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.

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.

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.