In putting the alleged Boston bomber on its cover, a US magazine draws a disturbing parallel between the young man and the sexually attractive "bad boys" of rock 'n' roll, writes Rob Brooks.
Don't sleep with mean people. That’s the message uber-cerebral Canadian rapper Baba Brinkman wants to spread. He’s crowdfunding a music video and short documentary in support of what he calls the new Golden Rule of Sex.
Plenty, if you ask me. And his ability to condense complex theories and evidence into pithy, whip-smart performances win him admiration from scientists and science-lovers wherever he takes his shows. Those shows have thrived off-Broadway and at Edinburgh fringe. And he incorporates peer review by scientists*.
The hippies taught us that “Bombing for Peace is Like Fucking for Virginity”, but the generation of free love never really answered to my satisfaction whether it is possible to fuck for peace. Can we transform a society by some form of erotic collective action? And isn’t it worth a try anyway?
Brinkman’s art provides a never-ending supply of teachable moments. His broader point is that every time a still-fertile heterosexual chooses a mate, every time one decides whether to get naked with somebody, they contribute to the process of sexual selection. Prefer people who can express themselves coherently and in full sentences? You’re selecting for smarts. And your kids may have a chance of passing the dreaded Selective High Schools test. Geoffrey Miller made a compelling case in The Mating Mind that our prodigious human intelligence arose as a result of sexual selection operating this way over many millennia.
There’s a question of timescale here. Obviously no deliberate campaign, crowdfunded or not, is going to effect mass changes in gene frequencies anytime soon. Concerted campaigns of directed sexual activity are more likely to work by shifting incentives for good behaviour: “Behave badly and you aren’t getting any.”
Brinkman himself draws inspiration from the efforts of Lysistrata and her band of war-weary Athenian women in Aristophanes' 411 BC play. By withholding sex from all Athenian men, they effected the end of the Peloponnesian War. Yet for most of us, collectively or individually training our mates, like Sea World dolphins, just isn’t practical.
Come over to the Dark Triad
In general, people don’t set out to mate with mean people. But, unfortunately, some of the meaner traits in the human repertoire seem to elevate mating success. Work by Peter K. Jonason (now at the University of Western Sydney), Norman P. Li and collaborators reveals that people expressing the “Dark Triad” traits – narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy – are more successful at initiating new sexual relationships, especially when poaching or being poached by somebody in an existing relationship. When it comes to long-term relationships, those in whom the Dark Triad is strong don’t fare so well.
It might seem a little obvious; psychopaths, narcissists and Machiavellian types, uninhibited by the pain and inconvenience they might cause others, get more matings but can’t sustain exclusive monogamy as well as other people. But the key here is that any genes underpinning Dark Triad traits get passed on whenever one of those short-term matings succeeds. And without the encumbrance of empathy or a commitment to monogamy, that can mean a lot of successful matings – especially for men.
So don’t sleep with narcissists, manipulators or psychopaths. Great advice we wish our mother had given us when we were young. Actually, she probably did when she warned us against that bad girl or boy. And yet there is no denying the lust-inducing appeal of the right level of badness.
Bombing for virginity
2013’s most bewildering bad boy is accused of genuine, world-shaking badness. He is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused of carrying out April’s devastating bombing of the Boston marathon with the help of his now-dead brother. And he controversially graces the cover of August 3’s issue of Rolling Stone.
You won’t count me among those boycotting the issue. In fact I’ve already been to the newsagent, only to find it hasn’t reached our shores yet. And in the 60 seconds I was in the shop, another person asked for it. I’m predicting this issue will sell more copies than any other since the start of the GFC.
Andy Ruddock has already done a marvellous job dissecting the cover and discerning why Rolling Stone did what they did. I look forward to reading the story because home-grown fundamentalist terrorism is too important an issue to be filed under “evil” and hysterically dismissed in the way that Fox News and its charge-of-the-apoplectic clones would like.
Both fundamentalism and the actions that a small number of fundamentalists take need a more complete understanding. Which is why I’m with the Sydney Morning Herald’s Mark Joseph Stern who reckons “Rolling Stone’s cover of suspected Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is brilliant – deal with it”. Rolling Stone has a long history of serious and edgy journalism, including formative work by Hunter S. Thompson, P.J. O'Rourke and Tom Wolfe. What contemporary subject could be more ripe for genuine journalistic exposition than the making of good-boy-turned-bomber Tsarnaev?
In putting The Bomber on its cover, Rolling Stone draws a disturbing yet obvious parallel between Tsarnaev and rock ‘n’ roll’s bad boys. The connection is obvious because of the legion of followers devoted to Dzhokhar and convinced of his innocence. Like Jim Morrison in 1969, they reckon he’s persecuted and misunderstood. They can be found with the #FreeJahar hashtag on Twitter and in manifold dark corners of the internet. Word from that parallel universe has it that the girls are cranky because the picture wasn’t “dreamy enough”.
Linda Peach wrote an intriguing introduction to the mostly young, mostly female FreeJahar crowd a few weeks ago. I was not convinced by her favoured explanation which relied on social role theory and ambivalent sexism theory via a weak Prince Charming trope. But that is an argument for another day. As she well explains, the denialist netherworld of FreeJahar throbs with teenage female lust.
My point is that the bad boy mystique of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Keith Richards imbued them with sexual magnetism of the most potent kind. This was a dark force, domesticated and sometimes manufactured by later rockers and their publicists. But it made the stars, Rolling Stone and even rock itself what it is.
The crimes that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been accused of are so much less commonplace and more dramatic than the darkness at the heart of rock-god sexual magnetism. And I put it that way neither to diminish the far-reaching heinousness of what he and his brother are alleged to have done nor to trivialise the misogyny and abuse that accompanied so much of sex, drugs and rock. But I’m willing to bet that Tsarnaev’s sexual magnetism is not an entirely different species from 1963’s hysteria for the ‘Stones.
If reproductive success could be allocated by virtue by following Baba’s Golden Rule of sex, I’m pretty sure humans would domesticate quite nicely in a few hundred years. And it’s certainly worth a try. But the FreeJahar groundswell convinces me that the odds stack mightily against any chance of long-term success.
* Disclosure: Baba provided a cover blurb for my book, Sex, Genes & Rock ‘n’ Roll, and, in turn, based some of his show Ingenious Nature on elements of the book. I was delighted to peer-review the full script for the show. I only wish I had been able to see it in New York.
Professor Rob Brooks is director of the Evolution and Ecology Research Centre at UNSW.