I begin with a familiar news story and use it as fodder for philosophical and religious speculation, borrowing Timothy Morton’s idea of the hyperobject to explain the connection between Ariel Castro’s alleged imprisoning and raping of a trio of women for ten years, and the norm for men of calling upon porn as a technological substitute for a flesh-and-blood harem.
Real vs Virtual Polygyny
American news stations are saturated with coverage of the Cleveland man, Ariel Castro, who’s suspected of having abducted three women, holding them captive in his home for ten years, and using them as sex slaves. The women recently escaped and are safe. Castro’s alleged deeds are horrible, as is the ghoulish attention they’re getting in the media; we rubberneck even when we’re not in a car. But I think part of the context of this news story is missing from the headlines. Castro will be held up as a psychopathic freak, but here’s an ironclad statistic that should give us pause, before we congratulate ourselves for being normal and quite unlike the repulsive archfiend Ariel Castro: 90% of mammals practice high degrees of polygyny. Monogamy is rare in mammals. Polyandry, meaning a minority of females having sexual rights to the majority of males is even rarer. The norm is for the elite, alpha males to have privileged sexual access to the majority of females in the group. Sometimes this takes the form of a harem, in which a single dominant male mates with a group of females and guards them and their offspring. When there’s competition between males in these unequal societies, the rival males will often kill the infants or systematically harass the females to force them to miscarriage.
Now, you’re thinking this zoological information is irrelevant since most human males don’t normally do any of this--at least, they haven’t for thousands of years and certainly not in modern societies. Indeed, modern men don’t normally abduct women, hold them captive, and rape them. However, that’s at least partly because these men have a substitute, which is called in technical terms the stash of porn. For decades, men have been by far the main consumers of pornography, because men are more turned on by visual cues. But the practice doesn’t end with looking at a dirty picture or movie to facilitate masturbation. No, the images are typically collected and stashed away somewhere, in a secret trunk, drawer, or other hiding place. Before the internet, the stash would consist of a stack of pornographic magazines or videotapes. Now that most porn is online, the stash is made up of computer files, stored on DVDs, hard drives, or just on the internet itself, and the files are often password-protected so that they’re symbolically locked up.
Notice, then, the differences but also the similarities between Castro’s alleged deeds and modern male sexual behaviour. The main difference, of course, is that most men don’t harm women by using pornography and so they don’t thereby commit a crime. (You can say porn stars are indirectly harmed by the demand for porn, since the actors are abused or exploited, but this is controversial and anyway it’s not as bad as rape.) But while Castro is said to have chained actual women in cages, holding them as his secret prisoners to molest them at will, so-called normal men do something similar with images that substitute for real women, collecting the images, keeping them secret, stashing them away, and calling upon them at will.