The Psychology of Sexism According to a Humbly Investigative Layperson, Part II

Brief Recap: In the previous section, I humbly (but with searing integrity) defined some basic psychoanalytic concepts such as the structural model of the psyche, the function of the unconscious, and the role of early childhood experiences in creating a template for one’s personality. Read on!

And so we get to sexism!

While all people consciously and unconsciously defend themselves against internal tension, traditionally held polarities of thinking have long held women as inferior, a falsehood which permeates all facets of our daily lives and for which all people suffer. All the evidence I have encountered makes it hard to believe that there is any major essential psychological difference between the sexes. As Rebecca Chalker says, “biology is not destiny so much as the social construction of biology is destiny.” We are all in secret cahoots we didn’t even know we were in to denigrate the so-called “feminine.” The idea that people can separate good from evil and “reason” from “intuition” is the same line of thinking that leads to the belief that some people are intelligent and worthy and other people are expendable. This dualistic belief in poles and absolutes has been reproduced throughout the world and has devastating and dehumanizing consequences for all the blind dictators in charge who are divorced from themselves and, much worse, for the scapegoated masses below who bear the brunt of the dictators’ insecurities.

Feminism is in many ways the questioning and defiance of traditionally held hierarchies and poles of thinking. To that, I would like to humbly add: Psychologically-informed feminism, which seeks to understand the unmet needs and unexpressed meanings behind prejudice masquerading as gender roles and regulations!

What’s important to remember is that we all have the capacity to be victors and victims. Power and self-denial are not monopolized by men, white people, straight people, or cis-people. We all have the capacity to be good and evil, “reasonable” and “irrational.” The perfectly understandable fear, denial, and avoidance of inner conflict are what lead dictators to dictate and what lead well-intentioned revolutionaries to perpetuate the methods of the enemy. In psychoanalytic terms, identifying with the oppressor is another unconscious means of asserting power when one feels powerless, the function of which is to achieve in fantasy the love of a parent. The issue is when one’s worth rests on the enforced worthlessness of another, or group of others.

As far as my informal research and consensually contumacious research with my more psychoanalytically-inclined friends-of-my-mom has shown, there is no organic creature that is “masculine” or “feminine.” We all have the potential to be all things. There is the difference of our biological sexes in that we have different fatty deposits, hormones, and genitalia, but these things do NOT influence behavior to the extent that we have been told. What it really comes down to are people’s individual dreams and fears and wants, which are cultivated by individual families, which exist in relation to overarching mythological structures embedded in the wider culture.

When people are treated poorly and then in a position to wield power, they displace their aggression or discomfort onto other people. On a worldwide scale, this gets replayed as sexism: A senator railing against birth control because he unconsciously believes and hopes that some mythical, unborn child will have a family that loves him or her as much as he wishes he’d been loved. A porn-addled self-loathing plutocrat decrying the immorality of pornography because his shame and self-protectiveness are so great that he “doth protest too much.” A writer of psychological treatises on sexism aggressively pounding the keyboard with her keystrokes attempting to eradicate the discomfort of being female in a world that hates females by trying to understand misogyny instead of falling victim to it.

The socially-sanctioned artificial differentiations between imaginary poles like, for example, feelings and actions exist BECAUSE OF unconscious defense mechanisms against things that scare us. We have all been taught the lies that say men are strong and women are weak. The false opposites ensure that one will not have to realistically come to terms with the coexistence of strength and weakness, feelings and actions, good and evil. The lie that men are sexually weak and women are sexually dead (unless they’re huge “sluts,” another issue) superficially helps us to avoid the scary reality that all people are sexual, our parents and great-grandparents are sexual, we are sexual, and sexuality in a puritanical culture that fears and punishes sexuality, is good, is bad, is OK! Because sexuality, like all things, depends on context not on absolutes. Sexuality, like gender, like chocolate pudding, like cats climbing up trees, and people in one’s fantasies DO NOT have ultimate good or bad meanings! All things exist within their contexts. Sexuality is good if wielded respectfully and honestly. Sexuality is bad if it’s a mere guise for sadism that exists because of earlier unmet needs of love, worth and reliable companionship. Most people who are violent under the pretext of sex are acting in the vein of their earliest experiences. If sex is portrayed as evil and yet you, as a human, contain sexual urges, how else is one to deal with this seeming betrayal than by acting violently, by punishing the object of your desire, or by punishing yourself?

Which is to say: Men do not rape because they are men. Men and women buy into the idea that men “can’t help themselves” because, to paraphrase Harriet Lerner, we allow and encourage men to do the “aggression work” for both men and women. We thus believe that women who have sex are “sluts,” that imaginary catchall female-directed slur, because we are taught that women can and SHOULD help themselves. We are dualistically taught to believe that men want sex, women have the sex that men want, and anything outside the gender binary just doesn’t exist. If sexuality were taught as integral and relational, it would be respected enough to be treated with dignity and flexibility, not relegated to a purely animalistic or emotional act or idea, because humans are not one-note creatures, nor gender stereotypes of pure desire or pure inhibition or pure anything. Purity is a pole that does not exist. Women are not “more emotional” because they are women, they emote because we allow and encourage women to do the “emotion work” for men and women. The issue is that we cultivate and CONGRATULATE certain skills, feelings and ideas and punish their possession or lack thereof along gender lines. This is unfair and unrealistic.

The traditional gender role for women as BOTH selfless caretakers and selflessly sexually available receptacles is, obviously, extremely crippling and stanching, not allowing for freedom to be sexually receptive to one’s OWN wants, caring and selfish in one’s own way, and in alliance with friends, lovers, and others as equals with their own agendas and own feelings and own sources of pain. The traditional gender role for men explicitly and implicitly directs men not to showcase emotions, which are natural, contradictory and full o’ feelings, hungers, fears, etc. The repression of these feelings is what makes room for violent compensative expressions of emotions and feelings that have not been explored.

Much of the trauma that is inflicted on people could be eradicated if all people were first taught to explore their own feelings, to value pleasure and be comfortable enough to sit with discomfort and grow emotionally and ethically strong, more relativity-minded, and less rigidly fixated on myths of perfection that purport adherence to corrupt rules which divide people from themselves. On top of a strong foundation of self-acceptance, all people could be encouraged to open their minds to other people. To not separate people, things, or ideas into artificial, compartmentalized categories that curtails potential and lifeblood. Women can be autonomous, independent, and aggressive. Men can be caring, affectionate, and vulnerable. This is fact! At yet we demarcate gender in myth form, positing women as gentle princesses or evil whores; men as gruff warriors who save the day, or prodigal son Everymen, who eventually save the day. In almost all myths of gender, men are put forth as savers of days whereas women are taught to sit tight and wait to be saved. This overburdens men and cheats women. The double-bind that mandates female passivity also mandates the Virgin/Whore double standard that demands that women be sexy but non-sexual performers unless, of course, they elect to live with sexual honesty in which case they get slandered with a whole colorful fun house of slurs (whore, ho, slut, bitch, cunt, trollop, strumpet, dyke, etc.) whereas men are simply men and man is, after all, the default for human. Men who attempt to own their own sexuality in their own terms have to withstand the injustice of having their sexuality defined in extremely limiting terms, penalizing anything “effeminate” because, as we have all well been taught, anything “feminine” is bad.

So what can we do to make the pain of living (in a polarizing patriarchy) less great? Tune in next time to this specially”“created program to find out!


By Rebecca Katherine Hirsch

Born in the back of a cattle car in the Spring of ’32, Rebecca subsisted on mealworms and rutabagas until she was reborn in the Fall of '85. Since then, she has worked as an acclaimed art model, writer and psychoanalytic feminist. Feed her, for she hungers.

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