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With Noé Khalfa, founder of https://worththejourney.com. We talk about the culture of masculinity and the stigma around male touch.
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"If you are pretty you are not smart."
"If you are beautiful, you are not tough."
These were the phrases that popped into my head while trying to figure out what felt so vulnerable about this photo of me. There is a certain softness about the photo, an almost feminine quality to it. I look younger than I am. I look vulnerable. This photo was scary for me and I couldn't figure out exactly why until those two phrases popped into my head.
I don't want people to think that I'm stupid. I don't want people to think that I am weak.
If people think you are stupid, they don't take you seriously. If you say or write anything that is different from their existing beliefs, they will brush it off as uneducated naïveté, rather than backed-up and contextualized insight. Rather than asking where you came up with your ideas, they tell you how you are wrong.
I know this is true because I have experienced it when people brushed me off as a 'pretty boy'. I have also seen it when powerful, beautiful, and intelligent women in my life have tried to speak their mind. I see it in the news whenever a beautiful woman says anything controversial.
This is the double bind that we put women in. All women are expected to be pretty, but when they achieve this feat, they are automatically downgraded on their perceived intelligence. And we see it all around us.
To associate beauty with stupidity is commonplace; it's also a form of misogyny. What most people don't realize about misogyny is that it impacts men as well. It pushes men to repress parts of themselves that they deem feminine.
I'm afraid to be pretty because I don't want people to think I'm stupid.
I also don't want them to think I'm weak.
Beauty is associated with weakness in mainstream American culture; for a woman to be weak is expected (because they're just girls, right?). However, for a man to be weak is laughable and shameful. In mainstream American culture, weak men get pushed around. Weak men get beat up. Weak men are at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
I know this because I have been there. I was smaller and prettier than most when I was growing up. I was picked on, bullied, and beat up accordingly. It was awful.
In high school I joined the wrestling team, worked out a ton, and began learning martial arts. This was HUGE for my self-esteem. I began to know that, if someone started a fight with me, I would at least be able to defend myself, I could at least be able to hurt them too.
What I learned, however, is that adapting to a society that glorifies violence has it's own dark side.
When I was in my early 20's I got into a fight at a bar. I am ashamed to admit that I started it. I was pissed at the other guy and thought he was being an asshole. My original intention was to have strong words with him but before I knew it I was swinging fists.
It was easily the darkest time of my life. I had been depressed to the extent of suicidal ideation. As I was coming out of depression, I felt full of rage and self-hatred. As I began to throw punches, despite my inebriation, my body knew what to do. All my working out and martial arts made me more skilled in violence than the other guy. When the bouncers pulled me off of him, I had his blood splattered all over my clothes.
The cops found me at my house later that night and arrested me. I spent four hours in a cold concrete room before they finger printed me, took my clothes, and gave me the orange scrubs to change into. I spent two nights in a 15-man cell. My family bailed me out, but I was charged with felony assault. I went to anger management, therapy, and pleaded guilty with request to have the felony reduced to a misdemeanor offence. They went easy on me and I didn't have to do any more jail time, just community service.
I realized that there are no "winners" in a fight (unless it's a fight with a referee, rules, and boxing gloves). When violence, or the threat of violence, is used to enforce a social hierarchy, everyone loses.
I remember in high school, thinking that a constant fear of violence was something that only men had to deal with (except cases of spousal abuse and other "fringe" situations). I remember, at times, being envious of women because they didn't have to worry about fighting other men at school. The more I learned about feminism and gender based violence, the more I came to realize how much everybody suffers from the culture of violence. The sheer volume of #metoo posts drove home the emotional impact of that reality for me.
I want to live in a world where we can all be our different kinds of beautiful and our different kinds of brilliant. I want to live in a world where we can listen to each other and hear different perspectives. I want to live in a world where violence isn't used to enforce social hierarchy. I want to live in a world where we get to decide on our own interpretation of beauty and brilliance. I want to live in a world where neither beauty, brilliance, or violence are used to create hierarchy. I want to live in a world where, instead of thinking about how to defend ourselves against others, we think of how to open our hearts to others.
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This is a recording of my online training on dating without the dating apps.
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This was a short segment to promote our town hall event on evolving masculinity in a post #metoo era. It was exciting to share this work in a more "main stream" venue.
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The #metoo movement has made clear what many of us have known for a while: there is a problem with the culture of masculinity. In the past, it was debatable, it was ignorable. It can no longer be ignored and there is very little real debate about whether or not the traditional culture of masculinity is problematic.
Thank you women, again. Thank you for having the courage to do what we men could not do. Thank you for making it clear that something needs to happen.
Now that we agree that there is a problem, what do we do about it? There are both symptoms and the underlying causes. What is the symptom and what is the cause?
I read an Op-ed in the NYT that argued that masculinity is fundamentally brutal. I hear a lot of variations on this argument. "Male sexuality is fundamentally predatory". I see this perspective as neither accurate nor helpful.
This view leaves men with two choices. One, accept brutal and predatory nature, in a sort of "boys-will-be boys" and "that's just Locker room talk" sort of way. This leads to acceptance of brutal and predatory behavior. The other option is for men to repress the very nature of their gender experience and their sexuality. This leads to isolation, insecurity, and an inability to connect with other people.
In my more liberal community, I see a lot of the latter. In my experience, depression and anxiety come from repressing what is a natural part of the human being.
As a contrast, I believe that masculinity is fundamentally beautiful. I believe that male sexuality is a gift that can be offered when appropriate.
But people see men doing bad things and take the logical step that they are bad people. It's easy to look at the #metoo posts and assume that most men are sex crazed, unfeeling, assholes. But what if their behavior was actually a symptom of a deeper disease?
I think the deeper cause is an unhealthy culture of masculinity that shuts men off from their feelings, that objectifies and dehumanizes women, that is violently homophobic and misogynistic, that is entitled and addicted to power.
Men have grown up being told "not to be a pussy." We have been told not to cry. We have toughened up where we once were sensitive and it's no surprise that we have trouble reading the intuitive signs of an intimate interaction.
Men are starving for physical affection. We live in a world where all touch with women is sexualized and all touch with men is either violent or stigmatized as gay. Any biologist will tell you that humans need human contact.
Craving human connection, men turn to pornography where they get dopamine hits to the brain for over sexualized and dehumanizing portrayals of women.
Men are threatened, bullied, beaten up and forced to embrace violence as a means of survival. Often, the men who perpetuate abuse are people who have been abused but do not recognize it as abuse because it is normalized. So they perpetuate abuse unknowingly. As Rohr said, "Hurt people hurt people."
I say this not to let men off the hook. Quite the contrary, I say this to call men to action. Because, your conditioning may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility.
So many of these #metoo cases were committed by “regular guys” who didn't know better or who had become def to their own empathic wisdom.
Toxic masculinity isn't just "out there", it's right here. Like it or not, we are either perpetuating an existing culture of masculinity or evolving to the new context. Guess which one is easier?
I hear guys say "I'm married so this isn't relevant for me". And I say "Oh, really?" Because people can have different symptoms from the same disease. The same culture that gets in the way of men respecting boundaries is the same culture that keeps men from emotional vulnerability in relationship. It keeps men from full honesty and integrity in relationships.
Even after almost 10 years in men's work, I still catch myself holding the energy of disconnection and entitlement. I get in a group of men, with a subconscious fear of the violence in being on the bottom of the social hierarchy, I strive to be at the top. I compete and create an energy of disconnection from my brothers rather than an energy of non-hierarchical brotherhood. When I do this, I degrade others and I degrade myself.
Toxic masculinity isn't "out there,” it's in here. But I don’t want to stop the conversation there. I read so many articles and posts about toxic masculinity that I get tired of it. I catch myself focusing on what not to be rather than what I want to be. We know what toxic masculinity looks like, so what is the alternative? What does healing masculinity look like? What does beautiful masculinity look like?
To me, it looks like guys who are not afraid to hug other men. Beautiful masculinity looks like guys having close friendships with other men. Beautiful masculinity to me looks like men who are willing to hold each other accountable, able to support each other in hard times so that men don’t depend on women to do all the emotional labor of life.
Beautiful masculinity looks like men giving up power that is attributed merely for gender, so that others can thrive.
Beautiful masculinity looks like men who ask if they can sit next to someone. It's guys who can sense if someone is uncomfortable and can adjust their behavior accordingly. It looks like men who acknowledge power differences in relationship, and seeing power differences in relationship, they investigate if those differences would get in the way of full consent for intimacy.
Beautiful masculinity looks like men intuitively reading the energy of a connection and either moving forward or stepping back in order to honor everyone involved. It looks like men who are in touch with their deeper desire and can make clear requests for what they want. It looks like men honoring the "no", the "maybe" and the "YES!"
Beautiful masculinity looks like men who are curious rather than persistent.
Beautiful masculinity, to me looks like men who are not afraid to feel pleasure and feel love, to celebrate another's pleasure and love. It is men who allow themselves to be vulnerable and find the joy and power of vulnerability.
It looks like men who are able to hold someone else in their strong arms with compassion and caring. It is men willing to be held, willing to let go of control.
Beautiful masculinity to me is men willing to laugh, cry, sing, and dance.
But that is just my perspective. What does beautiful masculinity look like to you?
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We are men who are not ashamed of our masculinity We are men who are willing to look at our faults and our demons We are men who see that we were raised in a culture of disconnection & abuse We are men who see that the misogyny and homophobia in our culture hurts others and ourselves We are men who are committed to our personal growth We are men who are willing to dance and sing We are men who are willing to laugh and cry We are men who acknowledge our privilege and corresponding blind spots We are men who acknowledge that we have perpetuated a culture of disconnection and abuse due to our own ignorance and desire to fit in We are men who are willing to be better We are men who acknowledge the potential for violence within us We are men who stand up for what is right We are men who will step aside when it's not our battle to fight We are men who support our sisters and siblings in their pursuits and empowerment We are men who are willing to give up power so that others can thrive We are men who are able and willing to listen We are men who are able and willing to love We are men who express our affection with awareness and consent We are men who do not cover our hearts when we take off our clothes We are men who know how to express our love within and without sex We are men who create lives of abundant friendship, love, and affection We are men who follow our dreams and create the world that we most want to live in We are men who are dedicated to our own personal growth
We are men who are not ashamed of being men
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"I pretty much always have to initiate sex" My buddy told me.
I sensed a little resentment and asked him about it. He said it wasn't a big deal, but conceded that he had a little frustration with the dynamic. He would prefer more reciprocation, because initiating sex takes work. It takes courage because sometimes she won't be into it and he feels turned down.
I remember having the same frustration in years past. I remember it feeling unfair.
The funny thing is that I also remember times when my partner actually did initiate sex… and I wasn't in the mood. It felt a little weird. On one hand, I appreciated that she was doing some of the "work", but I also felt like… If I wanted to have sex then I would have initiated it. Then I felt obligated to go along with it because it was one of the few times that she initiated. It didn't feel very sexy.
But when my buddy brought this up, I realized that I had not felt that frustration in a really long time. What changed?
The change had not been the goal of my tantra practice but it was a clear result of it. The intention of my tantra practice was to reunite my sexual expression with my emotional experience, and create a stronger connection with my lover.
Through this practice, our sex became more emotionally connected, but something else happened. The feeling of being in love with her began to turn me on more , and feeling of being turned on by her invigorated my love for her.
The result is that I feel like I'm always making love to her. I feel like we just take breaks from sex and move into either an energy of post coital cuddling or an energy of prolonged foreplay. In some ways, it might look like I'm the one "initiating" but it feels like I'm just continuing to make love to her. In this way, I'm never initiating sex because we are always making love. Whether or not we decide to take our clothes off and engage the primary sexual organs is more a question of timing and flow.
And I never feel like I'm being "turned down" or rejected. It's clear to both of us where the energy of our connection is. When there is safety and space for sexual expression we can sense that we both can go there, when there isn't, we don't. And there are, of course, times when she feels sexual desire but I'm stressed don't, or vice versa. While we may not be able to connect on an explicitly sexual level, we can almost always connect on the level of loving connection. With a deep integration of sexuality and love, one can satisfy the other. Indeed, the deeper urge is more often to feel loved. Tapping into that feeling gives freedom from attachment to explicitly sexual desires.
I have not achieved some enlightened state, but rather found more integration of my own energy. I'm still learning.
What seems clear to me is that most of the difficulty in sex is due to a dis-integration from the emotional experience. When the heart and pelvis are connected and aligned, many problems simply vanish.
But so often, people take off their clothes and cover up their hearts. Instead of making love, we do a sort of mutual masturbation. "I get you off if you get me off." And this type of connection is a lot more difficult to manage. Consent is more difficult to manage because it is two competing minds and desires rather than one united emotional experience.
I know this because I used to do this. The sexual repression of our society put my sexuality into the shadows, and the corresponding commodification of sexuality furthered the disconnection from my heart. I didn't even know what it was like to feel love and sexual desire united. It wasn't just a lack of information in my mind, it was a physical disconnection between my heart and my pelvis.
But I learned slowly. Looking back, I realize how strange it was that the disconnection persisted. I was with people who I deeply loved, but our sexuality was more of a "hot" thing that we did together rather than a deeply connected expression of our love for each other. My focus during sex was still "performance" rather than presence.
But I had teachers like David Cates, I read books like "Cupid's Poisoned Arrow," and I have an amazing lover and teacher, Angela Grace. She and I explored each other's hearts and bodies and began to have sex with the specific intention of connecting our hearts to our sexuality, and to each other's hearts. When we did this, it felt like fog clearing to reveal a breathtaking landscape. Tears rolled down my cheeks as we made love for the beauty that I was experiencing. I cried for sorrow at every time I had sex with less connection than at that moment.
And I still feel sorrow for having had emotionally disconnected sex. I see this as a disrespect for the divine magic of embodied loving connection. If someone were to ask me if I had an unhealthy sexually past, I would have to say 'yes' for every time I engaged the sacred sexual part of my body without the corresponding integration of my heart. I didn't know. I couldn't even fathom.
But I have compassion for my former self. I have compassion for everyone out there who is searching for love, connection, and meaning, doing the best they can with the information available.
The men I talk to in my coaching practice all want deeply meaningful and loving relationships. Most of the time, there is so much societal bullshit in the way that they need to spend time clearing a route for the relaxed connection to occur. Other times, they are not sure which direction to turn for all the bullshit clouding their view.
It's no surprise that people feel lonely. It's no surprise that people cross each other's boundaries as they explore intimacy. It's no surprise that women are angry with men for the very real abuses they have endured, be it blatant disregard and violence, or simply emotional disengagement and neglect. We tend to treat other's hearts the way we treat our own. Women feel the abuse of emotional disconnection when they engage with men; for most men, it's the air they breathe.
We live in a beautiful time in our society, where we are starting to acknowledge the abuse. People are finally being held accountable for their actions. Power dynamics are being considered and addressed. This is so important.
There is also so much room to explore connection to our hearts (or lack thereof). In addition to calling out people for their abuses we need to teach each other how to love. Because when we are connected to our hearts, so many problems simply vanish; when we are connected to our hearts, life becomes deeply beautiful.
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It's not about consent... It's about mind-blowing love.
Pleasure requires relaxation, and relaxation requires safety. If my lover does not feel safe, she cannot relax, so she will not be able to feel her desire or her pleasure. The same goes for me: if I don't feel safe, I will not relax, and I will not feel my desire nor my pleasure.
Love works in the same way that pleasure does: for people to open up emotionally, they need to feel emotionally safe. They need to trust that their partner will be there for them, otherwise that connection cannot happen.
What is required for pleasure is required for love: safety, trust, relaxation. The more in love we are, the more we can relax into the ecstatic magic of loving connection.
When I'm with my lover, we play. Without a worry in the world, we feel safe enough to be silly. We feel our desire and tease out the sensation. We bask in the moment, the little touches, the soft kisses. We have all the time in the world, and we enjoy the feeling of wanting each other. We make eye contact and breathe together. "I want you!" I say with my eyes, my arms, and with every cell in my body. I can feel the desire in her body radiating like a cast iron fireplace radiates heat. Her eyes, her breath, her lips, they all scream, "I want you!"
With every kiss and caress, I dance to the music of her desire. Always listening, I feel the ecstatic energy pulsing through my body, and through hers. Our desires mix into an elixir of electric passion and mind blowing love.
In this dance, the word 'consent' does not feel appropriate. It's not about me getting her agreement for something I want to do; it's about both of us celebrating the magic of our connection.
*****************************************
The consent conversation is a tough one because it's happening in a world where we are disconnected from our own embodied 'yes,' where we are deaf to the sound of another person's desire. We have forgotten what safety feels like, and we no longer know how to relax into the magic of love.
We live in a world where abuse and coercion is so commonplace that people are just measuring how much they can endure. Sex is both vilified and commodified. Rather than an expression of loving connection, sex is a naughty pleasure that we get to indulge in when no one is looking, an exciting treat that we get when we have done things right.
We live in a world where sex is no longer sacred. Men are starving for physical affection. Boys explore "sexuality" through moving images on a computer screen, rather than an embodied connection with another person. In this way, the heart is completely disconnected from sexuality. It's only physical pleasure with mental obsession; love doesn't even enter the picture.
Women's bodies are then viewed as sexual objects, and their minds viewed as gate keepers to sexual experience. And paradoxically, when women are objectified in this way, men feel like women have the power because they hold the key to the desired experience.
When women are objectified, everyone loses.
We live in a world where sex is disconnected from love, where sex is no longer sacred.
**************************************
And I am a part of the world I was raised in. When I was younger, I played the game of figuring out what I needed to do to gain access to sexual experiences. I had sex that was disconnected from my heart. At the time I felt the mixed experience of triumph and disgust. As an adult, my healing has been a process of reconnecting my sexuality to my heart, to reintegrate as a full human being.
I have often failed at this effort. I have failed to fully honor my own heart, my own body, and the body and hearts of others.
For example, I was once with a woman who I been dating for about a month and with whom I had not had sex. We were waiting to make sure the relationship was what we both wanted. When we decided to make love, we were both excited and a little nervous. The waiting had caused pressure to build on the experience. We started slow, but we both had trouble relaxing. At some point her body began to tense up. Although she said nothing, her body stopped singing the music of desire. As I think back to that time I remember wanting to create a beautiful experience for both of us. I wanted to make sure I performed, make sure I didn't let her down. I wanted her to know how much I was into her. But I remember my body not performing as I wanted it to. So, I psyched myself up, and I made sure I finished strong.
The next time we saw each other, she told me that she felt abused.
As I heard her words my heart broke, my stomach twisted up, and my mind began to put up defenses. I felt betrayed. I felt lied to. Why had she not said anything? But as I listened, tears rolling down my cheeks, I began to understand. I sat with the discomfort of knowing that my actions had harmed another person.
Later, I spoke to other female-bodied friends of mine and heard stories of what it was like to endure sexual abuse. Because I have the privilege of never having been sexually abused, I admit I have blind spots in knowing what it's like and the impact it can have on future experiences.
As I understand it now, at the time that her body began to tense up, the muscle memory of abuse caused her systems to shut down. While no words left her mouth, her body no longer sang the song of desire. And my body responded faster than my mind did. It sensed that the connection was not safe. When I 'psyched myself up' and continued, I turned a deaf ear to her body and to my own.
****************************************************
What's important to know about consent and boundaries, is that we are all going to fail; we most likely have already. We are going to unintentionally over-step another's boundaries, and we're going to forget to voice our own. This is part of being human and interacting with other humans. And while there are those who intentionally violate another's boundaries, so often, people cause harm without intending or even knowing that they did so. This is the product of living in a culture of sexual repression, where we don't have healthy ways to talk about our sexual experiences.
I want to live in a world where we can talk about these experiences, where we can listen and own up when we make mistakes. I want to live in a world that is not filled with victims and aggressors, but of people exploring loving connection.
I want to live in a world where we are able to hear, and dance to, the music of desire; where everyone feels safe, loved, and cared for.
I want to live in a world where sex is sacred.
You see, it's not about 'consent'; it's about mind-blowing love.
It's not about consent because that word implies an agreement that happens (or does not happen), but in reality it's far more complex and nuanced. It's about the full context of intimate exploration. It's not just about the power dynamics, sexual repression, and our culture of coercion. It's also and more importantly about listening to each other, listening to our bodies, and listening to our hearts.
Because when we listen to each other, we can build the conditions for safety, trust, relaxation, and eventually, mind blowing love.
Image credit:
https://www.facebook.com/sacred.dreams/photos/a.983643571788058.1073741951.221875094631580/1066562616829486/
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Guys often talk about how women are crazy. But is that really what's going on? What if she was actually more in touch with the emotional reality than you are?
Most guys have experienced years of emotional repression in order to fit in with traditional male cultural rules. This can make us def to our own emotional experience.
Women, on the other hand, have a little bit different experience, and there are those who would argue that women are biologically wired to be more emotionally aware.
As a rational human, you might want to harvest that greater ability...
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Men's guilt and men's loneliness come from the same source.
Men grew up in a culture that told them being tough is to be a man. They were told that being emotional was the antithesis of being a man. They were told to "Man up" and "don't be a pussy". Men were taught to repress their emotions. They were told not to be a fag or a pussy. They learned to repress personality traits that they feared could be labeled, feminine, gay, or weak. They were told that physical affection with other guys is shameful (gay) and any physical touch with women should be sexual (get some). They were shown that women should be evaluated on their looks. They were shown that if they are good enough, they deserve the girl.
Then, they grow up. They begin to realize that some of what they were taught about being a man is unhealthy. They see how it stunts their own personal expression, they see how it is dishonoring to the women in their lives. They realize how disrespectful and abusive the standard methods are for attracting women. They make a decision that they don't want to be that guy.
This is an important realization, but often, it causes guilt to creep in, either consciously or subconsciously. Because, almost all men have been complicit, in some way, in a culture of sexual harassment and abuse. Most all men have taken part in some amount of objectifying conversations about women. Most all men have let disrespectful comments slide. With the increased awareness comes feelings of culpability.
And there are cultural narratives that imply that merely being a man is a crime. There are those who suggest that masculine sexual desire is fundamentally predatory.
This awareness and guilt, and perceived messages lead men to reject unhealthy social norms. The only problem is that those social norms are subconsciously (and consciously) tied to "being a man" and "getting a woman" in men's minds. When men reject toxic social norms thatare tied to being a man, they risk repressing their own masculine energy.
Furthermore, men lack language and skills for exploring intimacy in a way that is deeply honoring and conscious. Lacking these skills, men feel it's better to let women come to them. So, they don't pursue women. Men fear showing interest or sexual desire because they don't want to be "that guy."
The result is that men carry a double layer of repression. One is the early, and often subconscious, repression of emotional expression and traits deemed "feminine," and the other is the repression of sexual desire. Both layers of repression carry their corresponding painful experience of guilt and loneliness respectively.
Painted into this corner, and lacking resources to remove the dual repression, men are faced with the choice of which is worse, guilt or loneliness.
I have heard some guys say they avoided eye contact with women at parties for fear of being "that guy". Other guys confess that they were considering pick-up-artist techniques even though they disagreed with the disrespectful energy but they felt it was the only way to escape the pain of loneliness.
Now consider that abuse is more likely in a culture of repression.
I believe that most of the sexual abuse that happens in this country is not done by sociopaths who get off on abuse but regular guys who lack the knowledge, skills, and disposition for conscious connection.
This is why I help men in creating conscious relationship. This is why I host men's groups where guys can let go of unhealthy definitions of manhood. This is why I do what I do.
I want to live in a world where men can feel all of their emotions in safe and healthy ways. I want to live in a world where men know how to pursue intimacy in a way that is deeply honoring and unapologetically masculine. I want men to feel good about being masculine. I want to live in a world where men understand the impact and structures of an abusive society and understand how to make a more healthy one. This is the world that I want to live in, this is the world that I am working to create.
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