males into indiscriminate spreading of their seed. But nature also profits from female purity. Even in the liberated or lesbian woman there is some biologic restraint whispering: keep the birth canal clean. In judiciously withholding herself, woman protects an invisible fetus. […] Women hold themselves in reserve because the female body is a reservoir, a virgin patch of still, pooled water where the fetus comes to term. Male chase and female flight are not just a social game. The double standard may be one of nature’s organic laws

The problem with this sort of distinction is that if men are indiscriminately spreading their seed, and women are judiciously withholding themselves, then who exactly are all of these men having sex with? Clearly, some women must be foregoing the long-term approach. Or perhaps, they are being deceived by an opportunistic mate that promises a long-term commitment, but flees as soon as they have satisfied their desire.

Buss catalogues these sorts of deceptive mating tactics and concludes that, ‘[h]umans today are experiencing one more cycle in the endless spiral of an evolutionary arms race between deception by one gender and detection by the other. As the deceptive tactics get more subtle, the ability to detect deception becomes more sensitive’. Several thinkers have argued that this ‘evolutionary arms race’ extends beyond the sexual arena, kindling the pursuit of knowledge. ‘To know’, after all, has carnal connotations. The pursuit of knowledge is, in a sense, an aping of male satyriasis. This is why Camille Paglia refers to Don Juan (and Faust) as the ‘most characteristic myths of the postclassical west’:

Our cardinal myths are Faust, who locks himself in his study to read books and crack the code of nature, and Don Juan, who makes a war of pleasure and counts his conquests by Apollonian number. Both are cellular egos, seducers and criminal knowers, in whom sex, thought, and aggression are fused

Don Juan is the emblem of the male mating strategy; ‘[he] exists in the popular imagination as the legendary seducer of women, charismatic rogue, trickster and transgressor of sacred boundaries. A potent icon of uncontained male sexual energy’ (Wright). Two themes define the Don Juan myth: the pursuit of novelty and the erotics of deceit. Don Juan’s desire is unmatched, but so too is his ‘imperviousness to the impact of his actions on other people’ (Watt). He breaks hearts, marriages, social norms — all in his insatiable pursuit of pleasure.

Don Juan DeMarco (1995)

As Buss points out, many women are discomforted by the ‘ease with which men are sometimes willing to jump into bed with near-strangers’. Interstingly, women’s sexual fantasies are far more likely to contain familiar partners. They may, as a result, underestimate men’s attraction to novelty; a phenomenon encapsulated in the ‘Coolidge effect’ and the anecdote from which it originated:

[The Coolidge effect is] a graphic example of how unrelentingly sexual novelty can drive behaviour. The effect shows up in mammals ranging from rams to rats, and here’s how it works: Drop a male rat into a cage with a receptive female rat. First, you see a frenzy of copulation. Then, progressively, the male tires of that particular female. Even if she wants more, he has had enough. However, replace the original female with a fresh one, and the male immediately revives and gallantly struggles to fertilize her. You can repeat this process with fresh females until he is completely wiped out […] The Coolidge effect itself gets its name from US President Calvin Coolidge. He and his wife were once touring a farm. While the president was elsewhere, the farmer proudly showed Mrs. Coolidge a rooster that could copulate with hens all day long, day after day. Mrs. Coolidge suggested that the farmer tell that to Mr. Coolidge, which he did. The president thought for a moment and then enquired, ‘With the same hen?’ ‘No, sir,’ replied the farmer. ‘Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge,’ retorted the president (Wilson)

Dissatisfaction is not a malfunction of male desire, it is built-in. It goads men into pursuing multiple partners, increasing the likelihood that their genes will be passed on. According to Camille Paglia, this recurring dissatisfaction renders men ‘sexual exiles’: ‘They wander the earth seeking satisfaction, craving and despising, never content. There is nothing in that anguished motion for women to envy’. Men are doomed to the ‘repetition-compulsion’ described by Freud. But there also appears to be a correspondence between the sexual pursuit of novelty and the frontiers of thought: ‘Male sex is quest romance, exploration and speculation. Promiscuity in men may cheapen love but sharpen thought’. This ties in with Paglia’s controversial notion that ‘[c]onceptualization and sexual mania may issue from the same part of the male brain’; the idea being that, in the minds of men, women are a mystery (think of Nietzsche’s preface to Beyond Good and Evil) and the unveiling of this mystery corresponds with our attempt to unveil the mysteries of the universe:

The feminine is that-which-is-sought; it recedes beyond our grasp. […] The feminine is the ever-elusive, a silver shimmer on the horizon. We follow this image with longing eyes: maybe this one, maybe this time. The pursuit of sex may conceal a dream of being freed from sex. Sex, knowledge, and power are deeply tangled; we cannot get one without the others

In Byron’s Don Juan, the hero contemplates the object of his desire until he is tormented with want. To alleviate his longing, he contemplates everything else, inadvertently turning into a metaphysician:

He thought about himself, and the whole earth

Of man the wonderful, and of the stars,

And how the deuce they ever could have birth;

And then he thought of earthquakes, and of wars,

How many miles the moon might have in girth,

Of air-balloons, and of the many bars

To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies; —

And then he thought of Donna Julia’s eyes

‘George Gordon Byron’ by Richard Westall (1813)

It is in desire’s interim that thought and awareness expands. Bruno Snell calls this the ‘discovery of the mind’ and attributes it to blocked eros. As Anne Carson recounts: ‘The self forms at the edge of desire, and a science of self arises in the effort to leave that self behind’.

Returning to the erotics of deceit, Don Juanian seduction is not entirely carnal, it is, rather, an intellectual pursuit. As Sarah Wright writes in Tales of Seduction, ‘[t]he scandal of Don Juan, his heresy, lies in the fact that his discourse of seduction is based on the repetition of promises he continually violates’. In the first written version of the Don Juan story, he is referred to as ‘El burlador de Sevilla’, which as Ian Watt points out, translates to “trickster”, “jester” or “playboy”:

The word “trickster,” however, is closest to the Spanish word’s meaning, the essence of which lies in the pleasure of “tricking” people. Don Juan has a deep amoral delight in getting his way by whatever method he can, and then becoming famous for the trick itself: he wants to have “burla de fama” We see this in his pride when Catalinon says that “Towns should be warned: ‘Here comes the plague / Of women in a single man / Who is their cheater and Betrayer, / The greatest trickster in all Spain’”

Don Juan, like Odysseus before him, is a prototypical trickster: ‘lying is nothing to him; he wants what he wants, and as long as he gets it he sees no point in quarreling with the world and its laws’. In some versions, Don Juan deliberately misleads women into believing his declarations of devotion; in others, he is self-deluded despite his familiar pattern of loving and leaving.

In his book A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Ogi Ogas points out a ‘fascinating parallel between what may be the greatest sexual self-delusion in men, and the greatest sexual self-delusion in women’: ‘Men are quite prone to believing they are inducing feelings of erotic ecstasy in their partner through their own sexual prowess. Women, on the other hand, are more easily manipulated by expressions of love’. With male self-delusion, we again find this confluence of sexual fantasy and intellectual progress. As Charles Donelan points out in his book Romanticism and Male Fantasy in Byron’s Don Juan, men derive strength from seeing themselves reflected in women. If they do not match up a woman’s expectations, or if they fail to convince a woman of their value, they are forced to improve or risk being weeded out through sexual selection. Drawing on Virginia Woolf’s comments on the ‘ironic relationship between male fantasy and Progress’, Donelan identifies ‘three separate, but analogous fantasies of self-fashioning through relationship’. First and foremost is the ‘fantasy of a man transfigured by a woman’s unqualified adoration — the exploitation of woman as aggrandizing reflection identified by Virginia Woolf’.

The male mating strategy may be a driving force in the pursuit of knowledge, but it also backfires in major ways. The obvious drawback is the deleterious effect of absentee fathers. This goes without saying. The more insidious drawback is the exploitation of this force in the inutile pursuit of pornographic novelty (the topic of Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s modern Don Juan remake Don Jon (2013)).

Male sexual energy, which feeds off of visual cues, is being siphoned off into a virtual realm of incomparable novelty:

In the male fantasy realm of pornotopia, sex is sheer lust and physical gratification, devoid of courtship, commitment, durable relationships, or mating effort. Porn videos contain minimal plot development, focusing instead on the sex acts themselves and emphasizing the display of female bodies, especially close-ups of faces, breasts, and genitals (Symons & Salmon)

Don Jon (2013)

Sublimation, which is the transformation of sexual impulses into creative energy, is lost in this malaise-inducing simulation:

With multiple tabs open, and clicking for hours, you can ‘experience’ more novel sex partners every ten minutes than your hunter- gatherer ancestors experienced in a lifetime [and since] orgasm is our most powerful natural reinforcer, and reproduction our genes’ top job, masturbating to streaming porn videos has no neurological equal (Wilson)

The result: an underacknowledged epidemic of addiction which contributes to increasing instances of depression, social anxiety, and ED. I would not be surprised if it is not also a major contributing factor in the global fertility crisis.

The proliferation of men’s groups that are choosing to ‘opt out’ is another clear indicator that the processes that have brought us to this point are spiraling out of control. Pornography has hijacked men’s sexual reward system and cannot easily be reclaimed. As Paglia points out, pornography is like Pandora’s Box, ‘[it] cannot be banned, only driven underground, where its illicit charge will be enhanced’.

These days it seems like there is great resistance to any sort of biological determinism. The fear is that such thinking strips us of responsibility. I disagree. It is only when we are aware of these unconscious forces that we can begin to act with autonomy. Otherwise, it is all too easy to fall into the predetermined patterns we seek to avoid. As Klaus Theweleit writes in his ‘Closing Remarks’ on the history of ‘male-female relations’:

until we have succeeded in reconstructing the development of our bodies in history, we will remain strangers to ourselves — confined to a haunted, enchanted, subjugated nature, unable to experience other bodies as equals, incapable of the physical (more than simply sexual) experience of communism

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