Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Evolution and masochism

I just finished reading a really good sci-fi novel called the Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect. The behavior of the lead protagonist, Caroline, got me thinking of the evolutionary roots of masochism. Caroline is an extreme masochist and enjoys being tortured. It got me thinking of a passage that always stuck with me after many years from the great 20th century feminist work The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvior. de Beauvior was quoting (approvingly it appears) the claims of a famous German psychoanalyst (Karen Horney) who said something like "All women are masochists". Now this seems way overstated.

But even if it is somewhat true that there are many female masochists, from an evolutionary perspective, why is that? What possible evolutionary purpose does it serve? If some psychologists are correct, certain fantasies that are extremely masochistic (even life endangering) seem to be common in women so de Beauvior and Horney seems to be on to something.

It seems to me that masochists would be more likely to be culled out of the population, that such a trait is detrimental to fitness in the genetic sense. Thus those who are genetically disposed to it should be a very small minority. de Beauvior and Horney suggest a cultural explanation for that prevalence. But mightn't there be an evolutionary answer (as well)? I am divided between the cultural and the genetic dispositional perspectives. Maybe it is a combination of both factors interacting in complex ways (like many complex traits).

What I'm about to say may be extremely unPC but it seems that one possible reason that may explain the prevalence of female masochism is that it does confer an advantage. It may be that masochistic women are more desirable to men, that more dominant women are less so and thus the masochist traits are passed down more often than otherwise. Maybe even women who resist rape are more likely to be killed by their attackers (especially from foreign barbarian hordes which I'd imagine was once quite a common threat) than those who do not resist (and presumably a masochistic disposition may go some ways to make this acquiescence more likely). Non resisters are then more likely to be then taken into the group of the invaders or attackers as a "war bride" or something like it and thus bodily survive albeit psychically and dignity wise shattered. Mightn't masochism make even psychological recovering from these kinds of incidents more likely?

But what about male masochists? After all, the term is named after a man (Sacher-Masoch). Are male masochists as common as females? If males are far less likely to be masochists then the evolutionary psychological answer I gave may have some support because it does seem that it would be detrimental for males to be masochists. After all the hypothesis is basically a "rape theory" of masochism. Of course even if it is the case that men are far less likely to have that disposition it may be as de Beauvior suggests, because of cultural factors alone which tends to inculcate masochistic tendencies through the conditioned association of certain images and narratives to normal sexual sensibilities. There may not be any sex-selective differences on this account.

I'm usually not partial to evolutionary psychology because of its common, ad hoc, just-so stories, and I realize that I am giving an evopsy answer (and like many evopsy claims, very unPC!). But I make no claims to giving a scientific answer, just some crazy speculation.