“I really feel you in your masculine right now with this boundary.”
A good while ago, a friend said something along those lines when I expressed a boundary to him during an event.
It was that “masculine” energy that seemed to drive it home—he knew I was serious. His choice of words nagged me then, years ago, and the memory is still alive for me today.
I think those words have stuck with me for so many years because I have since heard them repeated or reflected in many ways. As an empowerment self-defense instructor, I work a lot with boundaries.
People have suggested, subtly and outright, that I help women “connect with their masculine,” that boundary setting is a “masculine attribute” (and so are ambition and action!), and that “flow” is a particularly feminine quality. I’ll explain why I think this may be problematic.
I spent most of December on Lake Atitlán in Guatemala, surrounded by beautiful, colorful people playing in a wonderland of movement and spiritual practices, many of which I love. However, these communities and spaces often overlap in a stout Venn diagram with what I will call “polarity speak,” and after weeks of hearing “in her feminine” and “your masculine side” slung around with gleeful abandon, I feel called to respond.
Polarity Speak is utilizing the language of polarity (feminine energy and masculine energy, which govern the universe but transcend any human conception of gender) to label personality traits socialized as “male” or “female,” thus conflating the spiritual with the social and perpetuating binary gender norms.
I am not against polarity as a concept. I think there is deep work for all of us to do in seeking out the parts of ourselves we have abandoned, calling them home, and integrating them into the textured fabric of our being. I do, however, take issue with how the careless use of language can subtly reinforce gender stereotypes and—when unconsciously embedded at a social and cultural scale—perpetuate systems in which violence and abuse flourish.
1. To begin with, I am not “in my masculine” when I set strong boundaries, actively pursue my goals, or teach self-defense. And if you think fighting is not “feminine,” then,
2. You have not been paying much attention to nature. Your binary gender stereotypes are perpetuating a social system wherein women and girls are socialized to stay quiet, be nice, and play small, their natural instinct for self-preservation, fighting, and yelling suppressed by education, popular culture, and people like you telling them to “act like a lady,” and,
3. Maybe it’s time to consider that “being in your flow” is a loaded compliment, because sometimes it is New Age code for “having flimsy boundaries,” or “ceding to the desires of others, usually men.”
Am I pissed off by the superabundance of gender biases and entrenched patriarchal values couched in conscious polarity speak, all of which I see running rampant on social media, in spiritual trainings and retreats, and within my own close circles of friends? Yeah, I am.
(There I go again, in my masculine with all this intellectual rage…unless it becomes hysterical, then that’s 100 percent feminine, right?)
But ask Kali about anger. Ask Lilith. Ask Artemis. The divine feminine invented rage and strong boundaries. These feminine archetypes dance at the foundations of my self-defense and empowerment work. They cheer me on with voices neither feminine nor masculine, a tenor beyond polarity, beyond binaries. Teaching women to use their bodies and voices to protect themselves is not about tapping into their masculine side; it is about remembering their inherent power. (Leaning on tired tropes associating masculinity with strength not required.)
This polarity-speak that is getting under my skin likes to associate a woman’s power exclusively with her sexuality. Yes, reclaiming sexuality and pleasure, rejecting guilt and shame around bodies and sex is revolutionary—and powerful.
And, my genitals and my womb are not my only source of power, and certainly not my only source of value. Oversimplified polarity schema appear to suggest that the “empowered feminine” resides—only—in the vagina. (Code for the age-old and always corrosive myth: Physical, mental, or verbal strength is the domain of men.)
For decades, empowerment self-defense has sought to undermine dominant gender stereotypes regarding physical strength by teaching techniques tailored to the strengths of women’s bodies (think: hips and legs, effective technique over brute force).
1. You don’t have to be bigger and stronger to win the fight,
2. We are all strong in different ways, and,
3. With the right training, a vulnerable position can transform into a position of power (ie. Lying on the ground.)
Yet, recently I and many of my colleagues have begun to make a slow shift away from gendered language altogether. Why? First, not all attackers are men (even though, yes, most perpetrators of violence against women are). Second, not all defendants are women, and it is time to teach all bodies how to protect themselves, at all ages. And finally, not all participants who identify as women will necessarily fit into the curvy box created by the phrase, “a woman’s strength is in her hips.”
As we learn more, we seek to do better. Inclusivity today does not look the same as it did 10 or even five years ago. Neither does the discourse on gender issues, social justice, or violence prevention.
The language of respect and conscientious communication is evolving. So, why not polarity?
I worry when I see old, patriarchal structures of gender and control dressed up as empowerment, healing, or “conscious” relating. I worry because it is undeniably seductive—and dangerous.
This is somewhat conjecture, but it is easy to imagine how Bikram, Yogi Bhajan, Osho, or other modern spiritual leaders might have used the language of polarity to allegedly groom their victims. What woman doesn’t want to be a sexy, evolved goddess, mistress of flow and surrender? We are not so many decades beyond the binary ideals of the 50s and 60s, the woman as goddess-like, nurturing, receptive, and the man as strong, masculine, providing.
And hey, there is value in connecting with every part of our human experience: strength, intellectuality, boundaries, ambition, and action…and also emotion, vulnerability, surrender, flow, and receptivity. If someone finds or facilitates growth or healing through polarity work, without causing harm to anyone else, good on them.
But if the syntactic magic trick of isolating “masculine” and “feminine” from their gendered roots is really a thinly veiled front for perpetuating past centuries’ standards of “masculinity” and “femininity”…next.
What comes after polarity?