Empowerism: Reflections on Integrative Masculinity, Feminism, and the Gender Wars

By Adam J. Pearson
Diverse hands linked in unity
“There’s too many men, /
Too many people, /
Making too many problems, /
And not much love to go round. /
Can’t you see this is a land of confusion?”
~ Genesis, “Land of ConfusionIntroduction: Shifting Currents in the Sea of Gender

When I consider the state of male-female relationships today, I feel a strange mixture of sadness, frustration, puzzlement, and wonder. Here in Canada and the United States at the least, we are in the midst of a state of cultural confusion and readjustment with regard to the way men and women relate to each other. This, I believe, is a positive thing; it’s a necessary phase in our ongoing social evolution as we adapt to change (allostasis) and shift into a higher state of harmony (homeostasis) that aligns with our best values and thinking.

In our contemporary historical moment, femininity is striving to assert itself against centuries of oppression, masculinity is in crisis, and trans, genderfluid, and intersex people are boldly speaking their truth after being marginalized for so long. Currents are shifting in the sea of gender. Old frameworks are crumbling and new discourses and concepts are emerging amidst the rubble of the old.

In short, we are in a state of transition from a more oppressive, dysfunctional system to a more empowering and functional system for all. Where do we stand right now with regard to the ‘gender wars’? What could a healthy masculinity look like for the contemporary man? Can we reinterpret the movement for gender identity empowerment to get feminists and men’s rights activists on the same side? These are some of the fascinating questions that I’d like to tackle in this article.

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I sincerely hope that my intelligent readers will that resist the urge to preemptively label me a “white knight” or an “anti-feminist” to dismiss what I have to say before hearing me out. The simple truth of the matter is that these ideological labels aren’t actually helpful; they don’t support new thinking and free discussion, but rather attempt to shut it up.

I’d also like to state from the outset that I do not claim to be a spokesperson for feminism, for women, for intersex, transgender, or genderfluid people (although I certainly am their ally), or for any particular men’s group. My social standpoint, as standpoint theory sociology would say, is that of a modern heterosexual man and I speak here for no one but myself. All I would like to do in this article is to be as authentic and real as possible about what I see in the world around me. I’d like to share some personal reflections on the flow of culture around gender, on what integrative masculinity means for me, and why I feel we need a new word, a new way of thinking, and a new movement, to unify us as people of all genders.

 

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Gender in Cultural History: The Stage of Our Gender Performances

“This is the world we live in /

And these are the hands we’re given. /
Use them and let’s start trying /
To make it a place worth living in.”
~ Genesis, “Land of Confusion“As we look at the vast sweep of human history, it soon becomes clear that in the course of our cultural evolution, we developed cultures and societies that rigidly controlled the masculine and the feminine and created ways of thinking that pitted them against one another. We learned to think in simple male/female binaries that marginalized, excluded, and even pathologized the experiences of transgender, intersex, and genderfluid individuals.

Complex patterns of power, control, oppression, conformity, marginalization, and social conditioning emerged as we moved from traditionalist to modern scientific to postmodern values in the development of Western thinking. We created our social and cultural contexts in our own image and were–as sociology and social psychology have extensively shown–influenced and molded by these contexts in turn.

 

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Because cultures are only larger patterned pictures of shifting values within individuals who progress along various lines of development at different rates, this diversity naturally produces many contradictions. There are many positions–from magical-animistic to traditional to modern to postmodern to integral–that men and women can take on what it means to be a male, female, transgender, intersex, or genderfluid individual.

As values clash and the positions that flow out of them do too, a great deal of conflict can follow. The result of this jousting of positions is what some commentators have called “the war of the sexes” or “the gender wars,” an unfortunately confrontational relationship that has left many people of all genders feeling alienated, isolated, conflicted, and frustrated, and for very understandable reasons.

 

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The feminist deconstruction of patriarchy was a necessary step in our evolution; the marginalized, disempowered feminine voice had to be reawakened in all of its authentic power and unique insight. It had to shake itself free of ways of thinking that silenced and controlled its flowering for generations.This reawakening, liberation, and empowering of the feminine is not over; it’s still unfolding. Feminism has passed through many waves from first to second to third into intersectional and beyond and it continues to evolve in response to changing discourses, terminologies, and value systems in a dynamically shifting world (the cultural chronosystem of Uri Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological systems theory and the changing “Life Conditions” of Spiral Dynamics).

And it’s a beautiful evolution; women are finally claiming their rightful space to be authentic and vulnerable in a world that suppressed, repressed, oppressed, and limited them for countless generations.At this point, I can hear some of my male brothers exclaiming “white knight alert! white knight alert!” But not so fast. Like Kanye West to Taylor Swift, let me finish.

 

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The Crisis of Masculinity

While feminism has been so vital and powerful in evoking social change and transformations of value systems and cultural forms that have been tremendously beneficial for men and women alike, this very movement that sought to empower women by critiquing hegemonic masculinity and patriarchal social structures unintentionally left many men feeling rather lost.

While feminism was so effective at dismantling patriarchy and traditional masculinity from within, it struggled to promote a clear alternative masculinity in its place. If the old way of patriarchal masculinity is no good, then who, as a man should I be? This is the question that thousands of men began to ask themselves. As a result, a crisis of masculinity ensued.

What form did this crisis take? For some men, feeling lost and alienated in the face of the feminist dismantling of patriarchal values steeled them to embrace traditional masculinity with renewed vitality. For others, such as Men Going Their Own Way or MGTOW, it made them wish to renounce women altogether in order to focus on male self-development. Other groups such as the red pill movement and Men’s Rights Activists (MRA) decided to make covert or overt war on feminism, which they saw as a destructive force that did not achieve the equality it promised, but rather aimed to oppress and feminize men.

Many feminists have clashed with these movements or simply dismissed them outright. My purpose here is not to attack these movements or the men who support them because I would suggest that they are all expressions of profound yearning for a new way to conceive of masculinity in an age in which men feel alienated and confused by competing contradictory expectations of “what men should and shouldn’t be.”

 

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Personal Experience With the Crisis of Masculinity
 

On a personal note, I understand this confusion very well because I grew up with it. I was told many conflicting messages in my boyhood by men and women alike. I was told that as a man, I shouldn’t feel. Vulnerability was not courage, but weakness. To be in any way feminine was indicative of failure. Homosexuality was feminine, and therefore, to be ridiculed. I should be sensitive, but not too sensitive. I should be strong, but not too strong. I should like sports and not like feminine art. I should love women romantically or close my heart and “pump em’ and dump ’em.” I should hide my feelings and play games, manipulate, lie, and pretend to be someone I wasn’t. I should seek validation of my masculinity through the quantity of notches in my bedpost or the money in my bank account. I should place my self-esteem in the estimation of the men and women around me. I should care about everyone or not care about anyone at all.I listened to men and women for guidance and tried many of the ways of being a man in a post-postmodern world that they promoted. Because I didn’t absolutely know what masculinity should be and didn’t completely resonate with any of the views I saw people promoting, I was very open to the adventure of experimentation. I enjoyed the play of what the postructuralist philosopher Judith Butler called, in her book Gender Trouble (1990), gender performativity; the ways in which we perform gender like we’re acting out parts in a play.

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In the end, I found myself confronting a sea of contradictory messages about masculinity and as I listened to them, I became, as David Deida writes in The Way of the Superior Man, “distanced from my own masculine core;” I looked to others to tell me what it meant to be a man rather than finding my own way. Although it was clear to me that there were so many problems with so much of these competing messages, that they simply weren’t true, that things didn’t have to be this way, I had no alternative illuminating way of thinking that would sort this all out for me. I tried many of these ways and analyzed what happened. And as I passed my mid-twenties, I decided that the time had come to draw on all I had learned to authentically define my own masculinity for myself.

A few exceptional authors in addition to those I have already named were pivotal in this process for me, chiefly among them were Brene Brown (Daring Greatly), Byron Katie (Loving What Is), Marcus Aurelius (Meditations), Ken Wilber (Integral Spirituality), Carol Dweck (Mindset), Aaron Beck (“The Past And Future of Cognitive Therapy”), Julia T. Wood (Gendered Lives), and Mark Manson (Models: Attracting Women Through Honesty).

In addition to the thoughts of these great authors, I learned a great deal simply by talking with men and women of all ages from teenagers to elderly ladies and gentlemen not only here in Canada and the United States, but all around the world from Asia to Africa to Australia to South America. In their insights and stories, I found the building blocks of a personal view of masculinity that I have found to work for me. I call this way the way of integrative masculinity.

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Integrative Masculinity: A New Way to Be a Man in a Postmodern World
 

I can’t speak for a vision of femininity or a path for women in the world today because that’s not my place. I leave that to the wise women of the world to articulate from their own authenticity. Nor can I attempt to speak for trans, intersex, genderfluid, or any other modality along the gender spectrum; they are their own best advocates. Moreover, I do not even attempt to speak even for my fellow men; it is up to each of us to decide the way to live that is best for us. All I would like to do here is to share the way of living that I have personally found helpful as a man at this point in my life.For my masculinity at this stage of its development, the key word has become “integration.” For many years, because of my cultural conditioning, I was at war with the feminine in me and felt moved to control, eliminate, limit, and destroy it. I learned to suppress intuition in favour of logic, empathy in favour of self-contentment, spontaneous flowing in the now with rigid planning, vulnerability in favour of Stoic strength, authenticity in favour of public image, expressiveness in favour of solid stillness, love in favour of freedom.

At the same time, I felt compelled to suppress the masculine in me because I felt disconnected from my masculine core and had no alternative to the hegemonic masculinity that feminism had systematically critiqued. I lived, in short, in a state of great confusion. And from confused thinking, as Theravada Buddhism and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy agree, confused action flows. I simultaneously felt somehow like an outsider to my masculine brothers and separate from the viewpoints of the women around me. I felt, in short, totally disconnected.

 

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After years of struggling, stumbling, and contradictory actions and ways of thinking, however, I have found a way that works for me as a modern man. And this is the way of integration. In the context of gender, the way of integration means embracing my inner masculine and embracing my inner feminine.

Instead of creating false binaries that try to suppress the feminine in me so that the masculine will always dominate, this shift in inner attitude involves valuing the contributions of both principles. In addition, integration means giving an honest ear to the best partial truths that all perspectives from the magical-animistic to the traditional, modern, postmodern, and integrative viewpoints have to share about gender and doing my best to integrate these contributions into a holistic sense of masculinity.

 

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One benefit of an integrative approach to gender is that it frees up a lot of energy. Living in inner conflict and trying to force myself to conform to other people’s images of masculinity was to me incredibly exhausting. As psychoneuroimmunology researchers such as Zorrilla et al (2001) have shown, living in such state of constant stress and anxiety produces tremendous strain on the body’s immune system and redirects a great deal of metabolic energy into the body’s stress-management systems.

By shifting from a state of inner war to a state of inner integration, much of that energy has been liberated. In addition, I now feel freer than ever to “contain multitudes” or embody multiple ways of being in the world as Walt Whitman put the point in his Leaves of Grass (1855). I can train martial arts and enjoy sensuality. I can cultivate inner strength and vulnerability. I can develop reason, emotional insight, empathy, and intuition in tandem. I can flow from masculine stillness in the presence of consciousness to feminine spontaneous expressiveness. I can direct and be open to direction. I can embrace feminine insight and masculine insight and different modes of feeling and thinking from the marginalized voices of people in the trans, genderfluid, and other communities.

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For me personally, integrative masculinity feels something like the following, which I will here only sketch out in the broadest of brushstrokes as a rich and energizing blend of masculine insight and feminine vitality. The masculine in me yearns for purpose, direction, and freedom; the feminine in me longs for beauty, expressiveness, and connection. The masculine in me trusts dispassionate reason and conscious presence; the feminine in me embraces intuition and passionate emotional intelligence. The masculine in me develops personal self-reliance and success; the feminine in me reaches out to others to bring them up with me. The masculine in me burns with love and sexual passion for the feminine; the feminine in me cultivates respect, empathy, and willingness to understand the standpoints of women, transgender, intersex, genderfluid, and other gender modalities.

 

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Integrative masculinity involves a movement to welcome both inward truth (i.e. Kierkegaard’s “truth that is true for me for which I can live and die) and truth in relationship, both the subjective and the intersubjective, both the objective and the interobjective. The way of the heart and the way of reason speak to integrative masculine in harmony. The transcendence of consciousness and the immanence of the universe are unified in an integral embrace. The primal, energetic dimensions of gender and the dynamics of sexual magnetism that play out between men and women are welcomed and embraced.

Simultaneously, integrative men remain deeply interested in the ways in which the social constructions of gender both oppress and empower. They welcome the insights of the archaic, magical-animistic, traditional, modern, postmodern, and integral perspectives on gender, for all have valid partial truths to contribute. Self-development for an integral masculinity involves concurrently developing all life areas from education to career, to physical health and fitness, to sexuality, creativity, modern and postmodern cognition, emotional intelligence, intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence, and so on.

 

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Speaking as a heterosexual male, integrative masculinity approaches relationships with women through the principles of the seven guiding lights: vulnerability, authenticity, playfulness, healthy boundaries, sexual attunement, respect, and a growth-mindset. While I will express these principles from the heterosexual male perspective, they can all be easily adapted for relationships in any sexual orientation including same-sex relationships. The seven principles are as follows:

  • 1. Vulnerability means embracing risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure at every step of the interaction. It means being emotionally honest rather than repressive. It means being real, being free to be silly, playful, teasing, and sexually expressive while honouring consent.
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  • 2. Authenticity means communicating clearly about comfort zones, expectations, and the type of relationship we wish to have (e.g. monogamous romantic, polyamorous, friend with benefits, relationship anarchy, etc.). It means sharing our real thoughts, real emotions, real values, and real boundaries with integrity. Integrative masculinity does not rely on gimmicks, mind-games, or trickery with women. It would rather a woman be attracted to our authenticity than tricked into attraction to an artificial persona. It values flowing in the moment rather than overthinking every step of the interaction. It combines masculine direction with feminine expressiveness, planning with spontaneity. 

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  • 3. Playfulness means balancing adult maturity with a youthful love for going on adventures, trying new things, talking in funny voices, joking around, being silly together, and basically valuing the shared experience of fun.

    Samuel Beckett lol'ing.

    Samuel Beckett laughing.

  • 4. Healthy boundaries means that we accept 100% responsibility for our own emotions. Making me feel loved and happy isn’t your job; it’s mine. Cultivating worthiness is our personal responsibility; it is not on the women in our lives to make us feel good enough, but on us to discover our own worthiness for ourselves.Relationships of all kinds are not means of completing each other for an integral masculinity; instead, they are unions of people who are complete in themselves, but join together to grow, learn, and experience. We also honour healthy boundaries in the behaviour we will not tolerate from other people such as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, manipulation, and controlling behaviour. A product of all of these components of boundary-setting is that we cultivate non-neediness by taking care of our own needs instead of looking to the women in our lives to do it for us.Independent_Man
  • 5. Sexual Attunement means a number of things. It means embracing many varieties of sexual connection from hard and intense to slow and sensual, from animalistic passion to sensual lovemaking. Drawing on the insights of tantra, sexual attunement means learning to differentiate between orgasm and ejaculation so that we, as men, can experience multiple orgasms just as women can. It means removing ejaculation as the driving purpose of sex; if it happens, great; if it does not, great.By removing ejaculation as the goal of sex, we are able to be much more deeply present with the woman and attentive and centered in the act. We can be much more sensual and cultivate a rich attention to taste, touch, fragrance, the bliss of each other’s bodies. We value spoiling our partners with extensive pleasuring, foreplay, sensation play, and massage. We attempt to attune ourselves to the things that drive this particular woman wild, the places that thrill her the most, the ways of being touched, kissed, and ravished.

    We calibrate our sexual approach to her specifically rather than falsely assuming that all women are the same. We learn to be extremely sensitive to the movements of her body, breathing, heart beat, and moaning and learn to flow with the rhythm of her pleasure. We invite her to express her particular desires, fetishes, and fantasies, and openly communicate our desires with one another. Sexual attunement essentially means taking the actual woman before you as your sexual inspiration, rather than the artificial images of pornography.

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  • 6. Respect means honouring each other’s boundaries, treating each other with kindness, being open to views that conflict with ours, and honouring one another’s emotions and emotional readiness. It means honouring consent and hard limits.It means seeing the women with which we engage as multidimensional human beings rather than as objects to be used or pawns in some manipulative chess game. In this sense, it involves attempting to see the person before you as a living, breathing, dynamically evolving being, rather than as some limited cultural image.ero
  • 7. Finally, a growth mindset means that our focus in all relationships, from the most casual to the most serious, is always on growing, learning, evolving, or in some way developing our capacities or lines of development. We refuse to simply stagnate; even when we catch ourselves repeating old patterns, we do so as an experiment, while we inquire into our thoughts and explore the emotional patterns that are driving us back into these patterns. What is the lesson to be learned here? How can we grow here? These questions guide our reflection as we navigate through the stimulating terrain of our relationships.

These are only some of the broad strokes of what an integrative masculinity could involve, and again, as seen from my personal perspective. Central to this way of living is choosing a life’s mission (following your bliss into a purpose for yourself on this planet, a form of meaningful work), at least one mode of exercise for cardio, strength and flexibility (e.g. for me, that’s martial arts / biking + weight lifting + stretching / yoga), at least one creative hobby (e.g. painting, writing, making websites or videos, etc.) and balancing time for friends, relationships, family, career/education, travel (when possible), and solitary reflection.

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Empowerism

The gender wars are to me, the product of framing what could be harmonious relationships in adversarial terms. The contemporary backlash against feminism in the West (e.g. via MRA, MGTOW, red pill, the manosphere in general, etc.) seems to stem, in part, from confusion about what is meant by “feminism” in the first place. In many cases, the first, second, and third (e.g. postmodern, postcolonial informed intersectional) waves of feminism are conflated, or a kind of “straw woman” version of feminism that nearly no one actually believes or practices is built up and then attacked.

Moreover, the term “feminism” has taken on so many connotations and pejorative associations that well-meaning men are often wary to identify with it out of a fear of ridicule or simply inviting misunderstandings of their true positions. For this reason, and in the interests of enabling people of all gender modalities (i.e. men, women, trans, intersex, genderfluid, etc.) to unite under a singular term, I think it’s time that we develop a new term for the empowering, oppression-dismantling project that used to be called “feminism.” For this purpose, I propose the term “empowerism.”

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By empowerism, I mean both the (1) philosophical position and (2) the active social process that aims to achieve personal empowerment, equal human rights, the equitable recognition of differences, the celebration of marginalized voices, and the deconstruction of systems of oppression for people of all genders. An empowerist is any individual who believes in the value of these practices and supports actions in line with them. Empowerists support the empowerment of people of all genders in the free expression of their gender identities with an understanding that we can all be empowered together.

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Advantages of Empowerism

Empowerism, as a name for a new way of conceiving of a social justice movement, has a number of advantages. First, because the “feminine” is not emphasized in the name of empowerism as a movement, men, transgender, intersex, genderfluid and other gender modalities can all easily align themselves with it while feeling that their gender is equally represented within its sphere of concern. Second, the word “empowerism” clearly emphasizes that the fundamental purpose of the movement is the empowering of people of all genders in the development of their voices, potentials, and gender expressions. Third, as a new term, it carries no baggage of previous associations and potentially pejorative connotations of the type that have unfortunately become attached to the term ‘feminism.’

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Integrative Masculinity and Empowerism

How does empowerism relate to integrative masculinity? Integrative masculinity involves the integration of one’s traditionally feminine qualities with one’s traditionally masculine qualities. As such, it promotes a deep respect for the feminine and the development of traditionally feminine capacities within men.

A person who practices integrative masculinity is happy to support people of other gender affiliations as they endeavour to develop their voices, awaken their dormant potentials, and pursue their empowerment via personal gender expressions. In this sense, developing integrative masculinity within oneself naturally leads one to embrace empowerism and empowerism supports the development of integrative masculinity. Practicing integrative masculinity is one way of practicing empowerism; the two are melodies in a single movement of integrative development and empowerment.

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Conclusion: Gender Alliance or the End of the Gender Wars:

In conclusion, my own development proceeded along a winding trajectory through many contradictory messages and expectations. As a result of this, I came to develop my own version of an integrative masculinity that works for me. I learned to develop healthier and more harmonious relationships in resonant harmony with the principles of the seven guiding lights, namely, vulnerability, authenticity, playfulness, healthy boundaries, sexual attunement, respect, and a growth-mindset.

Moreover, in line with this new way of thinking about masculinity is a new way of conceiving of the philosophical position and social process of supporting the empowerment of all human beings to develop their voices, awaken their developmental potentials, and pursue their empowerment via personal gender expressions. I propose that the term empowerism captures the essence of the feminist project while helping men, trans, intersex, and genderfluid individuals feel equally included within its enterprise.

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In my experience, the more I integrally develop myself and pursue my own freedom and emotional empowerment, the more I feel moved to support and encourage others in their own development and empowerment. I believe that the sooner we stop trying to pit the genders against one another and instead come together in unity under a common banner—like that of empowerism—the faster we will be able to progress in our collective project of individual empowerment.

We will discover that just as we can empower people with one body type without shaming those with another, so can we also learn that it is safe for us to grow together without any of us needing to feel attacked or excluded. While war tends to crush growth, peace tends to foster it. My hope, therefore, is that we feminists and advocates of men’s, trans, intersex, and genderfluid rights can all come together under as unified empowerists and find a peace that fosters growth for us all.


As an addendum, this wonderful talk by John Wineland is very much consistent with the view of integrative masculinity explored here:

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2 thoughts on “Empowerism: Reflections on Integrative Masculinity, Feminism, and the Gender Wars

  1. By way of postscript, when my dear friend Tony read this article, he invited me to ”deconstruct the masculine and the feminine.”

    My response to this invitation was as follows. In Spiral Dynamics terms, my basic point is that while we want to integrate the insights of green-wave postmodern context-aware deconstructionism in relation to gender, we also don`t want to throw out the insights of orange modern science and blue (traditionalistic) and purple (magical-animistic) understandings of gender polarity (as embodied in Tantra, Taoist sexual teachings, shamanic sexuality, etc.) as a felt, primal energetic dimension of human existence. I wrote:

    Deconstructing the social representations of masculine and feminine is indeed part of the answer, as is understanding the social contexts that give rise to particular ways of performing gender (gender performativity). This has already been done extensively by postructuralists, postmodernists, and sociologists of gender. So I find no need to repeat the fantastic work that they have done. On the one hand, gender is indeed a social construct. On the other hand, sexual polarity also expresses itself to varying degrees in our neurology, biology, and the felt quality of primal energy that flows between people. David Deida, Nityama, Sasha Cobra and others have written and talked extensively about this energetic quality of sexual polarity

    From this perspective, which has more ancient roots than the more recent postructuralist / deconstructionist modes of cognition, the masculine and the feminine are principles that express themselves as forces within us, like poles of a magnet, that is, internal energies that manifest as behaviours, tones of voice, facial expressions, body language, and so on. Learning to attune to these forces within ourselves and others is a practice at the core of tantra, sexual Taoism, Nityama`s body work, Deida`s `way of the superior man,`etc. In my experience, these teachings tap into something vital and real, that science cannot quantify, but which can be felt energetically if we develop the requisite sensitivity. If we throw the energetic baby out with the modernist and postmodernist bathwater by reducing gender to social constructions, then we totally lose touch with that primal core that expresses itself in sexuality. You can recognize people who have done that when you meet them because energetically, they feel sexually neutral. And they tend to only attract and be attracted to other people who are similarly totally androgynous, that is their `balance`of sexual energy is 50% masculine and 50% feminine, so it balances itself out into neutrality, like pure water on the pH scale.

    To me, integrating our inner feminine as masculine men doesn`t mean that we deconstruct our sense of sexual polarity so much that we lose that erotic masculine charge that attracts the feminine and is attracted to the feminine. To me, it means embracing the traditionally feminine capacities within our biopsychosocial existence. Energetically masculine men will still be inclined to feel more masculine than feminine, even after they have embraced their inner feminine. If all of this sounds like gibberish and you have no idea what I’m talking about, I’d highly recommend reading David Deida’s Way of the Superior Man, which goes into this concept in great deal. It’s one of those things `for which you just have to get a ‘felt sense,`like knowing how to best tweak the levels of flavours in a sauce, or how and when to play and not to play when jamming with a band. Once you get a feel for it, you start to see very clearly that gender is not *merely* a matter of social construction and performativity. This is indeed a significant expression of it in terms of intersubjective cognition and cultural formulation, but it can`t be reduced to that. There`s also the biological dimension (explored by modern science) and the energetic dimension (explored in great detail in the great wisdom traditions of tantra, Taoism, etc.). And an integrative viewpoint should include all of these partial truths in order to arrive at the most comprehensive and multidimensional picture possible.

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