I started dating actively again a few years ago, after ending a five year relationship. I had intensively studied and taught about sexuality and relationship for a number of years and was excited to explore dating with my new set of relational skills. But it didn’t take long before I felt frustrated and disempowered as I waited around for men to text, call or ask me out. If I initiated contact and it didn’t go anywhere, I blamed myself for being too forthcoming or aggressive.
My dating-pro friends coached me on the protocols of online dating. I could indicate that I liked someone or say something friendly, but I shouldn’t show too much interest or eagerness to meet. After a date I should expect the man to contact me, and if he didn’t, I should assume that he wasn’t interested — which included the subtext, he’s not respectful and doesn’t deserve you anyway.
Playing by the rules of dating, as a passive female, felt deeply inauthentic. In every other area of my life, I knew what I wanted, went for it, and brought all of myself to it. It also wasted a lot of mental energy. I had to suppress the natural flow of my life force and instinct each time I had an inclination to connect with someone. This suppression created a wacky game of mental gymnastics that included wondering if and when I might ever hear from them, what they were thinking, and a thorough exploration of my potential faults and missteps. If I had just reached out to these men, I would’ve realized sooner when it wasn’t a good fit, and saved myself a lot of time and energy.
Maybe more important than the wasted time and energy, however, was that this dating methodology kept butting heads with a deeper personal truth. There was a disturbing incongruence with the rest of my life and self expression.
I was following a role that felt familiar and traced itself back to my birth and the moment “baby girl” was written on my hospital band. This script of femininity was reinforced by pop culture, sex and relationship experts, and the new age men’s and women’s movements. I needed to create “polarity” and sexual tension by occupying the role of mysterious, receptive female and thereby evoke the man’s inner hunter. I had to give him something to chase. I shouldn’t make it too easy for him. I needed to give him something to work for.
None of this narrative aligned with my personal belief systems, and I realized that any time I was “trying to be in my feminine” or trying to fit into this arbitrary rule system, I was actually participating in a repressive and manipulative paradigm that included sentiments like boys will be boys and she’s way too easy. When I did have healthy and mutual connections, they were easeful, and I didn’t have to think about how to behave.
Dating women further illuminated how these archaic belief systems were still tangled with my subconscious. I found myself flailing awkwardly in the absence of scripted roles. Who was supposed to approach whom, and how?
In my dissolution, I began piecing together how limiting ideas around gender roles had remained entrenched in my psyche even after what seemed like a lifetime of questioning. How did we get here?
The dominant narratives of history and biology would have us believe that things have always been this way. Doesn’t human nature predispose men to be oversexed, aggressive and wanting to mate with as many women as possible? And aren’t women inherently less sexual, more coercive and dependent on men for resources and protection?
We can trace the mythology that forms our current gender constructs back through the last 10,000 to 12,000 years with the parallel shifts into agrarian culture, the birth of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity, and the rapid development of the human brain that brought greater sophistication in logic and reasoning. This is all a fascinating and deep study that I am going to condense into what I see as the two major world views that emerged, shaping this particular western lens of gender. But first a visit to prehistory . . .
For 200,000 years, humans lived on earth in nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes. For the majority of this time, human consciousness was embedded in nature. All life was interdependent; humans existed within the natural world and did not recognize themselves as separate from each other or the living system in which they were integrated.
Then, over a period of several thousand years, during the Neolithic Revolution, the human brain developed in leaps and bounds. Science still doesn’t have a unified theory as to why this occurred at such a rapid pace. These developmental changes included all of the major shifts in the ways that humans lived and communicated.
First, people developed consciousness that allowed them to become aware of themselves as separate individuals, apart from nature and the collective tribe. Second, the agricultural society created a new way of living and relating to resources that included ownership of land for the first time. Third, the modern, Abrahamic religions spread and, also for the first time, postulated an omnipotent male god, outside of oneself, transcending man and earth.
As people became individuated and owned resources for the first time, and god became a higher (male) power, the primary human relationship with survival moved from interdependent and participatory to hierarchical and competitive.
It was during this time that women, for the first time in human history (or prehistory), became subordinate to men both in a socioeconomic sense — she was property, as were the children she birthed — as well as from a religious standpoint. As Anne Baring writes in her book, The Dream of the Cosmos:
Gradually, over the next three millennia, the priesthoods who held the reigns of theological power came to identify the ‘male’ aspect of life with spirit, light, order, and the rational mind — which were named as good — and to identify the ‘female’ aspect of life with nature, darkness, chaos and body, which were frequently identified with evil . . . Woman and her body began to be seen as a danger, a threat; a sexual temptation for man.
This is the time where the body, and specifically sexuality, became something to control and transcend. This was the beginning of blaming women for sexual temptation and coercion and the notion that women, with their sinister seductive powers, could cause men to lose control. This extends to today’s dating rule of women being in the more passive role, “you don’t want to scare him off” or “give the wrong impression” with your forthrightness. This is also the beginning of the world view of women as second class citizens, the beginning of the inequality we are still working to rectify today.
Contrary to everything I had inadvertently absorbed and acted out in my dating explorations, it hasn’t always been this way. Homo sapiens have been on the planet for at least 200,000 years, which means that for nearly 95% of human existence people lived in small hunter gatherer tribes with a very different relationship to nature, spirit, the body and each other.
Anthropological evidence indicates that our hunter gatherer ancestors we’re not organized in the nuclear family systems that have become our norm. Tribes were oriented toward the survival of the larger group that consisted of a maximum of 100–150 people. In a participatory, nonhierarchical system all resources were shared — including sex. It is highly likely that for most of that early period, humans did not understand the male role in procreation.
Reay Tannahill writes in, Sex in History:
Man’s role in procreation was not one that could easily be deduced from the pattern of everyday paleolithic life, when intercourse was frequent and pregnancy commonplace, [and] when the only calendar was the moon . . . It was something that, in theory, could have been recognized at any time after man achieved the status of homo sapiens, perhaps even before, but there is nothing in all the long millenia of the paleolithic era to prove that he knew about it.
In my teaching I often invite this contemplation for groups: What would life, and society, look like if we didn’t understand men’s role in conception?
This reflection shatters the image of how all of western society, including gender roles and how we relate, are organized. Void of the concept of paternity, we no longer have women and children belonging to a man nor long-term monogamy as the default relationship and family structure.
Now for part two of the current dominant western gender lens, we will fast forward to another period that solidified this view of women as passive and manipulative through “science.” In the 19th century, Charles Darwin created a paradigm-shifting body of work with his Origins of the Species and the advent of evolutionary biology. Beyond the many contributions of his work, Darwin’s Victorian era biases colored his theorizing about sexuality and gender inviting some dangerous ideas that are still alive today.
Darwin’s theory of sexual selection stated that females are naturally more choosy about sexual partners because of the huge life consequences of pregnancy and childrearing. In contrast, the male has an agenda to spread his paternity, linked to his power, as far and wide as possible. Darwin wrote, “The female . . . with the rarest exception, is less eager than the male . . . [She] requires to be courted; she is coy, and may often be seen endeavoring for a long time to escape the male.” Darwin’s theorizing around sexual relations at this time came directly out of the anti-erotic dogma of the religions and without anthropological basis for understanding early human behavior.
This work was inserted deeper into our psyches with the development of evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology makes assertions about human nature based on Darwin’s evolutionary biology. The story goes that men produce plentiful and perpetually available sperm in contrast to women’s brief monthly windows of ovulation and limited number of ova over her lifetime. The link was drawn between biology and social behavior stating that men have a stronger drive to reproduce and are thus more sexual while women’s reproductive scarcity causes them to be less sexual. The narrative further assumes monogamous pair bonding as the default and expounds: men are jealous and possessive of their women because economically it is most beneficial to be certain which offspring belong to them while women are concerned with finding the strongest genes for mating along with guaranteed protection and resources rendering them the more shrewd and manipulative sex.
In their best selling book, Sex at Dawn, authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá provide a map to understanding how evolutionary biology and its Victorian era ethos became etched into our beliefs around who men and women are, psychologically. They write that in the 1970’s,
. . . evolutionary theorists began to shift their focus from eyes, ears, feathers and fur to less tangible, far more contentious issues such as love, jealousy, mate choice, war, murder, rape, and altruism . . . Evolutionary psychology was born.
It was a difficult birth. Many resented the implication that our thoughts and feelings are as hard-wired in our genetic code as the shape of our heads or the length of our fingers — and thus presumably as inescapable and unchangeable. Research in EP quickly became focused on differences between men and women, shaped by their supposedly conflicting reproductive agendas. Critics heard overtones of racial determinism and the smug sexism that had justified centuries of conquest, slavery, and discrimination.
It could be a result of 8,000 years of religious programming that, despite criticism, the standard narrative has reigned as some kind of scientific truth. It is essential to note that in parallel with the cultural shifts that came with the developments of agricultural, monotheistic religion and increased capabilities in logic and reasoning, writing emerged. Thus, the first records of human history and philosophy were recorded just as man began asserting his power and value over the weaker sex, woman.
I believe that the staying power of this narrative is largely due to being both served by and reinforced through capitalist society. Women hold something that men need: sex. Men have something that women need: protection and security. Romantic relationship is a game of buying and selling the goods, whether they are of the sexual or material kind. This idea posits men and women at odds based on their biology. It’s a zero sum game.
What I have found for myself is that playing this game neither feels natural nor is it psychologically sound. As I have developed more awareness of how these imprints show up, I have seen that they extend beyond dating and are embedded in the implicit assumptions we make about how we “should” be in relationship.
We can point to any number of statistics to understand that where we have been in relation to gender roles is not working: the 50% divorce rate, one in five women experiencing sexual assault etc. I have personally found it helpful to have a context for how we got here and also the contrast of understanding how our earlier ancestors lived. This has provided scaffolding for me to question the stories that I’m living as well as the origins of my belief systems and actions leading to the ability to make some different choices.
I don’t have all of the answers, I am feeling my way into new territory. I have, however, had a taste of the depth of love, connection, freedom, authenticity and intimacy that become available as we dissolve the narratives of competition, manipulation and conformity. We are in the midst of a sea change whether we consciously embrace it or not. Duality is outmoded, whether good vs. evil, man vs. woman or assertive vs. passive. And it may just be that we have the opportunity to change inequality most radically through our closest personal relationships and the ways in which we love.