Thursday, September 4, 2014

A history and overview of the A/B/O trope.

[This article can also be read on Ao3]

First of all, what is A/B/O?

The acronym A/B/O stands for Alpha, Beta, Omega; a term that originates from animal behavior research and describes the biological hierarchy inherent in the trope.

The Alpha, Beta, Omega hierarchy was first coined by Rudolph Schenkel in 1947 in his paper Expression Studies on Wolves, which was based upon his study of captive wolves in Switzerland’s Zoo Basel and was the prevailing theory on inter-pack dynamics until 1999.[1] Although the theory has been disproved for some time, the Alpha, Beta, Omega hierarchy has long since become a cultural myth similar to Freudian psychology[2].

In fact, much like Freudian psychology, once it was introduced to the human population, the notion of an A/B/O hierarchy was quickly taken out of context and soon became a popular way to infer the “primal dominance” status of the human male. While it has never been a true or even accurate way of defining someone’s personality, the descriptor terms Alpha, Beta, and Omega have had resurgence of late, most likely due to the push for changes in current social dynamics. As many on know, third wave feminism[3] (which seeks the social, political, and economical equality of the sexes) has become much more prevalent over the past three to four years due to the rescindence of many woman’s rights.

Unfortunately, since every action has an equal and opposite reaction, this has lead to many men seeking new ways to define themselves in the face of a social upheaval where their identity as ‘real men’ may no longer be assured. Instead of moving forward as one would hope, these particular men have decided to move backwards and cling to the A/B/O hierarchy as a way of defining their dominance level without having to assure those who may care about their lack of traditional feminine or homosexual qualities.[4] Ironically (or not), many gay men have taken to these descriptors like ducks to water, using them as synonyms for ‘true tops’ and ‘perma-bottoms’ within the gay community.

The reason I bring up these social nuances is because the A/B/O trope that we know today took off in the fan world roughly around this time. Although it is not clear where exactly it originated[5], it is clear that the original intent of this trope was to play upon this pseudo-hierarchal system and make it into a true, biological phenomenon. In so doing, it has created a flexible, yet steady set up for fanfiction writers to explore the human biology, gender equality, social structures, as well as what it truly means to be a dominant or submissive personality despite one’s biology.

While the Omegaverse (another term for the A/B/O trope) is inherently problematic in that it takes these outdated notions and turns them into a fully developed world where this hierarchy becomes fact instead of fiction, it has also become a safe space in which to refute not only this hierarchy, but actual gender-based oppression as well. As lierdoma writes, “Omegaverse is really a fascinating fandom invention. 50% of it is totally problematic and reinforcing a lot of fucked up patriarchal, rape culture values. The other 50% is some of the most insightful, subversive social commentary I’ve ever read on gender identity/gender roles/queer oppression.”[6]

Others have a less flattering view of this trope. Norabombay’s take on the trope seen in the ever popular Alphas, Betas, Omegas: A Primer[7] is tagged on Ao3 as a “dogfuck rape world” due to the fact that many fic writers who use this trope combine canine and homo sapien reproductive organs and responses in order to include heats and knotting during intercourse. The rest of the introduction goes on to illustrate norabombay’s contempt for potentially-clich├ęd erotic themes. Although not all of the primer is so cynical and does offer a lot of questions and potential solutions (in later chapters) as to the plot holes common within the Omegaverse’s world building, I would recommend doing your own research into the trope before making any judgments.

An Overview of the Omegaverse

Norabombay does have a good idea in that the best way of explaining the trope in terms of its fanfiction interpretation is to list what you’re most likely to find in one of these fictions. My list is as follows:

Alpha: “Are generally dominant and able to impregnate betas/omegas. Alphas usually have a knot when aroused. Paired alphas may be jealous and possessive of their mate.”[8] Alphas, like omegas, are generally ruled more by their instincts than betas. Alphas also tend to be the ones in charge and will usually have an innate wish to protect those in their care (especially omegas). While some alphas are portrayed as insatiable and wild when in the presence of a fertile beta/omega, many fanworks use this as an example of how personal control is possible even with the excuse of ‘carnal lust.’ Overall, alphas and/or betas tend to be the most common types of humans found in the Omegaverse, though that is not a hard rule. In Minerva’s Muzzle[9], alphas are the rarest type and due to their inability to control themselves unless bonded, are kept locked away until someone wishes to bond with them.

BDSM Culture: Because the Omegaverse is a fictional manifestation of the A/B/O dominance-hierarchy, dom/sub undertones from BDSM culture are generally incorporated. In most cases, these dominant or submissive tendencies have little to do with the character’s personality and everything to do with instinctual tendencies inherent in each of the types, as well as instinctual reactions brought on by different pheromones. Because these pheromones work within the body without a person’s conscious consent, the reactions they cause are accurately dubbed by the fan world as non-con (non consensual) or dub-con (dubious consent). While extremely problematic in the real world, these things are something that can be OK in fantasy so long as they are acknowledged and treated in a way that does not hide what their actual repercussions would be. In other words, try to appreciate it without glamorizing it.

Beta: “Are subordinate to alphas and may or may not be able to impregnate omegas. In some fanworks betas aren’t present and the trope is known as Alpha/Omega, while in others betas take the role and functions of omegas and the omegas aren’t present (Alpha/Beta).”[10] Betas are a tricky type to summarize. In the original interpretations of the trope, betas were regular males (and, by default, females). However, since then, betas have been interpreted in a myriad of ways. Sometimes they are considered a more ‘evolved’ version of humanity that still contains some of the alpha/omega physiology but in a scaled-down sense so that they are not as controlled by their instincts. When this is the case, betas can often be seen as the ‘bad guys,’ who are either the newest specie eradicating the old, or are a fluke of nature; not quite an alpha or an omega so they don’t fit into that ‘classic’ interpersonal dynamic. In other cases betas are considered to be a combination of alpha and omega physiology but with none of the instincts and with varying results. Unfortunately, about a third of the time, betas are either nixed entirely or not discussed in detail and thus are left as a blank element. This has lead to the common misconception that the ‘beta’ category is a throw-away category and a better place for characters one doesn’t care about, as they will not have to be a major part of the story.

Birth Control: Comes in many forms. Depending on the universe, it is distributed to any individual able to carry a child. It can take the form of once-a-day pills, shots that last for a period of time, or are combined with suppressants. In more dystopian or less-scientifically advanced universes birth control may be nonexistent or harder to come by.

Bond: One of the key aspects of the Omegaverse is the ability to fast-forward relationships with biological and/or mystical means. These ‘bonds’ (sometimes called ‘heat bonds’ or ‘soul bonds’) are the explanation for sudden changes in interpersonal feelings. Often times these bonds will form after intercourse and (though not always) require a bite near the neck to induce it. For those who interpret the Omegaverse in a more scientific way, the bond is a type of feedback loop[11] that establishes itself after an exchange of a significant amount of pheromones, bodily fluids, or a special type of venom. For those that prefer a more mystical approach, the bond can connect souls to the point where the bonded pair shares a mild empathic connection. After the bond is induced both partners generally experience a decrease in their instinctual responses and find it uncomfortable to not be in each other’s presence for extended periods of time.

Clitoris: “Is a female sex organ found in mammals and limited number of other animals. Unlike the penis, the male equivalent, it usually does not contain the opening to the urethra and is therefore not used for urination. However, certain mammals do have more developed clitorises from which they can urinate such as the spotted hyena, lemurs, and spider monkeys. In human females it is their most sensitive erogenous zone.”[12] In the Omegaverse, the clitoris is usually only given a passing reference because the storyline is completely focused on the male characters. However, when it is mentioned, it either takes its usual form, a slightly larger/more developed form on a male omega, or is turned into a type of small penis on a female alpha (generally able to swell into a knot). The only problem with this descriptor is that there is no known version of the clitoris that transfers the female’s sex cells outside of her body. For that, you must look to the ovipositor.

Cloacae: “In zoological anatomy, it is the posterior opening that serves as the only opening for the intestinal, reproductive, and urinary tracts of several animal species.”[13] In clio_jlh’s Claiming Is Confusing series[14], they use this term for the combined intestinal and reproductive tract opening found in male betas. This feature is common and is found in many other fictions though usually only in male omegas. However it is often incorrectly described as a regular anus when it is, in fact, a cloaca.

Commands: In many Omegaverses, alphas are able to issue specialized commands with a certain type of vocal inflection that anyone lower on the hierarchy is instinctually programmed to obey. However, many people feel that this is too much of a non-consent issue and either don’t include it or feature a check and balance where the betas/omegas are able to influence alphas just as much through a subtle flood of pheromones.

Culture: The culture of the Omegaverse is as vast as it is varied. However, what most have in common are the structural ways in which the Omegaverse has to deal with a populace that uses pheromones, has intense biological imperatives, and has a large percentage of their population incapacitated for days at a time. Many fiction writers base their Omegaverse’s political and social structures on the political and social structures seen between men and women in the U.S., and because of this, end up commentating on the unfairness or ridiculousness of modern day life.

Double Tropes: Because the Omegaverse inherently deals more with world building than potential plot points, it leaves the possibility open to combine tropes. (i.e. An A/B/O coffee shop AU, or an A/B/O superhero AU.)

Dynamic: While some refer to the physiological aspect of the Alpha/Beta/Omega hierarchy as genders, others (who keep both the male and female genders within their story) use the term dynamic to describe the individual’s place in the hierarchal scale.

Empathy: “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”[15] In the Omegaverse, humans are better able to read the feelings of others thanks to pheromones or an innate empathic ability (the ability to read/sense emotions much like a telepath would be able to read/sense another’s thoughts).

Gender: As gender can be defined by a person’s sex, by social constructs, or by personal identification[16], it’s hard to parse what genderwould mean in the Omegaverse, which throws at least two of the three things listed above out the window. In some versions, the A/B/O hierarchy only includes human males, therefore eliminating the need to distinguish between the basic sexes. However, in those more inclusive universes where the A/B/O hierarchy includes both men and women, one has to wonder why men and women would still carry traits where they would identify as such even if their inherent biological function was completely changed.

Heat: Is a general term that indicates when a receptive individual is at their most fertile (the opposite of the ‘time of the month’). Heats tend to last from three to seven days while the one experiencing heat is flooded with hormones that demand sexual release. In the Omegaverse it is a phenomenon that generally only happens to betas and/or omegas and can be anywhere from an extremely debilitating experience that results in constant discomfort if their desire to mate is not relieved in some way, or it can be a low-grade general horniness that is easy to brush aside. Because heats usually result in a flood of pheromones that attract mates and will subsequently trigger a matching response in those alphas (and sometimes betas) around them, those in heat (also known as estrus[17]) are generally voluntarily confined for the duration of their heat. Also, because periods of heat are usually a very debilitating experience, they come less frequently than the average human female’s monthly fertility cycle (anywhere from six times to once a year). However, the discomforting effects of heat are often assuaged by the scent of an alpha if one is not actually present to aid in the act of sexual release. Many see heat as a constant source of dubious consent in this universe, especially since many that experience heat are not in their right mind while doing so. In this way, periods of heat in the Omegaverse are generally used as commentary on consent issues as well as examples on having proper consent.

Instinct: “The inherent inclination of a living organism towards a particular complex behavior.”[18] In the Omegaverse, humans are ruled a lot more by their instincts. Instincts that include: dominant/submissive behaviors, the need to provide or care for your mate, touching/being close with loved ones, scenting, general impulses that push for interpersonal relationships like friendship or courtship, breeding, etc.

Intersex: “A general term for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.”[19] In the case of the Omegaverse, intersex is a term used to describe the different forms of reproductive anatomy fiction writers have created so that everyone can fit into the breeding stereotypes of the A/B/O hierarchy. For more information on the differences between fictional intersex characters and actual intersex peoples, see page #.

Knotting: When the penis, ovipositor, or more developed clitoris swells at the base when engorged with blood and after having been stimulated for a period of time. Based off of the canid method of copulation, knotting has become a common phenomenon in fanworks and is especially prevalent in the Omegaverse. Although some claim it to be a form of rape culture, knotting is a manifestation of the desire for a sensation of fullness in the vaginal/anal tract, especially near the opening where there are usually more sensory receptors.

Lactation: Though lactation should go without saying if pregnancy is involved, not all writers include this ability with those male characters who are able to become pregnant. This has always confused me personally as boobs are not necessary unless the bearer is lactating. In fact, human females are one of the few mammals that have enlarged breast tissue when not lactating. All others develop boobs when lactating and have their breasts shrink again when lactation stops.

Male Pregnancy (M-Preg): Is probably considered to be one of the strangest fan-inventions and yet is also one of the most prevalent tropes. Before the Omegaverse became mainstream the excuses for M-Preg ranged from perfectly labeled scientific diagrams to the extremely vague, ‘It’s just a thing that happens.’ (Though, most of the time, M-Preg was the result of a magical accident or magical intervention.) Because male omegas and/or betas have the ability to carry children in most versions of the Omegaverse, the explanations already set up in the trope have allowed many fiction writers the freedom to write or even mention M-Preg in their stories without having to worry about plausibility or have M-Preg be the main point of their story.

Mating Cycles: Aren’t always used. In some fictions, the periods of heat and rut in alphas, betas, and omegas vary from individual to individual (much like periods). However, in other fictions, periods of heat/rut in every individual fall on the same week/day/season, and thus are able to be summarized into an average mating cycle.

Nesting: Though not really found in many Teen Wolf fictions, nesting is when a character (usually the omega) seeks to find a more comfortable area for themselves, their mate, and their offspring. In most interpretations, nesting is a symptom of an oncoming heat and will show itself in the beta/omega lining their bed/safe space with soft materials and things that have their mate’s scent on it. In more extreme cases, both individuals in the pairing will crave a safe, enclosed space and will create a type of tent for themselves to stay in during the duration of the beta’s/omega’s heat. Nesting can also be a symptom of pregnancy, though that rarely gets mentioned in the Omegaverse.

Omega: “Are generally lowest on the hierarchy (although in some fanworks omegas are rare and prized). Male omegas are self-lubricating and usually have the ability to become pregnant, sometimes referred to as being bred or mated. Lovers may form pair-bonds with a special connection with telepathic or empathic qualities. Paired omegas may be jealous and possessive of their mate, or may become submissive. Omegas may go into heat and need to have sex; this may be the only time omegas are fertile.”[20] Omegas tend to be the most talked about of the three, usually because they are often considered an excuse to keep a male character male while giving them distinctly female attributes. However, because of this, many authors basically treat omegas as female or as less-than female (if receptive males are rare in their universe) and end up revealing the oppressive nature of living in today’s patriarchal society. Since the main character of the average Omegaverse fiction is usually an omega, we also tend to see them struggling against a society that has a very narrow place for them to exist. Often times this place is in the home or in some type of nursing or childcare no matter if omegas feel the urge to follow such occupations or not. Every so often the omega is considered a person of power or importance, but that is few and far between, and often only is true when said omega is at the side of a powerful alpha.

Ovipositor: “An organ used by some animals for oviposition, i.e., the laying of eggs.”[21] Although many female animals lay eggs through their cloacae, the ovipositor is the only known protuberance that actually transfers the female’s sex cells (eggs) outside of her body. Though the ovipositors found in nature are generally hard protuberances, in the Omegaverse they take on softer forms such as in clio_jlh’s Claiming is Confusing series where ovi’s (the shortened version of the term) take on a prehensile, tentacle-like appearance that (like the Omegavere’s male penis) have the ability to knot.

Penis: “The human penis serves is an external male sexual organ. It is a reproductive, intromittent organ (specially designed to deliver sperm during intercourse) that additionally serves as the urinal duct.”[22] When stimulated the penis arises and stiffens to become erect. In the Omegaverse, the penis is often given the canid ability to knot or to swell at the base after prolonged stimulation/intense arousal.

Pheromones: “A secreted or excreted chemical factor that triggers a social response in members of the same species. Pheromones are chemicals capable of acting outside the body of the secreting individual to impact the behavior of the receiving individual.”[23] Although humans in real life don’t really secrete pheromones, in the Omegaverse they are very well known for it. This is especially true for omegas whose heats release a ton of sex pheromones. However, all members of the A/B/O hierarchy are usually known for their pheromone usage, which (through scent) gives everyone in this universe a slightly empathic ability to sense each other’s stronger emotions.

Pregnancy: Is a very large part of the Omegaverse. In fact, in many Omegaverse fictions, the main plot line has something to do with pregnancy or ‘breeding.’ In this way, the Omegaverse has become a refuge for those who have a pregnancy kink.

Present: This one can have one of two meanings. In those fictions where the dynamic cannot be deduced at birth, one of the three categories will present itself during puberty. The other meaning of the term is a common sexual position called presenting, where the submissive is on their hands and knees, thighs spread, face pressed downwards and rear-end up in order to present their genitals to their dominant.

Purring: Very few fictions include this feature, but in some either everyone has the cat-like ability to purr when content or just the submissives do.

Scent: A very prevalent trait of the Omegaverse. For more information see pheromones, scent glands, and scenting.

Scent Glands: “External glands found in most mammals. They product semi-viscous secretions which contain pheromones and other semiochemical compounds.”[24] Since humans don’t really use their olfactory senses as a way of deducing anything beyond if something smells good or bad, the limited amount of scent we do produce generally means very little to us. However, in the Omegaverse, scent in the form of pheromones is much more prevalent and therefore, scent glands are more likely to be found. The only specific place they tend to get put is behind the ear. Otherwise, it is assumed that those places that usually produced smell (armpit, groin, inside of the wrist) have enhanced scent glands in this universe.

Scenting: Is when one organism purposely imparts scent onto another. In the Omegaverse, scenting is usually used between mates or potential mates to show claim.

Semen: “Also known as seminal fluid, is an organic fluid that may contain sperm.”[25] Thanks to the common presence of the knot, many interpretations of the Omegaverse also contain people (generally alphas) who can produce large amounts of semen. Although this fictional phenomenon is not exclusive to the Omegaverse, the Omegaverse is a haven for those who find the idea of large amounts of semen to be erotically stimulating thanks to its incorporation of the canid mating structure.

Slick: Is the term often used to refer to the mucus-like substance found in natural vaginal lubrication. Since slick in the Omegaverse does not always come out of a vagina, it needed a name other than vaginal lubrication[26] or ‘mucus’, which is just gross.

Suppressants: Are similar to birth control in that they can keep those with childbearing capabilities from getting pregnant. However, the major function of suppressants is to stop a beta’s/omega’s heats from occurring. Some interpretations have them simply stop a full-heat (leaving only mini, pseudo-heats similar to a light period), while others block everything including the pheromones betas/omegas put out, making it easier for them to blend into society.

Receptive: Is a specific term used in the Omegaverse to denote a character’s (usually in reference to a male omega’s) ability to carry children.

Reverse knotting: Is somewhat of an inaccurate description. When actual canids breed, the female’s vaginal tract will swell around the male’s knot and lock it in place (which is how the knot actually stays inside – not because it is just that big). The term reverse knotting comes from fiction writers’ adaptation of this ability in human females to the point where the vaginal tract can swell enough to lock an unknotted penis in place.

Roaring: Again, very few fictions include this feature. However, in those that do, alphas are given a special ability to roar, which triggers an instinctual response in both betas and omegas to submit.

Rut: Like the omega/beta’s heat, a rut is when an alpha is at their most virile. At this time (depending on how much of their conscious is left to them) they’ll seek out someone to mate with. Periods of rut tend not to last as long as a heat nor come as frequently (if incorporated at all). They also tend to trigger a responding physical reaction from nearby betas/omegas if not contained. Though some see periods of rut as a perpetuator of rape culture, quite a few writers use it as an equalizer so that it’s not only betas/omegas who experience these uncontrollable and unpleasant biological phenomenon.

Testicles: Strangely enough, testicles aren’t given much of a thought in the Omegaverse. I say this is strange because the amount of seminal fluid generally present in this verse would suggest some sort of alteration to the size of the average set of testicles.

Vagina: “A muscular, elastic tubular tract (passage) that is a sex organ and mainly functions for the facilitation of sexual intercourse and childbirth.”[27] However, in the Omegaverse the vagina is optional. Though some form of it is usually found on the females in this universe, it is only found every so often on those males that have the ability to carry and birth children. Those males that have said ability tend to also have some form of a functional penis and therefore fall into the intersex category when it comes to genitalia.















[15] Google definitions













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