While there has been significant movement in recent decades towards a society in which women are treated equally to men, the society we have today is still fundamentally sexist. Yes, there’s been progress, but as the recent scandal involving Hollywood film producer Harvey Weinstein demonstrates, “The Patriarchy” (the oppressive patterns of thought, behaviours and institutions, like Hollywood, which keep men in a position of power over women) still dominates our lives. In fact, the issue of sexism in today’s society is more complex and pernicious than it was in the last century, because in most settings overt sexist behaviour is now considered to be politically incorrect. Therefore in many instances sexism has been driven underground.
Nothing speaks more directly to this reality than the meteoric rise of internet pornography over the last twenty years, a phenomenon which has huge ramifications not only on the issue of equality between the sexes but also profound implications for the mental health of a growing number of men and a subsequent impact on their relationships, as this excellent video interview with sex addiction therapist Paula Hall illustrates. It may be a socially unacceptable and potentially sackable offence to wolf whistle at a female coworker or pester her for her phone number, but the taboo of pornography means that there need not be any such boundaries in the secret lives of men. The dissonance between public and private behaviour, always a significant dimension of our of society, has been further exacerbated by these developments, driving men’s sexist beliefs further into the domain of their shadow where they’re easy to disown.
Patriarchal power and intergenerational trauma in relationships
Patriarchal power relations have been firmly in place for thousands of years, profoundly influencing our thoughts, feelings and the way we see the world, both on a conscious and unconscious level. This is a system which is entrenched in our thinking. It’s like the oxygen we breathe, most of the time we take it for granted and therefore we fail to appreciate that what so often sickens our relations with our partners is the fact that the atmosphere in which these relationships take place is toxic. However, it’s important to remember whilst The Patriarchy practically privileges men over women (e.g. the gender pay gap), it is a system of thought which pollutes the thinking of both men and women. On a conscious level, we may believe that women are equal to men, but on an unconscious level we have all inherited from our parents and ancestors trauma in relation to sexual inequality which goes back for generations. This “intergenerational trauma” can cause huge problems and power struggles for couples in committed relationships.
Four hundred years ago, free thinking, independent women were considered to be witches and burned at the stake if they did not follow the rules, challenging the inferior position they were allotted in the oppressive, patriarchal and dogmatically religious society of the time. A hundred years ago, women who refused submit to the will of their fathers and husbands, reacting against the puritanical and hypocritical oppression of the era, were diagnosed as hysterical and locked away in asylums and institutions. Today, the female body is just as much a site for control, domination and oppression as it was fifty years ago, albeit at the same time as also being seen as a symbol of their empowerment, a complex and contrary topic I will leave others to debate.
Although we may not be aware of it, this shameful historical baggage has a significant influence on the dynamics of our society and our relationships today. Power “games” between men and women have been playing out for centuries. These power games still have the capacity to destroy relationships and leave permanent wounds. Often what causes us to engage in these power games in the first place is the wounds we inherited from our parents. If there is no space for healing, these are undoubtedly wounds which we will hand down to our children. So what is necessary for this healing to take place?
In conclusion, I wish I had an easy answer to this hugely important question. I believe empathy is a big piece of the puzzle. Empathy is the capacity to see and feel things from someone else’s perspective. It is the ability to witness and be alongside someone in their pain without judging, advising or trying to fix. However, it is an experience that is not possible if our own pain is getting in the way. Therefore, I believe another important piece of the puzzle is forgiveness, another thorny topic which (for the time being at least) I will leave others to debate.