Love Without Limits

Reports from the relationship frontier

Polyamory, Sex Roles, and the Gender Trap

As gender-based tyranny dies, polyamory becomes more attractive.

One of the most difficult challenges confronting men and women in the twenty-first century is making the transition from the rigid and well-defined gender identities prevalent in the twentieth century to the more fluid and androgynous roles preferred by many individuals. Diverse opinions as to the healthiest, most natural, and most functional approach to gender roles are still being debated by social scientists, psychotherapists, and Tantra teachers. Most people would agree, however, that both John Wayne–style masculinity and the classic 1950s housewife version of femininity, as well as any identity based solely on gender, are prescriptions for unhappiness. While the extreme versions of these old stereotypes are increasingly rare, many people are still struggling with the more subtle effects of generations of gender-based tyranny.

Marriage as we know it today is based on patterns established in biblical times governing men’s ownership of women. Polyamory can help men and women break out of dysfunctional sex roles and achieve more equal, sexually gratifying, and respectful relationships simply because of its novelty. Most of us have unconsciously absorbed our culture’s messages about proper demeanor for husbands and wives. We may think our modern society has left this legacy behind, but remember that women in the United States have had the right to vote for less than 100 years. Polyamory leads us to confront the sex role conditioning of our ancestors and demands that we transcend it. It requires that men and women alike overcome our competitive programming and that we invent new ways of relating since we can no longer fall back on simply doing it the way Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa did it.

In coaching people on how to get beyond their dysfunctional gender programming I’ve found that questioning the model of two genders can be a good start.

Some might argue that the dyad is the primary unit because it allows the two genders to come together to make a whole. Plato, for one, wrote that in the distant past, male and female were found in a single body, but now it takes two separate individuals, and this is why we so long to find our soul mates. Rather than digressing into questioning the desirability of a belief system that teaches that we are incomplete without our “other half,” let’s take a look at the assumption that humans come in only two genders.

Many Native American cultures perceive that there are seven genders, not two. Likewise, twenty-first-century “gender queers” challenge the male/female dichotomy. Swedish poly activist Andie Norgren describes it this way: “My strongest alternative identity is gender queer, where I am female bodied but present in clothing, body language and appearance pretty much male, but I have no plans or desires to change my body or official sex. I’m just there in the middle, not sexualizing that or making it a big identity transition thing, just being me.”

One male, one female seems to be sufficient for reproduction in most cases, provided that they are genetically compatible but not overly similar genetically, but in terms of completion, several astute observers have noticed that 4, not 2, is the magic number. The quadrinity is the archetypal number of completion in the natural world. We have four directions: north, south, east, and west; four elements: earth, air, water, and fire; and four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and fall, just to name a few examples.

When it comes to gender, a similar quadratic equation exists. Jungian analyst Gina Haddon brilliantly describes the existence of active and receptive expressions for both masculine and feminine that she links to the functions of different sexual organs. She argues that active and receptive are the basic polarity and that these are not gender linked. Our culture tends to recognize only the active masculine, or phallic masculine, as symbolized by the erect penis. We overlook the receptive masculine, or testicular masculine, whose qualities include protection and constancy, even though the testicles are far more enduring than a fleeting erection. In studies of mythology, these are sometimes referred to as the solar masculine, represented by gods such as Apollo, and the lunar masculine, represented by Poseidon, god of the oceans and the underworld.

Conversely, our culture has exclusively identified the feminine with the receptive as exemplified by Mary, Mother of Jesus. This gentle, nurturing aspect of the feminine is linked with the breasts. But the feminine also has its active expression as evidenced by the birthing womb. Anyone with direct experience of childbirth knows that this quintessential aspect of the feminine is anything but soft and yielding. Fierce goddesses such as Kali and Durga in India or Pele in Hawaii are known for their sometimes violent anger. In Western civilization, we have Joan of Arc and Deborah, the female warrior and judge in the Old Testament. Mary Magdalene, who many now believe to be the consort of Jesus and mother of his child, has been presented in the New Testament as a prostitute rather than a priestess of the reigning active female deity.

With the active feminine and receptive masculine genders written out of our foundational myths, the four genders are reduced to two. Of course, just as both women and men have masculine and feminine qualities, we all have both active and receptive qualities. Nevertheless, in most people, one type predominates, and in the dyad, only two of these types are present. Is it any wonder that couples often have a sense of something missing?

 

 Adapted from Polyamory in the 21st Century, by Deborah Anapol, Ph.D., published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2010. This material is protected by copyright and appears by permission of the publisher.. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.

Deborah Taj Anapol, Ph.D., is the author of Polyamory in the 21st Century and other books.

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