Last Sunday I was joined by Vanessa Fisher and Sarah Nicholson for a dialogue entitled “Sex, Beauty and the Power of Story-Telling”. It felt like a truly global conversation with Vanessa dialing in as she sat on the rooftop of her house in Nepal and Sarah linking in from Sydney, Australia where it was 3am!
Vanessa and Sarah are co-editors of the forthcoming anthology, Integral Voices on Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: Critical Inquiries, which brings contributors from across the spectrum of personal and political backgrounds, academic and practitioner orientations, and male and female perspectives.
I was curious about how their deep examination of women’s issues and gender and sexuality studies had helped them clarify how men and women can clear a space for higher friendship and collaboration. All our relationships (between women and women, men and men, and women and men) tend to be affected by undercurrents of seduction, competition, resentment, and covert sexual and power motives. This is a time in human history when we simply must begin to work together more cleanly and dynamically to heal our world. What had they learned? So I asked them to tell their personal stories to help us see how their rich academic investigation informs their actual living.
Sarah reflected on the dissonance of being a young woman and sensing that somehow her body was both overly desirably and at the same time taboo. Seeking resolution to that paradox took her from trance dance and psychedelics to mediation and comparative religious studies, and eventually to the work of Joseph Campbell. Throughout the exploration, her orienting question was “Who am I as a woman?”—a question which over time became less intellectual and more creative. Today, she says, it’s about soul work.
Vanessa described following “a thread of beauty” in her personal story. As a young girl, deep, shattering state experiences of beauty gave her a sense that all was well. However when she reached her teens, these same experiences seemed to contrast this perfection of existential beauty with the imperfection of her physical self, resulting in a sort of schizophrenic state. This rupture began to heal only after she was confronted with a harrowing archetype of the Ugly in the form of a physical ailment that altered her appearance. Eventually, she began to explore an integral view of how beauty manifests in all its splendor and shadow across spiritual, social, personal, and political paradigms.
During our dialogue, I felt moved to share the complexity of my own experience of feminism, particularly First Wave feminism. As a safe, seemingly “sweet new age guy” certain women used me as a man to whom they could finally dare to express their anger and resentment. And even though I was committed to the equality and flourishing of all humans, it was really challenging! I’m sure I felt as challenged by conventional gender narratives as some of these women did, but of course it was totally politically incorrect for me to express that; men were the “oppressors”.
Sarah and Vanessa appreciated this dilemma, and a rich exchange about the challenges facing men ensued. In putting together the anthology, they were not trying to present a neat package with clear-cut answers. The anthology includes perspectives that are opposed to one another, and points of view with which they don’t agree. Ultimately the whole topic is deeply “messy”.
The deep study of gender history becomes compelling when pursued in the interest of its potential to make us freer in all of our relationships, opening us to a field where we can truly meet each other. Such radical freedom allows for a different, self-transcendent kind of friendship, one that allows men and women to be fellow citizens of a world in crisis and to be brothers and sisters in an authentic collaborative way that restores the human family and works to heal our hurting world.
I invite you to listen to the entirety of my dialog with Sarah and Vanessa here.