Folk ethology: wolves

Recently come past me, two metaphorical uses of wolf (and wolf-related vocabulary) that get their punch from common lore about wolves and their behavior: one from a particular sociocultural context in which men have sex with other men; one from a different particular sociocultural context in which men relate socially to women and other men. The first context is from working-class Harlem of the 1920s; the second from recent alpha male self-help / self-improvement literature aimed at striving American middle-class, largely professional, men.

The first case, which involves labels for particular categories of male-male sexuality, will require some care, since the labels are so bound to specific contexts and are mostly drawn from ordinary language, but used in specialized ways. You might appreciate this last point better when I tell you that a rough synonym for the 20s Harlem male-male label wolf was man — which obviously must in this context be understood as metaphorical (some males in this context were men; other males were either punks or fairies); more on these label vs. category complexities below.

Claude McKay’s wolves. From A.B. Crista Schwarz’s Gay Voices of the Harlem Renaissance (2003) on Claude McCay, especially his 1928 novel Home to Harlem: p. 107:

McKay portrays Billy as a “wolf” who displays a strong and aggressive masculinity and “eats his own kind” — his sexual relations are exclusively with [males].

Schwarz quotes historian George Chauncey in his Gay New York (1994), about 1920s gay New York, here talking about working-class culture:

Wolves [also known simply as men] generally did not seek sexual encounters with other ‘men,’ in which they might have been forced into sexual roles that would have compromised their own masculine identification [that is to say, wolves took only the insertive role in male-male sex], but only with punks or fairies, males ascribed lower status because of their youth or effeminacy.

Covers for Home to Harlem, first (#1) from a 2007 scholarly re-issue in the New England Library of Black Literature, then (#2) from a sensational Avon paperback from 1951 (designed to titillate white readers):

The lexical background for the 20s Harlem use of the noun wolf, from NOAD:

2 [a] used figuratively to refer to a rapacious, ferocious, or voracious person or thing: he calls the media ravening wolves. [b] informal a man who habitually seduces women: he’s the archetypal wolf in Armani threads.

And the folklore background, from Wikipedia:

The wolf is a common motif in the foundational mythologies and cosmologies of peoples throughout Eurasia and North America (corresponding to the historical extent of the habitat of the gray wolf). The obvious attribute of the wolf is its nature of a predator, and correspondingly it is strongly associated with danger and destruction, making it the symbol of the warrior on one hand, and that of the devil on the other. The modern trope of the Big Bad Wolf is a development of this.

… The popular image of the wolf is significantly influenced by the Big Bad Wolf stereotype from Aesop’s Fables and Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The Christian symbolism where the wolf represents the devil, or evil, being after the “sheep” who are the living faithful, is found frequently in western literature.

In the folk view, wolves are dangerous predators — “rapacious, ferocious, or voracious”, in NOAD‘s wonderful formulation.

men and women. The role of wolf / man in McKay’s world combines aspects of top (vs. bottom (more generally insertive (vs. receptive)), dominant (vs. subordinate), butch (vs. fem), regular guy (vs. faggot), and Daddy (vs. Boy) — all of these being various kinds of  reinscription, in the world of male-male sexual (MMS) relations, of male-female sexual (MFS) relations in the heterosexual world.

In the MMS world, a man in the wolf-like role — call him a lupinus ‘a wolfish man’ — is the counterpart of the male in the MFS world (who is, by some of his behavior at least, a heterosexual, or straight, guy, though his desires and sources of pleasure might be anywhere in the sexual landscape); consequently, in the popular understanding of sexual roles, a lupinus (who is, by some of his behavior at least, a homosexual / gay / queer guy, though his desires and sources of pleasure might be anywhere in the sexual landscape) often picks up the positive valuation of the male in the MFS world and avoids much of the normative opprobrium  associated with partcipation in the MMS world.

So it’s (sort of) ok to engage in MMS relations, so long as you’re a lupinus, taking the “male” role. Certainly if you’re just occasionally using another man — who is “really” homo / gay / queer — to get off, and possibly also to provide you with the emotional pleasure of dominating another man, demonstrating your superiority over him, “winning” a sexual competition with him.

The world of lupini is, of course, as diverse as other social worlds, varying in all sorts of dimensions. There are what you might call “hard-shell” lupini, like the guy I described in the previous paragraph. Many who don’t identify as belonging to the MMS world at all, or who are occasional visitors to this world. But also men like McKay’s lupinus Billy, who fully belong to this world. And then within that group, lupini who are emotionally distant sexual partners and those who are affectionate; lupini who are inclined to forming longer-term partnerships and those who mostly trick; lupini who are sexually selfish partners and those who are attentive; and more.

The lupinus role is scarcely confined to the working class, but it’s stereotypically associated with the working class, and it’s clearly common there. Here I have a personal story (from roughly 50 years later than McKay’s, from southern England rather than Harlem, involving white men rather than black), illustrating some of the complexities in the world of working-class lupini.

From my 5/25/11 posting “Ralph and Monty”, with 2022 interpolations in square brackets, about:

a brief but intense relationship with a younger working-class English man — a hod-carrier from Nottingham — decades ago in Brighton, England [when I was in my middle 30s]; see the fictobiographical account of my time with Norman here, with comments on the attitudes of working-class men towards the upper classes and on the division of roles in sexual encounters, in a world where gay men [as a post-Stonewall man-loving man, he had no problem with using the label gay for himself as well as me, but only in gay contexts, like the gay baths where we encountered one another; his presentation of himself was as a tough working-class bloke, and he had to conceal his homosexuality utterly in Nottingham] tended to be sorted into the serviced and the servicers, or, as Norman put it, bluntly but without contempt, men and women [he was, he said, a man and I was a woman, that was just the way that things were; he didn’t have the vocabulary to express this, but he clearly understood that his usage was figurative, since he’d also confided to me that he couldn’t get it up for a woman, meaning a literal woman — he certainly could get it up for me].

Norman was 100% gay [in the sense that he was sexually attracted only to men], [immensely] affectionate, and a romantic (he fell passionately [and utterly unrealistically] in love with me), but absolutely rigid in his view of who did what to whom in sexual encounters [he was strictly insertive — found the idea of even handling a penis, much less taking one into his mouth, repugnant, and the idea of getting fucked unimaginable]. This view went along with his identification of the working class with toughness and masculinity and the upper classes with effeteness and femininity, and with his attraction to men of the upper classes because he saw them as sexually complementary to him [nevertheless, his very strong preference was for men with masculine appearance, musculature, and presentation of self — like, as he saw it, me].

I don’t think he ever appreciated that I didn’t share these views, that what made him attractive to me was his affectionateness, physical hotness, and intense sexuality, and that I put up with his attitudes (repugnant to me [though I didn’t argue with him]) in order to enjoy these qualities for a brief period (it’s a trade-off). He saw me as a Dream Lover; I saw him as a Great Trick.

Not my first experience with working-class men, nor my last one, but by far the most extended, so I can give you a report here with some texture to it.

Alpha Wolves. So far, the metaphorical wolves in this posting appear as individuals. They are, as the idiom goes, lone wolves. From NOAD on the nominal idiom lone wolf:

[a] a very independent or solitary person: he’s a lone wolf; that’s what made him a successful foreign correspondent. …

This is not the typical state of wolves, which are pack animals. From NOAD on (the relevant sense of) the noun pack:

2 [a] a group of wild animals, [especially canids,] especially wolves, living and hunting together: a pack of wolves will encircle an ailing prey. …

About wolf packs there’s a considerable ethological literature, plus an equally considerable fund of folk-ethological story-telling, the key point of which is the structure of the pack, centered on a dominant male. Again a NOAD entry, now on the compound noun alpha male:

[a] the dominant male animal in a particular group: two of them trotted over to greet the alpha male, a black wolf with a graying muzzle. [b] a man tending to assume a dominant or domineering role in social or professional situations: two alpha males constantly competing to be the best. [the a sense going back at least to the 1930s, the b sense not prominent until the early 1990s; see OED3]

Then for wolves specifically, a list from Wikipedia, showing the extension of the alpha wolf label into popular culture

Alpha Wolf:
Alpha (ethology), about the leader of a group of animals
Alpha Wolf (band), an Australian nu metalcore band formed in 2013
Alpha Wolf (film), a 2018 horror film directed by Kevin VanHook
Alpha Wolf (pickup truck), an … American compact electric pickup truck

Meanwhile, the alpha male notion in sense b above has worked its way into the world of pop psychology, leading to things like this book:

(#3) You may see a loose conceptual association between the lupinus role above and the Alpha Male role here

I’ll get to Alpha Male literature in a moment. But first, since the resources of OED3 are not generally available to my readers: by way of elaborating NOAD‘s brief entry, and for the record, the next section has what I believe to be all the relevant material from OED3. Many readers will want to jump on to the section after this.

What OED3 says. First, OED3 (Sept. 2012) on the noun alpha male, in the entry for the noun and adj. alpha:

originally and chiefly Zoology a male individual that is dominant among others of its own sex, esp. in a mixed group of social animals; (in extended use, sometimes with humorous or depreciative connotations) a man tending to assume a dominant or domineering role in social or professional situations, or thought to possess the qualities and confidence for leadership. [with the full set of cites:]
– 1938 J. Uhrich in Jrnl. Compar. Psychol. 25 386 The despot may be regarded as the primary dominant, or alpha male, and the male subordinate to him but dominant over others as secondary dominant, or beta male.
– 1954 Science 5 June 1179 Such an animal is definitely an alpha male in the dominance hierarchy.
– 1977 S. Marshak & M. Culbreath Price of Phoenix i. 8   He’s — an alpha male. You know the idea of ranking the dominant males in a primate group alpha, beta, gamma.
– 1991 Discover Dec. 24/3 Goblin was .. a sort of Donald Trump of the chimp world. He rose to be alpha male of his troop at the very early age of 16.
– 2000 New Republic 14 Feb. 19/1 They haven’t really shown themselves to be alpha male candidates until they .. sink their teeth into somebody’s hindquarters.
– 2009 Daily Tel. 29 Apr. 20/8 With those words Russell Crowe launched himself as the ultimate alpha-male, triggering a swoonfest.

Then in two places in the main entry for alpha (again, with the full set of cites):

A. noun … 6. Originally and chiefly Zoology. The dominant animal or person in a group or community, esp. a single-sex group. …
– 1947 Physiol. Zool. 20 281/2 The alphas, when placed in strange aquaria, at first did not resist attack.
– 1970 Life 11 Sept. 56 c/2 The most powerful alphas..each took possession of an end pen.
– 1984 C. Wilson Lord of Underworld i. 17 He was undoubtedly what zoologists call an alpha, a highly dominant individual.
– 1992 Esquire July 110/2 When you go out with an alpha, they think they’re screwing you; they think the guy is a piece of ass.
– 1993 Dog World Feb. 12/3 Very early in life Nancy’s dogs come to understand that the alpha is always alpha, and the alpha in their pack is none other than Nancy.
– 2010 M. Acevedo Werewolf Smackdown xxxiv. 162 With so many werewolves coming into the city, the pack alphas called for a parley.

B. adj. … 7. Originally and chiefly Zoology. [definition above]…
– 1938 Jrnl. Compar. Psychol. 25 398 In pen R3..the alpha mouse occupied the nest and the subordinates rested in the feed dish.
– 1948 Physiol. Zool. 21 5/2 The successive deaths of several wasps..can determine the acquisition of the α-status by one of the last partners.
– 1966 R. Ardrey Territorial Imperative iii. 107 Fish..continue their struggles to dominate one another. ‘Alpha fish’ is the term used by the new biology to describe the winner of such a competition.
– 1992 Esquire July 110/2 I knew I had an alpha female here, I had an amazon. This chick was tougher than nails.
– 1993 E. M. Thomas Hidden Life of Dogs 83   Maria, who as alpha female should by dog rules have been the only dog pregnant, was not pregnant at all.
– 2002 N.Y. Times (National ed.) 27 Feb. a25/1 Alpha girls ruthlessly rule junior high school.., with cold shoulders, hot clothes and withering looks known as ‘deaths’.
– 2004 H. Strachan Make a Skyf, Man! v. 55 This habitat .. is browsed .. by goats gone wild, there being families of these in here too, each with its alpha billy.
– 2009 Daily Tel. 4 June 27/2 My boyfriend, .. who works in the financial sector, is completely alpha; he doesn’t allow himself to be henpecked and puts me in my place when I need it.

Make yourself an Alpha Male. I’m going to jump right into the goofiness. From the Rakuten kobo site, the synopsis for the book Alpha Male: 48 Rules of Alpha Male: Transform Yourself, Master The Dating Game and About Alpha Male Dominance, by Tomas Martin:

When you are talking about powerful men who have the ability to command attention and respect out of everyone in any room he walks in to, you are talking about the powers of an alpha male. This man is in the top of the social hierarchy, which entitles them to more power, higher earning potential, and a wider selection of possible mates.

There are some men who resort to tactics that are used by wild animals to get what they want. These men will use their physical prowess to intimidate their opponent in order to get them to back down. If their opposition doesn’t back down, they will not hesitate to use force in order to show their dominance. Because humans have evolved from this way of acting, modern alpha males can react accordingly and still get the respect they deserve.

Now you may be asking yourself how you can become an alpha male, if you aren’t one already. Or, you may be asking yourself how you can solidify your role as an alpha male in your group.

This book will help you understand what exactly it means to be an alpha male.

This is the point where you’re supposed to stand up, stare into Tomas Martin’s piercing eyes (in #3), and shout out: “Master! Show me The Way!” (Me, I’m inclined to giggle uncontrollably, but that’s just the way I am.)

Martin isn’t the only ring in this circus, but he’ll represent the genre.

Dominance hierarchies. From Wikipedia:

A dominance hierarchy, formerly and colloquially called a pecking order, is a type of social hierarchy that arises when members of animal social groups interact, creating a ranking system. In social living groups, members are likely to compete for access to limited resources and mating opportunities. Rather than fighting each time they meet, relative rank is established between members of the same sex. Based on repetitive interactions, a social order is created that is subject to change each time a dominant animal is challenged by a subordinate one. In mammals, a dominant individual is sometimes called an alpha, and the lower rank is sometimes termed a beta.

In addition to realizing the necessity of change, this brief account allows for a considerable amount of looseness in the rankings, for contexts in which competitive behavior is replaced by cooperation, for different rankings for different purposes, for subversions of the hierarchies, and so on. Dominance hierarchies also seem to work differently for different species. But they do seem to constitute a real, though complex, phenomenon in wolf groups.

The leap to human beings, however, is an enormous one. Dominance and submission play a variety of roles in human life, yes, but there’s no reason to think that wolf behavior maps in any detail onto human behavior.

Meanwhile, alpha and beta as pop-culture roles for men have been joined by sigma; back on 1/26/21 Dani Di Placido tackled this added level for Forbes magazine in a sharp-tongued (but shallow) piece, “The Pseudoscience Behind The ‘Sigma male,’ Explained”, providing us with an entertaining coda to this posting:

Are you tired of reducing masculinity into the two nonsensical, made-up categories known as “alpha” and “beta” males?

Well, a viral Twitter post [back in 2021] drew the internet’s attention to the term “sigma male,” another exciting and innovative way in which society can limit masculine expression.

The Twitter post highlights media which reduces the broad spectrum of masculinity into a rigid hierarchy, composed of “alpha,” “beta,” and “sigma” males, so that men can understand and accept our place in society, without ever considering ourselves as … you know, human beings with unlimited potential.

What is an Alpha Male? For those who are unfamiliar with manhood mythology, the concept of an alpha male is based on the absurdly illogical belief that groups of humans resemble a wolf pack, destined to be led by an aggressive, domineering leader, AKA, the “alpha.”

Not only is this not how humans operate, it’s not even how wolf packs function; the now-debunked theory was based on observations of wolves living in captivity, and subsequent studies of wild wolves concluded that wolf behavior was far more nuanced than a binary between an alpha and his cowering subordinates.

But the correction came too late – the concept of an alpha male stuck around, firmly embedded in pop culture, an ideology that can justify oppressive hierarchies and reduce people to empty stereotypes. The alpha male is practically a star sign, imbued with hint of incel ideology, used to confirm poisonous perspectives and exaggerate pre-existing insecurities.

What is a Sigma Male? A sigma male is, essentially, an introverted alpha male, offering misguided men a chance to place themselves at the very top of this imaginary hierarchy, without the loud, boisterous personality that an “alpha” boasts.

Examples of a sigma male apparently include [action film hero] John Wick, because who doesn’t want to compare themselves to a cool, composed assassin? Although, when it comes to choosing a role model that exemplifies a non-existent category of manhood, one could do a lot worse than Keanu Reeves [who pays John Wick].


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