If you’ve spent any amount of time online in the past, oh, 40 years or so, you’re probably aware it can be a pretty toxic place. Not all the time, of course – but let’s just say that if you’re, for example, a young woman, or a person of color, or any number of other qualifying adjectives, then you’ve probably had to deal with your fair share of trolls over the years.
It’s now time for the straight dudes to have their turn being mercilessly ground down into a depressed shell of who they once were. This time, the tactics are particularly sneaky: it relies on selling them a con in which all men belong to a strictly defined hierarchy, ranging from “alphas” to “omegas”, in which their value and worth both personally and sexually depends entirely on their placement in some imaginary social pyramid.
Unless, that is, they can step outside the system, and become a “sigma” male – essentially the Greek alphabet equivalent of an S-tier human. But what does that actually mean? And where does the idea come from?
Does it even have any basis in science at all?
What are “alpha males”?
There are two ways to answer the question of what a “sigma male” actually is: the short, scientifically correct way – which, for the record, is “nothing” – and the longer, much stranger way.
For the latter explanation, we need to take a dip into the manosphere – a section of the internet known primarily for its rampant misogyny, antifeminism, and weird discourse about “alpha”, “beta”, and “omega” males.
Unlike certain other corners of the web where such terms might be used, though, these labels refer to ideas way more toxic than your preferred slash fic dynamics. In the manosphere, these Greek letters supposedly mark a man’s status in some social and sexual hierarchy – you can kind of think of it as like a star sign, or one of those Buzzfeed quizzes that tells you which European pastry best represents your personality, but for incels.
Supposedly, if you’re an alpha male, for example, then you’re a confident, charismatic leader; a ladykiller who excels at everything he does. Below the alphas are the beta and delta males, aka “normal dudes”; next come the gammas, who have virtually no hope of ever sleeping with a woman. Finally, there are the omegas, who have literally no hope of it and should be avoided at all costs as possibly dangerous social pariahs.
Even within the misogynist parameters of the belief system, the classifications are misguided. “Not only does it greatly simplify the multi-dimensionality of masculinity, and grossly underestimate what a man is capable of becoming, but it also doesn’t even get at the heart of what is really attractive to women,” pointed out Scott Barry Kaufman, scientific director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, in a 2015 article for Greater Good Magazine.
“When we impose just [these] categories of male on the world, we unnecessarily mislead young men into acting in certain predefined ways that aren’t actually conducive to attracting and sustaining healthy and enjoyable relationships with women, or finding success in other areas of life,” he wrote. “So it’s really worth examining the link between so-called ‘alpha’ behaviors (such as dominance) and attractiveness, respect, and status.”
Despite what masculinist thought leaders teach, research has consistently found that women who are attracted to men don’t, in fact, crave or want “dominant” partners. Confident? Sure. Assertive? Definitely. But dominance and aggression? It’s just not that sexy.
It makes sense. “[It] suggests that women are attuned to cues that indicate that the male might direct his aggression toward her,” Kaufman pointed out. Again, it comes down to a misunderstanding of how humans work: unlike the systems in which “alphas” actually exist – which are more likely to consist of female chickens than male wolves, for the record – human societies have always owed their success to our propensity for compassion and cooperation.
“Sensitivity and assertiveness are not opposites,” Kaufman wrote. “In fact, further research suggests that the combination of kindness and assertiveness might just be the most attractive pairing […] In other words, dominance only increased sexual attraction when the person was already high in agreeableness and altruism.”
What are “sigma males”?
It is within this maelstrom of pseudoscience and nonsense that we find the origin of the “sigma male” – a term apparently created in early 2010 by far-right activist and writer Theodore Robert Beale. Equal in status to the alpha male, the sigma is supposedly an antithesis or inversion of the type: they’re “known as the rarest males on earth, which makes them irresistible to women,” said TikTokker Sel Nakim. “They’re at the top with the alphas, but they’re outside the hierarchy.”
It's easy to see why the label might appeal. Sigma males supposedly sit at the top of the imagined socio-sexual pyramid, yet outside of it; they are smart and capable, but don’t feel the need to brag about their prowess. Sigmas are mysterious “lone wolves”, reliant on nobody but themselves – and best of all, they’re irresistible to women. Examples of the breed include John Wick, a fictional assassin; Patrick Bateman, a fictional murderer made famous on screen specifically as a satire of fragile masculinity; Don Draper, a fictional ad exec haunted by deep-seated psychological trauma and struggles; and Tommy Shelby, a fictional gangster whose violence and near-constant anxiety is likely a result of untreated PTSD.
If that list of inspirational figures makes you think maybe this whole sigma male thing hasn’t been thought out very well, then you’re probably right. “The core message of this boys’ club is sadly familiar – life is a permanent struggle between those who dominate and those who are dominated,” wrote Justine Reix in a recent article on the phenomenon for Vice. “Sigmas are still falling for the same narrative – they’re just trying to cheat-code their way to the top with cunning strategies and supposedly independent thinking.”
No such thing as “sigma males”
So, what is a “sigma male”? The answer, essentially, is this: it’s what you get when you take an inaccurate societal structure of one species, plaster it ill-fittingly onto a different species, and then wish an extra bit into existence to make yourself feel like a Special Boy.
“[Sigmas] long for a world where men are in charge and their communities are filled with misogynistic and homophobic exchanges,” Reix wrote.
“But if the internet has taught us anything, it’s not to look for meaning in the shitposting world,” she added. “The people who take [Sigma icon Patrick Bateman’s] character seriously are in the minority, and might have found other avenues for their anxieties. (I mean, you’d hope.)”