Thursday, 7 August 2008

some thoughts on masculinity

When we were setting up the Goddess Temple in Glastonbury there were numerous occasions when men would stop me in the street and ask me questions – or rather make demands. These would invariably boil down to “Why aren’t you including the god?” To which there was only one answer, which was, “Because it’s a Goddess Tempe. If you want a temple that includes the god, set it up yourself. Nobody is stopping you.” They would talk of balance – that goddess and god reflect the forces of the universe – yin and yang, Siva/Sakti etc. Or it would become Jungian and anima/animus would enter the conversation. However it developed, the conversation would seem to have a sub-text that the exclusion of the male god was a direct insult to them as men. It was as if they felt that I, as a man, was some sort of traitor to my sex. I had gone over to the enemy.

I was reminded of this in a one of the comments to a recent AlterNet article on the de-criminalisation of prostitution. The writer was writing in response to a previous comment in which he felt the woman writer had been disparaging to men by putting quotation marks around such phrases as “male needs”. He then went on to speak about the failure of feminism to address such issues as the unhealthiness of our society’s attitude to sexuality – seeming to imply that there was too much focus on “male-bashing”. While I agreed with many of the other points he raised, I could not agree with him here. In my experience, the desire for a healthy sexuality has been a major focus of feminism from my first exposure to in the late 60s. Of course, what that healthy sexuality might look like has been a question of much, and often heated, dispute.

The protagonists in this debate have been overwhelmingly female and as such were only able to look at male sexuality, particularly heterosexuality, from the outside. And from, literally, the receiving end. All they could see was how men behaved. And they then described this. They described the effects of men’s behaviour on their lives and the lives of other women. They asked that that these things changed. Men, sensing attack, closed ranks in order to resist this. This defensive reaction took various forms. First, there was an attempt to put the genie back in the bottle and turn the clock back to the 1950s. Then, there was what in Britain is called “laddism” – a sort of permanent infantilism built around sport, beer and “men behaving badly” and indulged in this by feisty, but ultimately supportive women. Finally, there was the “Iron John” phenomenon – which gave a sort of intellectual and “spiritual” gloss to laddism. This latter was particularly insidious because while posing as a new way to masculinity it was reaffirming and re-inscribing the gender division of patriarchy. When I first looked at this phenomenon, I was reminded forcibly of what I had seen of my father and his friends in their Rugby Club. Male bonding rituals were nothing new – I had witnessed them as a young child. And I saw then, although of course it seemed natural at the time, how such bonding depended on having a woman to stand and watch them, provide the sandwiches, then , at 8 or 9 o’clock to take the children home to a chorus of “Goodnight Ladies”. Then the serious business of drinking – and, well, sometimes, I’ve heard, there might have been a stripper - began.

I was therefore never tempted to bond in the woods. Although I love being there with others and I like both drumming and hugging. I did not want to look for a new masculinity in the mythology, which had served patriarchy for millennia. It is the fruit of the poison tree.
I am very reluctant, therefore, to enshrine any “god” before we have seriously investigated whether this god merely re-inscribes, in of course appropriately non-sexist language, the old gender stereotypes. Why would I want to? The vast bulk of human experience is, I believe, non-gender specific. We are all born, we all eat, excrete, sleep, we all want comfort, intimacy, shelter, security. We all face death and disease, bereavement and loss. We have, it is to be hoped, our moments of triumph and joy. There is, however, the one unbridgeable gap – reproduction. There is nothing important that I can do that a woman can’t. This cannot be said in reverse and here is the taproot of male insecurity. All we can do is watch as the woman’s belly swells, stand by as the new life emerges and then gaze as the child suckles. Here, my only response can be wonder and awe. Sometimes there is a element of fear and resentment there as well – a sense of exclusion from the really important business of life. The only male blood mystery is combat – I remember my father’s best friend, who was also our GP, saying that a particular rugby match had been very bad because “there was no blood”.

The new masculinity must, therefore, take account of this one major difference and look honestly at our own feelings about it. To the extent that we can never feel a child growing within us, can never give birth and never suckle – although there has been some research, I believe, into the latter – biology is destiny. Freud had it the wrong way round – men’s womb envy is biologically determined whereas the privilege given to the penis is cultural. However we define masculinity, it will not help to insist that a male god is honoured in a goddess temple or that feminism takes account of our sensitivities and women censor what they say from their own experience


Andy said...

Hi Brian

It's good to have caught up with you here in blogland! I've added a link to your blog from mine.

You make some interesting and valid points, although part of me is sad that they need to be made at all.

In very simplistic terms, it is sad that this apparent battle, this tension still exists, because I feel that in many ways it holds us back from healing, from wholeness. I do embrace the God, and I have learned what it means to be a Sacred Male as much from pagan male Deity as I have from Goddess. Both have led me to healing, to wholeness and to power. As you know, I have spent time within the Goddess movement, yet in reality and truth, I found Patriarchy at work there as much as I did outside that movement.

I do not feel that Goddess needs God, I don't think it's so much about one having to have the other in order to be 'complete' - not at all. For me, it is more to do with relationship. Working with both Goddess and God has taught me a lot about my own inner relationship and my own spirituality in that it has helped me embrace and accept aspects of myself that perhaps I was reluctant to face. The God has shown me that it's okay to be me - yet at the same time has bought me in touch with me I was intended to be before name and form. It's been a dynamic, personal and real relationship and continues to be so.

As a gay man, this has been tough in many ways and many aspects, especially as my sexuality has been shunned by some in the pagan world, yet ultimately it's been a liberating experience.

Brian Charles said...

thanks Andy for your comment. Yes it is good to reconnect.

I fully agree with you that the apparent conflict detracts and distracts from the healing that is so necessary. I hope also that nothing i have said is read as a criticism of those whose path is to honour both goddess and god. My starting point was those many who tried to insist that I should modify my own practice in order to include them and appealing to some sort of supposed gender loyalty in
order to do so.

I also agree with you about patriarchal attitudes within the goddess movement. Given the fact that we were all, both men and women, born within a deeply patriarchal culture it would be a true miracle if any of us, of whatever gender or sexuality, did not reproduce these assumptions in our dealings with others. I know I have and undoubtedly will again.

No-one has the monopoly of insight into the way forward. I have my opinions and can, at times, defend them long past the time of reason. But, in the end, I am only one voice and believe that the new paradigm will develop from the individual voices of many - flawed as we all are. In fact, i often believe that it is in our flaws rather than what we perceive as our virtues that we are valuable. I am not too sure how to express what I mean except that it is when we are most ourselves rather than trying to conform to some idea of what we "should" be that goddess, or god, is most present.

Thanks for the link - i have returned the compliment. it is also good to know that I am read


Geraldine Charles said...

I've had so many conversations about including the god and remember so many occasions and so many discussions ....

Anyhow, you inspired an article!

Read it here: