American Psycho screenshot

In my experience, confessions are pretty fuckin’ useless. Never has being on the receiving end of a confession resulted in me feeling happy or relieved or satisfied. They’ve all been pretty inconvenient and/or bewildering, leaving me resentful of the party who voluntarily purged long-held secrets and then sighed a breath of relief. They’re about as valuable as a Verrit code of authenticity. Ultimately, confessions are just a transfer of weight.

This tradition held pretty steadfast on a Sunday morning a few weeks ago when an ex-boyfriend who is now a close friend of mine confessed why he unceremoniously ended our relationship a whole-ass six years ago: “I wasn’t used to a woman like you—you have a domineering personality. You threatened my role as alpha. It’s stupid, but I finally admitted it to myself.”

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I could feel my face contorting in utter confusion hearing these words being uttered by a man whom I thought too “progressive” to even possess that kind of mindset. “Wait ... huh?” was the only intelligible response I could immediately muster.

I was annoyed. It didn’t make sense that I was considered “domineering” while also having been chided quite often by men for appearing “aloof.” It didn’t make sense to retrace the scene of the crime from six years ago to perform an autopsy on a rather brief relationship that we both agreed was better off being a friendship. But most annoying was being reminded that men still incorrectly refer to themselves as “alpha males” and model whole identities based on language once used to describe the social hierarchies of wolf packs. It’s preposterous, but more importantly, it’s incorrect. Really—like legit factually incorrect.

So incorrect, in fact, that the poor man who coined the phrase “alpha wolf” in his 1968 book The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species has repeatedly asked his publisher to cease its publication. Lucyan David Mech, American wolf expert and senior research scientist, now asserts:

One of the outdated pieces of information is the concept of the alpha wolf. “Alpha” implies competing with others and becoming top dog by winning a contest or battle. However, most wolves who lead packs achieved their position simply by mating and producing pups, which then became their pack. In other words they are merely breeders, or parents, and that’s all we call them today, the “breeding male,” “breeding female,” or “male parent,” “female parent,” or the “adult male” or “adult female.” In the rare packs that include more than one breeding animal, the “dominant breeder” can be called that, and any breeding daughter can be called a “subordinate breeder.”

Poor Mr. Mech has even gone on video to clarify why “alpha” is largely inaccurate in most pack behaviors, only applying to a rarity in the animal kingdom.

He even updates his blog with pdf files explaining why the term no longer applies. This poor exhausted man and his earnest flannel shirts have been shouting into the void for years, hoping to undo the damage caused by an innocuous mistake that became responsible for building an entire cottage industry of masculine identity and now permeates the language of popular culture.

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I realize that for a lot of folks, it’s too late to turn to reason. Millions of books, articles, pdfs, subreddits, YouTube videos and $150 packages promising to teach people the ways of alpha males and how to obtain social dominance flood the internet. This unholy union of commodification and animalism is a huge industry. Mech’s efforts seem futile. Facts stand no chance against an alpha male armed with a copy of The 48 Laws of Power, unyielding alpha sexual prowess and Sun Tzu quotes.

Millions of men and women (as much as it pains me, I also have to acknowledge that the term “alphanista” exists) are invested in applying this outdated description and method of social positioning in their own lives and interpersonal relationships. With all the chest beating and howling at the moon, other wolf behaviors like monogamy are hilariously and conveniently dismissed as unnatural, and folks choose to embrace fallacy. But why do relationships need hierarchy? What does it say about your “dominance” and your identity as a man if it’s is only as powerful and self-assured as its proximity to subordination?

I posed some of these same questions to my ex-boyfriend-turned-close-friend after trying to reconcile his random confession. He couldn’t produce any answers. I had no idea he felt that way about me or himself. I had no idea that we were engaged in this battle for power grabs and dominance. I didn’t sign up for no damn alpha wolf or subscribe to some raggedy pecking order. I signed up for what I thought was a partnership with a rational bipedal human being. I was better off not knowing that he was among the many delusional men who fancied themselves inherent leaders—another sad Homo sapiens in wolf’s clothing.