What's happening in the perennial "war between the sexes"? While women and men daily love, live and work together in apparent peaceful co-existence, subterranean resentment, anger and rage rumble just below the surface, erupting intermittently into sexual tension, verbal sparring, and, sometimes, outright violence. What stimulates such antagonism, anger and rage between the sexes?
I first tackled this ticklish subject twelve years ago, in a chapter from my book Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic. The subject matter--or at least my particular approach to it--proved so controversial that my usually fearless publisher considered the possibility of excluding the chapter, finally agreeing to accept a somewhat toned down version.
Two of my central points in that chapter are that animosity clearly does exist between the sexes, a barely concealed anger that pervades all spheres of social intercourse, and negatively affects intimate relations between women and men. And that what partly underlies and fuels this pervasive intergender hostility is an unconscious fear of the opposite sex.
Fear is a fundamental factor in the genesis of anger, rage and violence in general. That which we fear can quickly become that which enrages us. Which is why there is such profound truth to that old sporting aphorism, "The best defense is a good offense." Whether we know it or not, we each harbor a deep-seated, primordial fear of the opposite sex, or more archetypally speaking, a fear in men of the feminine and a fear in women of the masculine. (More on "masculine" and "feminine" in Part Two of this post.)
Castration anxiety informs much of men's primal fears of, and defensive hostility toward, women. Psychologically, castration is a primitive male fear: fear of losing one's masculine power. In one of his most controversial theories, the castration complex, Freud speculated that boys, upon first exposure to the female genitalia, conclude that all females once possessed a penis which had, for some presumably bad behavior, been removed. For obvious reasons, this horrifying belief in boys engenders substantial anxiety, especially during the Oedipal period, when the boy's budding sexuality is directed toward mother and threatened with imagined castration by the father. This traumatic childhood association between sexuality and castration remains into manhood, manifesting in an unconscious fear of women and of the feminine, archetypally symbolized as the castrating, devouring vagina dentata.
Freud's concept of castration anxiety need not be taken completely literally, however, making perfect sense symbolically or metaphorically. For most men, this typically unconscious castration complex (see my previous post for a definition of complex) is what stimulates hostility toward women and generates rage. It is, fundamentally, what Erich Neumann (1994) described as "fear of the feminine."
Dr. Neumann, a pupil of C.G. Jung, suggested that boys, in the process of psychologically separating from their mothers in order to establish an "ego" or masculine identity of their own, start to perceive the "feminine" qualities of the mother as fearful and threatening. In normal development, writes Neumann, the boy eventually rejects the "feminine" and heroically learns to identify instead with the father, shifting his allegiance from matriarchal (feminine) to patriarchal (masculine) values. In adulthood, due primarily to the sexual power females biologically exert over men--coupled with the woman's still comparatively close contact with nature, the unconscious, and the so-called irrational realm of intuition, instinct and emotion--men relate to women with a mixture of fascination, fear and prickly defensiveness.
But what Neumann neglects to examine is women's fear of the masculine. For girls--who do not have the same psychological need to separate from mother-- the mother provides a feminine identity, ego, or sense of self through the psychological and behavioral process of mirroring and modeling. This exclusive identification in girls with mother and the feminine tends to amplify the fear of the masculine--and of men. Men and masculine values come to connote something strange, foreign and alien, fostering in females a sort of sexual xenophobia, a largely unconscious fear, distrust--and sometimes, even defensive contempt--of the potentially fertilizing, overpowering, penetrating masculine principle embodied by men. In cases where women have rejected the feminine in themselves--having perhaps seen femininity in the mother as a weakness or negative trait--they fear and resent masculine men who might stimulate their repressed femininity. Or where boundaries and ego are fragile, fears of losing oneself in relationship are defended against by subtle rejection of any potential true intimacy with men and the masculine.
Narcissistic defenses are especially problematical between the sexes. We have all been emotionally wounded as children in some ways, and unconsciously carry around this emotional baggage into adult relationships. Anger, resentment, hostility or thorniness ward off further injury; but also preclude the possibility of real intimacy. When the narcissistic rage of the wounded inner child creeps into a relationship, ping-ponging back and forth, the effect is like barbed-wire being strung between two people, a razor-sharp, cutting, defensive fence constructed of fear, hurt, anger and resentment.
Sexual attraction and love can indeed be experienced as a terrifying loss of power and control for either sex: Sexual surrender or true intimacy requires a willing lowering of defenses, a courageous relinquishing of control, a readiness to risk emotional vulnerability, and a toleration of the anxiety intimacy inevitably incurs. For both genders, there is an innate fear of such fateful encounters, as well as a powerful attraction to them. We both fear and crave being irrevocably affected--in a psychological sense, infected--by the mysterious other. But often, once affected, we try to control the beloved's behavior, mistakenly believing that by manipulating them, we can master our own demons.
At the end of the day, men and women need to become more aware of the psychological source of our mutual apprehension, mistrust and animosity in order to transcend it. Angrily projecting the blame on each other for our own fears of sex, love and intimacy simply won't do. In Jung's psychology, confronting the anima or animus--the inner masculine in women or feminine in men--is key. Knowing our own complexes, fears of intimacy and defense mechanisms against it, and addressing them therapeutically, is crucial. But understanding and having compassion for a fearful partner's petulant defensiveness against intimacy--without taking it too personally--is priceless.