Naming the Pervasiveness of Gendered and Additional Forms of Violence

My not-yet three year old recently came home from preschool and told me a boy called a girl stupid and stinky. I’m very conscious that this was a single statement at a particular moment in time. Unfortunately, it occurred amidst Brett Kavanaugh being confirmed and multiple clients revealing past and present emotional, physical, and sexual abuse by cisgender men. I also have been hearing my young female clients recount their male peers calling them, among other nasty things, a horse. Fat. Moustached. My toddler’s story reminded me how early the conditioning begins to discount and diminish anything associated with femininity in our culture, including entire human beings. As Jess Zimmerman so poignantly asserted,

The problem with misogyny in this country goes beyond the oppression of women—although that alone should be a reason to shatter the patriarchy where it stands. It’s also the oppression of anything seen as feminine: those who show ‘weakness,’ which is defined in our patriarchal system as anything outside the two acceptable masculine modes of brutish violence and cold indifference. Even cisgender men suffer when they are not able to convincingly perform this twisted vision of manliness. One of the automatic black marks on your masculinity performance grade is caring too much about anyone outside the male/straight/white/able ideal (i.e., the people allowed into our toxic masculine vision of strength). The practical upshot of this is that the entire left wing—yes, even the socialist irony bros—is, on a metaphorical level, a bevy of maidens. Our culture is dominated by men, yes, but more than that, it’s dominated by masculinity. No matter how much male privilege you have and regularly wield, going up against cardinal masculine virtues like violence, wealth, and the unchecked use of power taints you with a feminine stain, and in our society, femininity is disdained.

We have nothing short of the decolonization of our minds before us us if we want to tear down what scholar Francisco Valdes calls Euroheteropatriarchy. His words from 1996 are worth quoting, as he lays out the four foundational components of “the ideology of compulsory heteropatriarchy” in a country colonized by Europeans:

the bifurcation of personhood into ‘male’ and ‘female’ components under the active/passive paradigm; the polarization of these male/female sex/gender ideals into mutually exclusive, or even opposing, identity composites; the penalization of gender atypicality or transitivity; and the devaluation of persons who are feminized…through the hierarchical and coercive operation of these tenets, Euro-American sex/gender ideology inhibits sex/gender cultural diversity, harmony, and equality, and also subverts individual sex/gender autonomy and dignity.

In less academic terms, we have learned to accept extremely narrow, opposing gendered versions of others and ourselves and use those limited stories to dominate and coerce the majority of the population: women, gender non-conforming and expansive folks, and anyone else who dares suggest that being “active” is not only the domain of men who, it turns out, have the human capacity to be receptive, expressive, and gentle as well.

My work as a psychotherapist is inherently political, as I consistently challenge this ideology and its harmful impacts on my clients. I regularly highlight signs of appropriated beliefs and identities, understanding that none of us came out of the womb with such rigid, dichotomous, and destructive views of the world. They were actively taught to us by multiple institutions, including our most intimate one—the family, however it is configured and including the different kinds of relationships within it (e.g., romantic, parental, sibling). When clients experience the liberation that comes from unlearning this doctrine and embracing more fluid, open constructions of self, I take heart in knowing they will take these lessons out into the world and their interactions with others.

I am particularly buoyed when I see someone who has been coerced and dominated sit more upright, roll their shoulders back, and, instead of jumping straight into the “It’s my fault” narrative, begin to report the factors beyond themself that led to abuse. They also begin contacting the anger that is entirely appropriate when we have been exploited, silenced, and demeaned. If rage, which I have come to think about as anger plus trauma, emerges, we work on releasing the trauma stuck in their bodies so that the anger returns to a less overwhelming size. Although rage can be paralyzing because we fear it will ravage those around us if we give it the light of day, anger can be a galvanizing force, used to inspire a collective power that has justice, not more violence and domination, as its aim.

I recently had the honor of working with a pre-teen client whose male peers and family members repeatedly and ruthlessly bullied her. During one session, I asked her to push with all her might against my hands. The relief she felt after doing so was palpable, as was a renewed sense of hope and possibility. Before my eyes, she transformed from a reed, pushed to the ground by the toxic wind surrounding her, to a tree—aware of and influenced by these brutal social forces while simultaneously refusing to let them dictate her story. This is the power of making accessible to the “feminine” among us the collective, relational, and internal resources that lift us up rather than keep us down. As psychotherapist Esther Perel said, “There is no greater vengeance against sexual abuse than to reclaim one’s full sexuality and celebrate it.” I would extend this argument beyond sexuality, to the reclamation of our whole selves. Of course, we need safe-enough relationships and social spaces to engage in such redemption, and I do not take for granted that such emotional and physical safety is a privilege in our current reality.

The capacity to move beyond the destructive ideology of Euroheteropatriarchy requires a certain maturity in thought and emotion that many of us have not yet attained, often because our development was stopped in its tracks by the misogyny described above. Talking about what he calls “the crisis in masculinity,” psychotherapist Terry Real describes how most boys know better than to express their feelings by the time they are three to five years old. “Before they know how to read,” he argues, “they know how to read the code of masculinity.” What stood out to me most about Kavanaugh’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee was how childish his tone, demeanor, and words were. Shining through all the bluster of our president, Kavanaugh, and Lindsey Graham is the truth that several boys with heaps of unmet emotional needs are currently leading our institutions and country.

I had the honor of taking a graduate course from Anne McClintock, wonderfully titled “Paranoid Empires: Masculinities and War Zones.” While watching Kavanaugh, I remembered Professor McClintock describing the experience of studying the interactions between a dominatrix and her clients, many of whom were wealthy, powerful business men. Instead of engaging in forbidden sexual acts, they paid significant sums of money to wear a diaper and be fed baby food or scrub the bathroom floor with a toothbrush. Clearly it is time to reclaim the parts of humanity that patriarchy has deemed unmanly so that more grown men can join us in the struggle. To borrow from Esther Perel again, “You know the word ‘emasculating’ does not exist in the feminine? That’s a plague for men.” 

A false sense of safety frequently accompanies dominating, controlling behavior, and it takes some significant chutzpah for the more “masculine” among us to work with the threat of vulnerability long enough to be able to look under the covers and stay there—to make actual contact with the harm inflicted by a binary gender system that rests on a power-over dynamic. On this point, I want to be clear that the easy route is to stay in the binary and attribute all sorts of stereotypical characteristics to “men” and “women” upon first meeting them: “He is aggressive.” “She is emotionally needy.” “He is insensitive.” “She’s overly dramatic.” Working within the unique four walls of therapeutic settings, I’ve been lucky to have greater access to the complex human beings underneath our limited and limiting sociocultural conditioning. I’m particularly grateful that I’ve been able to work with several cisgender men who have consistently shown me that our conditioning is not our destiny. I also have learned from my clients that one’s social identities do not necessarily predict or prevent abusive behavior—all of us can and do appropriate the ubiquitous forms of oppression in our environment.

Although many of my male clients were taught to carry the torch of misogyny and scald others with it, some have been able to contact a larger awareness that allows them to set that torch down and stop the devastation. It turns out that the impulse to exploit patriarchal systems is not immutably encoded in their DNA. Euroheteropatriachy is a cultural script that we all have the power to rewrite. Somewhere along the way, these men also learned empathy and do not wish to keep harming others in the service of maintaining their domination. They understand the difference between intention and impact and show restraint when the impulse arises to defend their intention. Accordingly, they have the capacity to actively listen and come to understand the impact of their behaviors on others. Our most evolved human moments involve a felt understanding that we are interdependent. These men demonstrate with their bodies and emotions, not just their intellects, that when I violate you, I diminish myself. If a reckoning is due, they take responsibility for repairing the ruptures their harmful behavior has wrought.

Humility also plays a major role here. I have great appreciation for Paul Gorski who asserts a profeminist rather than a feminist stance so as not to diminish the self-determination of the very people fighting for liberation in the first place. In his words:

One of the ways I witness patriarchy, even among men who identify with the feminist movement, is in our willingness to battle sex and gender oppression so long as we control the process for doing so. So, as a pro-feminist, I act in support of feminism and work to eliminate the injustices women experience. But I also acknowledge that, despite these efforts, I benefit from patriarchy, at least in the economic sense. I acknowledge, as well, that it is one thing to fight oppression, but it is something else altogether to fight oppression while I am experiencing the oppression I’m attempting to fight. Failure on my part to make this distinction is, in essence, a symptom of patriarchy, an example of male privilege. So by identifying as profeminist, I remind myself that among the most fundamental human rights is the right for oppressed people to decide for themselves how to win their liberation. It is my role, then, to serve rather than lead toward these ends.

Unfortunately, I’ve also encountered the unacknowledged shadow side of some male clients and additionally identified clients—including women—who have appropriated the beliefs and tools of Euroheteropatriarchy. When someone is consistently the recipient of blame-shifting and gaslighting, enormous self-doubt and a sense of being crazy are usually the result. Lacy Johnson’s recent essay eloquently captures the ways that abuse wears one down over time until there’s no longer a recognizable self in the relationship:

I was supposed to be flattered that my Spanish professor liked me enough to invite me to his apartment while I was still his student, to his bed, that he invited me to live with him. He was the one who taught me that it actually didn’t matter how likable I was, there was always the threat of violence or punishment for saying or doing something he didn’t like. We could be at the market choosing fish and fresh tomatoes for dinner and his hand would be resting on the small of my back and the next moment it would be raised to strike me. I tried diminishing myself in such a way that I wouldn’t provoke him, wouldn’t anger him, tried to bend myself according to his pleasure so that he would like everything I did and said and thought. It didn’t matter, because no matter what I did, it was never enough. I kept at it anyway, until there was almost nothing left of me, of the person I had been. And that person I became, who was barely a person of her own, is the version of me he liked best.

These clients rarely have the insight to understand the harm they have inflicted. So if they show up in my office, they often have been pressured to do so by people who have the power to negatively influence their life in one way or another. Sometimes they come in as a couple with the conscious or unconscious goal of forcing their partner to better meet their needs. My task in the first situation is to assess readiness for change. To quote one of my mentors, “No one gave the Buddha enlightenment.” I also am not interested in using the therapeutic setting to engage in coercive, manipulative tactics that reinforce the very systems I would like to dismantle.

If I am working with partners in the same room, the work is different, as I stop couples therapy in its tracks if I learn that abuse is occurring in the relationship. I agree with Phyllis Frank and Gail Golden that instead of continuing couples therapy when one partner is intimidating, controlling, and/or dominating another,

Strong, confrontive, counseling with individual men [and additionally identified abusive partners], that defines the spectrum of abuse, and locates the responsibility for his abusiveness solely with him is a good beginning. It is also vital to provide the abuser with all of the information necessary to make personal transformation a reality. This information must include an understanding of patriarchy in the United States and its impact on individuals, couples and families. Such intervention is the best protection for a woman from the therapeutic abuse perpetrated by assuming that she has a part in provoking her partner’s behavior.

Although I have compassion for abusive individuals since they often are repeating intergenerational patterns taught to them from the moment of conception, have themselves been abused, and have been emotionally stunted by the Euroheteropatriarchy described above, I have a responsibility to safeguard the dignity of my clients and myself. I also want to send a strong message to my clients that we need not tolerate abusive behavior, even if the external messages bombarding us send the exact opposite message. To my fellow therapists out there, these words from Kathy Steele are especially for you:

We are taught that maintaining the relationship and not being aggressive ourselves are important. They are, but not at the expense of the therapist’s well being. The therapist should not have to be abused in order to help an abused patient. Allowing a patient to be aggressive and disrespectful toward you only reinforces that this behavior is acceptable in relationships. Often these patients are coming to us precisely because they are losing relationships due to their difficult behaviors, so we have an obligation not to collude with them to continue a destructive course of behavior.

As a therapist, I have been struck by how many women and nonbinary clients feel intense grief when I walk them through an exercise that involves finding a real or imagined place they associate with safety, calm, or peace. They report that this practice has exposed how rarely they feel safe or at ease in their daily lives. Again, I do not want to suggest that only women are deprived of this essential element of our dignity. I want us to consider how much life, wisdom, and creativity have been lost due to this pervasive sense of threat.

 Image Credit:  AP/Damian Dovarganes

Image Credit: AP/Damian Dovarganes

At this point in time, we have the joint task of challenging the brutality of Euroheteropatriarchy and refusing to martyr ourselves for the cause. There is no redeeming value in self-harm. Present-day events are holding up a repulsive mirror. Misogyny is not new; it is harder to ignore. May we build up our communities and ourselves to a point that we can look fearlessly into this mirror and create more humane and grown-up spaces in which to relate to one another and govern an authentic democracy (with a little “d”).