The Reverend Mark DeWolfe Sermon
WHY MEN NEED THE GODDESS
January 3, 1988
Okay, guys, this is just for us. Today, all exclusive language is intentional. Today, when I say men, I mean men: males of the human species. I mean you and I, guys, and I’m deliberately not including women.
Why? Because for years we’ve been struggling to use inclusive language, to get rid of the old terms which only confused by making us thing of males when they might have included women. So, when I’m talking about human beings of goth genders, I’ll say human beings, or people, or some such; but today, when I say men, I mean men.
And guys, I’m serious. Today’s sermon is no joke. We’ll have time for that later, and if some humour does creep in this morning, okay, but this is serious stuff we’re going to talk about today. I want to talk about the women in our lives, and the way we see them, and the ways we don’t see them.
All of us have been affected by feminism. You’d have to be living on a desert island without any human companionship not to have been touched by feminism. And owing to this challenge from the women, we’ve had to rethink ourselves pretty seriously. Some of us have done more of this than others, and the job has only begun.
So far, we’ve mostly reacted: we’ve learned to clean up our language (some of us); we’ve managed to pass a pay equity law in the legislature (but we’ve still got to enforce it; a few of us have taken on child care responsibilities so the women in our lives can get out of the house, to develop themselves, to play, to crusade to change the world, to bring in a few extra bucks. So, what more do these women want? We ask. We’ll accommodate.
Well, guys, we’ve been looking the wrong way. It’s not time to ask, or to keep asking, or even expect women to tell us what to do. Sigmund Freud got stopped with the question, “What does woman want?” It’s the wrong question. It’s time we looked inside ourselves to find out what’s missing.
It’s my thesis this morning that men are damaged by patriarchy, by the system of male privilege that we’ve all been raised to accept. Note that I didn’t say that we are as damage as women are; I don’t think that kind of assertion can be proved. I don’t believe in hierarchies in suffering and injustice. No person’s pain is identical to any other. Instead, though, I think it’s time to look at the ways our images of women diminish not only women but ourselves.
There are other areas in which men are diminished by patriarchy, but they’ve become familiar. Some of us started wearing more colourful clothes, demanding the right to something other than grey flannel. We’ve heard about the fact that men die younger being tied to the stress of the male role. And we’ve learned, some of us, at least, to be a bit more free with our emotions. But these are only the beginning, and this morning I want to dig a bit deeper.
I want to examine our images of women, what and who we think women are, what we can expect from them, what we expect from ourselves regarding women in our lives. I believe our unexamined habits of possibilities, especially our possibilities of whole, healthy relationships with women.
Let’s start with the sexual double standard. We still raise boys to be sexually adventurous and girls to protect themselves from sexual harm. During the “sexual revolution,” the popular press and popular fiction encouraged women to be as adventurous as boys would be. Yet recently a group of Edmonton teenagers reported to CBC Radio’s Peter Gzowski that if a teenaged boy has sex, he’s a man’ if a teenaged girl has sex, she’s a tramp. That is no different than when I was a teenager in the sixties! Sexually transmitted diseases have only made the situation more of what it was: brought us back to where we were, as if things had never changed. Perhaps because the change was in the wrong direction.
I remember a high school discussion on birth control, where the prevailing opinion among my classmates was that of course the girl should take responsibility for saying, “no,” because male sexual urges were insatiable and the girls are the ones who become pregnant. I was angered by the discussion for the way it diminished me as a male: first, it assumed that men were inexhaustible sexual objects; secondly, is also assumed that we had no moral interest in the consequences of our acts. I was annoyed that the prevailing sexual myth of the mid-60’s reduced me to a selfish prick who didn’t care what became of my behaviour.
Myths have a basis in fact: and sure, boys were around in those days who lived up to the myth of sexual irresponsibility. In fact, myths like that are self-perpetuating – they encourage the behaviour they describe. Some parents attempted to cover up their daughter’s abortions while others prevented us from getting birth control information. No one wanted to discuss responsible sexuality, because they were afraid we’d engage in it!
Now, condom manufacturers are selling condoms to women as well as to men. Sensible, since it takes to two tango – and to spread a sexually transmitted disease. But the Edmonton teenagers speak for all of us when they remind us that our culture has not eliminated the sexual double standard. And it’s those preconceived notions of what men and women are which diminish the possibilities of real human life.
So, let’s take for example the double options for women: the fact that in our culture a woman is either a Madonna or a whore. Keep yourself pure or open yourself wide, maintain a kind of socially defined honour or reject it all. A woman’s choices are few.
But I promised that this was a sermon about men. Men are diminished when they must preconceive women in only two ways. For reacting according to stereotypes means that we have lost the ability to perceive the whole person in front of us. Lost it? For some never had it to begin with.
Some men can only relate to women on a sexual level. You’ve met one or two – outwardly their relationships with women look just fine, but inwardly there’s that need to conquer which gets in the way; the need to stay on top, to subdue the wild female in pride of male possession. It shows up in locker room conversation, which can happen anywhere a man feels that only other men are hearing, or that the women within earshot don’t care, don’t mind or don’t count. And it comes masked as liberation from puritan sexual taboos; yet it is older than the puritans, this attitude of conquest in the eternal war between the sexes.
Sadder, in a way, is another kind of man caught on this double image of Madonna and whore. This is the man who seeks in all women his mother. You’ve probably met him, too; the one who needs the constant support and nurturing of a maternal figure and seeks it constantly. Just as I would not deny that all people have sexual needs, neither would I deny that people need to be nurtured; men no less than women. But what of the man who can ask for it only from women? And what of the man who can accept nothing else from women? The man I have in mind is the one who needs tender support, and needs it constantly, but who cannot accept confrontation, and most of all cannot accept being left alone. He wants the constant attention of the mother, to reassure him that his universe is intact. And he seeks it not only from his birth mother or his wife, but also from his female co-workers, friends and acquaintances.
Both these images diminish men because they take advantage of inner insecurities. They use inner psychic needs – the need to dominate, or the need to be nurtured – and use them to make the world safe, predictable, and centered around the man in question. As a result, the man in question does not learn that he can be more: more than a sexual conquest machine, more than a dutiful son. Both positions are essentially immature: they are childish reactions to the fact of gender, not adult responses to it.
Battling against these images of women which diminish men is not easy. They recur, out of cultural habit, in current fashion. The pop star Madonna kept us amused this past year with her song, “Papa, Don’t Preach, I’m going to Keep My Baby.” It communicated the double standard even as it expressed a rebellion against it. Perhaps you saw this week the photograph published in the Globe & Mail of a Suzuki motorcycle billboard here in Toronto. There was our dashing 20th-c. knight on his motorbike, heading off over the hillside, his metal armor not around him, but between his legs. The road his bike was hugging was quite obviously traversing the waist of a female figure. The sensual aspect of the ad could not be denied – nor could its sexual connotations.
The images abound around us, and if we are not critical of them, we can allow them to define our lives. If you want to understand the dominant image of a culture, ask its children. They are the ones absorbing the images and building their lives around them, in all innocence. Last week, in a Chinese restaurant in western Massachusetts, I saw a boy who couldn’t be more than seven years old, dressed in combat fatigues. And every time he was on the verge of misbehaving, his mother would ask, “What would G.I. Joe do? Would G.I. Joe do that?” It was clear who the role model was. The ancient stereotypes hang in because our children learn them as the way it is supposed to be. Those Edmonton teenagers on Peter Gzowski’s show have sussed the system, and it has not changed.
As I looked at the Suzuki ad, I wondered what would happen to men if we succeeded in changing our prevailing image of womanhood. Currently, everything female is devalued. Women still earn about two-thirds of what men do. When women enter a profession, its salary relative to others stinks. Clothing, habits, sports associated with women are put down by men and held in lower esteem in a society where what men do is still considered more important.
This fall and winter we’ve all been watching the consequences of the Ontario Supreme Court decision which allows Justen Blainey to try out for Boys’ Hockey teams. What came to be at stake was the honour of women’s hockey! Women’s hockey officials feared that the decision would encourage the idea that women’s hockey is a less valuable game than men’s. The difference seems to be that women’s hockey does not allow body checking. What an irony struck me to realize that the same people who were defending Justine’s right to be in a more violent game were also among those who wish men’s hockey were less violent! Yet the question remained, and remains to be proven: will what men do continue to be more valued than what women do?
Once a pro football coach ordered his team to do regular aerobic exercise. The big men rebelled, not wanting to do something that as far as they knew was only good for getting weight off middle-aged women. The coach stood his ground. In joking protest, the star quarterback showed up in a pink women’s leotard-tights-and-tunic. The joke was on them: the regular aerobics not only increased their performance on the ball field. It was directly related to a reduction in injuries! Something women do turned out to be valuable to the most macho men in North America.
I believe that if men are to cease to be diminished by our preconceived notions of what is feminine, then we need new images of what being female is all about – images we can honour. We need to learn to honour the images of womanhood we see around us: not popular images, not advertising images, for these are conservative approximations of cultural stereotypes. Instead, we need to honour the most common images of women who confront us every day: the women in our lives. I’m talking about our mothers, wives, co-workers, friends. I’m talking about the women in our church. They are more accurate images of what being a woman is than any we will find in contemporary culture.
These women are a people in the process of reinventing themselves. Contemporary feminism is a radical response to a world gone sour. Women have a head start on us when it comes to taking new risks, trying new ways of living, challenging the ideas which persist longer than mountains. It’s not that men have done nothing, but, guys, the women are way ahead of us.
As a vehicle of culture, religion deals in images: stories, ideas, characters which represent what we value most highly, what we worship, what we love enough to give our lives to. Orthodox religions in the west have taught us that what is most honoured is male: the images of God are all male, what is most deserving of love and respect is male. Feminist theology challenges that tradition, and is recovering images of God, images of what is most valued, which are female. We are being encouraged now to think of the female as worthy of worship, to find in female images value and something worthy of love.
Goddess imagery is very ancient. Repression of goddess worship was clearly part of the agenda for the Hebrew domination of Canaan – though the Hebrew god Yahweh battled male gods as well, and ancient Canaan was no matriarchy. Worship of the female form, including the power to give birth, is in the oldest of human traditions.
Yet, in thinking again of honouring the images of women in our lives, in hoping to raise womanhood out of the pits into which it drags both women and men, we cannot simply reconstruct fertility cults. We could too easily keep women in the role of breed hens, and keep real power in male hands. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the narrator is told that her job – to bear children for the males in the theocracy – is an honoured one. Yet it is one that is hemmed in on every side.
If men are to be freed to honour womanhood and womankind, then we need a variety of images: not simply of woman as bearer of children. But even there, men, can you honour childbearing enough that if someone used it as an analogy for something you were doing, would you not be offended?
What would happen if, say, in a business conference, someone asked you to nurture something in your womb until it developed, and then present it to the world? Could you nurse along a project until it was mature?
What about women’s intuition, are you ready to trust the insights of a woman? And women’s wisdom, gained in experiences you haven’t had? And when a woman tells you that she prefers not to take a course of action because of the effect it has on people, will you listen, or will you argue back immediately that as a man you know what is right in the abstract?
Images of women: they are all around us and they need to be recognized and honoured. Women need the goddess, I am told, so that they might have an image of themselves as they are, creative, powerful, and worthy, so that they may see themselves with some mental and spiritual health. Men too need the goddess. If we men are to become full, whole human beings, then we must wrestle with the demons of women-hating which make us less than men.
Reverend Mark DeWolfe