Ty Volante on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

Ty Volante is a tender spirit with a gentle strength. My partner once called him the kind of guy you’d want to have in a repopulating-the-earth sort of situation, and I absolutely agree. He looks for growth, understanding, and enjoyment in most everything he does, and he especially enjoys when any of this happens outdoors. He can often be found enjoying the company of others, philosophizing, talking politics, or engaged in what ever sport the weather will allow.

Ty is an especially delightful interviewee for me to have the honor of including, because he was my first male best friend and also the first guy I met who didn’t play by gender “rules.” When we met at the sweet age of thirteen, he had rainbow hair and painted nails. I thought that was the coolest, and there has certainly been no shortage of coolness to witness in him in the twenty-two years that we’ve been friends since.

What would you say are the characteristics of sacred masculinity?

Certainly, strength is one that immediately comes to mind. Courage seems like another that transcends time and cultural influences. Toughness. Adventurousness…

In starting to answer this, I found myself a bit stumped on the most essential characteristics beyond the ones above that immediately popped into my mind, so I turned to the global repository of human knowledge for inspiration. Surprisingly, the first link I clicked on gave me what I was looking for. Despite the cringe-worthy décor and title, this website and this article in particular did, I thought, a nice job at distilling a response to this question. It doesn’t hurt that it confirmed some of my already-written responses. Though I don’t agree with all of it, I thought it was interesting. Below are a couple of notable passages, though I’d encourage reading the whole thing.

“These were the factors that our forbearers weighed on the scale in making the decision to assign the protector role to men. It wasn’t a matter of plain sexism, and trying to keep women down, but a basic biological calculation. In a harsh environment that was rife with perils both natural and human, it was a strategic decision designed to increase a tribe’s chances of survival and keep the most people alive. Individual desires and differences were trumped by group needs.

Thus, an innate attraction to and greater comfort with violence likely naturally drew men to the way of the warrior and made them well-suited for being tasked with the role of protector.

Donovan argues that understanding the dynamics of these ancient honor groups is the key to understanding the essence of male psychology and how men relate to, interact, and judge each other even up through the modern day. What men respect in other men (and women find attractive), is rooted in what men wanted in the men to the left and the right of them as they stood together side-by-side on the perimeter.

Strength, courage, mastery, and honor are virtues that obviously aren’t exclusive to men, and it’s not that there haven’t been women who have embodied these traits in every age (as we shall see next time, the idea of a soft, fragile femininity is a modern conception). It isn’t that women shouldn’t seek these attributes either. Rather, the tactical virtues comprise the defining traits of masculinity. If a woman isn’t strong or acts afraid in the face of danger, no one thinks of her as less womanly because of it. Yet such shortcomings will be seen as emasculating in a man, even today.”

I also liked this quote I found on a very different site that sort of reaches the same conclusion, with different terms: “Rather than defining strength as ‘power over,’ feminist masculinity defines strength as one’s capacity to be responsible for self and others.”

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

Growing up, they were mostly those I was exposed to through popular culture. Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Clint Eastwood in everything. Superman, Batman and other male superheros in comic books. Today, I would say mostly athletes, especially the ones that exist amongst environments rife with toxic masculinity (professional sports) but avoid the negative expressions of their gender that are so ubiquitous there. Interestingly, one could argue that athletics are modern displays of all of the things that make people good warriors and protectors. Strength (really all physical attributes, but the more ‘manly’ games emphasize strength), teamwork, quick-thinking and strategy, passion, fearlessness/courage. In the way that the author of the post in the last question defined the most essential traits of masculinity as the traits you’d look for in who you’d want to stand with you in war, the modern analog is, what are the traits you’d select in a teammate? In so far as the athlete is the modern archetype of masculinity, he is all of those things, but constrained by honor, respect and sportsmanship. President Obama is, to me, an archetype of the modern expression of masculinity – mentally fit, articulate, strategic, loving, virtuous and kind. He seems like a good man who is also good at being a man, to use a turn of phrase from the article above. And maybe more fundamentally, like I think most people who grew up with a [healthy] father in their lives, he is an archetype that teaches us what it is to “be a man.”

What do you think is needed for more of us to understand and embody these traits?

First, I think we need to spend more time as a society asking ourselves what our archetypes should look like, and what makes up the ideals and traits of our conception of masculinity. As much as these ideals are shaped by our cultural lenses, we need to understand our roles in creating them and how we have the ability to encourage or discourage a healthier view of masculinity. And then, we need more leadership from men that will demonstrate (live) these traits in highly visible ways that inspire and compel others to do so too as well as establish them as the ideals.

What role(s) do you believe the masculine has in regards to the feminine? What do you see as a balanced dynamic there?

Yin and Yang. Both equal and essential parts of a whole. Without one, the other is not complete. Just as men need women to continue our species, and vice versa, masculine energy needs its aggressive and violent tendencies softened and smoothed out by feminine energy. In fact, I think most of the problems we see in modern society are due to an imbalance in the way that masculine energy has an out-sized influence in what is predominantly a global patriarchal structure.

What is the role of vulnerability in strength?

Someone smarter than me once said, “Strength is not having no weaknesses, but it is the ability to recognize one’s weaknesses and to address them.” I’m not sure if that relates to vulnerability exactly, nor was it meant to, but I think admitting weaknesses or shortcomings can be viewed as a form of vulnerability. Furthermore, asking for help in addressing weakness is a form of vulnerability because it requires saying to another, “I’m not perfect, and I need your help.” Any time we rely on someone or ask them for help, that requires a level of vulnerability, and so far as we all have flaws, we all should learn to rely on others.

How would you re-define the phrase, “be a man?”

I would like to redefine it “be a good man” in the way that the following passage explains the difference between being a ‘good man’ and ‘being good at being a man.’

“Strength, courage, mastery, and honor are the attributes needed in a team of Navy SEALs just as much as a family of Mafioso. If you’ve ever wondered why we are fascinated by gangsters, pirates, bank robbers, and outlaws of all stripes, and can’t help but think of them as pretty manly despite their thuggery and extralegal activities, now you know; they’re not good men, but they’ve mastered the core fundamentals of being good at being men.”

That is, I’d like it to mean not only ‘be manly,’ as if that was something valuable or good in and of itself, which it isn’t really, but ‘be a better person.’

What do you think we’ve been getting wrong about masculinity?

That it just means power and that it is the antonym of weakness. And that being good at being a man means the same thing as being a good man. See above. Finally, that there is no room in masculinity for emotion.

What’s your favorite thing about being a man?

Other than the convenience of standing peeing, I don’t know if I have one. I joke, but seriously, most of the things that are enjoyable about being a man come from the power and privilege bestowed by a partriarchical society that is fundamentally unjust and that I’d like to see become more egalitarian. I suppose one thing that I enjoy is that I don’t have as much societal (and/or biological) pressure to have children younger than I have felt ready.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

I think it will look more like femininity or at least a less pronounced version of what it is now, as more people come to see the virtues of both and the need for balance and the fact that we all possess both types of energy, if only we were not culturally bound by the need to express only one and conform to the mold. The future I see, both men and women are more balanced beings, exhibiting the gender traits that feel more comfortable or natural to them, with no pressure from society to conform to one or the other, but blend the best parts of both and celebrate that, free from social stigma.

Get a little more Ty on Instagram.

Dr. Nigel Stepp on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

Nigel Stepp is a natural born scientist- one who became a career scientist not because of a desire to possess knowledge, but simply to enjoy it. His doctorate is in experimental psychology and he works in the Information and Systems Sciences Laboratory at HRL. His work steeps him in abstraction, which affords the ability to look at things from multiple angles and clarify their forms. This intimate way of approaching knowledge permeates much of his life, and it’s palpable when you’re in his presence. His dedicated curiosity and eloquence is very inspiring. And his particular flavor of appreciation for truth is a reminder that intimate understanding is rarely disappointing, and that awareness yields possibility.

I was hoping this interview series would go the direction that Nigel takes it through the complexity and depth of his answers. The concept of masculinity really is multi-layered, and as he demonstrates, understanding it more intimately is a provocative and important experience.

What would you say are the characteristics of sacred masculinity?

This one is tough, since I consider that term to be yours, so I feel like I would not be able to add anything more than my understanding of what you mean by sacred masculinity. I could, however, say something about the characteristics of masculinity that should be preserved, appreciated, or acknowledged. The rest of these questions seem to address just that.

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

For me it’s telling that nothing comes to mind immediately. Instead, I have an awareness of what sorts of archetypes are out there. There’s the gritty and martial Rambo-Norris; the suave, but pickled Bogart-Draper; the differently violent Bond-Brando. I would not identify any of these as my own, but using them as counter-examples helps to narrow the field. The goal in calling these counter-examples is not to be contrary, or say there’s anything wrong with any of them, but to reflect and investigate a lack of connection that I personally have with some of these more common masculine traits.

Each has some lack of dimensionality, even taking into account the inherent flatness of an archetype. For these, flatness is baked in as part of the archetype itself. And so perhaps I should look towards complexity of character.

Further, the counter-examples often rest upon or celebrate a flaw of character. This leaves masculinity painting itself as the underdog that has overcome something, through physical dominance, social position, cunning, or even sleight of hand. This suggests a true masculine trait of introspection, with which one’s character flaw is that thing overcome.

Finally, most male archetypes seem to be defined in terms of an other. The vanquished foe, the arch enemy, the ex-lover, the needful family.

Picking up the pieces, I am left with a complex character who overcomes his own weaknesses to act authentically in the moment. So who is that?

What do you think is needed for more of us to understand and embody these traits?

Time enough in our thoughts and reactions to follow those threads of complexity. What is needed to make that happen is a much harder question, since it really is an adjustment to what ends up being a reaction, or even a reflex.

The breaking down of the surface shell of masculinity and femininity may help, since it can cover up the depths underneath.

What role(s) do you believe the masculine has in regards to the feminine?/ What do you see as a balanced dynamic there?

It’s hard not to immediately go with a Yin/Yang approach — as far as I can tell it maps perfectly, at least as far as the mixing of two components go. But the question is more specific than that.

The role of the masculine is to be counterpoint (as is the feminine). In all self-organizing systems there is an interplay of opposing forces. If the forces are both balanced, and defined in terms of the other, then complex patterns emerge. Order may rise out of disorder.

Getting more specific, what are the masculine elements of those opposing forces? How many dimensions do we want to look at? How many dimensions are there? We could talk about different kinds of strength, which seems to be the most obvious (cliché?), but as they sometimes say in academia, that feels like stamp-collecting. An enumeration of things without regard to the encompassing theory.

Taking self-organization all the way, we can guess that the roles are context dependent. In fact there’s already an answer above: in a given context, the masculine role is to overcome a weaknesses to act authentically.

What is the role of vulnerability in strength?

Strength without vulnerability amounts to luck, or at least happenstance. It also works against adaptation, which is the road to increased future strength.

For me, this comes from an image of an armored chariot rider, with plates of steel scaled around him and his horse, speeding through ranks of infantry. Each groundling is cast off without regard as he passes. Surely this chariot rider is exhibiting great strength, but what will happen when he gets to where he is going? What happens if he should have noticed a shifting pattern in ground or fodder. Why is he difficult to admire for his effort?

How would you re-define the phrase, “be a man?”

To re-define, we must agree on a definition. To me, this phrase usually means to stop worrying about pain or consequences and do the thing that must be done. To that I would add a flavor of selflessness, and will re-invoke my male archetype: a complex character who overcomes his own weaknesses to act authentically in the moment.

What do you think we’ve been getting wrong about masculinity?

This question is more complex than it appears. Who is we and what is wrong? So I won’t pretend to answer the whole question, but will choose a few points and maybe answer a smaller question. Something that is wrong about some views of masculinity is that it is vulnerable. I don’t mean that it contains vulnerability, which it does, but that masculinity itself is under attack and in danger of being wiped out. Rather it looks like masculinity is getting bigger, even more durable by being more flexible.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

Taking the Yin/Yang approach again, it looks like masculinity might be headed towards identifying with the big curvy bit that folds together with femininity, rather than just the insular dot. Of course it’s both, but maybe it’s been a little one-sided lately.

Jay on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

Jay is a queer, androgynous, and genderqueer human who loves poetry, books, and getting lost inside libraries. She was one of the first people I met when I moved to Los Angeles, and I was very drawn to her open honesty and her dry, absurdist sense of humor. After working together for several years, she’s become one of my closest confidants. Her curiosity about the world and dedication to growth makes her a well of insights, and it is for that reason that I was eager to interview her for this series. If you’ve ever heard me share wisdom from “a friend of mine,” I’m almost always talking about Jay.

What would you say are the characteristics of sacred masculinity?

I had to think a great deal about this question before answering! When I think about sacred masculinity, first I think about its opposite, toxic masculinity. This type of masculinity believes it has something to prove, is easily wounded, and is built upon maintaining ego and pride at the expense of everything else. It is a masculinity that hurts the people embodying this kind of expression, and the people around them. I think of sacred masculinity, in the simplest terms, as a kind of masculinity that has nothing to prove. Stable, confident, gentle, authentic. A person who embodies this kind of masculinity is comfortable in their own skin and also puts others at ease. They do not have anything to prove in terms of their strength or prowess or skill. They are living their truth and also seek to help others express their most authentic selves. It is a type of masculinity that recognizes that showing vulnerability is not a sign of weakness or failure, but instead a sign of tremendous strength and courage.

What do you think is needed for more of us to understand and embody these traits?

I think a great start would be to eliminate the incredibly divisive way in which we talk about gender. I feel like so much discourse I see around gender starts with sweeping generalizations like “Women do this, this and this” and “Men don’t understand this this and this,” and these dialogues only continue to drive people further apart. I do believe that men and women have unique and very different ways of being socialized that most certainly have a huge effect on how they move through the world and are perceived by society. However, if we could approach one another from a more open heart and mind when engaging in dialogue instead of immediately operating from a place of assumptions and stereotypes, I believe that could help us start to see one another’s humanity a little bit more and allow some of those preconceived notions to fall away. In doing so, I hope that could give way to more authentic expressions of masculinity (and femininity) that aren’t tied up in how people think they “should” or should not behave. I think so much toxic masculinity is rooted in fear of being seen as weak or inadequate, and sacred masculinity is the undoing of that fear and expressing one’s masculinity from a place of ease and grace and dignity.

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

When I was growing up, the men I looked up to the most were the fathers of some of my friends who I wished could be my father. These men were kind to their children, always showed up when they said they would, were gentle but firm with discipline, had a strong presence without being intimidating. They coached me in little league. They helped me with my homework. They drove me home from school. They made bad jokes and made a whole group full of kids laugh and cringe simultaneously. They were comfortably themselves.

As someone assigned female at birth and raised and socialized as a girl, the concept of having any kind of archetypes of masculinity beyond a father figure is a very new thing for me. I was raised by several strong women and had many ideas of what it meant to be a woman growing up, but I also based a lot of what I thought a girl “should” be around what I thought it meant to be heterosexual and attractive to men. I had absolutely no LGBTQ role models growing up, nor any concept that being a masculine-presenting female was something to strive for or be empowered by. Instead, it was the opposite. Any traces of masculinity might lead people to think I was a lesbian, or even worse, a dyke. Beyond a somewhat ‘boyish’ aesthetic in my clothing choices, I didn’t want anything to do with masculinity in young adulthood. In my eyes, it would give me away as queer, and it would make me an ugly woman.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to unpack all of that shame from my past and I am very proud of being queer today. But still, I am learning and growing, and at the time of this interview, masculine archetypes are a novel concept for me. When I read up on masculine archetypes for this interview, the main four I saw were: King, Warrior, Magician and Lover. Regardless of my upbringing, I find it difficult to resonate with any of the traditional masculine archetypes because they feature men and their archetypal female counterparts who are women. From an archetypal stand point, this doesn’t bother me, because archetypes are meant to be very traditional representations of a certain idea or object or person. But pretty much every article about masculine archetypes I read had language like “As every man knows…” or “Taking the journey from boy to man” or “How to become the best man possible.”  As a queer person who doesn’t really fit into the gender binary and is not a man, I don’t feel these archetypes are particularly representative of my experience.

Now, beyond the father figures of my childhood, I will say that the place from which I derive the most strength and inspiration are other queer people assigned female at birth like me and who have been socialized female, who are gender non conforming in some way and navigating masculinity and queerness in a heteronormative world as best they can. One of my all time inspirations is queer and non-binary poet Andrea Gibson (who also sometimes goes by Andrew). Their poetry is prolific and covers a range of topics like queer relationships, politics, how to better navigate white privilege, gendered violence, gender ambiguity, hope, love, sex, and just the wild experience of being human, regardless of our background.

How would you re-define the phrase, “be a man?”

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, my grandmother was taking care of me. At one point I did something rude and acted out and yelled at her, to which she responded, “That is not very ladylike.” My response? “I’m not a lady!” There is no doubt that my rudeness towards my grandmother needed to be disciplined, but instead of being told why my behavior was wrong from a human stand point, it was filtered through a gendered lens. According to what I was told by my grandmother, I shouldn’t have acted out not because it was rude, or because I could have expressed my feelings more calmly, but because it wasn’t ladylike. My behavior signaled I was doing my gender wrong. Even then, I knew this was bullshit. I knew at 10 years old I was certainly not a “lady” or what a lady was expected to be. But I definitely knew better than to yell at my grandma, too. And had she left gender out of it, she certainly could have helped me own up to my behavior and apologize to her the way I should have, instead of fighting her even further over not being a “lady.”

So how would I re-define the phrase “be a man?” I wouldn’t. I would get rid of this phrase completely. I strongly oppose language or phrases that encourage or reinforce behaviors based on one’s gender (or perceived gender.) I think in its purest form, the phrase “be a man” means to step up, to do the right thing, and be mature. And those are all great things to strive for. So why can’t we just use this kind of language to encourage men AND women to be grown adults and act in the most mature way possible? “Be a man” also has a lot of negative connotations as well, like “don’t be a wimp,” “give into peer pressure,”  “take a potentially dangerous risk,” or “be aggressive/fight/take what’s ‘yours.’” So again, because of all the negative connotations associated with this phrase, I’d completely eliminate the phrase, and just start encouraging men and women to listen to their instincts, be mature, and make healthy and honorable choices.

What do you think we’ve been getting wrong about masculinity?

For starters, that it belongs to men, that men are obligated to be masculine, and only certain types of masculinity are “right” or “valid.” Once, when I was trying to talk about what my masculinity meant to me with a family member, she responded, “But you’re so pretty, how can you possibly think of yourself as masculine?” There was so much contained in that statement. First of all, there was this underlying idea that prettiness and masculinity are somehow mutually exclusive. There was also this underlying idea that masculinity in women or those assigned female must be ugly or unattractive if I was in fact “so pretty”, and therefore, based on that logic, unable to be masculine. I felt fairly defeated in that moment, because I wondered if that’s how everyone was seeing me, as just a pretty girl, and not as the masculine and androgynous individual who I know myself to be. But that experience also gave me more determination to define for myself what exactly masculinity is and isn’t, and to continue living my truth, regardless of what others may think of me.

What is your favorite thing about navigating and expressing your masculinity while moving through the world being perceived as a woman?

From the time I was a child, I always felt like one of the girls and one of the boys, and moved very easily and happily between the two groups. I was a girl scout and a baseball player on an all boys team. I really do feel that I had a girlhood as well as a boyhood in a way that is sometimes difficult to articulate. As an adult, my experience is still very similar. I am often treated like one of the guys around men. I am included in groups of women and assumed to be one of them, and am treated with the same respect as any other woman. I feel neither distinctly woman nor man but more a hybrid of both. I believe my androgyny is part of what allows me to interact with others from a place of openness and curiosity, because I don’t carry as many preconceived notions about gender as I used to, nor do I feel I have to “perform” my gender (or my sexuality) in a certain way anymore.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

I truly don’t know at this moment, but I hope that it is one in which we see toxic masculinity dying a blazing, fiery death, and out of that ash and destruction, we hopefully see more loving, wholesome and authentic expressions of masculinity rising up to take its place.

Tom Rogers on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

I’m beyond delighted to share with you the words of someone who had a powerful influence on my career-  my high school homeroom and sex ed teacher, Mr. Tom Rogers. It’s a sweet homecoming for me to have the opportunity to interview him at all, but even better is that his response is a shining example of his signature positive influence.

Tom spent a solid portion of his life as a teacher, having focused in college on biblical studies. I imagine there were several challenges to effectively teaching sex ed in a Catholic high school, so I’m all the more impressed and grateful that he approached the subject comfortably, candidly, and with plenty of humor.

He now works at what he jokes is Rogers’ Desert Rest. I follow him on social media, and this man is clearly doing retirement right. It’s no surprise to me. He always struck me as having boatloads of emotional intelligence, and I do believe you’re about to see what I mean.

I remember being told I was a boy. I do not think I have ever been certain, man or boy, what that truly meant. Life does not give us a chance to wait to be sure. It lives and so must we, full of doubt, and endeavor of faith.

Comparison and contrast seem to me the two feet of living. So I remember watching men and older boys to find a model to copy. From as long as I can remember I had an intuition to spot the phonies. It was as if I had a built in bullshit detector. It sounded most loudly at evidence of exaggeration. The overblown, the overly insistent, the demanding. Bullies and braggarts repelled me with what I would later learn was called inauthenticity. So I decided to be a truth-teller and as much as possible a person who lives his truth.

I remember how fascinated I was with what then I thought was my opposite. I was told that they were girls. I liked them from the very start! As I look back now I am realizing that I think I thought they were more real, confident in who they were. I wanted to be friends with girls, get closer to them to see them up close maybe this was because I felt closer to my mother’s way of being than my father’s distant busy-ness with the things of manhood. So the contrast I sought (can I figure out how to be a boy by not being a girl?) was a path I rejected early. Instead I searched for friends, like-minded peers who shared my disdain for the caricatured machos and the silly flirts.

My first masculine role models were the religious brothers who taught the boys from 6-8th grade. My favorites were the really smart ones who captured my interest by their passion for whatever stories they were telling. Their vitality in the classroom as well as the athletic field resonated with the person I was becoming. They displayed a kind of powerful humility. No boasting, just real knowledge and real action. I admired how they always had time for us. We were their work, their project and I realize now that I felt so proud that they never seemed bored with us. I felt relevant, meaningful.

An incident occurred with one of these brothers that helped me define myself to my surprise. He asked me to stay after school to talk about something. He got right to the point. Did I ever think about becoming a brother? I answered immediately. “I like girls too much!” He looked disappointed. I think I too felt a loss of connection to one of my heroes. Pursuing the truth of this statement became an important quest for me.

The sexual desire that drove me out of myself, this great gift of relating, proved very challenging and engaged me in a most difficult struggle with myself and my desire for sexual pleasure. My ideal of honesty at times seemed at stake, as dishonesty proved a better way to navigate the way into a girl’s arms. Whether it was my Catholic guilt or a more profound loyalty to my truth, I never became comfortable with deception.

Fortunately for me, I found an honest erotic love at a young age. It may not sound romantic but I feel like responsibility was one of the strongest ways I experienced my role in this life changing relationship. Caring translated into taking care of another person. This became our path as we served each other with heartfelt passion in every room in our many apartments.

We became parents and partners in what we still experience as the mystery of our life together. As a father of four boys, I sometimes felt as if I knew what each of these boys needed by tapping into the unmet needs of my own father-son relationship. Freedom to be themselves as their own gifts emerged was the gift I wanted to give them and yet I know I placed strong demands on them when I feared that my shaping hand was failing.

As a teacher I feel like I found the best vocation to give to others as they strove to grow and mature. Though my sex education classes came about quite accidentally, I found there a natural way to help lead young people out of shame and confusion but also affirm their erotic awakenings. I believe together we discovered a sensual path to healthy and healthful sexual development with lots of laughter along the way.

Later in my life after retirement I found myself, like Dante, in a dark wood. My journey through a most unexpected depression proved an encounter with the vulnerability I had fought against in all of the expressions of my masculinity. A sober realism provided the tempering influence to an idealism and high energy generativity that I thought wholly defined me. I learned in a therapeutic dialogue that an acceptance of the real was necessary to keep hold of my self as a powerful yet far from omnipotent creature.

As I look toward the future I take comfort in the many young fathers I know who proudly nurture their children and welcome a balanced partnership with their beloved.

Mo Beasley on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

Mo Beasley is an award-winning performance artist, author, educator, and community organizer. He’s the founder of Urban Erotika, a performance series celebrating erotic love through poetry, spoken word, music, dance, and theatre.

I had the very great honor of meeting him at the Catalyst Conference a few years ago, and he’s been an inspirational force in my life ever since. He’s sharp, passionate, and has a clarity about life that regularly amazes me.  Whenever we talk or I get to hear him speak, I’m left both calm and energized. I hope you’ll have a similar experience here in reading his reflections on sacred masculinity and his experience of being a man.

What would you say are the characteristics of sacred masculinity?

  • Respect, Reverence, and Love for the natural world, seen and unseen.
  • A secure and serene disposition; open and unafraid of the different, uncommon, unusual, normal, non-traditional, and traditional aspects of masculinity.
  • A melding of perennially positive and emerging aspects of ever-evolving masculinity.
  • The use of “Sankofa” as a guiding light.  “Sankofa” [of the Akan people of West Africa] teaches us that we must go back to our roots in order to move forward. That is, we should reach back and gather the best of what our past has to teach us, so that we can achieve our full potential as we move forward. Whatever we have lost, forgotten, forgone, or been stripped of can be reclaimed, revived, preserved, and perpetuated.

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

  • My maternal uncles and older cousins [blues men who made something from nothing with their lives, careers, and families; on terms beyond mainstream standards].
  • Jesus Christ
  • Malcolm X
  • Prince
  • Buddha
  • Obatala
  • James Baldwin

What do you think is needed for more of us to understand and embody these traits?

Valuing “Emotional Intelligence” and a sincere pursuit of holistic growth that finds us consistently reaching to be physically, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually balanced. Doesn’t matter if we ever reach full balance. “The Joy is The Journey.” A spiritual foundation, of some form, that grounds you in a belief system that challenges you to grow.

What role(s) do you believe the masculine has in regards to the feminine? What do you see as a balanced dynamic there?

The masculine and feminine complement each other within all of us. Those two energies are two halves of the whole that makes us who we are. Just as we’re all children of our mothers and fathers we are products of feminine and masculine forces. Each instant, moment, challenge, opportunity…in life requires us to access one or both of those energies. If one of those forces are given more attention in our lives we approach everything from one perspective, whether it is productive or not, thus living an imbalanced life. If a hammer is your only tool for every choice in life the path you leave behind will be dented even in places where a flowers were meant to grow. The masculine is the yin to the feminine’s yang; and vice versa.

What is the role of vulnerability in strength?

Vulnerability tempers steels and allows it to be pliable, firm, soft [which doesn't mean "weak"], stern, flexible, or solid when necessary.

How would you re-define the phrase, “be a man?”

  • “Act Like An Adult”
  • “Stand your ground/on your own convictions”
  • “Be Strong”
  • “Be Smart”
  • “Be Wise”

What do you think we’ve been getting wrong about masculinity?

Believing that it should dominant femininity; that it’s greater, better, more valuable than femininity.

What’s your favorite thing about being a man?

  • Having a penis is fantastic. [It was my knee jerk response. I was about to edit it myself with something more..."elevated." But, the first thought is the honest answer.]
  • An objective perspective on women.
  • Physical prowess.
  • My male mind. I do like the default aggression and logical disposition of being male.  It may seem stereotypical to say that men are innately aggressive and logically orientated, but there is some truth in that perspective.  I do believe men are more sensitive creations, thus our often explosive reactions when our feelings are hurt or egos bruised. And, I also believe my male instinct to assess situations and collect data before reacting emotionally is pretty cool. It shows up especially in my role as father.  I have 3 daughters, and a grand-daughter. [My Baboloa aka, my spiritual coach, says I have some Karma to work out with women...FOR SURE!] My daughters are 33, 11, and 9, and my grand-daughter is 14. When my eldest calls in an uproar about personal and/or family issues she’s calling for her daddy to be the calm in her storm. To let her rage and then give her thought-filled food for thought, fueled by the emotion of love, and guided by reason. My “male mind” is always trying to find the solution or the fix.  I’ve learned the hard way that my ‘”male minded” approach isn’t always whats needed. Especially when it comes to the women in my life. Often, an ear or shoulder is what is needed. I get that and still dig my knee jerk analysis of situations and desire to “cut to the bone” of the matter and decide on a course of action.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

A re-definition beyond what our fathers have passed on to us.

Follow Mo and Urban Erotika on Twitter. You can also hear us talk about the intersection of somatics, sex-positivity, and activism at the upcoming Catalyst Conference this May.

Dr. Joel Schwartz on “Sacred Masculinity”

If you haven’t yet read my introduction to this series, please do. It provides a foundation for these interviews, and defines “sacred masculinity” as we’re using it here.

Joel Schwartz is a clinical psychologist with a beautifully broad range of clinical experience. He works from a relational psychodynamic perspective, and his practice is largely focused on adults with childhood trauma and neurologically diverse children and adults. He also works with psychosis, where I find that his fiercely humanistic stance on psychotherapy really shines through. He is better than perhaps anyone else I know at meeting someone exactly where they are.

We met when we found ourselves to be the only sex-positive voices in an online conversation with several colleagues. I promptly reached out so that we could meet in person, and he’s been a good friend and favorite colleague ever since.

Joel was an easy choice for kicking off this series, because he majorly gets it and is a very active part of creating a world in which masculinity can be embodied in a safe and valuable way.

Foreword from Joel:

I know it is no fun to start out something like this with a bunch of disclaimers and pre-emptive explanations, but based on how things like this seem to be powder kegs these days, I feel I must. It is difficult to even talk about the term masculinity, since what is culturally deemed as masculine and feminine traits are inherently tied to somewhat sexist understanding of these. We know unequivocally that there is much more variance among the sexes than between them, so there is something inherently difficult in talking about masculine and feminine without falling prey to gender essentialism. The language we use, and the language I will use, are inherently tied to culturally defined gender expectations. What I am saying is that the terms themselves, masculine and feminine, are tied to cultural constructions based of perceived sex differences. Yet these embodied energies are not literal and exist in all of us.

And now the powder keg: although I am a feminist, I don’t fully subscribe to the post-modern feminist idea that all sex differences are culturally constructed. Although any person of any gender may embody various degrees of masculinity and femininity, and sex differences ought not determine status, behavior, etc., if we ignore the very real sexual dimorphism in our species, we miss something crucial about our species. (Sexual dimorphism is the term evolutionary biologists use to describe the differences in appearance between males and females of the same species, such as in colour, shape, size, and structure; in general, the greater the sexual dimorphism in a species, the more “specialized” the male/female behavior.)

So if we take as a given that what has been culturally defined by the word masculinity, or masculine traits come from what is prototypically male, and cultural ideas of femininity and feminine traits come from what is prototypically female, I have to ask, what are the true differences between males and females? What I have come to is this: obviously, females are uniquely able to carry and birth children, whereas males are uniquely able to build muscle and yield destructive power. I think that’s really the only differences. Now how these differences manifest as behavior is still a matter of culture. So from that, I have come to this conclusion: femininity is intimately tied to the power to create, and masculinity to the power to destroy.

I want to emphasize that there is, in my mind, no judgment or moral dimension to the inherent destructiveness of masculinity or the inherent creativity of femininity that I speak of. As any honest artist will tell you, there is something profoundly selfish about the creative process. One must be obsessive and myopic to birth something of worth. Conversely, there can be something wonderfully freeing and good about destruction. I imagine a toddler breaking a Duplo tower, looking menacingly at their parents, and all three sharing in a diabolical laugh. There is nothing inherently bad about destruction, or inherently good about creation. These are energies that can be put to nefarious or positive means.

But this idea of creativity and destruction is a yin/yang – it’s a dialectic – not so disparate. We must create in order to destroy, and we must destroy in order to create. The feminine power of creation can create terrible things and terrible people. And the power to destroy can be used in a beneficent manner. We create an atomic bomb to kill millions. We destroy a tree to create a canvas, then destroy the canvas to create a painting. We murder to keep our children safe from horrific people. We kill animals to feed ourselves and our children. We burn the fields to make them fertile for new life. We thrash the wilderness to discover new vistas. And this yin/yang exists in all of us. We are all capable of great feats of creativity, and great feats of destruction.

So what is sacred masculinity? I think it is owning the power to destroy, the urge to destroy, the primordial part of us that wants to hurt, kill, maim. It is acknowledging that shadow is there, and then using it in a way that serves the greater good. Another thought comes to mind – it is clear that so many horrors in the world are perpetuated by men who think they are acting for the greater good. So part of this entails taking time to truly understand all perspectives, to be wise, to incorporate the elements of the sacred feminine. Toxic masculinity is forcing one’s masculinity on others. Sacred masculinity is offering up masculinity as a tool to protect and aid in creation while listening to the feedback of others.

Who are your archetypes of masculinity?

I’ve always been attracted to the reluctant hero. I am a big sci/fi horror geek. I particularly love John Carpenter’s movies from the 80s and early 90s. In almost all his films, from the serious to the zany, there is a reluctant hero. Even the bumbling characters are reluctant heroes. People find themselves in circumstances well beyond their control and rise to the calling. They are not looking for trouble, they are not going out to conquer. But they are called to be heroes, to protect, to overcome any fear they may have in order to fight and protect. Men and women alike – Laurie Strode in “Halloween” and Stevie Wayne in “The Fog” are just as heroic and bad ass as Snake Plissken in “Escape from New York” and R.J. MacReady in “The Thing.” Sometimes their motives are selfish. Sometimes they are simply ignorant of what is going on around them. Sometimes they aren’t the smartest character. But as Egg Shen says in “Big Trouble in Little China,” “You leave Jack Burton alone! He showed great bravery.” (All of these male characters are played by Kurt Russel by the way, whom I have a bit of a man-crush on. He seems to me to embody these traits in real life as well in the way he has been a father to Kate Hudson, a partner to Goldie Hawn, and in some of his philanthropy efforts. Also despite his fame, he doesn’t flaunt it.)

Of course I also admire heroes who willingly put themselves in harm’s way – our service people, fire fighters, etc. These individuals embody many aspects of sacred masculinity. But there is something special in the story of the person who looks around, and says, “I may not be the best, the strongest, the smartest, but I can do this, so I will.”

What do you think is needed for more of us to understand and embody these traits?

We live in a culture right now that has pathologically dissociated the masculine. When children rough house or a boy kisses a girl on the playground, the adults are up in arms. These normal ways of playing, that yes, are sometimes violent and sometimes based in non-consensual behavior, are part of growing up. We need to play with our shadows to get to know them. We need to have that experience of hitting someone, seeing them recoil, hearing them say “ouch!” and stop being our friend to truly understand the power we yield and learn to master it. Kids aren’t allowed to play, to explore, to get hurt, to get in to get in trouble without the specter of shame constantly invalidating them.

This is not to say, “boys will be boys.” Somewhere between shaming and complete permissiveness is empathetic correction and social learning. Psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott wrote a really fascinating thought exercise. He sets up a situation where a baby hits their mother, and the mother says, “Ouch!” and gently holds the baby’s arm. But in the first scenario, the “ouch” is filled with fear, shame, and judgment. It communicates that the child’s power in unacceptable, their aggression necessarily an impediment to being loved. In the second scenario, the “ouch” communicates appreciation at power as if to say, “What strength you have!” In both cases, the mother’s reaction serves as a corrective. It teaches the child not to hit. But in the latter scenario, there is no shame. In the same way, we need to appreciate how that playground kiss or rough-housing is about connection, bonding, and needs being met. Adults can appreciate and validate this, while emphatically guiding children toward more acceptable behavior that is consensual.

All of these experiences are tantamount to get to know and master our darker selves. Our culture needs to better integrate our destructive qualities. Instead we dissociate them, and create dangerous pockets of destructiveness – from football games to war. Destructiveness is only allowed in an arena of violence and death, not in the everyday yin/yang of existence.

What is the role of vulnerability in strength?

Oooh great question! I think it harkens back to what I said above about forcing one’s masculinity versus offering it. When you offer something, you chance getting rejected. You chance being rendered useless (at least in that moment). So to cautiously offer one’s power takes vulnerability. I remember one formative experience I had with a former supervisor (a woman), with whom I also co-taught a class. We had had many important discussions about masculinity, feminism, power, etc. The class ended at night, and I had the thought that I ought to walk her to her car. I wanted to be the hero- “I’ll keep you safe, ma’am!” But I somehow I recognized that this was subtly forcing her. Maybe she didn’t want accompaniment. Maybe, despite our familiarity, it would be uncomfortable for her to be alone in the the dark with a 6’3” man. So instead, I asked. I said, “If you’d like, I am happy to wait and walk you to your car. Would you like that?” She hesitated for a second, then said yes. Our eyes met and there was this wonderful moment of love, affection, and appreciation for one another. I remember distinctly thinking, “So that’s how you do it.”

I think another part of it is willing to be wrong – to take in others’ opinions and feedback without becoming defensive or double-downing on your initial thought. Captain Picard (my favorite Star Trek captain and perhaps another great archetypal character) comes to mind. Unlike the impetuous and often violent Kirk, Picard always asked his crew their thoughts. Even if he disagreed, he gave them a voice and considered others’ wisdom. And then he’d make a decision and take full responsibility as Captain.

How would you re-define the phrase, “be a man?”

An ugly phrase, always meant to shame and hurt. I’d prefer it struck completely than redefined. When I work with young males in therapy, I have them identify their own favorite characters and real people they admire. In times of ambiguity I ask them how the character/person would act. So maybe instead of “Be a man!” we can say, “What would a hero do?”

What do you think we’ve been getting wrong about masculinity?

Along the lines of what I said earlier – we don’t understand that the it is the same force that creates toxic and sacred masculinity. We see the toxic and wish to completely do away with it, to hide it, to punish it, to shame it. And as a result, it just becomes more toxic.

What’s your favorite thing about being a man?

It’s hard to say. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve grown to love being able to wield my power in a way that does good. I’m a tall, white male. I have a doctorate in psychology. It would not be difficult to wield that power in a selfish, fraudulent, and destructive way. Our airwaves are filled with exploitative, handsome, male doctors selling hope and bullshit to inflate their pocketbooks. I am aware of inherent power and influence I hold. I am getting more and more pleasure in using that in a way that betters everyone. For example, when I’m in a group and I notice all eyes on me, I will purposefully defer to the more quiet and timid members who I know are just as smart and capable (if not more so). I think this is an example of owning and using the shadow. I am aware that there is a part of me that loves and thrives on that kind of attention. I know I can get that kind of attention. When I was younger, I may not have given it up so easily. And so now I use it in service of others, and I get great pangs of pleasure having paved the way for someone else to have a voice when they otherwise would not have.

I also love my male relationships. There is a banter, a wit, a loving challenge in way we rib each other. It challenges us to be more creative in the moment. Another example of the yin/yang I just realized! We yield our destructive power in way that builds grit, confidence, quick thinking, and camaraderie.

Finally, I love being a father and husband. I love when I get to show up in these capacities and either do something that helps my wife relax or challenges my son to be better.

What do you believe might be the future of masculinity?

I struggle between optimism and despair in this. All indications point to terrible things happening in the name of masculinity. Politics, school shootings, rewarded narcissism in pop-culture. But this may too be part of the yin/yang. These destructive parts need to make themselves known before we can embrace and change them into better forms.

Isn’t he swell? Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts or questions below.
Learn more about or contact Joel via his blog, Twitter, or through PsychToday.

Modern Gender

“We all began female, and always had both sexual hormones in us. We always had masculine and feminine behavioral traits, which we had to train into gender-appropriate behaviors, even though they were traits that everyone has. We selectively encouraged or repressed traits, so for most of our history we have reinforced gender. But in our deepest selves we were always both.”

(Kim Stanley Robinson, 2312)

From time to time I’m asked why I specialize in gender and sexuality. My answer shifts and grows as I learn more about myself, but ultimately it revolves around being able to support people in knowing and expressing exactly who they are. Really that is the core of any therapy, whether or not its focus is on gender or sexuality. But such a focus, especially coupled with a somatic approach, makes this work especially valuable and sustaining.

I chose that quote from the science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson for a couple of reasons. Mostly because the brilliant Robinson offers incredibly insightful bits of future history. But also because even inside this beautiful piece of writing, he does that thing that we all do so often: needlessly assign gender.

For the first five to six weeks of gestation, only the X chromosome expresses. This is where we developed the notion that we all begin female, which I appreciate and find very romantic. But beyond the intention to draw people together, it doesn’t make much sense to give an embryo a gender label. However, intention is exactly what words are all about.

So, I’d like to highlight what I believe are very important aspects of the landscape of non-binary and queer identities.

Understanding Intent

There is very likely no one who identifies as non-binary in order to screw with you. The intention is to express themselves. It is to communicate that they don’t relate to the words “male” or “female” as we’ve been using them. It is a rejection of the baggage that comes with labels that have been misused or overused. It is a request to focus on what is important to them, rather than on what you might assume based on your past experiences with a particular gender. When you really think about it, it’s quite clever. It makes me think of the many women who have hidden behind male names in order to have their work taken seriously. Historically, we have been quite destructive in our use of gender notions, so it should come as no surprise that so many people in younger generations are wriggling out from under gender labels altogether. We must constantly return to what honors our individual bodies and selves. Each of us defines our own gender.

The Positive Effects of Re-defining Gender

Words hold tremendous power. Didn’t we all secretly hate that schoolyard rhyme about sticks and stones? Who made that up? Words can hurt like hell! Removing toxicity from our language helps everyone. I suspect that in a generation or two, our associations with gendered terms will have very little negative charge. Perhaps they’ll even have grace restored to them. They’ve come a long and interesting way already. Just take a peek at the etymology of words like she, he, and they. We do seem to be amidst an acceleration of changes and a fight against bottlenecking, and I believe we’re well on our way to resetting inclusiveness.

This is about to make for two science fiction references in one article, so bear with me. One of my favorite aspects of the remake of “Battlestar Galactica” is how infrequently gender is bothered with. Bathrooms are gender-neutral (which is never remarked upon), there are almost no gendered slurs uttered, and the only gender tropes or gendered dynamics included in the writing are there to make a strong point about their insidiousness. It’s a fine example of what we might call ultra feminism, a term my mother recently offered, or post-feminism. By limiting when it’s focused upon, gender is no longer a distraction. This shows up in the characters’ word use, too. It took me a few episodes to get over the term “sir” being used for any gender, but really that isn’t very long at all. I quickly experienced the term losing its association with gender. And doesn’t that make the title even better? It was never intended to distinguish between genders; its function is to show respect.

There are, of course, many possible emotional and psychological effects of this shifting of word use. When someone I relate to or who seems uniquely themselves decides against using female pronouns, I sometimes react with disappointment at the thought that the term “woman” is losing some of its needed complexity. But that puts us right back in the subjective, because that response is entirely about me and my process. I have fought internally and externally for many years to have the words “girl,” “woman,” “female,” and “feminine” encompass an adequate amount of complexity. So when someone exits like that, it can feel as though the term is reduced. It can sort of start over my process of redefining or re-identifying with female terms. But I enjoy something about this, too, as it renews my sense of the limitations of words. Words are only as effective as what they are able to communicate, so it’s necessary to continually return to an openness to understand the intention behind them as it relates to a particular person.

Different Words for Different People

Different people need to use different words. This is something that any good education on psychotherapy will teach you: hear, understand, and use the client’s own words. The “negotiation of meaning” that occurs in therapy is a huge portion of the work, because we humans lean so heavily on verbal communication. If understanding and connection is to be created, we must know what the words being used are meant to convey. Nonverbal cues give us a lot of information, but there is still too much room for assumption if we don’t consistently reflect and clarify. We need to know what the particular speaker means on the visceral level. I know what “thrilled” feels like in my body, but it won’t feel exactly the same to yours. So we must stay open and curious, and clarify.

The term “queer” is usually a good example for demonstrating this point. For people of a certain age, “queer” was a slanderous strongly associated with trauma and other unpleasant experiences. Along came a younger generation who decided to reclaim the term, but it still held its dark magic for the older crowd. And while those associations have shifted for many because of this new use of the term, many still prefer not to identify with it. Why would we ask them to? We can only offer a new way of looking at it by owning our own use of it, which they may find helpful and which puts us on a path to where “queer” will rarely evoke negative associations anymore.

For the most part, as in the above example, people use words intentionally. Even when use isn’t conscious or deliberate, it has an intended purpose. The knowledge that words are a fluid process is an important part of understanding language and communication. Speaking or writing something creates a change either in us or others or both.

Words are a process.

Words change through a process, and the words themselves allow us to process. For example, frustration is very often a gateway emotion. People will often say they are frustrated when they are bashful about or not conscious of feeling anger, sadness, or fear. When this happens, correcting someone would be very unhelpful. Instead, I watch for signs of anger, sadness, or fear, and then I can reflect what I see. The use of the word “frustration” should communicate to me that the person using it needs a little help with safely feeling and expressing something deeper. If I fail to recognize that words are a process, I fail to receive the entire message. ”Inaccuracies” like these stem from somewhere, and that somewhere often needs our attention as much as any other part of what’s being conveyed.

What’s Next?

I’ve noticed that a lot of conversations about the shifting landscape of gender tend to include a nod to the notion that all people contain both feminine and masculine energies or traits. So I find it interesting to see something of a cycle reflected in this. Perhaps we are returning to more helpfully abstract definitions where traits are not considered to be limited to any particular group of people. In my recent Reddit AMA, someone asked how I expect relationships to gender will change as equality grows. It was a very rich question to think about and attempt to answer, and I’m reminded of it again now. I know I’m very curious about what will come next, particularly in regards to how the definitions of “masculine” and “feminine” will change and evolve over the next several decades. Kim Stanley Robinson offers a thought in Blue Mars about paradigms being residual and emergent, which I find provides a useful frame:

“Each great socioeconomic era was composed of roughly equal parts of the systems immediately adjacent to it in past and future. The periods immediately before and after were not the only ones, involved, however: they formed the bulk of a system, and comprised its most contradictory components, but additional important features came from particularly persistent aspects of more archaic systems, and also faint hesitant intuitions of development that would not flower until much later.”

I am very much looking forward to seeing what will unfold and flower over the next few generations. I suspect that a lot of good will come from our brave and increasing insistence on honoring individual bodies. We have gotten quite good at thinking, and we are moving towards getting quite good at feeling, too. The two bring a beautiful balance- one that’s necessary for us to function well. Take heart in what we’re seeing in our modern landscape of gender. It is an excellent and important step in our collective ability to get out of our own way.

#MasculinitySoFragile

#MasculinitySoFragile is a hashtag movement intended to shed light on the very important issue of ego in the self-expression of males. The message is supposed to be that masculinity is strong and complex enough to withstand such things as two straight men sitting right next to each other in a theatre, or the use of things colored pink. However, even just standing on its own, the wording of the hashtag borders on mockery. Worse, I’ve been seeing it used too often in shaming and passive aggressive ways. So I feel compelled to unpack it a little. There’s so much juice in this movement, and we need to reach in and extract some of the sour flavor so that it can have a wide positive impact.

First of all, the essence of this message is beautiful: Masculinity is complex and diverse. It can stand up to judgment or doubt. It is not devoid of vulnerability or emotion. I love seeing people push this. I especially love what a great reminder it is that gender is a social construct. It is what we make it. It is what it already is inside of us. That’s good stuff. It’s the true stuff. And we need it to reach the people who don’t yet understand. We need seeds of complexity tolerance to be planted in the people who use phrases like, “Don’t be a pussy.”

Those folks won’t be reached through posts that use broad spectrum or absolute language like, “#MasculinitySoFragile that these manbabies are offended by this HT.” Ouch. Wouldn’t you like to show your vulnerable side around the person who wrote that? I sure as hell wouldn’t. What runs through so much of what is being made fun of is shame. It will not be a shaming stance that brings people out from underneath shame. One of the loudest voices of opposition, who has been tragically attacking back with his own use of absolute language and cruelty, happened to find a great word for it: taunting. Indeed one can’t expect a taunt to result in change, let alone self-reflection. Taunts buy you hurt feelings and defensiveness. As the same fellow pointed out, negative comments in response to this hashtag do not prove that it’s true. They prove that cruelty begets cruelty. Somatically speaking, this creates severe muscular tension and shallow breathing that can become chronic if they aren’t already. This serves to perpetuate the problem. Free expression of the self comes through relaxation, warmth, connection and safety. We don’t need more divisiveness; we need less.

Where we find shame, we know lives anger. So let’s unpack this a bit, too. It’s ok to be angry. It makes perfect sense that the tone in many of these posts is an angry one, because it’s a response to the oppressive force of patriarchy. And anger is excellent fuel for action. Expressed cleanly, it has the power to be heard and to exact change. Anger expressed through hate can be cathartic, but it’s important to know that that will be solely for you and those who already get it. If you’d like to help create change, it will be through connecting.

Patriarchy and simplistic views of masculinity are painful and damaging largely because of their ability to divide and disconnect. Being inside the man box means that a man is forced to be separated from a terrifying number of things: vulnerability, the landscape of emotion, fraternal or platonic intimacy, delicateness, sensuality, receptivity, openness, gender fluidity, orientation fluidity. It’s a force so oppressive that it causes massive internal oppression and splitting. “Splitting” is something that we do in our minds to keep things in tidy little black-and-white packages, and it’s hugely responsible for the absurdities we’re trying to call out. It’s what happens when you refuse to allow new information to expand your understanding of a concept.”What?! I’ve never seen a blue pen before. This must be an entirely different object!” A narrow definition of something that is in reality quite complex creates endless absurdities.

Being in touch with and expressing emotions and vulnerability takes practice, and it’s wonderful to see attempts at empowering more men to start practicing. That’s the feeling to look for: empowerment. So sure, poke fun at things, point out the absurd. Just be sure that what you say has an air of “fuck that,” instead of “fuck you.”

When something like this hashtag surfaces, I believe that it’s really important for lots of people to speak up. I’d love to see Twitter flooded with positive messages for males as a result of this so that when a guy clicks on it, he feels inspired to shed false fears. So here are a few tweets that I appreciated:

#MasculinitySoFragile that in general, men either challenge my masculinity or assume we’re allies in an unhealthy toxic masculinity. Over it. -@handsomefmnst

My brothers told me that they’ll never paint their daughter’s nails. #MasculinitySoFragile -@funfettipancakes

#MasculinitySoFragile 2 men at a Subway will LET U FUCKIN KNOW just bc they are paying for their food together doesnt mean THEY are together. -@discohaylie

#MasculinitySoFragile “My masculinity is so important that I’d rather go a week without washing than use some god damn pink FAIRY SOAP!” -@N_Ver_Sean

All of these tug at my heartstrings. Even the last one in all its silliness, because I have heard sentences exactly that absurd uttered with total seriousness. These posts leave me wanting to make sure that I’m helping to make it safe for the men around me to just be. Make no mistake, there must also be an internal process for everyone in order for change to be made. But it’s welcoming and informed environments that make internal change possible and effective. And it’s our widespread mutual goal to be allowed to simply be who we are.

Combining humor and activism is a form of artistry. Sex educator and comedian Dane Ballard once said to me that humor has this beautiful ability to deliver a sort of package. It’s easily received, but then unfolds in the mind of the listener. This is the opportunity we have with #MasculinitySoFragile, but it must be used well.

How to Speak Out Effectively

  • Anger towards an oppressive force is an early stage of healing. While you’re in it, direct your anger as specifically as you can. Avoid speaking in absolutes and making generalizations. Be mad as hell, just not at everyone. That feels crappy anyway.
  • Ask if your feedback is willing to be received. This isn’t necessary in an original post, but it is in any conversation- especially ones with strangers. Before you get into it, ask the other person if they have a few minutes to hear your impressions. If they say no, you’ve wasted no energy on them, and that’s a win for you.
  • Speak about your experience only. A point is not made stronger, but weaker by exaggerating or using absolutes. Tell the person what you feel, and why. That will indeed mean being somewhat open, and that’s exactly what’s needed in order for someone to hear you. If you can’t communicate with at least some openness, that’s ok. Wait to say your piece until you can, or find someone who can say it for you.
  • Jump at opportunities to speak up, especially when you can use privilege for the good. It is easiest for a person to hear something from someone they consider an ally or the same as they are in some way. When that’s you, it creates a beautiful opportunity for change if they say something with which you disagree. Remember that what you say can be very simple. “I’m not sure that’s true,” or, “My experience has been different than that,” are brief and safe, but very powerful statements that can get others thinking. This isn’t easy, but it’s easier. And it feels really, really good.

I’ll leave you with a quote from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke from 1908:

“I hold this to be the highest task of a bond between two people: that each should stand guard over the solitude of the other.”

The Inherent Feminism of Psychotherapy

One of my very favorite descriptions of therapy is that it’s about being with a person in such a way that they can be exactly who they are. This is also a fundamental part of the feminist movement, and all equal rights movements- differences are to be honored through equal rights and equal treatment. It’s a very simple concept, but it’s difficult to put into practice when you’re dealing with unconscious beliefs and motivations. These things guide as like a trance. And it is the realm of the unconscious where change must be exacted if we are to see it on a global scale. The practice of knowing yourself well enough to understand when you’re being guided by these unconscious forces is tremendously helping for staying mindful and present. Through the observation of present behavior, we are able to understand what the past meant to us.

When it comes to feminism, understanding the past occurs on a very grand scale. We must look at the thousands of years of cultural perspectives on gender to understand history and what led us to this point. This is why good education is paramount. It’s why it drives us feminists crazy that history lessons have such a heavily heteronormative, cisnormative and masculine bent. Worse, we too often fail to educate our children about how beliefs systems shape behavior and social constructions. Because it’s not just having information that exacts change.

This shows up in the therapeutic process all the time, and it’s why one can fairly quickly exhaust the benefits of the talk therapy modality. Insight does not always exact change. It gives us the why, but not the how. It is in the mastering of mindfulness and presence through much practice that we are able to really get our needs met. Only with this skill can we effect larger scale changes.

Institutional sexism (or any -ism) is a macro scale version of this unconscious process. The continue inequality of pay, for instance. is less of a malicious phenomenon than an unconscious one. For many historical cultural reasons, women are still often seen as inferior. So when it comes time to decide where a woman ought to fall on a pay scale range compared to a male counterpart. it’s the underlying beliefs that play the role that ends in bias. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock capture this beautifully with their comedic genius in The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt when Carol Kane’s character Lillian says, “Ah change the channel; I can’t get the news from a woman.” This strikes us as absurd, because it is! As a viewer, you can feel that this isn’t something she’s though through. It’s unintentional. It’s unconscious. It’s a spot on example of internalized sexism.

Internalized oppression is when a person has negative beliefs about oneself which result from the experience of oppression. This can pop up all over the place, because it’s inadvertent. And this is where we must explore ourselves and encourage others to do the same. Because activism, as with therapy, is impossible if we focus on patching up all the symptoms of the problem. If Lillian is to change this belief about a woman’s ability to provide the news, it will be necessary for her to explore her beliefs about the female gender. If we over-focus on the news issue, her beliefs will pop up somewhere else, perhaps even somewhere very similar. But through a therapeutic process she would be able to look at her own personal history to understand the influences leading to this belief, to process when she’s been a victim of it herself, and to be mindful of when and how she’s unnecessarily limited herself and others through the behavior resulting from this belief.

Institutional -isms are macrocosms of internalized -isms.

The skills one learns through psychotherapy can then be extended to others. Fostering the process of therapy as a society would cause a whole lotta healing on both the personal and, eventually, the societal level. I’m lucky enough to live in a city where most people welcome a reference to therapy. I can say, “I’ve been exploring that with my therapist,” and get an, “Oh, that’s great,” instead of a, “What do you need therapy for?” I love when people say to me, “I don’t need therapy, but…” because no matter how they finish their sentence, I get to say, “Actually, it sounds like you’d really like therapy!” Those sorts of negative reactions are indicative of underlying negative beliefs about therapy. And lemme tell ya, negative beliefs about therapy are misunderstandings of what it actually is. Negative experiences as a client certainly happen, but that doesn’t mean that all of therapy is painful or unhelpful. We can change these misconceptions by inspiring others through self-disclosure, normalizing, and through demonstrating what we’ve learned. The more people who are skillful at understanding, accepting, and expressing themselves will mean way less baloney interactions, personal and macro scale.

Mental health is a social contagion. Just look at powerhouse of openness and insight Amy Poehler. Her message “good for her, not for me,” encourages people to disengage from comparing and making assumptions, and it is a fabulous example of this. This one simple sentence demonstrates self-knowledge as well as openness to and acceptance of others’ differences. This is what comes from the therapy process. You learn how to reach understanding, so you can practice with yourself as well as with others. Engaging in the work of psychotherapy is a revolutionary act.

Big ol’ shout outs to the likes of HeForShe, Jade Rivera, Jenipher Lyn, and SmartGirls for engaging in this kind of micro-level activism. I triple dog dare you to watch one of Poehler’s Ask Amy videos and not feel better about yourself, others, and the future of our world.

Kink, Spirituality, and Transness

Kegan Blake is the latest incredible human to participate in my interview series. I am so honored to have had the opportunity to interview him, as he’s someone that I’ve admired for many years. He is passionate about human rights and equality. And he loves trying to find the common ground- a place to build a truly solid foundation and develop lasting peace and understanding. With a Masters in Holistic Psychology with a Buddhist emphasis, and a deep understanding of trauma, sexuality and gender, he is a wealth of information and insight about the mind, body and soul of sexuality. Please join me in begging him to write a book!

You responded to my call for those who consider themselves sexual outsiders. How did you decide to identify that way?

I don’t think it was so much a process of deciding to identify as a sexual outsider as it was a process in recognizing the fact that my sexuality lies outside the normative experience. As a transman (female to male transsexual), there is a lot of curiosity about what is under my metaphorical fig leaf. There are a lot of assumptions on how I have sex and what roles I can, or cannot, perform in a sexual relationship. With that comes a few awkward and vulnerable conversations before a sexual encounter can occur. I don’t get to just pop down to the club and pick up strangers for a night of anonymous sex; well, I could but there are some very real safety considerations to consider before I do that other non-transgendered people don’t have to consider. For instance, there aren’t really reliable forms of safe sex for transmen who haven’t had lower surgery. Obviously, it is more complicated than that, based on how and with whom one wants to have sex. We can’t just go out to the store and pick up a pack of condoms. There are methods out there but I’ve never found them to be reliable. That places us at a much higher risk for STIs.

In what ways do you find this identification helpful? Unhelpful?

I think it’s helpful in that it opens doors to conversations that I might not be privy to if I were more “normative”. I am invited into discussions on different ways sexuality can be expressed and that is an incredible gift I get to receive. It deepens my understanding of sex and intimacy in ways that I think a lot of people don’t take the time to understand. Sex is both taboo and taken for granted in this society. Everyone just assumes that it is supposed to go a certain way and so people don’t really talk about it, even with their partners. I think that leads to a lot of hurt and misunderstanding in relationships. After consciously acknowledging myself as an outsider, I started to explore the sexual landscape and have found that I enjoy bondage, domination, edging, flogging, electrical stimulation, knife play, exhibitionism, multiple partners, and some other things. For some of these activities I only enjoy being the top, for others I switch roles depending on mood and partner(s).

Being a sexual outsider is unhelpful in that sometimes I get frustrated and angry that I don’t have the luxury of taking my sexuality for granted. That may sound weird to some people but there is some privilege in not having to talk about details of sex before the act or in being able to just dash over to the store to ensure your sexual safety. I’m not naturally monogamous and there are sexual situations I would like to explore which aren’t safe for me and that’s difficult to swallow sometimes. I suppose though, everyone has aspects of their sexuality that they feel frustrated with or that seem off limits to exploration whether they be self enforced repression or actual physical limitation. It is helpful to recognize that, even in my frustration, I am not alone.

I have friends who have non monogamous relationships who enjoy multiple partners and occasionally have random anonymous sexual encounters. If I were cis-gendered (according to The Oxford Dictionary: a person whose self-identity conforms with the gender that corresponds to their biological sex.), I would be able to participate in those activities more freely. Since, I am super conscientious about my health and safety and that of my partner(s) I refrain because there is no reliable protection for the configuration of my genitals and that’s frustrating.

That word “normative” is so tricky, isn’t it? It was my intention with this series to help stretch societal awareness of what constitutes healthy sexuality by bringing in folks from lesser understood parts of the spectrum. There are just so many ways to have a healthy relationship to one’s own sexuality, and I wish that children were more often taught that early on. In that regard, what advice would you give your young self in regards to sexuality?

I suppose it would be to be more open to exploration. When I was in my early adulthood I was a bit closed minded to anything other than traditional monogamous sexual relationships. That led me to serial monogamy where I would enter a relationship and break it off within a couple months because I knew from the start it wasn’t a good fit but there was sexual attraction. I think my sexual and relational experiences wouldn’t have been as painful, for anyone, if I could have opened my mind to a broader definition of relationships and sexuality.
Also, I might warn myself off of a couple dating adventures. Not that I’d listen, even to myself.

Haha. What resources might you recommend to others wanting to explore their outside-the-box sexuality?

Find a community where that kink is practiced. Sometimes, there are books and videos available for beginner education and sometimes there aren’t. Finding a community where these things are talked about and people are willing to teach beginners in a supportive and not predatory way can be invaluable. The internet is a great resource for this kind of thing. In regards to transmen, and what to expect there are websites that have pictures of genitals, FTM-centric porn, personally, I like Couch Surfers series best for that. Buck Angel is a big name FTM Porn Star but I’ve only seen one of his videos & it wasn’t for me. The point is there are a lot of ways to do some homework if people are curious about what’s under someone’s fig leaf. The only way to learn how to best please a potential lover is with that person. For very basic beginners looking for community there is are websites like FetLife, and while they’re not the best place in the world, they can lead to local groups and help people get connected to and support from the kink community. For anyone going to the internet, understand that there are predators and misinformation out there; so, use your instincts to stay safe and use the buddy system if you plan on meeting someone in real life.

I really appreciate your cautions, and your emphasis on community and connection. There are resources for just about anything, but I don’t think anything really beats the support and attunement of others.

You’ve already named several aspects of sexuality about which are educated. Are you proficient at any forms of kink?

Depends on what you mean by proficient. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert in any of the kink I practice, but my partners have always seemed to enjoy the experience we co-create. I’d have to say that bondage and knife play are the areas I am really talented in and enjoy most. The thing I’m most proficient at is after care. It’s imperative after completion of a kinky session that there is good after care, making sure that the submissive is emotionally and physically taken care of and has a safe space to process what just took place. I am really good at creating that safe space from the first conversation about a particular kink all the way through planning to processing, even days or weeks after.

Wow. The extent of your aftercare sounds incredible! I don’t think that gets talked about enough, and it’s such an important space, especially with the more intense forms of kink. Being that you’re a practitioner of psychology, I’m extra excited to ask you about what your kink meets for you.

There are a couple different things I get from kink. Foremost is intimacy and building trust. We’ve all seen those team-building programs that encourage a trust fall, where one person allows themselves to fall and trusts that the other person will catch them. Well, with bondage, domination, and knife play you have to trust each other. You also have to communicate and be really in tune with your partner. Paying attention to circulation, breathing, the person’s eyes, checking in with every new move ensuring everything you’re doing is serving your partner. A lot of people think that only the bottom is in service to the top, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The top has to be totally attuned to what is happening for the bottom and stop as soon as anything seems off. Learning someone’s body like that is intensely intimate.
The other thing I get from my kink is total surrender. In the rest of my life I tend to be in my head a lot, staying in control of myself and maneuvering situations to my best advantage. My mind is constantly taking in information and trying to fit it into a larger puzzle. So, when I’m bound or blindfolded, or both, I totally relax and give over all control. The only thing I can do is Be Perfectly in that moment. Sensing and Feeling everything that is happening. I can carry those moments into my daily life to help me remember how to be mindful and stay in this moment. It is amazing and spiritually rewarding.

That is such a beautiful description. The need to stay tuned in to your partner(s) really is essential with kinky play, and I love that you called it intensely intimate. And I love the metaphor of the trust fall! I will definitely be using that. What tips do you have particular to bondage or knife play?

Don’t be afraid to use theatrics. I have a special blade I use for knife play and it makes a really great sound when I pull it from the scabbard. If my partner is blindfolded I’ll bring the knife close to my partner’s ear and draw it so they can feel the zing and scraping of the metal on metal in their bodies. Then, I’ll lay the blade on their chest so they can feel its weight and the coldness of the metal on their skin. Also, use bait and switch. I don’t feel comfortable using my blade on genitals but I use something that simulates that feeling and my partner is none the wiser. So, they get to feel the thrill and anxiety of a sharp pointy thing on/in very sensitive areas but you know it’s perfectly safe. Engage all of the senses and it will be an amazing experience for everyone.

Do you have any fun names for things you do?

Not really a funny name for the acts themselves but my partner and I often call explorations “Science.” So, we often “sacrifice” in the name of “science” when we try a new thing.

Ah, that’s delightful! I do like to use the word “experiment” a lot in therapy, as that is so often what we’re up to: trying something out and studying it! Are there things you haven’t tried yet that you might like to get into?

Oh, for sure. I think the next thing I’ll try is Japanese style knot bondage. It is gorgeous and intricate. I’m fascinated by abduction fantasies & consensual non-consent but, I don’t know if I’ll ever have the courage to try it. It just seems too dark and potentially psychologically dangerous.

Oh those knots are so beautifully intricate! I definitely understand your hesitation with the consensual non-consent play. It simply is riskier to concretize it.From where do you draw strength and support for doing what you do?

I don’t know about strength, in regards to my transness, it really came down to not being able to continue living the life I had lived; something had to change or I’d die. In both things, my transness and the kink, support comes from my partner, some of my more open minded friends, and online community.

I hear that so often from my clients who are trans- that it’s essentially choosing life or death. I’m so glad that you chose to make a change, and that you have support. I look forward to a world where transitioning is more fully understood and supported, so that it’s simply a logical next step.

You’ve already shared so much awesomeness; is there anything about which you’d like to spread awareness?

I think there is a misconception that transmen don’t have “real” penises unless they get bottom surgery. That isn’t true. On Testosterone, transmen can get between about 2 – 4 inches of flaccid length. Girth also changes with Testosterone. So, when erect, transmale cock performs in the same way that a cis-gendered penis works, with the exception of sperm production and peeing through our cocks. We can pee standing up using a variety of tools, techniques or through surgically re-routing and lengthening the urethra. Maybe somewhere in the future, science will figure out how to help us produce sperm but, for now, that’s all sci-fi.

My hope is that, with education and communication, someone will innovate a way to protect transmen from STIs more reliably.Currently, the methods most often used are either cellophane or cutting a latex/vinyl glove and fitting it to our genitals. For some guys that works fine and for others not so much. In my experience, cellophane doesn’t work for penetrative sex acts; yes, some transmen can penetrate their partners with their biological cocks. And modifying a latex glove isn’t effective because the glove continues to tear and doesn’t really stay in place. It’s possible that I’m not doing it right but there isn’t really anywhere to learn how either. It’s all trial and error for each of us. There has to be a better way.

I’m really glad that you brought that up. I’m realizing that there is often very little talk or even educational resources about penises grown through the use of testosterone, and that probably perpetuates a lot of fear and myths! And there’s undoubtedly a need for more research funding for condoms. Science (the kind done in labs rather than your bedroom) has given us so much incredible technology, and frankly, a condom for transmen seems only moderately challenging.

Kegan, with your background and experience, I’m thrilled to know that you’re part of this community, and that you’re so dedicated to change. We are so lucky to have you! Thank you very much for granting me this interview. I’m so proud to count you amongst my colleagues.