essays on suffering and awakening

Making peace with the feminine: what men can do about sexual assault and sexism

If we’re honest with ourselves, I don’t know if anyone is actually surprised by the recent outpouring of women sharing their stories of being sexually assaulted. I think everyone knew that this is what goes on, but now at least, bravely, people are talking about it.

Women are taking the lead by speaking up publicly about what has formerly been for most a private shame. But what can we men do?

Here are some ideas. First off, listen to the women in our lives if they want to talk about this. If it’s uncomfortable for us to hear, well, it’s uncomfortable for them to share too. That’s okay. We can help by just being willing to hear them share their experiences.

The listening part is critical, because that’s where the human experience really comes in. Almost all men have been taught that sexual harassment, assault and rape is wrong and bad—and it still happens all the time anyway. In other words, having an intellectual understanding of the morality of the situation isn’t nearly enough to keep some men from sexually abusing women, and other men from ignoring their brothers’ behavior.

But the more men really listen to the experiences of women who have been on the receiving end of this stuff, the more we can understand the human cost: that women carry these scars for years, decades even. Long after the behavior ends, many women still live with the consequences. So do the men who harmed them, for that matter. You can bury your guilt, but you can’t run forever. That pain is taking a tremendous toll on humanity as a whole.

Second, we men should really look at our part in all of this, at why so many of us treat women badly in the first place. None of us have behaved perfectly towards our sisters. We have to take responsibility for the tremendous harm we have caused, because that’s how we can start to change. Otherwise, the cycle just continues, to everyone’s detriment.

I think men sexually abusing women is largely about two things: fear and power. The fear part is our deep fear of the feminine and of losing our masculinity, and the power part is wanting to fight back against that; to defend the masculine and control the feminine instead. This plays out across several levels of being.

On the physical and societal level, we’re now seeing a great many women publicly sharing their stories of being sexually abused by powerful male authority figures in their lives. The blatant disrespect with which these men acted makes it likely that this wasn’t about sex as much as it was about power: about feeling like they could do anything they wanted to anyone. That their abuse was largely directed towards attractive young women makes unfortunate sense: our society as a whole often sees women like that as status symbols as much as human beings. 

If you as a man can have power over such women, you must be quite a man indeed, the thinking goes.

Why are men so concerned with expressing power, especially over women? Think of common schoolyard taunts such as you throw like a girl, or boys don’t cry. From a young age, boys are taught that not only do we have a specific, powerful role in the world, but that we can lose it by being perceived as having feminine qualities. In other words, the feminine is a direct threat to our status and the respect we do or don’t receive from our peers.

This plays out in the physical world, but also more deeply inside each of us. We men become afraid of the feminine that exists inside of men and women alike, and try to push it away. We perceive the feminine as being dangerous to the masculine, as a conflicting, not complementary, force.

Whether consciously or subconsciously, most of us believe that being a man means being the opposite of a woman. In order to feel like we’re living up to our role as a man, we feel a need to drive away the feminine within ourselves. 

But that doesn’t work.

On one level, there is no masculine or feminine. Absolute truth is beyond duality: God is neither male nor female. But in our daily existence, most of us perceive the world in terms of me and you, us and them. Duality is central to how we see things, and the male-female divide is one of the foundations upon which most of us build that worldview. We have male or female bodies, and we have qualities and energies within us that we see as masculine or feminine.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. But we men get into trouble when we start to think we should have only masculine qualities and energies within us. The problem with that is that it denies reality: everyone has both masculine and feminine parts of their being, regardless of which body we have. Male and female aren’t conflicting opposites, but inseparable halves of the same whole, which exists within us all. One cannot exist without the other.

So when we try to pretend otherwise, we cause ourselves a great deal of suffering. We cut ourselves off from part of our own being, which strengthens our sense of alienation from the world. Only pain comes from that.

Of equal importance, when we mistreat the feminine within ourselves, we inevitably bring that same attitude to the women we encounter around us in the world. If we think we need to conquer the inner feminine in order to be secure, well, invariably we have to do the same to actual women. We end up fighting a losing battle against reality and causing a ton of harm to our sisters at the same time.  

As men, we would benefit by acknowledging and opening up to our own feminine side. We can’t find peace without honoring both the masculine and feminine qualities within each of us. There is room for both—neither is separate from the other. There is no masculinity to worry about defending without the femininity that comes with it. 

If we embrace both sides of ourselves, we don’t have to be scared of either.

Ian Cooper