“An industrial society cannot exist unless it imposes certain unisex assumptions: the assumptions that both sexes are made for the same work, perceive the same reality, and have, with some minor cosmetic variations, the same needs.”
~ Ivan Illich
Marriage brings us unavoidably to gender. The modern difficulty with gender throws into light perhaps the most intimate aspect of our self-doubt. We have applied our disbelief to our own sex! We can’t even bring ourselves to say for certain whether a man is a man or if he is a woman. It’s all too final.
You have got to stop living in your head. I cannot say that enough. That was the worst thing our education did to us. It taught us to live in our heads first and in reality second. How much of our reality has been lost because we live in our heads!
Consider, for example, our starting point when we try to think about gender. We start, as usual, with a generic, neutral, and abstract thing called a “person.” What is a “person?” Once again, there is in reality no such thing. This imaginary, abstract, sexless thing, devoid of personality and all intrinsic qualities, exists in our heads and nowhere else.
But that’s where we start from, thanks to our exceptional habit of abstraction. We start from the sexless imaginary thing and then take reality into consideration: we apply a sex to it, as if that were a secondary matter of deciding what color shirt someone was going to wear. When we reason by this process, then no one is a man wholly and completely. There is no such thing as this type of man. There are only “persons” in a more or less masculine guise. That’s how we wear our sex, like it is not part of us, but simply something attached to us on the outside.
Gender, in this sense is something else, is something intrinsic to your being. It isn’t mere biological clothing applied as an afterthought, accidental to the rest of you. Your gender pierces you to your core. It defines you and colors everything you do and see. Men and women experience the world in entirely different ways, not just when they are standing naked in front of a mirror, but always.
When my gender defines my being and forms the framework of my life, then it is too close for me to hate or separate from myself. But what happens to us now that we perceive ourselves essentially as neutral “persons” without gender? What happens when it is only a set of clothes? It is entirely possible for me to feel uncomfortable in a set of clothes. I can outgrow my clothes. I can change style and taste. I can take off my clothes if I don’t like them.
Once I begin to perceive something about me as external to myself, it becomes “not myself.” At that moment I can start resenting it and begin to feel it as an oppression. A man who experiences himself as a man pure and simple, and not as a “person who happens to be male,” cannot resent his manhood. It would be an impossible conception, and if it were possible it wouldn’t make any sense. It would be like resenting his being, which no person can do. A person can resent his life, because that takes place temporarily and externally. A man can even kill himself, but he cannot resent his being. That is why the man who does not see manhood as something “on the outside,” also cannot imagine his manhood oppressing him in any way. It is him.
The same goes for women. Womanhood is the woman.
At least that’s what reality tells us. It only sounds strange and makes us uncomfortable because we have gotten our sex in our heads, along with our relationships and the universe at large.
Now here we are with our manhood and womanhood in our heads, with gender beginning to feel like an afterthought. This also means that to call oneself a man or a woman feels like a decision and a commitment, which is universally terrifying to our agnostic natures.
It feels like by calling myself a man I’m making a commitment to something and burning some bridge, forfeiting all the alternatives. It sounds like I’m agreeing to wear the same set of clothes the rest of myself, and that’s asking quite a bit. No one wants to do that. We are afraid of being “trapped” in our sex. Most of us don’t struggle with this about ourselves, of course, but it is no exaggeration to say that we feel it about our neighbors. Even if we know what we are, we refuse to say of someone else: “He is a man.” We’d hate to make a commitment for him and oppress him with his sex. We were taught about ourselves in the abstract, and now we cannot reconcile our ideas about ourselves with the reality that is us.
The hardest part about recovery is that the old supports are gone. Our parents had their sex in their heads as well. Now the landscape is a landscape for persons only. We built a civilization for imaginary things only. That is our heritage—that all the old pathways that allowed men to be men and women to be women are gone. All the old realities that corresponded to the insides of men and women are now only memories which we’ve been taught to hate and despise as “sexist.” They are primitive, backward, dead, and gone.
We were taught to celebrate our liberation from these old limits. Remember that we inherited the void of liberty. It was a liberation from ourselves, because we are men and women. We aren’t sexless persons.
Is it no wonder we men are now ashamed of our manhood?—that we live our lives uncertain of ourselves, often effeminate, weak, and passive? No woman really wants this in a man, and so we are unattractive. And a woman, for her part, only wants to be a woman; but we of our generation have been taught to resent that too. Men are taught to be ashamed of masculinity, and our women are taught to resent their femininity. “Equality,” they call it—at least we’ve been “equal” in our self-alienation and confusion.
Now our women go around half-naked. Is that any surprise? Why shouldn’t they? They are genderless and so they have nothing to hide. All that skin that’s showing? Well that’s secondary. We are persons first, and that’s what matters. All that flesh is just clothing. It shouldn’t stir anything in the enlightened mind. But it does. And so men are forced to live ashamed of the unavoidable impulses sparked by the nakedness of the opposite sex, which is to say, men are forced to be ashamed of being men and of having the natural response of masculine beings. That is not to say that the objectification of women is therefore excusable: only that it is not difficult to explain given the situation. Men cannot escape it, except by some act of heroic virtue, which should never be the norm, and so most men either objectify the half-naked women they are exposed to each day, or else they compensate by deadening or denying that component of their nature, which has its own detrimental effects in the long run.
It is a crime to introduce our children into this sort of self-hate and agony. The world of persons cannot receive and nurture beings that are born either man or woman, and if children and families are to be healthy, they must exist in a world designed not for ‘persons’ or for a generic ‘humanity’ but for men and women.