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 compliment 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.

New Series: Sacred Masculinity Interviews

In the autumn of 2016, I had the very moving experience of looking around and becoming aware of how many men around me are safe, aware, and helping. I’m sure that a good portion of this has to do with my age and my growing ability to surround myself with healthy people, but it also seems quite clear that something about masculinity is happening at a rapid rate.

After the election results came in later that year, it was so painfully clear how much toxicity still exists in our culture. The article I wrote about it at the time focused on toxic masculinity, and this series is focused on addressing that. But allow me to make a couple of things very clear: the toxicity within male gender socialization is definitely not the only kind that exists, and when I speak about masculinity, I am not talking about men. I use the term “sacred masculinity” to refer to a concept of qualities. One of the greatest gifts of this generation is the burgeoning awareness of intersectionality, and the concept of masculinity is just one section. I’m choosing to focus on it because I see a shift happening in society at large, and it’s showing up in my practice. As a therapist, I have the honor and privilege of getting to understand why and how people come to be as they are. As an activist, I feel compelled to share my insights, especially now.

A few months ago, I met with Meredith Redding to talk about the parallels we were seeing between the therapeutic process and what’s happening in our country. She’s one of my favorite colleagues and she really knows her shit when it comes to Depth Psychology, so I was extra excited to talk to her. We began by talking about shadow selves, and very quickly got onto the topic of masculinity. She said something that really stayed with me, because it was a succinct articulation of what I’d been seeing in my practice, too. “Something different is happening with the men,” she said.

We have a president who is such a clear embodiment of toxic masculinity that it has thrown us into a full-blown crisis. Yet there are a whole bunch of people who feel resonance with this man. When you get to talk to them in an honest and nonjudgmental setting, it becomes quite clear how much that has to do with concepts of masculinity that attempt to address the experience of desperation. In particular, the desperate desire to feel ok with oneself and to have some sense of command over one’s life. That is not how it can appear from the outside, and I am not for one second excusing any of the horrendous behavior that has led to and resulted from this. But if we want it to stop, we have to get to the heart of it. This is the case for every therapeutic process.

Blessedly, you can see already that we’re doing a whole lot of processing, and that it has the power to bring tremendous healing. The #MeToo Movement, the #BlackMenSmiling Movement, the unrelenting push for trans rights, and the incredible activist demonstrations by the children of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School are shining examples.

How does this address the heart of the problem? If we look at this through the illuminating power of myth, we can think of this time as the return of the goddess to her natural position of power. That calls upon the god not to step down or retract his positive influence, but to act as a supportive counterpart. Goddess and god balance each other, each with an equal and opposite attribute with which to meet the other’s. We have been clear for some time on what does not bring balance: violence, superiority, and indifference. We need more examples of healthy masculinity and healthy men to be right in our faces more often. So let’s discuss with some emotionally intelligent people the qualities that they believe masculinity, in its pure and sacred form, has to offer.