Category Archives: Feminism
I’ll never forget the day my co-workers asked me if my boss had ever “tried anything” with me. I’d been working for a mining engineering firm for several months and I told them he probably suspected – rightly – if he ever crossed that line with me I would have socked him in the jaw. I really don’t know how I would have reacted if it happened to me, though. Its possible I would have simply frozen like a deer in the headlights, just like millions of other women have done while lapsing into stunned silence. I know what that feels like too – from a different job in a different company.
I was appalled to learn women who worked there for years had been kissed and groped without their consent. A “liquid lunch” over the holidays is no excuse. Even though it was a criminal offense, these women were afraid they’d lose their jobs if they reported the assaults to management or police. They weren’t wrong. I wrote a list of the offenses, and how to avoid them, in a document called “Office Etiquette for Dummies” and posted it in the lunchroom for everyone to see. When word got around, there was an immediate outcry, questions were asked, clues were uncovered and the perpetrator was quickly called in to see the dragon lady in charge of Human Resources … who fired me immediately. The lesson here is that HR isn’t there to protect workers from sexual predators – their function is to protect the corporation against lawsuits from victims.
I didn’t reveal the identities of the victims and HR didn’t even want to know about the abusers. I went home and wrote a very long letter to the human rights commission, with copies to president of the firm, and the president of the parent company. A small cheque was issued and promises were made to educate the deviants and when last I heard from one of his victims, my former boss had been sent to work on a job site in Siberia. That sounds like a happy ending, but there are women working on that job-site in Siberia too.
I consider myself a feminist, but placing blame on an abstraction like “the patriarchy” does nothing to help victims of abuse, nor does it change the behaviour of perpetrators. Instead of trying to separate men with empathy from men without conscience, maybe we should look at the differences between people who have power and those who do not. Perhaps addressing this problem at the basic level of power dynamics illustrates more clearly how and where sexism is connected to racism, colonialism, capitalism and all the other odious ‘isms’ that make the this world suck so badly for so many people.
One way to do this is to consider is the pareto distribution as it applies to abuses of power. This is the sad arithmetic behind #notallmen and #yesallwomen both being true. Most men would never dream of groping colleague, but of those who do commit the offense, there is a significant minority who will do it over and over and over again to dozens or even hundreds of women. If the pareto distribution applies to sexual assaults per perpetrator, there is no reason to think the distribution would differ much for other offenses, like racial discrimination.
Having more power than conscience can make ‘good’ men go bad and bad men much worse. I don’t think most people understand what corrosive effect power can have on character. In 1870 there was a debate about a proposed new doctrine in the Catholic Church. Implementing the doctrine of papal infallibility was one of the worst decisions the Catholic Church ever made. In opposition to this travesty, here is what one it’s sharpest critics wrote:
“I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way, against the holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority, still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. ” -Lord Acton
Those who use #metoo stories to score partisan political points miss the mark because both parties are corrupt and both sides are guilty of hypocrisy. This isn’t a problem endemic to the left or the right, or to any particular industry, although it makes sense that you should expect to find more sexual predators in jobs where they would have easier access more victims. The majority of people arrested for sexual assault are men, so having more women in positions of power might reduce sexual abuse in the workplace. This is not to suggest that women can’t be sexual predators, even if those who are have flown below the radar until recently. The way Hillary Clinton attacked her husband’s accusers proves that women are not exempt from the corrosive effect that power has on character.
We live in a world where billionaires have used their money to get more power and their power to get more money. More than half of the wealth of the entire planet is in the hands of six men. These elite, untouchable multi-billionaires have subverted democracy and rigged the economy to enrich themselves while pushing millions deeper into poverty. This “late-stage capitalism” is clearly economically unsustainable, but people occupied with hand-wringing about wealth redistribution continue to ignore the far more important problem of the concentration of power.
Every problem has a solution, most have several and you don’t have to pick just one. However, you first need to understand the nature of the problem and to articulate it clearly. We are finally articulating the pervasive problem women have with sexual harassment in the workplace. Perhaps the biggest challenge we face in our once thriving (but now former) democracy is that sexual harassment is only one among many problems we will be unable to solve unless and until we reclaim the power to do so.
Here we go again. The far left is baying for Dr. Jordan Peterson’s head on a platter, but there are compelling reasons they should pipe down and think this through. I’m a left-leaning feminist myself, and when Peterson popped up on the radar last year over the issue of Bill C-61, I did some research before jumping on the bandwagon. Peterson was and is correct in his unpopular assertion that Canadian law can now compel us to use language dictated to us by others. This is fundamentally different from telling us that certain language is unacceptable and cannot be used.
Under Bill-C61, it is possible for unreasonable people to abuse the law and target people unfairly, and it is already happening. As an example, I know a young person with mental health issues who went through a period of gender dysphoria whose gender identity and expression seemed to shift into something new every couple of months. I can tell you that it is possible to weaponize your preferred pronouns and use them to make your family ‘wrong’ for slipping up and referring to you as the gender they have perceived since before you were born. One hopes that adjudicators of the new law will take this into account.
Plenty of people seemed to think that Peterson was a bad person for pointing out a serious flaw in the proposed legislation, and assumed incorrectly that his views were based on bigotry, despite all evidence to the contrary. Those too lazy to think for themselves adopted the flip-side of the view that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” because they assume that someone who is admired by the alt right must be an enemy to anyone on the left. This is ignorant and short-sighted because the conservative views that Peterson holds are based not on prejudice, but on careful thought and sound scientific evidence. Having watched many hours of his classroom lectures and I can’t help but admire the brilliant mind and well constructed arguments behind even the views I don’t share.
It makes no sense to tear down one of the most intelligent people on the right, because his influence can have a positive impact on the extremists and lead them back from the edge. The advice he gives to juvenile, racist, misogynist trolls is to clean your room, sort yourself out and become a better person. In this respect, Dr. Peterson is a positive role model, and considering the available alternatives, it would be daft to knock him down.
The most recent kerfuffle centers on a short video clip extracted from a much longer conversation with Camille Paglia. Peterson, used the term “crazy” in the colloquial when referring to radical feminists with views so extreme they’re unable or unwilling to have a rational debate. He wasn’t referring to women generally, or even those who generally disagree with him, but those who attack without giving any consideration to opposing viewpoints. You would have to be crazy to think that psychologists never use that term in the colloquial.
Peterson, speaking as a man, pointed out something that underlies conflict between men generally: that when having a serious verbal dispute, the “option” of resorting to physical violence lurks under the surface. This possibility can temper a man’s behaviour because he knows if he goes too far, he might get punched in the face. While it is true that a woman who ‘goes too far’ may suffer the same fate, – notwithstanding the depressing facts behind domestic violence statistics even for women minding their own business – Peterson is probably correct that a woman is statistically less likely to be punched in a similar situation. However, critics need to understand the difference between acknowledging violence and endorsing it. I think its worth pointing out to those who enjoy life in safe bubbles, where violence only happens on film, TV or video games, that the direct experience of physical aggression is a daily reality for millions of people – men, women and children. However, some of the women who recoiled at Peterson’s comment about men holding back may have experienced men who didn’t.
Perhaps the statement that was most offensive was the idea that you have absolutely no respect for a man who will not fight you under any circumstances. Although swords or pistols at dawn is no longer considered an acceptable way to settle a disagreement, men still use their fists when they ‘take it outside’ but this usually happens only when they’re drunk. Christians will point out that Jesus refused to fight when they came to arrest him and also refused to let others fight on his behalf, and he seems to get plenty of respect. Pacifists like Ghandi and MLK are certainly worthy of respect, but Peterson’s comments were directed at conflict between two individuals, not the phenomenon of non-violent resistance on a grand scale, which can be an effective method of fighting injustice. People who freak out at any mention of physical aggression need to appreciate that the threat of violence by the state is what creates the safe bubble they live in.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Peterson’s comments was the way he used the word “control” as applied to “crazy women.” This got backs up for pretty obvious reasons. The long history of men exerting control* over women, coupled with more recent memories of men who still try to do so, makes many of us feel hurt and angry. This comment could be considered insensitive, but I would give Peterson the benefit of the doubt and assume he’d reconsider the way he phrased that particular thought. If this was the only thing I’d heard from Peterson, in a hit piece intended to paint him as a monster, I might think he was one, but having listened to the way he talks about his own family, its clear he isn’t. He expresses profound admiration and respect for his wife, loves his family deeply and is very grateful to and for them. Jordan Peterson says lots of things very well, so if he sometimes says something poorly, I’m not going to get my knickers all in a twist. Jordan Peterson has become a public figure who has many, many admirers and a few loud detractors. Those on the far left dislike that he makes reasonable arguments against their most extreme views. It’s fine to attack his ideas, but calling him a ‘nazi’ is unworthy, unhelpful, unkind, and incorrect. On the other hand, calling a critic who calls him a nazi “crazy” is not an entirely unreasonable position. He may be a public figure, but he is also a human being and his critics are no less flawed.
I don’t know Peterson’s big five personality profile, but I suspect he might score below average on the ‘agreeableness’ trait. Agreeable people are nice, and easy to deal with, so its natural that we all want other people to be agreeable. However, I can tell you from personal experience that people who are too agreeable tend to be doormats and others tend to walk all over them. If a couple is having a dispute with a landlord or tradesperson, the partner who is less agreeable is the one who is best suited to handle that conflict. As a society, we prefer agreeable people because they are easier to control**, but we need to understand the dark side of being agreeable, and develop more appreciation for the utility of disagreeableness. If Rosa Parks was more agreeable, she wouldn’t have been arrested.
Its fine to appreciate agreeableness, but those who demand political correctness and seek to police and prohibit disagreeable speech and thought are on a very slippery slope. We already pathologize introversion and celebrate extroverts. Demanding that everyone behave in an agreeable way is very dangerous, and legislating it is far worse. When George Orwell wrote “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” the person under that boot would be an agreeable person, so be very careful what you wish for.
* see reference in next paragraph marked “**”
** see reference in preceeding paragraph marked “*”
If there was ever a cultural moment that made it perfectly clear that western civilization is well and truly swirling around the bowl, it must be this week’s FHRITP incident, which was well documented by all the major Canadian news outlets. Some dude old enough to know better lost his job for his horrid conduct and the police say they can and will arrest perpetrators. of this bizzare, moronic prank.
I can understand a bunch of 12-year-old boys engaging in a potty-mouthed prank, but when I was a kid anyone caught pulling a stunt like that on television would be subjected to consequences that might run the gamut from being grounded for a year with no electronics to the kind of corporal punishment that parents would get arrested for today. People stupid enough to pull this stunt would lick a metal pole in the schoolyard at 30 below. When are they going to learn it’s not going to end well? What makes it worse is that the origin of this disgusting meme was a hoax that cons guys into buying t-shirts and bumper stickers that say the equivalent of “I hate women.” If the guys who do this incredibly stupid prank are heterosexual and want to hook up with a female person one day, it makes no sense to commit the verbal equivalent of a tattoo on the forehead that says “women suck.” Why would anyone in his right mind do something so blatantly offensive to half the population of the freaking planet? Lighting farts would be a far more civilized (and attractive!) pastime.
Sometimes, to get through to someone who is as thick as a fencepost, you need to speak in a language they can understand. People learn about FHRITP online, so I decided to take the battle to those pages (like here, here, here, here, here, here and here). I created the “Kick that Guy Right in the Nuts” Facebook page and made some memes that respond to their garbage on Facebook and Twitter. Feel free to copy/save/share any of the photo-memes from my Facebook page (see examples below) or make your own. I knew I hit a nerve when they banned KTGRITN and deleted all the memes I posted. Better still, why don’t we demand that Facebook and Twitter (and any other hosts) shut down pages that support these indefensible attacks on women? If more people bombard their pages with slapdowns, they might wake up and smell their own stupidity. Lets flush FHRITP where it belongs.
Their FHRITP memes; My KTGRITN memes;
Now that you get the idea, here’s a few more;
Lets make this one happen:
When I learned that the micro-organisms that populate the human skin and gut outnumber human cells by about 10 to 1, something clicked. This microbiome is essential to maintain the health of the host organism. We need them and they need us.
If we don’t maintain the health of our gracious host we won’t have an environment that is capable of sustaining our lives. If humans perish from the earth, we would be only one of millions of species to have done so, but humans have produced enough nuclear weapons to turn this planet into a dead rock.
Without life, Earth would be a barren rock spinning uselessly through space. Even if you don’t buy the Gaia hypothesis that the planet has its own consciousness, if we can conceive of a corporation as a “person” we can surely comprehend that the planet, with all its complex networks of flora and fauna, is a living organism. Who has a stronger right to exist: you, or an e-coli bacterium in your colon?
If murder is considered a heinous crime, how much worse is ecocide? Why isn’t this forbidden by law yet, as a crime against humanity? Could it be that pernicious institutions like patriarchy and capitalism are getting in the way? We need a revolution in the way we think about this planet and the roles we are playing.
Once you wake up yourself, will you see how important it is to spread these ideas?
A top judge in the UK, who has been dealing with horrific crimes, blames the wide availability and ease of access to violent porn. This story in the Telegraph makes the link between two brutal murders and the perpetrators’ morbid fascination with violent pornography that they accessed online. The psychological mechanism through which this unfolds is called desensitization. When you watch someone do something, we now know that the same neural pathways fire in the brain of the viewer. This neural mirroring process facilitates human learning. This is why learning about sex by watching porn is a bad idea.
Over time, things that you used to find shocking on a TV show become ordinary, so producers create scenarios which are increasingly horrific, just to get your attention. The same escalation has been happening in pornography. We all have free will to choose our behaviour, so what evidence is there that exposure to violent images is harmful? According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) testimony before Congress:
Since the 1950s more than 3500 research studies in the United States and around the world using many investigative methods have examined whether there is an association between exposure to media violence and subsequent violence behavior. All but 18 have shown a positive correlation between media exposure and violent behavior.
That’s 99.5 % of studies in support of the theory that what kids watch affects their behaviour. My own anecdotal evidence supports this hypothesis. My son is far more likely to act like a jerk after spending a few hours playing combat-based video games. How many parents haven’t seen their sweet boy turn into a little monster when they tell him to shut down the box?
It is incomprehensible to me how society can keep on pretending that violent images don’t cause harm. If showing people images didn’t have a significant impact on human behaviour, nobody would pay $4,000,000.00 for 30 seconds of airtime on Superbowl Sunday. Here’s a fact for the first amendment blowhards who say what they watch has no impact on what they do: A study out of Stanford University shows that Budweiser’s return on investment for a Superbowl ad is 172%.
It is highly unlikely that men will stop watching porn just because someone points out its harmful effects, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t point out those harmful effects. People are smoking less these days, despite the efforts of Big Tobacco. A wise man once told me he doesn’t watch films with violent or degrading images because “I don’t want that in my brain.” This why I have no interest in the 50 Shades franchise. Everyone can choose what they put in their brains. You have the right to watch torture porn if you want to, but just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
The raging social media debate around 50 Shades of Grey stems from a fundamental misperception. Protesters are picketing screenings, charging the filmmakers with glamorizing domestic violence and women who read and enjoyed the books are feeling insulted and defensive. The two sides are butting heads because they are coming at this from two very different perspectives.
A woman reading about being tied up and whipped is in no danger of physical harm; on the contrary, she’s in complete control of the experience and of course Ana is a fictional character. Fans who feel judged by the critics are saying “no harm, no foul” but if the criticism stings, you might ask yourself why. Denunciations of the franchise are not aimed at women who have the freedom to read or watch what they want and enjoy their own fantasies. I think we all understand that you don’t read romance novels in order to enter into the feminist discourse. The personal experience needs to be separated from the social aspect of this phenomenon.
The valid criticism of the 50 shades franchise comes from thinking critically about the negative impact this franchise will likely have on our society as a whole. The sheer magnitude of the controversy speaks to how many people are thinking about this and connecting it to other important conversations our culture is having about women, sexism, freedom and consent. The problem is that there are lots of people who are too young or inexperienced in relationships to comprehend the significance of this cultural context or protect themselves in a real relationship that crosses the line and becomes abusive. Worse, they may view abusive behaviour is ‘normal’ or acceptable because it is portrayed that way in the media.
Is this just a tempest in a teapot, or has yet another battle been joined in an increasingly loud culture war? I think we’re at a tipping point in the understanding of, and respect for, women’s autonomy and agency. There was a time when white people used the N-word with impunity. An uncomfortable struggle preceded our recognition that people of other races, religions and sexual orientations should not be treated disrespectfully. The incredibly ignorant recent comments from the mouths of Republican lawmakers are a clear indicator that we haven’t yet turned the corner with respect to our cultural recognition of the equality and dignity of women. On the contrary, there is a tiny but loud “mens’ rights movement” hell-bent on resisting any progress towards actual social equality. Sometimes these guys cross the line and engage in threats and hate speech that should be prosecuted. The problem with 50 Shades isn’t that so many women enjoy it, it’s that some men* will use it as a textbook.
*yeah, we know, “not all men”
ps; If you enjoyed this blog, you might like this facebook page:
How we Can and Why we Should
The quick, easy way to end the culture wars is to stop fighting straw men and turn our attention to the real threat. While we’ve been busy watching sports, talent shows, sitcoms and drama on tv, democracy has been stolen right from under our noses. While we’ve been horrified by what we see on the news, we failed to notice how and why the consolidation of media outlets under the ownership of a few corporations shapes the messages that are presented to us or how those messages shape public opinion.
While we’ve been busy arguing about whether the left or the right has the best plan, we’ve failed to appreciate how the corporate elite use money to control both sides, set the agenda and limit the debate. It is useful to keep in mind that a corporation is NOT a democratic organization.
While we’ve been busy arguing about whether this cop or that cop should be jailed, and the extent to which racism continues to thrive, are we neglecting to hammer home the necessity of transparency, accountability and fundamental justice? We should absolutely march in the streets to demand justice for the families of the slain, but let’s make sure we also register and vote for the restoration of real democracy. If we can be governed without our consent, the abuses will only grow worse.
While we’ve been busy arguing about whether women or men have legitimate grievances against feminism or the patriarchy, our treasured and hard-won civil rights have been quietly dismantled by an increasingly powerful state security apparatus. If we fail to bring democracy back under the control of the voters, the consolidation of power at the very top will continue to harm those at the bottom.
I’m not suggesting that we ignore sexism, racism, colonialism, increasing income inequality, or the clear and present danger of climate change, but its high time to turn our attention to the root cause of ALL of these problems so that we can solve them all. Your gender, orientation, race, creed, skin colour, social class or income level do not determine whether you want to live in a democracy or not. If you believe that your vote should make a difference, apathy is not your friend, so shake yourself awake and look at what is really going on and what needs to be done.
If we don’t put an end to unfair elections, we are all responsible for the inevitable, horrific results.
Pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Connect all the dots. Restore democracy. Solve all the problems. It really is that simple.
In the 1970’s and ’80’s, the New York City Subway system was a filthy, crime-ridden mess of graffiti. There was a great deal of effort made in the ’90’s to clean it up and much of the improvement, including a drop in serious crime, was credited to the Broken Windows Theory that said if you take care of the small things, the larger ones take care of themselves.
It will be interesting to see what happens when we apply the broken windows theory to systemic sexism, which represents a form of social dysfunction that contributes to more serious problems like violence against women. The minority of men who blame feminism for the social ills caused by the patriarchy can and should be criticized when they make statements that are ignorant of the facts or that cross the line into hate speech. Critics of stop and frisk say broken windows theory led to disproportionate targeting of minorities, but online ‘policing’ of sexism doesn’t have the same repercussions as armed cops going after fare evasion in the subway.
Although the standard response to online sexism has typically been “don’t feed the trolls” that approach allows misogynists to enjoy the illusion that nobody disagrees with them. This doesn’t help them to learn or grow, so staying silent isn’t doing the trolls any favours. Sometimes we succumb to the temptation to just beat them at their own game, but its better to reach a truce. Its easier to find a way to peace if we are discriminating in the language we use to make a point. If we avoid exaggeration and generalization it is easier to be understood. For example, I won’t accuse someone of misogyny if they are only exhibiting the androcentrism that comes of being steeped in a world of male privilege. Learning to de-fuse and de-escalate is a powerful skill as are finding accurate analogies and using humour.
Humans are able to make leaps forward in their social consensus of what is considered acceptable behaviour. Whites eventually got the message that using the term “nigger” is inappropriate and offensive. Homophobes are getting the message that the LGBTQ community deserve the same dignity, respect and human rights that conservative “Christians” enjoy. Its time for the lads to recognize that yes, “rape culture” is real and rape jokes are not funny. I think part of the problem with juvenile male sexism has to do with the influence of pornography, which may be more damaging than the rampant sexism in videogames.
I now respond when I come across ignorance online and I will take the time and make the effort to challenge it in the interest of making the world a better place. An attack on statements that demean women is not an attack on men. It may seem to some that I want to pick a fight with the MRA’s but really, I want to achieve some level of conflict resoulution between ‘feminism’ as I represent it and the aggrieved and/or angry men and boys who have been misinformed that “feminism” is to blame for the way our current patriarchal capitalist system harms men.
We learn much more from conversations with people we disagree with than from the like-minded we gravitate to online. I encourage everyone to keep the conversation going, keep it as civilized as possible, and expand it to encompass broader issues of justice including imbalances in representation and climate change. I also encourage everyone to be as patient as we can of those who may have little or no exposure to your worldview and may find it alien to their experience. We are all on a learning curve here and we need to be aware that just stating that you are offended by something is not going to create sympathy for your point of view.
Although it may be easier to tell someone he’s an idiot, it is more effective to state another perspective in more positive terms. For example, instead of arguing about whether elite tennis player Eugenie Bouchard was or was not offended when an older, male reporter asked her to ‘twirl’ following a post-win interview at the Australian Open, I tried to focus on the actions of the reporter instead. His request was unprofessional and inappropriate and he should apologize regardless of what Ms. Bouchard says or feels about the incident, because that is the civilized thing to do. There is nothing wrong with people who express this view online either, because it is not petty or trivial. Its like fixing a broken window to maintain the social order that makes the world a more pleasant place for everyone to live.
We know that we can reduce bullying behaviours by encouraging students to not just be silent onlookers. We can combat systemic sexism the same way. When you see sexism, even casual sexism, I encourage you to call them on it. This can be a frightening prospect given the abuse heaped on the women and their supporters during #gamergate. The victims of gamergate created a network to protect targets of online abuse which can provide resources to help people stay safe online. We don’t have to become bullies ourselves to step in and defend people from online abuse. If we stop being bystanders we can create the a safer, more compassionate community online and off.
Sigmund Freud, venerated master who laid the foundation for psychoanalytical theory, got a couple of things spectacularly wrong. He placed far too much emphasis on libido and unconscious drives as determinants of personality, while underestimating the influence of environmental factors like birth order and interpersonal relationships. Where he really screwed up was in his androcentric view that women were driven by libido just like men, except that they tended to become hysterical for want of a penis.
Karen Horney (I know what you’re thinking , but it’s pronounced horn-eye) never considered herself a feminist, but refused to be held back by traditional gender role expectations. She tore Freud’s penis envy to pieces and explained why a woman really doesn’t have any use for a phallus of her own. Horney pointed out that what women can do physiologically in carrying a pregnancy to term, birthing and suckling infants, is far more enviable than the male ability to pee standing up. The following essay was written for a psychology class but it fits into the blog posts I’ve written lately on feminist topics.
The Feminine Psychology of Karen Horney
Karen Horney was a woman both of her time and ahead of her time. The circumstances of her life allowed her to develop theories of the personality that were far more sophisticated than she was given credit for. Although she achieved significant professional accomplishments, the pervasive androcentrism of that still marks western civilization prevented her work from having the impact it could have otherwise. This essay, after a brief biography, will trace the early development of Horney’s feminine psychology by exploring the series of papers published in 1967 which looked at the feminine personality in its own right, rather than assuming that a woman was just an inferior man. A consideration of Horney’s later life and work shows how she moved beyond the rigid structures of the male/female binary to develop a more holistic, optimistic and universal theory of personality development. Also, it is worth exploring the reasons that Horney’s name rarely appears in academic psychology textbooks today and also to consider how a better appreciation of Horney’s thinking might be beneficial, not just to psychology, but applied to larger issues as well, through consilience.
Born Karen Horney was born in Germany to an upper-middle class family 1885. Her father, a stern Norwegian sea captain, was 17 years older than her more social mother, who was Dutch. Karen’s mother supported her educational ambitions against her father’s resistance (Kerr, 1987). A few years after the university in Freiburg accepted female students, Karen began training to become a doctor (Eckardt, 2005). She continued her studies in Berlin and married Oscar Horney in 1909 (Kelman, 1967). In 1913 Horney demonstrated her remarkable fortitude by nursing her daughter while writing her medical exams. She then began a training analysis with Karl Abraham which she completed in 1915, although she was reportedly disappointed with the results (Kerr, 1987). By the time she had completed her training as a psychoanalyst Horney was also mother to three daughters, which contributed to her insight into the psychology of the female (O’Connell, 1980). By 1920 Horney was on the teaching staff of the new Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute (Kelman, 1967). Berlin between the wars was a vibrant society, alive with new ideas and a thriving arts community (Eckardt, 2005). Although Sigmund Freud was the acknowledged “master” of the discipline, the psychoanalysts in Berlin were less directly influenced by Freud, who trained a loyal following in Vienna, and thus had more freedom to develop their own ideas about psychoanalytical theory (Kelman, 1967).
Horney’s marriage suffered as a result of her husband’s expectations that her family life should take priority over her career and the couple separated in 1926 (O’Connell, 1980), although they didn’t divorce until 1937. Karen Horney left Berlin for the United States in 1932 to become Associate Director of new Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute (Kelman, 1967). Two years later Horney moved to New York where she continued to practice, write and teach until her death in 1952 (Eckhart, 1984).
Early Development of Theory
Although Karen Horney began her career as an orthodox Freudian psychoanalyst, she soon began to deviate from Freud’s understanding of the psyche (Kelman, 1967). Over the course of her career, Horney’s theories of personality moved further from the orthodox, leading to conflict with mainstream psychoanalytical thought (Kelman, 1967). She was so far ahead of her time that her ideas languished, unappreciated by psychoanalysts who nonetheless incorporated her ideas in subsequent development of the discipline (Smith, 2006).
Freud and his theories emerged from nineteenth century Vienna’s sexually repressed Victorian mores. This was in agreement with his Jewish heritage which positioned men at the head of the household, with women in a subordinate role (Kelman, 1967). Freud’s maleness coloured his perceptions of what it meant to be a person and his ideas tended to be mechanistic and deterministic in keeping with the scientific thinking of his time (Lopez, 1984). He viewed the human organism in a materialistic way, as a closed system with a fixed structure (Kelman, 1967). His point of view naturally informed his perspective, and reflected the attitudes toward women which were common in his culture (Kerr, 1987). In Freud’s theory, males were normative, the phallus was central in their psychosexual development and the libido was the primary drive behind human development even in infancy. In this biological determinism, women, lacking a phallus were like defective males, always seeking to replace that missing part. The primary motivation to have a child in Freud’s theory, was to create a substitute penis, hence a male child would be preferred (Kerr, 1987). This “penis envy” was the basis of female neurosis, in Freud’s opinion (Kerr, 1987).
Karen Horney was trained as a psychoanalyst by Karl Abraham, who himself was a devoted Freudian (O’Connell, 1980). Although the theories she developed in later work diverged from those of Freud and Abraham, she always acknowledged that Freud’s theories formed the foundation on which her own concepts were built (Kelman, 1967).
Throughout the 1920’s and early 1930’s Horney published a series of papers that illustrate the development of her thinking about feminine psychology (Kerr, 1987). Many of these papers were collected and published in English in 1967. Kelman’s introduction to Feminine Psychology describes how the uniqueness of Horney’s ideas was evident even in the first paper she published in 1917 in which she asserted that “much that we have regarded as constitutional” could be remedied by removing “a blockage which can be lifted” (Kelman, 1967). This idea never left her, but was expanded and developed in future writings.
Karen Horney published her first paper on feminine psychology in 1922. This was the first of a number of papers on this topic that she published over the next decade (Kerr, 1987). In 1923 Freud published his theory about the importance of the “phallic phase” in psychosexual development. Horney challenged Freud’s thinking not just on a theoretical level, but backed this up with clinical observations from her practice (Smith, 2006). She noted the more practical aspects of penis envy in that a girl might envy the boy his ability to pee standing up, to hold and see his genital organ, but suggested that a girl’s feelings of inferiority stemmed more from cultural issues than from sensing that she is no more than an incomplete male (Lopez, 1984). The messages of inferiority a girl is subjected to come from the messages she receives from her environment and her family, including restrictions and cultural stereotypes (Symonds, 1991) Horney was able to identify the phallus-centred point of view as natural to the male theorist, but challenged the way they applied this viewpoint to theories of the psychosexual development of females (Symonds, 1991). The biological capacities of women should not be ignored, in Horney’s view, as in her therapeutic experience, males were as likely to envy women their capacity to give birth and suckle their infants, as women were to envy the male phallus (O’Connell, 1980). Horney asserted that what women envied was not the penis, but the superiority that males assumed in society, which limited women’s opportunities (O’Connell, 1980). In addition, Horney noted that envy was a pathological condition, regardless of one’s gender (Kerr, 1987; Symonds, 1991).
In “The Flight From Womanhood” published in 1926, Horney makes a number of keen observations about feminine psychology. Still greatly beholden to the ideas of Freud, she elaborates an alternative to his theory of the centrality of the male phallus by suggesting that we “free our minds from this masculine mode of thought” (Horney, 1926). In so doing, it becomes clear that the great biological difference is not the male’s fleshy organ, but the woman’s generative capacity. Horney points out that a baby is far more than a poor substitute for a woman’s missing penis, but represents great fulfillment, “ineffable happiness” and joy (Horney, 1926). She goes further to suggest that male envy of women’s physiological superiority is the cause of the forced subordination of women by men (Lopez, 2005). This obstruction of women’s development and full social and economic participation leads to the view that women are in some way inferior, but it is wrong to assume that inferiority is the cause of the subordination (Horney, 1926). Horney goes on to flesh out feminine perspectives on psychosexual development, genital awareness, castration fantasies, libidinal interest in the opposite sex and rejection of the feminine role, or the “masculinity complex” (Horney, 1926).
An important concept in understanding Horney’s critique of Freud’s theories is androcentrism. She quotes George Simmel’s views on the assumptions of the normative nature of maleness which liken the dynamics to the master and slave relationship. According to Simmel, it is the privilege of the master to be unaware of his superior position, but the slave cannot ever forget his place in this hierarchical relationship (Horney, 1926). This understanding of privilege is still not widely understood or accepted by the dominant culture today as any online discussion of feminism will demonstrate.
Another analogy to the male/female relationship is the parent/child model, which Horney proposes in a later paper on “The Problem of Feminine Masochism.” Horney notes that like penis envy, masochism is a neurotic condition, rather than a universal condition of women, as postulated in Freudian thought (O’Connell, 1980). While masochism occurs more frequently in women, this is an adaptation or coping strategy to deal with the restrictions placed on them by society (Kerr, 1987). Horney refuted Helene Deutsch’s odious assertion that women desired rape and humiliation and countered that women sought safety and satisfaction through being inconspicuous and dependent (Kerr, 1987). It was this need for safety rather than Freud’s pleasure principle (the id) that motivated human activity (Smith, 2006). The basic anxiety that the world was potentially hostile resulted from conditions that made children feel unloved or unsafe and thus helpless (Smith, 2006).
The roles approved for women encouraged them to be dependent on men for care, protection, love and prestige and thus encouraged them to focus on the beauty and charm that will please men, and make men and children the center of their lives (O’Connell, 1980). Over time it became clearer in Horney’s writing that gender roles are so dependent on cultural influences that the biological determinism of Freud could be safely ignored (Smith, 2006). Freud resented her opposition to his theories and went so far as to suggest she failed to understand the ‘intensity of her own desire for a penis’ and failed to appreciate that desire in her patients as well (Kerr, 1987). This unwarranted ad hominem attack indicates the deep roots of the nerve Horney’s sharp observations skewered.
Horney’s Career in America
When Karen Horney was invited to become the Associate Director of a new psychoanalytic training center in Chicago in 1932, she had the approval of Freud himself (Clemmens, 1984). During this period Horney visited Berlin only to find that the Nazi’s had taken control of the institute there, ending any thoughts she may have had about returning to Europe (Kerr, 1987). However, her two-year contract in Chicago was not renewed because of serious differences of opinion between Horney and her superior, which led her to move to New York. The move to a new life on another continent heightened her sense of the importance of cultural influences on human development (O’Connell, 1980).
By 1941, Horney’s shift from a biological approach to an appreciation for cultural influences and psychosocial factors led to a schism from the New York Psychoanalytic Institute which was also in the process of splitting from the international body in Europe (Kerr, 1987). Her theories had moved so far from the foundation of Freudian thought that she was demoted as a training analyst at a dramatic meeting during which almost half of the membership present declined to participate in the vote, and after which Horney and four like-minded colleagues immediately resigned and marched out (Kerr, 1987). The small group soon established The Association for the Advancement of Psychoanalysis but within a few years there was another split and the American Institute for Psychoanalysis was formed (Kerr, 1987).
Beyond Feminine Psychology
Horney’s theories continued to develop, moving beyond the male/female binary to a more universal idea of human development. From 1937 onwards, Horney wrote several books which developed a more complete conception of human personality development. Rather than human behavior being driven by libido, Horney postulated that a basic anxiety was the foundation of neurosis and that while the coping mechanisms chosen tended to vary by gender, they were not exclusive to each sex (O’Connell, 1980). These mechanisms were grouped into general movement toward, against or away from others in order to reduce one’s level of anxiety (Symonds, 1991) She continued to develop and modify her theories throughout her life, but although Horney’s theories coalesced into a broad understanding of neurosis and the self, she never considered her model of the personality to be complete (Clemmens, 1984).
Another key difference between Horney and Freud was her optimistic view in the face of his belief in a destructive “death instinct.” Horney thought that people were only destructive when their naturally contstructive nature was blocked by negative forces from the environment (Smith, 2006), whereas Freud thought there was an instinctive counterpoint to the the life force, or Eros. The film “A Dangerous Method” suggests that Freud’s theory of a death instinct may have been suggested to him by Sabina Spielrein, another under-appreciated woman psychoanalyst.
The Influence of Horney
Karen Horney was a woman ahead of her time in the challenge she posed to male supremacy in the psychoanalytical establishment. Her thinking helped to reframe the understanding of personality by acknowledging the importance of cultural factors like sexual stereotypes and interpersonal relationships (Ingraham, 2005). This attention to non-biological determinants also provided the basis for a more optimistic evaluation of neurosis and the possibilities for positive change and personal growth (Ingram, 2005). Another of the great contributions of Horney’s work is the holistic nature of her practice, taking in the many causal factors that lead to neurosis (Smith, 2006).
Freud’s tremendous influence on the development of psychoanalytic theory and his rejection of Horney’s challenge to his androcentric views are part of reason that Horney is not better known in the field (Clemmens, 1984). Held in high esteem by her contemporaries, Horney’s ideas were later excluded from mainstream psychoanalytic thought (Kerr, 1987). Although Horney rarely appears in textbooks, her ideas were eventually incorporated in psychoanalytic practice (Smith, 2006). Concepts like compartmentalization, externalization, blind spots, and the “tyranny of the should” have been incorporated into other personality theories, as have the striving for self-realization and the unlimited potential for personal growth (O’Connell, 1980)
The posthumous publication of Horney’s papers on Feminine Psychology in 1967 contributed to the development of feminist thought which grew into “second-wave” feminism in the 1970’s (Buhle, 1998). The challenge to mainstream psychoanalytic thought that Horney represented was not without pushback. Generally speaking, when the soldiers came home from WWII, the women who had kept the munitions plants operating tended to get married and head home to raise families. However a disturbing trend of blaming mothers for everything wrong with their children arose in this period (Buhle, 1998). To this day, an androcentric perspective dominates in psychology, despite specific efforts to ameliorate this bias by, for example, forbidding the use of male pronouns in a generic context (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006).
The psychoanalytical theories have much to contribute, even today, to discourse in a number of fields. The rise of third-wave feminism is underway in reaction to a global spreading awareness of the persistence of casual sexism and “rape culture” (Mansfield, 2014). The mechanistic, reductionist scientific paradigm so deeply entrenched in Freud’s time is still the dominant viewpoint the scientific establishment (Hegarty & Buechel, 2006).
The destructive nature of humankind is more in evidence than ever with respect to the increasingly urgent issue of climate change. Horney would not agree with those who think it’s too late to make a meaningful change to save the biosphere from catastrophic habitat destruction and species loss. The male-dominated capitalist system would benefit from an injection of Horney’s understanding of the pathological nature of envy. Horney’s holistic approach may be able to inform other disciplines and help to move toward the kind of consilience that can bring about the meaningful and significant change that our species now requires.
Buhle, M. J. (1998). Feminism and its discontents: A century of struggle with psychoanalysis
Clemmens, E. R. (1984). The work of karen horney. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44(3), 242-253. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1007/BF01252687
Eckardt, M. H. (1984). Karen horney: Her life and contribution. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44(3), 236-241. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1007/BF01252686
Eckardt, M. H. (2005). Karen horney: A portrait: The 120th anniversary, karen horney, september 16, 1885. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 65(2), 95-101. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1007/s11231-005-3620-6
Hegarty, P., & Buechel, C. (2006). Androcentric reporting of gender differences in APA journals: 1965-2004. Review of General Psychology, 10(4), 377-389. doi:10.1037/1089-2622.214.171.1247
Horney, K. (1926). The flight from womanhood: The masculinity complex in women as viewed by men and by women. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 7, 324.
Ingram, D. H. (1985). Karen horney at 100: Beyond the frontier. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 45(4), 305-309. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1007/BF01252864
Kelman, H. (1967). Karen Horney of feminine psychology. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 27(2), 163-183. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1007/BF01873051
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Lopez, A. G. (1984). Karen horney’s feminine psychology. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 44(3), 280-289. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1007/BF01252690
Mansfield, H. (2014). Feminism and its discontents; ‘rape culture’ at harvard News America Incorporated.
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Symonds, A. (1991). Gender issues and Horney theory. The American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 51(3), 301-312. doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca/10.1007/BF01249252
Dr. Matt Taylor, great scientist and all around decent human being, apologised for inadvertently offending women by wearing an inappropriate shirt for a press conference. In a perfect world, that would be the end of the story, but we don’t live in that world. Now the anti-feminists and “men’s rights” activists have their knickers all in a twist about the ‘attacks’ on Dr. Taylor.
I read tweets criticizing the shirt. Tweets by women tended to be civilized and didn’t judge Dr. Taylor as a person, just the choice of shirt. Another article asked why nobody who worked with Dr. Taylor noticed that maybe that shirt wasn’t the best choice for international press exposure. So where did these charges of horrible abuse come from? The first nasty tweet I found was by a man who said “Only a douchbag would wear this shirt.” See the pattern here?
Here’s a quote from Boris Johnson;
I watched that clip of Dr Taylor’s apology – at the moment of his supreme professional triumph – and I felt the red mist come down. It was like something from the show trials of Stalin, or from the sobbing testimony of the enemies of Kim Il-sung, before they were taken away and shot.
Really? Do you really think Dr. Taylor’s situation could be equated with someone about be murdered? The only people told they deserved to die for expressing opinions on this issue in the Twitterverse were WOMEN. See the pattern here? Boris Johnson, blinded by privilege, and all those clever memes about how unfortunate that a person is judged by what he wore, miss the point by a light-year. This is what systemic sexism looks like.
ANATOMY OF A SHIRT-STORM:
Scientist makes poor fashion choice AND makes some sexist comments during a press conference.
Reasonable women: “That shirt would make me feel uncomfortable in a shared workplace.”
‘Professional’ Feminists (also reasonable): “Yes, the Scientist should have worn a different shirt. BTW, why didn’t anyone else who works there notice that shirt was inappropriate for an international press conference?”
Knee-jerk people who don’t share that workplace or know Dr. Taylor personally: “Only a total douchebag would wear a shirt like that, idiot, you clearly hate all women, blah, blah, blah.”
Misogynists and others blinded by privilege: “Its just a shirt. Get over it.”
Scientist: Sorry, I won’t do that again. *sniff, sob* (because he is emotional. because he didn’t ever intend to hurt anyone’s feelings or make them feel unwelcome, and it just never occurred to him that his words or that shirt would cause offense because years of conditioning and male privilege made him blind to the possibility that objectifying half of humanity would make professional colleagues belonging to that other half feel uneasy.)
Women who pointed out the poor fashion choice: “Thank you, I really appreciate that.” (now have huge respect for scientist)
Feminists; … (Moving on, but also have huge respect for scientist who learned and shared.)
Knee jerks and Misogynists: “Hey bitches, how dare you viciously attack that poor man. You forced him to demonstrate emotion in public, thereby humiliating him, because real men don’t do that. What a horrible thing to do, you’re just as bad as a dictator who killed millions of his own people! You feminists should all just die. now.”
Rest of the small-minded world: “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
Sane people: “What the serious f*ck is wrong with you people?”
ps: Dear media who pumped this story through their conflictinator for maximum drama and thereby profit: you deserve a figurative kick in the goolies because you suck at your job.
pps; December 7, 2014. At this point it looks like the gamer-gate contingent of 12-year old trolls are the loudest voices in the online #shirtstorm conversation, as most intelligent people have moved on to more important things. Systemic sexism is still an issue in workplaces, schools, churches and the media. Rape culture is a bigger issue than ever. The whole sordid mess is like a pimple about to pop and I can see the connections between sexism and racism, which has also reached a head in the wake of decisions not to indict cops who kill unarmed blacks. The struggle for justice for women will join and fortify the struggles for justice for blacks, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, the homeless, low-wage workers, indigenous communities and people who live in ‘sacrifice zones’ bearing the brunt of environmental destruction. We are all connected and I continue to believe we can solve all the problems that threaten our biosphere.