In our world, we so often relate to people as objects. We even relate to ourselves as objects. It happens everyday. It’s so easy to see people as fixed and definite things to extract gain from; and to try to gain by presenting ourselves as fixed and definite. (This mindset has a long history in the west, but that’s another story…)
We’re also able to relate to each other as beings, who are alive and ultimately unpredictable. In the heights of this kind of connection, we can discover who we are, and touch the fabric of another being. It is non-violent, organic, and ecstatic.
But, because culturally we are more in the habit of the former way, we are often cut off from these natural and nourishing feelings of being-to-being connection. So we have developed strategies to mine one another to try and get what we need, and sexual violence is one of very extreme ways people do this to each other.
Exploitation Culture and Fool’s Gold
When I was a girl learning how to interact with boys and men, I learned how to exploit, and how to be exploited. I learned that my beauty and thinness would be synonymous with my value. I learned how to hide certain parts of myself and accentuate others, so I could manipulate boys into being attracted to me and feel lovable. I watched as the young men around me also learned to hide parts of themselves, and how to game girls’ vulnerabilities for pleasure and power. It wasn’t all darkness, of course, but the darkness was there.
Many of us were acculturated this way, to view those we desired sexually as objects, and to seek to acquire them or be acquired by them, in order to profit socially and to soothe the wounded parts of us that feel so unlovable.
We learned to hide parts of ourselves, in the hopes of fitting in and avoiding shame, and to express ourselves in narrow, predictable ways that were most likely to get us accepted by others. When we do that, we’re treating ourselves like objects. But, it’s entirely understandable – we do what we have to do to get by.
The rules that govern how we must and must not be are strong, and they fuel the power of exploitation culture. Rules like, men shouldn’t feel sadness or show vulnerability or uncertainty, and women should not be powerful or wild or angry. These rules cause us to collapse our basic aliveness into predetermined shapes and personalities, that leave us out of touch with ourselves and mysteriously frustrated and dissatisfied. We are then more open to media, commercial, and cultural manipulation, and we identify with certain aspects of ourselves and thoroughly deny others, forcing them underground in our psyches. We feel lonely because we’re not intimate with ourselves, and look to lovers to give us the key to happiness.
I imagine that overt sexual violence happens when someone reaches a desperate intersection of this exploitation/objectification culture, and the deep pain of chronic unmet needs for connection and love.
I don’t think that anyone who knows how nourishing it feels to love the complexities of their own being, to be genuinely accepted by another, and to relax into intimacy on a body-based level, would choose to perpetrate sexual violence. The feelings of control, expression of rage, and fleeting connection through domination that perpetrators get are “fool’s gold.” The experience might numb or momentarily soothe the deeper pain, but will probably leave the perpetrator feeling more hurt, hungry, and confused than ever.
The experience of being seen and loved for all your crazy aliveness is the real gold.
Another way to say this is, addressing the underlying unmet needs of individuals and communities is the way to shift our relational paradigm away from one that perpetuates sexual violence, and towards one that perpetuates nurturance and opening.
Toward a Paradigm of Real Gold
I think it’s never too late to learn how to feel love and trust and intimacy, no matter what our upbringing looked like or what our current habits are.
This kind of healing work is important, because it teaches us how to access the real gold that all our neurotic habits, addictions, and acts of violence are desperately trying to find.
In psychotherapy, in families, and in communities, we can teach and learn how to be kind. We can practice letting the long-hidden parts of ourselves unfold and breathe. We can cultivate trust and intimacy by letting ourselves be witnessed and loved by trusted others…letting ourselves come more alive. When we’re connected to our own aliveness, we can no longer deny it in others. We learn to feel safe and at home in our bodies, and explore who we are. From this place, violently exploiting one another makes less and less sense.
Friends, mentors, and lovers can help us learn how to nurture each other, and greet one another as mysteries. Role models are helpful; especially masculine role models, who demonstrate how to be both powerful and gentle.
How healing can be cultivated in places where there’s systemic poverty and violence is a difficult open question.
It’s important to remember that people who have been perpetrators are not evil, just deeply pained. And, given enough support and love, anyone is capable of change. Also, as terrible as sexual violence is, it’s a symptom of a larger disease, one that most of us carry to some degree or another.
Change happens slowly, and it’s about transforming the norms of exploitation, objectification, and violence (subtle and gross) into norms of respect, nurturance, and freedom. This won’t disappear rape overnight, but it will gradually create a world where more people know how to give and receive the real gold of love and connection and erotic vitality, eliminating the need to find cheap and violent alternatives.
“Fool’s gold exists because there is real gold.” – Rumi
By Myriam Maida, MA
Myriam Maida is a psychotherapist, painter and writer living in Boulder, CO. She is a student of creativity, healing, living fully, and promoting peace in this time of global transition. She holds a Master’s degree in Transpersonal Counseling Psychology from Naropa University.