Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reason #5: Beauty, Sex, & Security Complicate Everything

This is going to be another tough one for me. Which is probably why I've procrastinated posting. To start, I feel it might be useful to offer a pretty raw/honest summary of my awkward social history with men.

For most of my life, I have not seen myself as sexually desirable. Sometime around 7th grade, someone once balked at the idea that anyone would ever be attracted to me. Combined with my awkward preteen insecurity and the uncomfortable awareness of what guys were attracted to, that impression of my sexual repulsiveness stuck. It stuck around for a long time. Whether by social design or self-fulfilling prophesies, I proceeded to spend the rest of my high school and college years with gay men and straight guys who just weren't attracted to me. In the 15 years I have been "on the market" (we'll get into why I hate this term later), I have probably been on 15-20 dates. Just for perspective on life at BYU, I had roommates that went on that many dates in a month.

For a long time I mostly ignored the silent rejection of my sexuality (though at times it was not so silent). I enjoyed my friendships with men. I always felt respected, appreciated, and yes even loved - though only in a platonic way. I think that, over time, I kinda got hooked on being seen as a person rather than a woman (and yes I know how messed up that is that I can distinguish that). Because I never felt a desperate need to be someone's girlfriend, I was able to build really great friendships. I enjoyed the feeling of being respected and relied on by my guy friends, even if (or perhaps because) they weren't attracted to me. I did and do feel like I was treated and seen as an equal. If they had a problem, they asked for my insights/opinions. If I had a problem, they didn't patronize me or act like it wasn't a big deal. I was never deemed 'overly emotional' or 'crazy' for being hurt by someone or something. They listened to me, tried to understand me, and debated with me without holding back.

However, despite the potential psychosocial benefits of this asexual status quo, I was frequently frustrated by my own lack of marital opportunities and subsequent abstinence. Toward the end of my college career, I had this really empowering thought that if I wanted to get married, I just had to employ my personal will power in a way that will make men attracted to me. I just needed to make myself more beautiful.

Given the blaring societal roadmap indicating what's "beautiful" and how to hijack men's sexual desires, the formula wasn't hard to figure out. I just needed to lose 30 pounds, wear more flattering clothing and makeup, and use my ability to touch (it's a weird skill, but a skill nonetheless) to elicit a greater sense of mystery and desire. Looking back, my heart aches for the naive Cherie of 2008. I remember how good she felt about living a hyper-disciplined eating and exercise regimen in strict pursuit of her beauty development goals. I remember the rush of control as my body responded to my demands. I remember the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that came as my natural curves took on more svelte dimensions. I remember the power trip of turning heads and being pursued by perfect strangers. I also vividly remember the sense of victory when the man I was head over heels for finally looked at me and said, "Yeah, I want that."

For the six months we dated, I wondered why I felt sick every time he looked at me ever since. I wondered why I never felt safe or at ease with him like I had during the years we were just friends. I remember how disconnected, critical, and numb I became as he apparently became more attached and committed. I still remember a meeting I had with my bishop where he informed me that this man would marry me if I wanted, and my internal response was complete repulsion. At the time, it made no sense to me. I loved and cared deeply about him. I had a lot of respect for who he was and what he wanted. He was a wonderful boyfriend - attentive, sweet, kind, helpful, etc. He was also tall, incredibly attractive, well educated, and bound for an adventurous but secure life as a dentist in the Air Force. I remember being baffled by my own disinterest in committing to such a man. But the feeling of "no, I don't want this" was so strong I couldn't rationalize it away.

Fast forward past the next 8 years of introspection, observation, and numerous failed attempts to combine the safety, respect, and intimacy I found in friendships with a little bit of romance. What have I learned? Well....a LOT. Much of it frustrating. But three themes have perpetually popped up along this journey.

1. Humans desire beauty. They desire to possess it, create it, and be in close proximity to it.
2. Humans desire security. They desire to possess it, create it, and be in close proximity to it.
3. Sex complicates everything

These themes are the backdrop to my 5th and final reason I struggle to identify with modern feminism. I think modern feminism oversimplifies and perpetuates the wrong conversation about equality almost every time the topic turns to sexuality. We obsess about the objectification and subjugation of women and their beauty, but then don't talk about any kind of security except our own. Do I think men objectify women on an alarmingly frequent basis and that this perpetuates a dangerous culture of disrespect, degradation, and misogyny? Yes. Hell yes. Do I think men are the only gender entrenched in habits of objectification, disrespect, and degradation? No, absolutely not. And I think this is the glaring hole in the current gender equality conversation.

I think it's time we called out and took some responsibility for the ways women regularly diminish the divine nature and potential of men. I think we need to call out and own our contribution to vicious cycle that I personally believe is the root of most, if not all, evil. Nobody's hands are clean here. Myself included. I have no intention of separating myself from my gender in this. But the fact that we barely even talk about, let alone own up to, how women demean and diminish men on a daily basis is gross negligence if we are hoping to reduce the frequency at which they demean women. Namely, we need to start having the conversation about how men objectify women in pursuit of beauty and women objectify men in pursuit of security.

To be clear, wanting to observe or be in close proximity to beauty or security is not objectification. But objectification starts the moment we begin to think about how another’s beauty or security could serve us in some way. I know of few women who are more repulsed by male ogling than myself. I frequently have to remind myself that an appreciation for beauty is not, by itself, disrespectful. However, the moment an appreciation for beauty turns into ideations of how that beauty could be used to please or serve the one observing, it's objectification and I feel nothing but rage when seeing this kind of degradation. 

I'm 99% certain this is why Christ said "whosoever looketh on a woman, to lust after her, hath committed adultery already in his heart." He's didn't say, "married men that looketh on a woman." He didn't say, "Hath committed adultery unless he's married to her." And he definitely didn't say, "But it's okay if she's dressed inappropriately." Nope, ANYONE who looks at a woman and sees her as an opportunity for their pleasure rather than a complex and autonomous human being is guilty of degrading the divine. Personally, I think the karma associated with this degradation is perpetual isolation from the very women they crave. Because, ironically, the moment they have subjugated that woman in their mind - they are deemed unsafe (because WE CAN TELL!!) for real intimacy.

To be fair, the combination of desire for beauty, security, and sex makes it REALLY difficult not to objectify others. Since we all (or at least, most) have a sex drive, endorphins, and an imagination, it actually might be nigh unto impossible not to at least temporarily objectify any person you find yourself attracted to. Like hunger begets fantasies about food, you might have a compulsive thought about how good it would feel to hug, kiss, or be touched by someone you're attracted to. You might daydream about all the fun things you would want to do with them and create entire fantasies about how your life would be together. It might feel really good to indulge in those thoughts or to feel such intense desire.

But the kicker there is, all of that is about you. At it's root, those thoughts are about how that person would make YOU feel and how happy YOU would be if they just complied with all your fantasies and made all your dreams come true. The worst part is, in this wonderful world of infatuation where the object of your desire is the puppet of your own mind, you can feel completely enamored with someone without ever wondering who they are, who they want to be, or what is important to them. You don't have to listen to, respect, or understand the other party to get a rush of endorphins every time they give you that "look" or put their arms around you. Thus, many don't. Instead, they float from high to high, wandering at the behest of their own hormones and wondering why the love never lasts.

Many more wonder how to get the 'high' back as they are faced with the vulnerability, conflict, and the difficulty of developing real, lasting human intimacy. The only thing that gives me hope for romance is that many do eventually put in this work. And perhaps the high is necessary for people to feel that the hard work of intimacy is worth the investment. As I said, it may be nigh unto impossible for men and women not to objectify one another at the outset of attraction. Without more information about their person or how life would be with them, our minds like to fill in the blanks. Specifically, our minds like to fill in the blanks in ways that satisfy our needs and desires, rather then letting the other party do that for themselves.

To illustrate, I want you to read the next lines while the contemplating how much the speaker is considering the needs or personhood of those they are describing (these are all real statements).

"I want a hot wife and I'm not ashamed to say it."

"Yeah, he's going to Harvard, so...score!"

"She's perfect for me - attractive, educated, talented, sweet, and not too opinionated."

"He's got big broad shoulders and big blue eyes, what else do I need?"

"Why would I settle for a 7 if I could get a 9?"

"I'm just looking for someone that wants to take care of me."

"I just want someone that makes me feel like I can't live without them."

In the 15 years I’ve been informally employed as "love life consultant" to countless singles, I have heard hundreds of these kinds of statements. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to realize just how effectively these kinds of statements reduce a living, breathing human being into an object with features meant to satisfy the needs/desires of another.

However ubiquitous and culturally acceptable it may be, I think this manner of judging others according to the service they may render you is counterproductive and may be morally wrong. Once I saw how degrading this kind of self-centered measurement of relational worth was, I couldn't unsee it. It made me physically nauseous and drove me out of attending singles wards. When confronted with it, I began to consider my closest and most intimate friendships (with both men and women) and how I would NEVER try to assess their worth to me based on how well they could improve my circumstances or gratify certain appetites. Never in my life would I think, "Well, Ashley is fantastic, but I’m looking for a best friend that cooks better." No! Absolutely not! And if I ever did that, I hope Ashley would have the self-respect to say, "Hey, I don't think my personhood is being respected or valued here," and walk away IMMEDIATELY.

Fundamentally, I still think most men and women want the same things. They want to love and feel loved. They want to feel important, safe, and at ease with their partners. They want to trust that their partners are loyal and honest with them. They want to feel pleasure, connection, and purpose in that unity. In order to achieve this though, I think it is imperative that BOTH men and women stop looking at one another as a means of achieving their own satisfaction. It is not men’s job to provide security any more than it’s a woman’s job to be beautiful. We are not here to be employed as tools in one another’s fantasies or life plans. We are divine children of God who need to learn how to love one another and become one in purpose. Sex may distract or perhaps complicate this process by initially making it more difficult to fully see one another. It may also be the only reason we continue to bother with one another and try to make it work. 

I don’t have any real solution to this. I think as long as sex is for sale, men will be buying beauty and women will be buying security. It’s messy, immoral, and disappointing in many ways. But I hope that as this conversation shifts, people will no longer assume a woman’s worth is measured in beauty and a man’s worth is measured in income or influence. I hope this conversation will bring attention to the worth of souls and how each of us is a divine son or daughter of God with our own individual power, purpose, and potential to fulfill. Perhaps then we can see one another as God sees us and start to build limitless kingdoms of connection, love, and intimacy. Perhaps then we can start to see how money, titles, prestige, beauty, and fame really are hollow measures of a human and poorer measures gender equality. Perhaps we can ditch the Us vs Them of it all and see one another as necessary and equal partners in the work of building those kingdoms.  Perhaps we can let go of the push for equivalence and instead find ways of using our authentic differences to augment one another in in that partnership. These are my hopes for feminism (or, respectism if I ever get my way), but more importantly, these are my hopes for humanity. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reason #4: Personal Power is the Foundation of Equality

Over the years, several people have asked me why I keep this blog.  A lot of it is just about keeping a history of my thoughts and learning.  Some of it is about processing and understanding feelings I find difficult to articulate.  But the sole reason I make it public is that it forces me to be actively accountable for the thoughts and feelings I let shape my world.  Writing them down for all to see reminds me to think/feel them through, study, and question every premise they are built upon.  While I’m still a hypocrite (a.k.a. human) who will probably continue to think one way and live another, I actively try to mitigate that tendency.  I want those who know me to trust that my opinions are formed on purpose and after some pause.  I want them to know that I subject my own thoughts to the same rigor I all too frequently ask of others.

That being said, I don't always love sharing these thoughts.  It brings with it a degree of vulnerability and opens me up to criticism, judgment, and even hatred.  It can and has cost me friends, affection, and respect. I can hope for patience, understanding, and acceptance from others, but we are human, and those things are not always so easily given.  The reason I'm telling you this is that this post, in particular, has become one of the most difficult I've ever written.  It's full of contradictions, hard realities, and perceptions that may not make sense to anybody but me.  This post is about something that I am fascinated by, drawn to, terrified of, and somewhat disgusted by.  
This post is about power.  

Perhaps ironically, I feel both overwhelmed and terrified of sharing some of the perspectives I hold on the subject of power.  I know it is an intimate and difficult topic for many, perhaps especially for women.  For over a year, I have agonized on how to be both empathetic to the struggles of those who feel powerless and assertive about the source and stalk of personal empowerment.  Something I have long considered is that feminism itself is a movement borne out of the desire to help women be and feel more powerful. Feminism wants to enable women to say no, act independently in society, make their own choices and priorities, and nurture a personal identity free from the oppressive and arbitrary “feminine ideal.” I think that’s great, and for the record, I appreciate and admire many of the women who have challenged the misogynistic and unjust laws and customs of their day.  Much of my life has been blessed by their efforts.

 I also acknowledge that the work of gender equality has a long way to go and that there are plenty more unjust and demoralizing laws and customs that systematically disempower women today.  The challenge I see, and the root of my problem with feminism, is that I think much of the focus, name, and tone of modern feminism seems to be subtly counterproductive to the quest for gender equality.  The blame, shame, and judgment hurdled at men (and women) who question feminist dogmas create a divisiveness that ensures more competition than cooperation. That competition generates battles for power that requires there to be winners and losers. Since power battles always offer an unfair advantage to the party currently wielding more power, the odds are perpetually against women. 

Thus, I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as women are battling men for power, we are going to lose. As a woman, that’s morally infuriating.  It fires up my indignation and nurtures feelings of resentment toward men and all of society.  It makes me hypersensitive to behaviors that I deem unjust and causes me to assign malicious intent to anybody who isn’t actively supporting me in my fight for what’s right.

Unfortunately, none of that is helpful.

My resentment does not fix anything.  In fact, it is just distracting. My wise mother has a saying that “Resentment is the anger of the powerless.”  While I know she doesn’t intend it as a cause-and-effect statement, I think it very much is one.  I think when we nurture feelings of resentment, we allow our anger to disempower us. It blinds us from objectively assessing our options and diligently, though perhaps indirectly, navigating toward our personal goals and desires.  

As one who easily falls into feelings of resentment and indignation, I hate this reality.  Especially when injustice occurs, I feel the rage of resentment and passion for justice so strongly it makes me FEEL powerful. In a fit of indignation, I relish in thoughts of vengeance and moral superiority, to the point where it numbs the hurt I felt in the first place. In combination, that feeling of power, superiority, and disconnection from pain is incredibly intoxicating.

However, as this last election cycle has reminded me, the intoxication of indignation may make us feel powerful, even righteous, but it doesn’t get us what we want.  This holds true not only for politics but for social justice endeavors as well.  As long as we are harboring or perpetuating feelings of resentment and anger, we will never realize the kind of gender equality (or social equality) we desire. We may feel powerful in our righteous anger, but that same anger will inhibit us from actualizing the ideals we hold.  Thus, I think it important to distinguish between “feeling powerful” and real personal power.  

Because we are finite, mortal, and sentient beings, the feeling of power is a fickle illusion. It is a perception that we are able to control our circumstances, make things happen, or coerce others into compliance. But if life has managed to teach me one thing, it’s that I have very little control over my circumstances and no control over other human beings.  I do, however, have a great deal of control over my perceptions, beliefs, and choices.  It may take constant effort and learning, but I get to decide how I think, feel, and act. I determine my values, goals, and priorities. I define what things like love, friendship, education, service, respect, and spirituality mean in my life. And while others may influence or add color those perceptions, I am the final authority on what my internal world looks like, as well as what it doesn’t.    

That is what makes me powerful. That is the only thing I can truly control. In my theology, that agency (the ability to choose our perceptions, beliefs, and actions) is the feature that enables us to become like God. It is a sacred and powerful thing and needs to be reverenced, cherished, and utilized with wisdom and purpose. I believe very strongly that our agency is the only power we personally wield in life. All other types of power are a product of influence, which requires and depends upon the uncontrollable agency and vulnerability of others.  This makes other forms of power capricious and fleeting--not inherently bad, but ultimately uncontrollable.     

Thus, my #4 issue with feminism is how often the prescribed methods of empowering women is in tackling systemic disadvantages with indignation rather than explicitly identifying and emphasizing the importance of making choices that strengthen our own internal force. As women, we individually need to own, claim, and develop our own personal power if we ever hope to achieve gender equality. All the equal-pay policies and family-friendly scheduling in the world is not going to generate gender equality if women do not believe they are inherently and eternally powerful individuals, worthy of the utmost respect and love. This is because no matter how economically or socially powerful we become, there is still a need for us to feel individually powerful in order to avoid subjugation in other ways. 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Reason #3 – US vs THEM paradigms destroy gender equality

Reason #3 – US vs THEM paradigms destroy gender equality

Generally speaking, societies make the most collective gains from highly creative, diverse, and cooperative human endeavors.  Unfortunately, the “us vs them” paradigms that so easily infect those environments can quickly and completely undermine those achievements.  When we separate ourselves from one another, we are prone to threaten, posture, marginalize, and ruthlessly compete for the resources we think will bring greater security and power to ourselves and those with whom we closely identify.  When our objective is to destroy or correct our opponents, we escalate conflicts rather than resolving them.  We get drunk on our own self-righteous indignation and lose sight of how our anger, discouragement, and contempt are all borne out of our less-than-righteous desire to defensively protect our own interests (or moral superiority).  

This battle rages between factions everywhere, but it rages on a global scale between the two of the largest factions on earth – men and women.  Ironically, even though we have profound structural differences, I’m pretty sure that most men and women have the exact same interests.  We want to love and feel loved.  We want to feel important, safe, and at ease with those closest to us.  We want to trust that our partners are loyal and honest with us.  We want to feel pleasure, connection, and purpose in that unity.  We both want to contribute to something bigger than ourselves, have fun, and build things that will outlive us.  There is a profound opportunity for feminists to frame each of their quests for equality as a cause that will unify and help both men and women achieve what we fundamentally want.  I see some starting to use this approach, and I hope that new wave gains traction.  Sadly, I often see feminists hoping to right the wrongs of countless generations with blame, coercion, and guilt.

While there is plenty of blame and guilt to pass around, that’s not how wounds heal, that’s not how humans build trust or respect, and that’s definitely not how we nurture equality.  Rather than employing empathy to better understand how we can all get more of what we all want, we push men into silence with indignant insensitivity.  We tell them "Don't be weak, scared, or insecure" and “How dare you speak of pain. You know nothing of my suffering.”  In many ways, they don’t.  But as I mentioned in Reason #2, that road goes both ways.  If we want men to hear our pain, then doesn’t it make sense to help them to talk about theirs?  Wouldn’t that be a great way to start a dialogue, not just a sermon?  Isn’t that what equality is all about?

Perhaps this is why I feel so protective of both genders.  Perhaps that's why I feel like I can't identify with a group who refuses to empathize with or address BOTH men and women's struggles with feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, and shame.  I know and have seen how hard men and women work, how much they ache, and how deeply they feel the need to love and be loved.  They want to feel capable, powerful, and purposeful in their personal and societal contributions.  Cultures and religions do influence and help shape how we measure and achieve those contributions, and I am not ignorant of the violence and heartache some of those measuring sticks have created, but I think we underestimate the power of this deep desire for love/to be loved.  We ignore how the ever popular “us vs them” paradigm obstructs the love, affection, and respect that would naturally nurture more egalitarian cultures, religions, and relationships from the inside out. 

That being said, I’m not blind to the wounds and problems many if not most women around the world face.  Generational habits, sexual dynamics, and physiological consequences have not favored the empowerment of women.  And it is not my objective to overlook the very real issues of domestic abuse, wage gaps, and sexual assault. I know there are men who can, have, and do use their size and superior strength for abusive and controlling purposes.  I know there are men who use their economic and political advantages for selfish and shortsighted purposes.  I think rather than dwell on these stories though, it would be more productive to point out and discuss the root of these poor behaviors and address those causes. 

For instance, fear is a common root of misogyny (More on this in reason #4).  Rather than shaming men for feeling fear, what if we were to provide them better coping strategies and outline ways of creating safe spaces within intimate relationships?  What if we were to ask why do men fear?  What do they fear?  Why are they willing to hurt others to make themselves feel more powerful?  What are they actually trying to achieve or what internal need is being satisfied by their current behavior?  What if we humanized men and encouraged them to explore their own emotional complexity and vulnerabilities?  What if we allowed them to step out of the role of protector and provider long enough to listen to what they really want most? 

This is speculation, because I’m not a man, but I think, more often than not, men really just want love.  I don’t mean sex, though they may want that as well.  I mean love.  I mean the “I trust you, I admire you, I can rely on you” kind of love.  The kind of love that makes you feel seen, understood, useful, and like you’ve got a partner in crime – all at the same time.  This kind of love does not have to be romantic.  It’s bigger than that, or at least, broader than that.  It’s the kind of love you feel when you clearly see another’s divine identity.  It’s that deep sense of an eternal connection, a reverence for their potential, excitement for those possibilities, and a joy that comes from journeying together. Their wins are your wins. Their pain is your pain. They are your team, and you know it.  We all want this.  We all need this.

Something that hurts me, is realizing how few men continuously experience this kind of love.  I think they get glimpses of it when they play sports or go on missions (ya know…the whole male bonding thing), but many of those bonds are limited.  They are bound up in heterosexual scripting and expectations of stoicism.  Where girls have been given cultural permission to hug, kiss, gab, and bare their soul to one another, men have been boxed into icy containers of personal space and emotional isolation.  They have been for so many generations they aren’t even aware of how emotionally repressed they feel.  They ‘compartmentalize’ or just ‘turn it off’ and think that’s normal, even healthy. 

I’m going to say this once and in large font and all caps in order to convey the degree of passion I feel about this statement: 


Why would we ever try to limit ourselves to such?  We are gods in embryo.  We are meant to experience the full spectrum of emotion and understand how those feelings are connected to eternal laws and truths.  We only avoid emotion if we fear it or don’t understand it.  Avoiding feelings is how trauma victims pathologically cope with their emotional scars and it is well documented how that actually destroys them from the inside out.  Numbing out is an awful way to live life.  We are all emotional beings.  We all have a limbic system.  It is an integral part of our ability to perceive peace, happiness, and love.  We have been charged to care for that system and treat it like a temple, just like the rest of our body.  Boarding up the doors to that temple because we don’t always know what to expect does nothing but remove us from the possibilities of understanding and stagnates our growth.

We need to emotionally liberate men, and we’re only going to do that if we are willing to sacrifice some of our own preferences.  Namely, we have to see men as more than our protectors.  They are our companions, our confidants, and our complements.  We need to remind them that they are enough because, just like us, they are a human worthy of love and belonging.  The differences that define us are also capable of exalting us.  But we have to practice affection, collaboration, patience, compassion, and vulnerability with men who fail, men who feel weak, and men who disappoint us or don’t meet our expectations in some way.   I see the same anxiety in men that I see in the many of the over-achievers I’ve known in my life.  They believe that that failure = weakness = worthlessness = hopelessness.  Despondence, anger, and depression soon follow.  But since men aren’t supposed to feel things, they don’t deal with the root of that emotion.  They ignore it.  They numb out or cap it until it explodes in sporadic fits of rage and pain.

Even as I write that, my thoughts go immediately to many of my friends who have had to cut people out of their lives for emotional and physical abuse (4-5 just within the past year – so if you’re reading this as your own story, know you are not alone).  I feel the need to add that when men and women abuse one another, I think they often do so to avoid facing their own pain, personal failures, and feelings of self-hatred.  They feel powerless, worthless, and much like a victim themselves.  In victimizing their own experience, they blame those they abuse rather than confront the demons that spur the abusive behavior. 

As long as they blame their victims, I’m not sure there is anything that the victim themselves can do other than seek shelter somewhere and nurse their own wounds.  What their abusers need is professional help and group support.  They need a safe environment full of strong boundaries where they can confront emotional demons, practice vulnerability, learn to be more accountable, and seek healing themselves so that they can become capable of nurturing emotional and physical safety in more intimate relationships. 

Yes, men are more often the aggressive abusers in intimate relationships, but I don’t think these men are evil, awful, or sociopathic.  Abuse is a cycle and those who abuse have probably been abused or abandoned in some way themselves.  I know most are disgusted by their own behavior but can’t really run from the turmoil that propagates it.  They want to stop but they don’t know how.  They genuinely feel like they are the victim in these situations.  They blame their circumstances for the loss of their temper and destroy relationships because somebody they love did something to hurt them or make them mad.  They see themselves as victims of others insensitivity, lack of love, or lack of understanding.  Their feelings of deep worthlessness and powerlessness have convinced them that they are not fully responsible or accountable for their actions.  They react with violence and vitriol to everything that hurts, and since they are so deeply and catastrophically wounded – everything hurts. 

To those who abuse: there are resources out there (Addiction recovery programs, groups like, psychologists, psychiatrists, non-traditional therapies, etc).  If you are not actively using them, then the likelihood is you will continue to destroy all of your most intimate relationships.  Sure, you might maintain your casual friendships.  But if you want to be vulnerable, open, and safe with your partner, you need to go inside, heal, and become safe enough for them to be vulnerable and open with you.  Please resist the urge to isolate yourself into fixing all your own problems.  Please seek help.   

To the abused: The insidious nature of abuse is that until you heal, those contagious feelings of self-hatred, worthlessness, and powerlessness will continue to destroy your life and relationships.  You may not respond to those feelings with the same violence as your abuser, but they will have the same destructive effect on your life and relationships.  Empower yourself to stop the cycle of abuse by finding the healing and help you need as well.

Wow, this got heavy.  I’d say I’m sorry, but I’m not sorry.  I want men to stop hurting in silence.  I want women to stop hurting in solitude.  I think if we can ditch the us vs them paradigm of yesteryears feminist dogmas, we might find more success in stopping both.  Men and women would both do well to see one another as allies not enemies.  Imagine how differently we would talk to one another if we saw the internal tumult each of us are trying to navigate.  Imagine how our expectations would shift from ‘You’re supposed to save me’ to something more like ‘Hey, lets team up and help one another do this life thing.’   Imagine if instead of us vs them, it was just…us.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

We interrupt this message...

I’ve been trying to write the next 3 posts for almost a year.  I’ve written and re-written countless pages, trying to figure out how to accurately describe my perspective, but it just hasn’t felt whole or right.  I realize there was something I danced around in those three posts that I just need to address separately.  So before I can get into the rest of my divergence from popular feminism,  I need to talk about fear.  I need to delve into its causes, consequences, and forms.  

We are mortal.  We feel pain.  We get sick.  We die.  We know these are always possibilities because of our ability to imagine and anticipate, and many of us go to great lengths to avoid, mitigate, or put off those events.  This aversion to death and pain is deeply rooted in our primitive brains and has helped to perpetuate the human race through countless dangerous and traumatic circumstances.  It’s a useful tool and an extremely powerful motivator, meant to help us avoid unpleasant and deadly circumstances.  But I strongly believe that fear itself is a poor companion and guide.  Like our sex drive, fear is just another survival process built into our physiology that doesn’t give a lick about our overall sense of peace, joy, fulfillment, or even love.  The process is there to propagate our carbon-based existence, not our spiritual or temporal happiness or wellbeing.  Thus fear must be perpetually and properly managed, or else it will pathologically influence and control our choices. 

Sidenote: those that haven’t seen Inside Out need to stop reading this and go take care of that right now.  It does an incredible job of creating a verbal framework around some of the intangible and often unintelligible concepts I’m going to be describing.   

If you think about your different emotions and rationale as the team that runs your cognition and decisions, fear is the absolute worst kind of team leader. It is neither concerned with nor capable of things like trust, faith, or forgiveness.  Its 100% interested in self-preservation and its sole focus is avoidance of unpleasant things.  It has no long-term vision and is bad at managing priorities.  It avoids transparency and vulnerability and is constantly in competition with others for greater security and safety.  It forms relationships to find protection and assurance, not love or progression.  

If fear is the driving emotion or motivator in our lives, it’s the white-knuckled crank that refuses to enjoy the drive because to it, the purpose of that drive it to survive, not thrive. It is overly reactive, easily stressed out by any unexpected circumstances, and it absolutely abhors chaos, risk, or getting too close to others.  It refuses to take detours for scenery or pleasure, and it doesn’t want any new thoughts or other emotions distracting it from the task at hand.  The irony is that fear's ‘task at hand’ is to avoid conditions that are ultimately inevitable; namely, pain and death.

We are complex, gregarious, and mortal creatures, and full joy is rarely achieved in the absence of pain.  Often we find fulfillment, happiness, and peace by trudging through perilous circumstances.  Fear would steer us away from all threats, but much of that effort accomplishes nothing.  Life is hard, unjust, and temporal.  Pain is a part of that life.  Fear tries to avoid it, but life has little respect for that evasion, and eventually forces us down one path of pain or another.  Like a two year old avoiding her bed time, these wasted efforts are sometimes more painful than the fate itself.  Living to avoid pain and death is like jumping to avoid gravity. Good luck.

That being said, I do think fear has a place in our internal world.  If you burn your hand on a hot stove, fear is very good at reminding you to avoid that action in the future.  And I think it is important to acknowledge when we feel fear.  It quickly brings our attention to threats, and that’s sometimes a good thing. But I’m almost positive that fear should never be allowed to navigate or take precedence over our other inner voices.  That is no small task.  Fear is a backseat driver, drama queen, and total control freak.  Life is treacherous, unpredictable, risky, and wild.  Fear constantly uses this chaos to support its case for taking charge, but fear is a psychopathic sociopath.  It is selfish and quick to see others as competitive threats to its survival.  If left to its own devices, fear will create nothing but a long, miserable, and deeply lonely life. 

Oh, and one more thing.  Fear has a hard time distinguishing between psychological threats and mortal ones.  And while modern society has mitigated a lot of mortal threats, it has created countless new psychological ones in the process (whether they should or not is another topic for another time).  The blog “wait but why” addressed this brilliantly in Taming the Mammoth: Why You Should Stop Caring What Other People Think.  Read it. It may change your life. 

The gist of that post is that modern-day society’s diversity and social-networking capacities have exposed us to unprecedented social and internal conflict.  This inundation of psychological threats has made fear’s evolutionary advantages obsolete and even counterproductive in creating a life worth living.  I might argue that this disadvantage has been the case since civilizations first formed, but it is definitely more pronounced and exacerbated in our highly connected and diverse society.  Think of the rampant organizational distrust, social isolation, pandemic-like depression and anxiety, and the uptick in suicides and drug overdoses over the last 15 years, most of which can be accounted for by middle aged, white Americans.  But how can such a privileged group be so psychologically under siege?  

In a diverse world, our fear-fueled impulses to conform to and get approval from society (because there is safety in numbers) becomes more intense but also incredibly taxing.  Think of how much mental energy it takes to empathize or feel safe with a stranger who views the world very differently from you.  Now multiply that unit of energy by the number of people you have the potential to interact with.  The more connected we are, the more opportunity we have for disagreements, conflict, social chaos, and, therefore, anxiety.  Add anonymity and the element of surprise to that potential conflict (like, say, an internet troll or terrorist), and social anxiety can quickly escalate into paranoia, bigotry, and demographic isolation.  These divisions are a product of fear's hyper-vigilant efforts to find protection in the herd.  Thus, the ability to incite fear in diverse groups is one of the best ways to divisively turn people against one another.  

One popular method of coping with these divisions is to use the phrase “what an idiot” as a means of reassurance. We disparage those with whom we disagree to mitigate the threat of a new idea or internal conflict. Engaging with and trying to understand the perspective of our ideological opponents requires us to be vulnerable, unsure, and (heaven forbid!) humble.  An ancient survival tactic that fear uses to avoid that vulnerability is to find others who think like us, amass an army, and make war with, marginalize, or disenfranchise those who see things differently.  Because both sides are doing the same thing, this only causes disagreements to escalate, even to the point where human lives are being sacrificed in an attempt to create ideological order.  In our highly-connected social world, these ideological armies can become infinitely large, giving members of each group even more surety that ‘their side’ is the ‘right side.’  Size and perceived moral superiority then encourages them to further abuse and remove themselves from their opponents.  And, ta-da!…we have an increasingly polarized and violent society.  But I’ve digressed…back to fear.

In some ways, psychological threats are worse than mortal threats.  They are often chronic, difficult to identify, and even harder to address.  While caves, homes, and villages have the capacity to give us temporary refuge from mortal threats, it’s much harder to find a reprieve from the threats created in and fostered by our own minds.  We are never at our best when we feel chronically under threat.  We don’t think as clearly, we lack self-control and long-term focus, we become emotionally erratic or abusive and often feel empty and unfulfilled.  Our fight or flight response helps us to act quickly, but not wisely. We are better as a whole when we fight fear as a whole.  Unfortunately, I see a lot of fear-mongering and divisive practices in popular feminism.  I think that those tactics do a poor job of nurturing gender equality because true equality is only achieved through unity. Thus, I have a pretty strong aversion to anything and anyone who employs fear to accrue and motivate followers. 

Again, I don’t think feminism is bad.  Again, I am absolutely on board with the objective of gender equality.   I just feel no need to declare myself as part of a herd that disparages or vilifies other herds.  Gender equality (and human equality) is a fundamental part of my faith, and I feel a spiritual obligation to support any measure that promotes it.  However, I do not accept that equality will ever be achieved if one group is fighting, disrespecting, or marginalizing another.  Inequality hurts us all, and I think the best way of progressing toward equality is by encouraging empathy, self-knowledge, and mutual empowerment, not fear, blame, and shame.  Pockets of feminism are adopting the attitude of addressing disparity is by lifting the whole.  Perhaps if they become the majority, the name will change and I could jump on board that train.  We're not there yet though, and the next three posts are going to address the current practices that I think are getting in the way.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Reason #2: Gender equality does not require gender equivalence

Disclaimer: Let me just preface with the fact that this particular post is really written to address the 98% of heterosexual humans that identify as either male or female, and is meant to examine their relationship with one another.  To the last 2%: you matter, you're important, but you may not relate to some of the issues I'm going to bring up, so please forgive my temporary exclusion.  

Men and women are not the same.  Their genetic, physical, and hormonal differences, regardless of cultural expectations and personal perceptions, lead to fundamental differences in their capacities, desires, experiences, and/or goals.  As humans, our bodies and brains do influence how we perceive the world.  To date, scientists have found around 100 differences between men's and women's brains, and study after study after study has shown how our physical structure influences our mental/emotional perceptions.  So before I flesh out Reason #2, it seems paramount to establish that men and women are structurally different, and that this has far reaching consequences.

For instance, estrogen, which does far more than run female reproductive organs, oscillates a LOT more in women than men and can even have an opposite effect on men.  This oscillation affects serotonin levels, endorphin production, and a host of other ambiguous processes that scientists have been trying to understand for decades.  Though I would argue this oscillation is ultimately beneficial, and part of what makes us so awesome, we cannot pretend that this oscillation does not affect on our choices and desires (anybody who has felt the tick-tok of your fertility or PMS knows exactly what I mean).

And thanks, in part, to the ratio of our sex hormones (usually dictated by our XX or XY chromosomes), women have the appropriate structures to incubate, deliver, and feed a baby.  Men only have the structures necessary to start that process.  Yes, those are obvious, perhaps even trite examples, but I'm surprised by how often we write off the consequences of those differences as unimportant or inconsequential.  If we were all unisexual or capable of asexual reproduction, maybe we wouldn't be so different.  But we are not.  And there are consequences to that arrangement.

For instance, women will probably never know what it's like to be terrified of getting kicked in the testicles, the embarrassment of a surprise erection (or no erection), nor do they have to learn to control their roid-rage during puberty.  No man will understand what it's like to bear children, have a period, or experience menopause.  These experiences are not insignificant and definitely affect how we process life.  Broadly, I would even argue that the consequence of all those physical differences is the root of many gendered behavioral differences.  They cause heterosexual men and women to desire, 'feel completed by', and want to please/impress one another, while simultaneously making it almost impossible for them to fully empathize with and 'understand one another.

This struggle for empathy, combined with our innate desire/attraction is, in my perceptions, what makes gender dynamics so complicated and messy.  No matter how sensitive, kind, or patient a guy is, he will never really understand what it's like to be a woman (and vice versa).  He will have to consciously stretch his frontal lobe capacity to put himself in her shoes, to woo her, understand her, value her, and constantly learn to love her.  But his empathy is always limited by his inability to grasp some of her experiences and his libido and ego will always present him with opportunities to see her as an object or opportunity for pleasure rather than an equally infinite and complicated being that should be reverenced as a complimentary counterpart (and vice versa - women are not off the hook there).

And while I may not ever truly understand a man, I can appreciate the challenge and fulfillment that comes from trying to understand and work with him for the rest of my life.  I personally think being drawn to and paired with a being fundamentally and structurally different from you is a great way to make sure we spend our entire lives engaged in efforts to learn, forgive, empathize, and become more like God.  I think the inherent differences (and the behavioral consequences) between men and women can be beautiful and synergistic, and in a culture of mutual respect, consideration, and admiration, far more beneficial to our economy and society than awkward attempts to equivocate the sexes and the gender roles they adopt.

So this is the basis for my #2 issue with feminism.  Too often, I feel like feminism disregards the underlying currents that influence and shape male/female behavior, and labels some gendered characteristics as inferior to others, while simultaneously trying to redistribute, rewrite, and advertise hypothetical gender patterns that 'should' exist.  But I don't believe one gender or gendered behavior is inherently better or worse than the other, no matter which sex tends to adopt which pattern.  I don't think femininity is less powerful, influential, or important than masculinity.  I don't think masculinity is less impressive, beneficial, or necessary than femininity.

Again, I believe strongly in gender equality.  Not only are men and women equal in value, and thus should be valued equally, but I also believe that behaviors associated with a certain genders (ie. assertiveness - masculinity - men, or risk-aversion - femininity - women) need to be equally valued just as our sexes should be.  Nurturing and submissive behaviors are NOT less important, less potent, or less valuable than protective or aggressive ones.  Investments in intimacy, family, and relationships are NOT inferior to advancements in career or academic accolades.  They all have importance and place, even if they do not yield equal publicity, pay, or prominence.  Human worth is not measured in those things, nor should personality or gender be.

And in my mind, feminism would actually benefit far more from emphasizing the power and value of classically 'feminine' characteristics (like sensitivity, softness, meekness, etc) than trying to arbitrarily redistribute masculine ones.  Yes, men and women are all a hodgepodge mixture of masculine and feminine traits.  Each individual is their own yin/yang.  But in a world where we have to work together, we do have a tendency to emphasize or lean into our yin or yang according to the opposites we wish to attract or spend time around.  This WILL have an effect on our gender dynamics, and if we ever hope to achieve gender equality, we have to equally value the gender roles we adopt when opposites attract (since ya know...those attractions are what actually create societies).

For example, I may possess and excel at many masculine behaviors, but I LOVE the opportunity to balance the power of a secure man's masculinity with the power of my self-assurance and femininity.  The attempt at interdependence becomes a beautiful (and even fun) dance.  And it's not that I lose my more masculine characteristics in the dance, but more that I don't have to rely on them so much (which is kinda nice).  Rather, I find myself being able to explore and extend more into my femininity than is possible by myself because of the cantilever effect his masculinity offers.  I like that mobility.  It has helped me get to know parts of myself I didn't even know existed.  Perhaps that is why most women I know (feminists included) really enjoy, and often try to attract, masculine men.

That being said, do I think we need to push some of the boundaries we have created dictating what is masculine and what is feminine?  Absolutely!  I think men are being just as harmed by some of those current constraints as women.  Some characteristics classically associated with masculinity and femininity need to be perceived as more unisexual.  Self-confidence, emotional intelligence, compassion, influence, power, and self-sufficiency are a few that come to mind.  There should be nothing gendered about those characteristics because we are all divinely powerful human beings meant to learn, improve, and love one another for eternity.  None of that is gender or sex specific.  We should be independently developing all of those no matter who we are dating or married to because they are the foundation of self that allows for all relationships to thrive - whether romantic or not.

Will the practice of those characteristics look the same for men and women?  Probably not.  But again, I think that's okay. We can and should work to help one another become the kind of humans we all want to be in whatever way best suits our goals and capacities.  I also think we need to anticipate that men and women will not partake of all opportunities and behaviors in equal numbers, and accept that that's okay, as long as that's their choice.

Nobody should question or belittle a human's capacity to earn respect, trust, opportunity, and responsibility.  Men and women are equally capable of choice, progress, and influence - even if our methods vary.  Whatever 'gendered' behaviors we adopt are equally capable of being powerful and beneficial to society.  However, I do think gender equivalence is a myth.  Not because men can't be feminine and women can't be masculine, but because I think we are structurally, socially, and sexually inclined to enjoy being paired with and complimentary to a gender that is different from our own.

So rather than arbitrarily trying to homogenize the traits across the sexes, we should focus on how to authentically create a balanced team - drawing on the strengths of whatever behaviors we are inclined to adopt to create something incredible.  That doesn't mean all women should be strictly feminine and all men hyper-masculine, but it does mean we should encourage one another to be self aware and find places where our individual balance can be a contribution to the teams we enter into.  It does mean we should be advertising the value of traits that don't necessarily equate to higher salaries or bigger titles, but do equate to better relationships.  Ultimately, I think respectism and the world at large would actually benefit from recognizing and cherishing those qualities that exert a more subtle (but not less powerful) force for good.  Not only would it give people more permission and encouragement to develop those traits, but I bet it would help both men and women to focus less on 'who is in charge' and more on working together to get what they both ultimately want (aka love, belonging, and each other).