ASK THE THERAPIST
by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.
Copyright © 1993 by William A. Henkin
<Q> I'm a female member of the Society of Janus. I've been following the debate about female supremacy, in Growing Pains and elsewhere, that involves the Femina Society and our own Lady Green, among others. The Femina Society seems to assert that any woman is superior to any man simply by virtue of her sex, while Lady Green seems to say that all people, whether female or male, top or bottom or, I presume, transgendered and switch are fundamentally equal. I've also attended some community parties in the past year put on by a group that sometimes throws female top parties, sometimes male top parties, and sometimes mixed top parties. I never really switch but I've done so at a couple of these parties as an experiment. I mention the parties because against the backdrop of the female supremacy debate the issue of Who Tops has brought up some questions for me about the exact nature of sexual equality or, really, any kind of gender equality at all. I know my question is not very specific, but will you please tell me what you think about this issue as a player, as a therapist, as an educator, and as a man?
<A> I've been following the female supremacy debate myself, from my safe distance as an interested but uninvolved reader, and I think the questions you raise at least by implication what is equality? what does equality really mean? lie at the heart of what excites me about the SM community as a community: while some of our well-blindered peers such as Catherine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, and Jesse Helms take the extreme position of seeking to legislate against much or even all of human sexuality, we're asking questions about it that go to the heart of the nature of human relationships.
You'll notice I used the word "peer" in the paragraph above. As a noun, "peer" is often used as a synonym for "equal"; the first definition of "peer" in The American Heritage Dictionary is "a person who has equal standing with another, as in rank, class, or age." But if someone has equal standing with me, does that make the person my equal? Would the Femina Society say I was any woman's equal? Would I? Do you? What exactly does it mean to be someone's equal?
One problem that seems to me to underlie people's failures to communicate is that we often use language differently from one another not so flagrantly that everyone hears our distinctions, but so slightly, rather, that our nuances are easily overlooked, and the confusions they cause do not become apparent till later. For instance, just as "peer" is frequently used as a synonym for "equal" when it seems more accurately to refer to equal standing, so "equal" is
frequently used as a synonym for "the same as," which is an interpretation I dispute.
Looking again to the same dictionary, "equal" seems fundamentally to be a mathematical adjective. The definitions that concern us are, "1. Having the same quantity, measure, or value as another. 2. Being the same or identical to in value. 3. (a) Having the same privileges, status, or rights: equal before the law. 3. (b) Being the same for all members of a group: gave every player an equal chance to win."
So what is equality? The weight of a pound of feathers is equal to the weight of a pound of steel; but while the two pounds may have the same quantity or measure as one another, or may be identical to each other in value, certainly they are not the same, and if you think they are I invite you to drop them both on your foot. Jesse Helms may be my equal before the law, and as voters he and I may have equal status, privileges, and rights; but apart from the special status, privileges, and rights he has as a member of the United States Senate and of untold political networks rights I surely will never enjoy neither of us, I think, would like anyone to imagine that we are otherwise the same. When I look at the arithmetic of human relations from this perspective I see that one individual plus one individual plus one individual plus one individual is a very different configuration from two couples plus two couples, and different again from one foursome. Two plus two may be equal to four, in other words, but it is not the same as four.
Words are especially tricky when they mean different things to different people even though they are in common use. When Sybil Holiday and I teach our Introduction to SM course, therefore, we explain how we use certain terms for the purposes of the course. One distinction we make is between equality and parity. We say, for instance, that if I give you a dollar and you give me a dollar we have had an equal exchange; but if I give you a dollar and you give me a candy bar we both agree is worth a dollar, we've had an exchange of equal value. The first definition of "parity" in The American Heritage Dictionary is "Equality, as in amount, status, or value." The second, "Functional equivalence...," makes clearer what we're talking about. If you want to translate into SM terms, imagine a negotiation based on my pleasure in whipping and yours in service: we can agree to an exchange of equal value for example, you bring me my coffee and I'll whip you even though our exchange is not, strictly speaking, equal: whipping is not the same as service.
Back to the question under discussion. I have no argument with the notion that women and men are not equal: we are not the same, after all, if only on the basis of anatomy. In addition, recent research suggests that the structures of male and female brains are different in ways that imply that males and females perceive and process information differently, and that we perceive and understand human interactions differently as well.
(Gentle Reader, I understand very well that gender differences really belong on a continuum and are not an either/or matter. I have declined to deal with these gradations in this column for simplicity's sake, however: not because the gradations aren't important I think they're crucial but because addressing their refinements would distract me, if not you, from the question at hand.)
Speaking very generally on the basis of my own quite unscientific observations, as well as on the basis of information provided by writers such as Simon Lavay in The Sexual Brain, I would say that on balance, in some circumstances a male is likely to be superior to a female where muscle mass is important, for example, or the focus of a penetrating insight while in others a female is likely to be superior to a male when small bones are required, for instance, or an overview to get some situation's big picture. But on the basis of sex and gender I think women and men are peers: we have parity; we have equal value; even though we are different, our worth is on a par with one another's; and so, from where I sit, based on sex and gender we have or we ought to have equal standing in all our human commerce.
Certainly in specific circumstances one individual has greater or lesser value than another. Barry Bonds commands $7 million per year to play baseball, and I don't think there's a major league team around that would pay me seven cents to play outfield for the same season, even if I worked just as hard as Bonds. But this discrepancy has to do with specific talents and skills; it has nothing to do with sex or gender. In the same fashion, I might negotiate to submit to a dominant woman who, for the purposes of our scene, is my superior. The roles may have to do with us as individuals, or with our specific negotiation; but they, too, have nothing inherent to do with sex or gender.
One problem I perceive in the position enunciated by the Femina Society and other female supremacy absolutists I've heard called by a woman "macho feminists," is that not only do its proponents not see men and women as equal, they do not value men and women equally: they do not see us on a par. Equality of any sort is out of the question, then, and so is any kind of equally valued exchange, or parity. For the people who espouse these positions, any man may propose but any woman is to dispose. Questions of relative value, needs, and wants are not germane. Again, by my reading, this position emphasizes gender imbalance regardless of age, education, social skills, or social value so that any woman say, the landlady in Sacramento who seems to have murdered a slew of her boarders for their pension checks is not only superior to all men before the god, the goddess, and the law, but is also superior simply on the basis of her sex to Ghandi, Einstein, or Schweitzer.
Well: in my most goddess-centered persona, where I recognize and prefer feminine to masculine principles, I can see preferring female supremacy as well. Even down here in the dogshit I can understand this preference in theory, at least as a way to right the balance after millennia of male domination. But then my simple humanity intrudes and I have to demur because it all sounds just like the male supremacy female supremacists oppose: different drag, but the same biased heart beneath the costume.
When I read the female supremacy material that has been part of this discussion a scene in Jean Anouilh's Becket came to mind. Late in this play a young monk is helping Thomas Becket dress in the church for a service he is to perform in his capacity as Archbishop of Canterbury. Both Becket and the monk know that King Henry II plans to send men around to kill Becket that night, and the young monk relates to Becket his vision of destroying the King's oppressive government machinery Becket has set himself against, by "putting more and more grains of sand in the machine, [so that] one day it will come grinding to a stop."
"And on that day, what then?" Becket asks the young man.
"We'll set a fine, new, well-oiled machine in the place of the old one...." the monk replies.
Becket, a gentle and a wise man, pointedly does not reply. He recognizes in the young monk's words the process by which the oppressed become the oppressor. One of the reasons some female supremacy absolutists take the positions they do, I think, is that women have been badly oppressed, repressed, suppressed, and, finally, depressed in most western and eastern societies for at least the past several thousand years. I think this is and has been bad policy, stupid policy, ignorant policy, and frightened policy on the part of the males who have nominally run the societies in question, and all told I don't think it's been particularly good for them either or for the rest of us.
Turning male-superior attitudes on their heads and using the same formula to claim female superiority is merely reactive as far as I can see, however. It changes nothing except the drag, it only seeks to replace one machine with another; and while I can appreciate the sweet taste of revenge some women and some men might hope for from such a categorical role-reversal, it looks like a short-sighted hope to me, and one that is, in the long run, more likely to reinforce the worst of the existing social order, rather than produce the kind of conscious (r)evolution I would like to think human beings are capable of.
You asked for my thoughts as a player, as a therapist, as an educator, and as a man. All of us the player, the therapist, the educator, and the man share the positions in this column. Even as we recognize that for female supremacists my very maleness might make my answer close to worthless, we (the royal, editorial, and alternate personas "we") all think that equality of value inheres in all humans and quite possibly in all beings, sentient or not. We also think no two people are the same, and so none of us is really equal to any other. Finally, we think that equality of standing in any particular enterprise is a joke fostered by counter-elitist elitists. I would far rather be whipped by someone who is unequally excellent at swinging a flogger and a snake than by the apocryphal novice who, worried about her fur-ball, wanted to know if we really hit each other with cats. There may be no differences of quality in conditions of being, but there certainly are differences of quality in the skills that pertain to doing.
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