Why Human Oppression Happens

John Stoltenberg
14 min readDec 21, 2020


A simple explanation for people raised to be a man

“The purpose of theory is to clarify the world in which we live, how it works, why things happen as they do.” — Andrea Dworkin

“The commitment to ending male dominance as the fundamental psychological, political, and cultural reality of earth-lived life is the fundamental revolutionary commitment.” — Andrea Dworkin

This is a story about the worst story ever told.

It’s about the story you are told if at the time of your birth it was decided that you should grow up to be a real boy and then someday a real man. This decision was made on the fly, on the basis of a visual inspection of your baby groin. And nobody asked you, since you were just recently born. But that decision was going to determine a lot about your life, maybe most of it.

You’re all familiar with this story: First be a real boy then be a real man.

If you are someone who was told this story, you were not only told it; you were taught to tell it to others so you could tell it to yourself. If you learned the story the way it is supposed to be learned, you will need to tell it to others and yourself over and over for the rest of your life. And this story is not yours alone. It’s being told all around you almost everywhere almost all the time.

I call this story the Alpha Code.

The Alpha Code is like the operating system of a personal computer. It’s like programming code; it processes information and makes decisions according to a certain logic. The computer is a material object; the operating system tells it how to think. Similarly, you exist in a human body; and part of what makes you tick is the logic of the Alpha Code:

First be a real boy then be a real man.

The Alpha Code might seem hardwired into you, and you’ll find people who believe that it is you, indistinguishable from you. But just like a computer operating system, the Alpha Code is not the hardware; it’s a program with a particular logic and purpose. It’s in you to make you anxious that you’re still not a real enough man. It’s in you to make you keep striving to be one. It’s in you to make you do whatever it takes to be one. It’s in you to make you terrified that you might fail.

You know that panic that hits when someone else who’s trying to be a real man humiliates you or puts you down because you’re not as much of a real man? You feel compared and you feel scared. That’s your Alpha Code kicking in. It is designed to trigger panic whenever you do not pass muster as the real man that the Alpha Code says you are supposed to be.

Fortunately, the Alpha Code comes with a few basic instructions about how to manage that panic. The first one is a simple rule: You can be who you are supposed to be by always making certain that you are not who you’re not supposed to be.

Let’s break that down.

Just as in computer language, the Alpha Code is binary: Either you are who you’re supposed to be — a real boy then a real man — or you are not.

And just as in computer programming, the Alpha Code is if/then: If you are to be who you’re supposed to be, then you must always make certain you are not who you’re not supposed to be.

By “always” the code means every minute you’re alive.

By “make certain,” the code means: so that there’s absolutely no doubt or confusion, in your mind or anyone else’s.

And by “who you’re not supposed to be,” the code means —

Well, let me hit pause here a moment, because you might be thinking you know where this is going. You might be thinking that “who you’re not supposed to be” is everyone whose baby groin inspection did not entitle and require them to tell the same story that you are entitled and required to tell. And you might think that your Alpha Code — the story you were taught to tell yourself and everyone else all the time so there’s no mistaking it — is simply about signaling how your baby groin inspection turned out.

Certainly, there’s a lot in life that does such signaling. What clothes you wear. Your hair. What recreation you like. What turns you on. Your stature and strength. The list is long, and just about everything associated with so-called masculinity is on it — social signage for your so-called sex. Except that’s not what the Alpha Code is about. That doesn’t get at the basic Alpha Code logic. That doesn’t explain the reason the Alpha Code must be obeyed.

The Alpha Code is about who you must be and must not be in a brutally binary identity system. You’re supposed to grow up to be a man, a real man, a man who knows he’s a man and a man everybody takes to be a man. That’s your job in life. Your story says so. Stories told all around you say so. And if you don’t cut it, if you don’t measure up, if you fail to leave absolutely no doubt in your own mind and in the mind of everyone else, then you’re not only not a real man. You’re not just a wannabe man. You’re not even someone who’s having an off day but you’ll be back at your job in no time and you’ll make up for any work you missed.

No, that’s not what happens if you don’t do the job the Alpha Code says is yours. What happens if you don’t do that job is that you’re less than nobody.

Less. Than. Nobody.

I did not say you’re mistaken for someone whose baby groin inspection came out different. I’m saying your very identity doesn’t exist. The foundation of your being is gone. There’s no longer any you. Because according to the Alpha Code either/or identity logic, failure to tell your story convincingly means annihilation of your sense of self.

That little twist comes with your personal copy of the Alpha Code, and it’s embedded in all the Alpha Code stories being told around you.

If you’re not a real man, you’re less than nobody.

There may be names you will be called. There may be bullying done to you. Physical or emotional humiliation or abuse. There are lots and lots of punishing repercussions if you fail at being a real boy when you’re a child and fail at being a real man when you’re an adult. But the worst, the very worst, is what the Alpha Code story promises will befall you. The story that everyone who mocks you is telling you by mocking you. The story everyone who beats up on you is telling you by beating up on you. The story you’ve been taught to believe deep down inside:

If you’re not a real man, you’re less than nobody.

Now, you may have noticed there’s a lot of anxiety in the world about that little twist in the Alpha Code story. And no wonder. The stakes are sky high. Panicky people all over are trying to tell the story convincingly, to themselves and to others, asserting it by any means necessary: Rage, aggression, derogation, violence — those are some common methods: behaviors prompted by the panic that’s provoked when one’s Alpha Code is on:

“I’m a real man! I’m a real man! See? See!?”

You’ve surely seen others make that behavioral boast, and you may have made some version of it yourself. What you may not have noticed is that the programming language common to all such braggadocio is the Alpha Code.

You were not born with the Alpha Code. It did not come preset in you like hunger or sense of touch. It’s nowhere in your body type or vocal range or plumbing. The Alpha Code exists inside you because it was put there. It’s your personal copy of the program, like it has your serial number on it, but it’s not unique; it’s a duplicate. It’s the same Alpha Code embedded in everyone who’s trying to be a real man.

The Alpha Code itself is uniform. What’s individualized is how it was installed.

Typically, you got yours when something bad happened to you — some instance or sequence of traumatic shamingwhen you were still a child.

Though the Alpha Code is standard issue, not everyone who carries it was traumatically shamed the same way or to the same extent. There is vast variation, with individual differences in expression and reaction. Consequently, some people’s Alpha Code can seem low-key or dormant while other people’s Alpha Code can seem off-the-charts belligerent or lethal. But everyone who has the Alpha Code inside them had something bad happen to them or they would not have it.

If you think back in your own life to the traumatic shaming that installed your personal Alpha Code, you may have vivid memories or you may not fully remember all the particulars or you may even have forgotten. The Alpha Code will try to make you erase its means of transmission, especially if how you got it was through physical or emotional abuse, because having memories of one’s own vulnerability does not compute with being a real man. That’s the simplicity of the traumatic shaming: It’s so you’ll never forget that being vulnerable connects to being less than nobody. Consequently, your Alpha Code will disable your capacity for empathy — which you were born with.

In the political arena one can readily recognize the Alpha Code unfiltered in despots, petty tyrants, and wannabe autocrats. In economics one can see the Alpha Code in capitalism run amuk. Up close and personal one can observe the Alpha Code in battery and rape. Most of the world runs on the Alpha Code:

If you’re not a real man, you’re less than nobody.

How do you know if you are a carrier of the Alpha Code? It’s not difficult to detect. Think back to the last time someone challenged whether you are enough of a real man, or when someone insulted what you consider your manhood, or when someone threatened your presumptive superior status, or when someone figuratively or literally dared you to put up your dukes and fight like a dude. Think back to that trigger point and how it felt. That moment when such a provocation got to you, got under your skin, felt like a threat on your life. That moment when retreat or concession would feel like self-immolation. That moment when all you wanted to do was counterattack, hurt back. Because only retaliation or retribution could vindicate your sense of who you are supposed to be as a real man and how you are supposed to be esteemed as not a loser.

That feeling — that instant impulse to aggress in defense of your manhood — is evidence that your personal Alpha Code is on. And once your Alpha Code is running, its instruction for what to do with that feeling is very logical and clear:

To not be less than nobody, treat someone else as nobody instead.

I learned that story young. I was an unathletic fat kid; and older, stronger, and bigger boys in the neighborhood taught me the story by teasing and tormenting me. Meanwhile, I started telling the story myself by teasing and tormenting my younger sister. I didn’t make the connection between those bullies’ storytelling and mine till years later. All I knew at the time was that compared with other boys I saw telling the story, I was never as good at it, which made me feel bad about myself: Like “I’m not a real-enough boy!” which later turned into “I’m not a real-enough man!” Oh, sure, I had interests and achievements, friends and family who liked and supported and accepted me. But I always knew deep inside that my identity, the core of my being, was riding on how well I could pull off that Alpha Code story. And I was not cutting it.

This may sound like one special snowflake’s identity anxiety but it’s not. It’s an existential crisis going on around the globe, like a snowfall everywhere. It’s the unspoken, unacknowledged panic point that’s the source of what some have mistakenly called toxic masculinity. It’s actually the Alpha Code — the traumatic shaming that installs it and the panic management it instructs.

Just look at all the traumatic shaming it takes to install and sustain the Alpha Code. The gender policing that begins in childhood, that parents mete out on sons, that sons use to establish a social pecking order, that sons employ to goad one another to harm others, that coaches use to demean athletes, that bosses use to mistreat workers, that militaries use to create killers, that the rich use to keep people poor. It’s endless. And that’s not the half of it, because there’s a mutation of the Alpha Code that latches sex hierarchy to race hierarchy such that its carriers delineate and defend their white identity with the same derision and dehumanizing that people use to be a real man. Race hate sustains whiteness the way misogyny shores up manhood. White nationalism at its root is a manhood protection racket driven by the Alpha Code.

To not be less than nobody, treat someone else as nobody instead.

In one way I was fortunate. Unlike many people I have talked with or read about whose fathers drilled the Alpha Code into them — for instance through intimidation, humiliation, emotional or physical violence — I didn’t have a dad who made it his job to make sure I did my Alpha Code job. I got lucky in the dad department. He let me be me and he loved me as me. That did not mean I never got the Alpha Code download, though. All I had to do was step outside the house. I can still remember some of the traumatic shaming that did my download. And I can still remember some of the bad things I have done to others when my Alpha Code panic kicked in.

Near the end of my twenties, something happened that made me think about the Alpha Code differently from the way I learned it growing up.

I became aware of the battering and raping that others were doing to satisfy their Alpha Code, to make the story be true, to make it feel real, to make it seem to others and to themselves to be an actual fact about who they were: real men, not less than nobody. Sexual assault, I realized, tells that story unmistakably, incontrovertibly, flesh to flesh, victor to victim. Nothing unclear or vague about it. Story told. Identity decisively and definitionally declared and defended. End of story.

Except of course it’s not the end of the story. Belief in the either/or identity system persists, requiring that the Alpha Code story be retold, again and again, claiming and maiming life after life.

Becoming aware of all that human harm really troubled me. I knew exactly what story they were telling. I recognized it. I knew I had tried to tell it too — not with physical violence or sexual assault but in other ways (and there are plenty other ways). Now for the first time I realized I did not want that story to be mine. I wanted not to feel like I had no choice but to keep telling that story. And I didn’t know how to stop.

If you look around at people you might think carry the Alpha Code, you might be curious how to detect if someone else’s Alpha Code is running. You can’t just ask; you have to observe how they act when their identity as a real man is impugned or defied. They get bummed. Or they sulk. Or they get angry. Or they get violent. They snap back and lash out. When the Alpha Code is running — even if it’s running in the background — its counteroffensive response is easily triggered. In an instant it will compel someone to do anything necessary not to be less than nobody. And all those instants add up.

You can’t tell anything about someone’s Alpha Code from their clothing or body shape or facial hair or voice pitch or anything else about how they appear. Even though certain gendered appearances might seem to match up with active Alpha Code processing, you can’t actually predict whether the program is operating or not. Only if and when a person’s real-man identity-threat response is triggered and they do or do not counterattack can you know for sure whether they can’t shut off their Alpha Code or they can shrug off the threat to their so-called manhood — which is an empty threat if their Alpha Code is switched off. Either a challenge to one’s real manhood is an identity-threatening crisis requiring immediate counterstrike, or else such a challenge is a nonevent.

A lot of good and well-intentioned people have been trying very conscientiously to tell the Alpha Code story differently. Trying to modify it, tweak it, trying to tell the story so that they can make it be true about themselves that they’re a real man, feel a real-man identity deep within themselves, make it seem to themselves and others to be an actual fact about who they are — just not with hurting anyone, or putting anyone down, or harassing anyone, or insulting anyone, or laughing at anyone’s expense, or bullying anyone, or impoverishing anyone, or sexually assaulting anyone, or discriminating against anyone, or offing anyone. You get the picture. Trying to seem like a nice, sensitive, decent person who also happens to be a real man.

But these new and improved notions of manhood cannot be counted on to quell the anxiety that traumatic shaming has imprinted onto your autonomic nervous system and burned into your brain and that can be triggered in an instant and erupt in hate or rage because someone has to pay a penalty that will rescue your identity from ignominy stat. You know those times when nice guys turn out to be not nice? That’s the Alpha Code story still being told.

I believe the Alpha Code is a unifying theory of why human oppression happens. I also believe the Alpha Code story won’t stop being told in damaging ways until we give up the story altogether. It’s a story that exists solely so that the binary sex hierarchy will persist so that the male sex class will exist and the white race class will exist. We have to break the Alpha Code and disable it not only because it causes so much human harm but because it is not true. The either/or identity system in which it functions is itself a made-up story. The sex binary is BS. Our species does not consist of two and only two sexes; it’s multi-sexed, meaning there are as many sexes as there are people. Belief in the sex binary is not about baby groin inspections or anything else biological. It’s about a culturally transmitted hierarchical sociopolitical class system driven by a vast collective identity panic induced by a simple story. The same Alpha Code story that billions have been taught to tell well or else. The worst story ever told.

If you’re not a real man, you’re less than nobody.

To not be less than nobody, treat someone else as nobody instead.

We have to go beyond the binary, and live outside it in our lives, and raise our children untrapped by it. This means we need to stop policing people’s gender expression. What clothes someone wears is irrelevant. What matters is how someone acts toward others — their ethics, not their esthetics.

We need to tell a completely different story. A story about multiplicity and individuality. A story about community and conscience. A story about how nobody is a nobody and everybody is somebody. A story about being a real human.

To be a real human, treat others as real and human as you.


John Stoltenberg, a long-time activist against sexual violence and a radical-feminist philosopher of gender, is the author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, a radical examination of male sexual identity, and The End of Manhood: Parables of Sex and Selfhood, a practical guide to life as a man of conscience. John is also the author of many articles and essays in anthologies including “How Power Makes Men: The Grammar of Gender Identity,” in Men and Power, “Having Sex Outside the Box” in Male Lust, “Healing From Manhood: A Radical Meditation on the Movement from Gender Identity to Moral Identity” in Feminism and Men, and “Top Ten Ways the Campus Movement Against Sexual Violence Is Misunderstood” in Just Sex: Students Rewrite the Rules on Sex, Violence, Equality & Activism. He conceived and creative-directed the acclaimed “My Strength Is Not for Hurting” rape-prevention media campaign. His numerous essays online include “Why Talking About ‘Healthy Masculinity’ Is Like Talking About “Healthy Cancer’,”Sexual Harassment and #MenToo: The Five Stages of Belief,” and “50 Years of Gender Bending and Sex Changing.” With trans feminist Cristan Williams he contributes to The Conversations Project on topics of radically inclusive radical feminism. He is also a novelist (GONERZ), playwright, communications consultant, and theater reviewer. He lives in Washington, DC, and tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.

Illustration © Viktor88Dreamstime.com



John Stoltenberg

Radical feminist author (Refusing to Be a Man, The End of Manhood), novelist (GONERZ), and theater reviewer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stoltenberg)