21 Aug TRANSFORMING PATTERNS OF INTERNALISED SEX AND CLASS OPPRESSION, PART 2: THE SISTER SOLIDARITY AND MALE ALLYSHIP AGREEMENTS
This post is the second in a series of three blog-posts where I share about experiments which stem from within our “home pod” (the group I live with) and focus on transforming patterns of internalised sex and class oppression.
The experiments, in the form of actual conscious “experiments”, have taken three forms. First was the “post-its” experiment, which was explored exclusively within our “home pod”; Eddy, Miki, and I. The second is the “sister-solidarity and male allyship agreements”, which we devised for a Nonviolent Global Liberation (NGL) gathering we had at the end of 2022 in Scotland, as a way to care for un-metabolised impacts related to what we call “the perceptual grid”, which is described further below. This gathering was the meeting of 17 of us coming from 9 different regions including: various countries in Europe, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Turkey, and the UK. The third is what came to be called the “it’s happening now” experiment, which is a further refinement of the sister solidarity and male allyship experiment that evolved from our learnings as we engaged with one another as a group over a period of two weeks. In order to be able to delve deeply enough into each of them, I decided to split it up into three posts. This allows me to get into the actual specifics, so that you, my readers, can viscerally grasp the depth and intensity of experimentation from within which all this is written. This post focuses on the sister solidarity and male allyship agreements. The “It’s Happening Now” post is yet to be written.
If you are starting with this post and have not read part 1 – “How post-its can support liberation”, there are some things that are important for me that you know about the context in which these experiments are being done, as you delve into this post. The primary thing for you to know is that we are holding our explorations within what we refer to as “optimal conditions”. This means that there is a well of history and trust between those of us who are involved, a shared foundation and orientation to the nature and purpose of our exploration, and I fully trust that each of us is in choice about what we are doing. We are operating within a shared understanding of the meaning of the words power as “the capacity to mobilise resources to attend to needs” (Miki and Inbal Kashtan) and what Erica Sherover-Marcuse wrote of oppression that “the perpetuation of oppression is made possible by the conditioning of new generations of human beings into the role of being oppressed and the role of being oppressive. In a society in which there is oppression, everyone (at one time or another) is socialised into both of these roles.” For a more expanded account of all the above go to “Transforming patterns of internalised sex and class oppression, part 1: How post-its can support liberation”
I also want you to know that I am writing these blog-posts as a gift; seeding the possibility for increased collective capacity to begin to unravel the insidious tangle of systemic oppression, as it manifests within sex and class, which functions very effectively to prevent us from coming together more readily to create the world we long for.
In addition, if you read the first post, I want you to know that I am in a different place as I write this second one. It is more than half a year later, I am not in the thick rawness of where I was while writing the first one, there is more co-holding in the wider field around me, and a lot has integrated within me through doing these experiments. I have more capacity to speak up, less fear, more clarity about what I am perceiving, more trust in my experience and within that being so, more space for humility.
What do I Mean by The Perceptual Grid and by Sister Solidarity?
As I wrote before, the sister solidarity and male allyship experiment arose as a response to impacts, within the wider group, from the term Eddy coined: “the perceptual grid.”
The Perceptual Grid refers to the systematic objectifying and categorising of women’s physicality in relation to acceptable-or-not “attractiveness” measures across various dimensions. We all internalise and perpetuate this in some form, and it is particularly perpetuated through male training in ways that impact women in material, emotional, and spiritual ways throughout our lives.
Some of its manifestations include:
- Increased attention and energy going in the direction of women who tick boxes within the grid while experiencing less energy and even aversion in the direction of those who don’t.
- This operates along a continuum that covers the multiple dimensions of the grid: any individual woman can simultaneously tick the box on certain dimensions and not on others (e.g. ticking the boxes on facial features and not on body type or age)
- The extent and nuance of it, as well as the depth and severity of impacts in terms of our capacity to inhabit reverential relationships or even, for women, to relate to themselves as dignified beings, are also mostly unknown by men and also to women because it is such a normalised part of life.
- One of the ways it impacts men is that they reach out significantly less to other men for affection and physical contact (most intensely so in global minority (European ancestry) and global North groups) which perpetuates reduced access to male-to-male vulnerability.
- Women are split from each other based on their grid location.
- Women, both mothers, aunts, and other family members, and peers, routinely police each other to fit the grid (e.g. “don’t eat so much, you’ll get fat”; “you look great in that dress”; “you’re too old to keep your hair on your legs” (said to 12-year olds).
Sister solidarity overall is about women staying together, in solidarity with one another as a “target group” [Erica Sherover-Marcuse], that experiences oppression within patriarchal culture. This includes impacts from the perceptual grid and also other forms of sexism that occur (even though many people think that sexism is over – it is not) at the systemic level and at the more personal and every day level, especially in relation to men.
Impacts from the Perceptual Grid & Our Choice to Focus on Sister Solidarity
The impacts in our group in relation to the perceptual grid arose across multiple dimensions and came to a head in response to a lesser spoken aspect of how it plays out, which is in relation to older women. Whereas younger women who “tick the right boxes” are often coveted, older women by necessity are for the most part outside of the boxes and the response can be varying degrees of aversion.
The potential lines that could be read between the above sentences might say a number of things: from one angle it could be pointing to some kind of envy of the young, dismay at the loss of a certain aliveness and a desire to fit those boxes; from another angle of the same perspective it could be pointing to an obvious fact of life that, “of course, when you’re ‘past your prime’ you’re no longer as attractive, get over it”. There are likely other angles I’m not thinking of right now, and I do not doubt that others, like these, would also look at the perceptual grid as something that is both natural and to be desired, whether you are the subject or the object. In fact, however, I intended no sub-text, and what I wrote points to two sides of the same phenomenological coin that is women’s place in our patriarchal world: one where our worth, in terms of how we are perceived and treated, is linked to our ability to satisfy the needs of patriarchally conditioned males. In addition, regardless of where we fit, or not, on the grid in our youth, our decreasing capacity to satisfy those needs due to age is something that awaits all of us.
Regardless what side of the coin you are on right now, how you are oriented to by men as a woman is through this grid, unless the men are unusually conscious and doing deep work to de-condition themselves in this specific area along with a tonne of support, which is very very rare.
I want to be clear here that I am in no way “anti-male”. I am fully coming from a desire of liberation for all from systems of social oppression and men are by no means free of experiencing the impacts of this. I see this as true even while, especially in the case of white males of professional and owning classes, there is more access to the rewards that come from upholding systems of oppression, such as access to material resources and esteem from other men and the culture at large. As bell hooks writes of her brother in The Will To Change, “donning the mantle of patriarch, he gained greater respect and visibility” (p.28). The self betrayal that is necessary to be able to do this, because “no male successfully measures up to patriarchal standards without engaging in an ongoing practice of self-betrayal” (p.12), is immense and entails a lot of suffering, a “terrible terror than gnaws at the soul”(p.4), whether there is self-awareness of this or not. It is simply not possible to oppress others, which includes the objectification of women, without separating in some way from seeing women as human beings, and “as long as men are brainwashed to equate violent domination and abuse of women with privilege they will have no understanding of the damage done to themselves or to others and no motivation to change”.(p.27)
The reason for focusing on sister solidarity in this experiment, rather than male solidarity, is therefore simply because it is among the women (who are the “target group”) within this particular expression of oppression, where the impacts of the perceptual grid are felt. If we don’t know that something is happening and what it is, it is not possible to create change in that area. We cannot change how men are trained to orient internally in relation to the perceptual grid; we can only change the conditions within which the impacts from it are happening and our own actions in relation to those impacts
From reading the above, it could seem obvious that upon seeing all of this, women would naturally gravitate towards supporting one another. The perceptual grid is only one manifestation of sexism, however, and as a whole sexism is very insidious and plays out through all patriarchally conditioned humans and systems in varying ways. Therefore the question of what it could mean to begin to establish solidarity among women within this experience is not a simple one.
For example, some of the effects of the perceptual grid are to pit us against one another in such a way that what “sister solidarity” means is no longer clear: we find ourselves in competition for men; we mistrust one another and our intentions; and we deprioritise speaking out and standing up for one another in places where we are impacted in relation to the perceptual grid in order to either protect ourselves or any men where impacts may be stemming from in order to maintain relationship with them. These are aspects of female training that serve to intertwine with and perpetuate this dynamic. There are also horrific historical reasons for which this is so including the witch burnings, and I am choosing not to go deeper into that in this post.
When I see how the grid continues to play out in the everyday interactions, both my own and others’ I am in contact with around the globe, including how women are generally discarded as no longer useful past a certain age, it is clear to me that the oppression of women is alive and strong, and that our capacity to actually collaborate within and across the sexes to create a world that truly works for all is far away.
Within a group such as ours, which is specifically focusing on individual and collective liberation and working towards at least the prototyping of a way of living that works for all, having impacts alive within us of this nature strongly drew our attention.
Within this, the task we gave ourselves, following Erica Sherover-Marcuse’s definition of liberation as “the undoing of the effects and the elimination of the causes of social oppression”, was to create a set of agreements that would pave a way for the impacts to be contained, while also being sensitive to each of our unique placements in our liberation journeys and individual choice within that.
The Particular Impacts from the Perceptual Grid to which we are Orienting
The particular areas that we have been focusing on and the reason for them are as follows:
One other of the core impacts of sexism, and which plays out through the perceptual grid in the area of physical touch, is women’s bodily autonomy and overall ability to be in innocent physical connection with men.
This includes a whole range of things which are likely known, in the case of younger women and those who “fit” the grid: from having some sense of there possibly being sexual or sticky energy in hugs with some male friends; to being stared at and cat-called in the streets; to being physically grabbed or forced to do something, (which could be anything from having a man come and spontaneously massage my feet on the train, to having a man at the market stick a spoon of honey into my friend’s mouth); to being sexually harassed or raped while walking home from somewhere.
It also includes a whole range of things in the case of older women and those who do not “fit” the grid that may be new for some, which include: wondering, even subliminally, if there is some sense of aversion in hugs with male friends, possibly explaining why physical contact is short; to being considered, or considering self to be, “safe” from all the male attention and so being the one that approaches situations with groups of men; to seeing attention from men going elsewhere and simultaneously being relieved by that, aware of the loss of connection that it implies, and aware of how tainted that connection would be if it were available
I am laying out this whole picture, even while of course there are many other experiences we can have that are not named here, because regardless of what happens, behind it, somewhere, lies the possibility that something could go in a direction that is not of our choice (whether that be in the direction of attraction or aversion), and this relentless reality is, for me and many I have connected with about this, exhausting.
Loss of Intimacy Among Men
In the compulsion “to give up their right to feel, to love, in order to take their place as patriarchal men” as hooks says (p.15), men for the most part rely on receiving emotional support and connection from women. Intimacy between men, to the extent that they take on a persona of being “masculine”, becomes limited to areas of interaction that are unlikely to threaten the sense of their peers seeing them in any way other than “masculine”, such as talking about mutual interests and joking together. The requirement to have emotional and deeper connection needs attended to primarily by women both plays further into the picture of women being primarily available for attending to men’s needs, and perpetuates the idea that being male means being “an emotional cripple” (hooks p.27) and not having feelings or emotional capacities. Within this the option of actually turning to each other is erased from the equation.
Loss of Innocence and Simplicity of Intimacy
What the above means is essentially that there is no simplicity in relationships between men and women. Even while, to whatever extent we are aware of it, we may long for connection with one another, as hooks says “usually rage, grief, and unrelenting disappointment lead women and men to close off the part of them that was hoping to be touched and healed by male love”. (hooks, p.2)
With all this, what does it mean to lay a path towards a world where women and men are able to work together to create something different than all this?
In our group, we have been carrying impacts that go in both of the directions described under physical touch above and, at the time, there was little understanding of all of this from the men in the group.
This meant that it was challenging to hold the dilemma together about what to do. Far from increasing our helplessness, this provided clear constraints within which we needed to get creative: how to create a response to this situation, within our group, that both provided a space within which the women could breathe and rest from the constant vigilance, absorbing, and attending to the men within this experience, and a pathway for the connection that physical intimacy is aiming to fulfil?
We discerned that we wanted people to engage in physical contact in ways that supported liberation and were within capacity and willingness for everyone, and so to take into account the various needs, impacts, and resources in the group. Within that, the agreements Eddy and I came up with for the gathering were as follows:
We invited women for whom it was within capacity and/or would be a liberative edge to only engage in physical contact with other women for the duration of our time together (or a proportion of it). We had two exceptions:
- With their male partner, if they had one there, (because we did not anticipate that people would want to experiment in this way with their partners)
- At the first meeting and saying goodbye at the end (because these are precious relationships and we wanted to honour them in whatever ways flow for each of us spontaneously, and because we see each other very rarely)
It was important to us that the women enter into this experiment willingly, based on experiencing it as something that would be supportive of them and their liberation, and not as a “rule” that they had to follow, which would not have benefited anyone.
We additionally offered that any man could step into “allyship”. This would mean that the ally would not engage in physical contact with the women generally as an act of solidarity at the systemic level, even when a particular woman was not choosing to take on this agreement.
We created a pathway for any time there was a desire to express physically and at least one of the people was within the solidarity agreement, which was inviting them to both share prayer hands 🙏. This was in acknowledgement of the sacredness of the experience, to give the energy expression, and create a pathway so it was not suppressed.
We also invited people to share their names on a sheet on the wall so it was easier to track who were the people who were participating.
In all, 6 out of the 15 adults signed up to the experiment. 5 women out of 10, and one man out of 5.
Our Collective Experience of the Agreements
At the end of the gathering we did a go around in the group to hear from each person about why they had chosen to participate in the agreements or not and what their experience of them had been.
For many of the men in the group, there was a mixture of, on the one hand, appreciation for the experience, the work that had gone into creating the agreements, and the possibility to have these conversations, and on the other hand, a sense of not understanding where it was all coming from; not having enough information, it being too theoretical, and experiencing confusion and unclarity around the whole subject.
One man was upset about his partner not checking with him first and so found it hard to connect with the experiment, which we later discovered was the result of some non-clarity for him about how the agreements related to him and his partner. Others commented on how, regardless of whether they chose to be in it or not, they couldn’t help engaging with it because of the critical mass of people who were in it.
There was personal learning, especially for one man of 72 who took in a new layer of awareness that as a white man there are many things that he is not aware of. At first he experienced the agreements as a threat, and as time passed he said that the experiment brought him a lot of peace and new awareness.
Impacts were experienced from not engaging in physical intimacy so much. Alongside that, there was recognition of how complex the channel of affection is, even while within it there can be a strain that is very sincere and genuine.
The one man who was a yes from the beginning commented on how much connection lies within our subtle gestures that constitute the usual way of being in contact and gave acknowledgement to the existence of the space of challenge that is always present but that isn’t necessarily acknowledged in these interactions.
One acknowledged the opening that had been created for more intimacy with other men. Another spoke of the deep field of meaning and power of increasing awareness and becoming more awake on these points; from there, out of his experience, at the closing he was able to say yes to it.
For the women in the group, there was also a mixture of responses. On the one hand there was a lot of relief to be holding this phenomenon together: the gifts and co-discoveries of being able to talk about it openly; some relaxation around the vigilance that existed for many in relation to wondering what the energetic motivation was underlying physical contact for the men, whether that was wanted by the woman in that moment, and how to communicate about it if not. On the other hand there was some confusion or non-alignment with the strategy chosen for the experiment (non-contact): one woman needed more information to be able to see how the strategy could meet whatever needs she had around the topic; someone else was very supported by touch, felt a lot of compassion for many people’s general struggles around touch, felt she was very able to distinguish between sexual and non-sexual touch, and also felt like she would be signing up to remove resources from the field where touch can in general be very supportive for people.
One of the challenges a couple of the women described was what they called “the internal police” where if they saw themselves going against the choice they had made to follow the agreement, they were harsh on themselves about it. This was similar for one woman who didn’t sign up and who was concerned about whether there would be impacts on the others from her holding one of the men’s hands. This shifted as the days went on, though, as she began to experience the agreements as something against which she could become more aware of internal habits and bring more choice into her actions.
One woman described how in a moment after a challenging conversation one of the men had been a part of, she was moved to put her hand on his back. She asked him if he was ok with that and it was all very simple. She saw how being within the agreements, there was a clear channel for offering touch for that purpose at that moment.
There were also many other experiences uncovered:
One woman shared how her experience of being looked at by men started when she was eight or nine. She talked about how young that is, the weight of carrying it throughout her whole life, and how it is such a common experience for women that is so invisible. She shared a deep mourning about what she described as the mind space that is invaded and taken over without our choice.
One woman shared about the time during her youth when she had more male contact because she liked going out building houses, cutting woods, fighting, and driving a truck. This was her way of playing and saying “hello, I exist!” – a strategy for her to have the freedom to fully express herself. She learned to not fight with women and that it’s more possible to fight with men. Then at a certain point it became complex as the fighting was suddenly sexualised, especially when she was witnessed fighting men by other women. She now carries mourning about the loss of this in her life. Mourning the loss of flow of play within that kind of physical activity and seeing within it a stuckness in the bigger whole.
One woman could clearly see how her eating disorder was connected to these topics.
One woman who comes from a culture where she said that they generally don’t have any physical contact did not have the opportunity to explore the difference between sexual and non-sexual touch. She shared how, for her, touch from a man that comes from being asked is comforting. She shared her dream of physically relating with men in a way that is based on full choice.
One woman shared how the challenge can be in the physical contact and in the looks, and also in the not knowing whether there is actually something going on, or whether it is coming from internalisation of the fear from the knowledge of the millenia of violence that continues to this day and lives in the body memory. She described the utter confusion and layers of suffering that are within that and how the automaticity of women being available for affection for men, or needing to comfort them, is a part of that.
Some women gave responses to the responses of the men to the experiment:
They noticed both a lot of conversations happening, a lot more awareness around physical intimacy, and also an increasing intimacy between men. At the same time one woman expressed mourning about not seeing more evidence that the men were actually taking advantage of the opportunity to increase intimacy with each other.
A constricted grief emerged from one woman about the lack of coherence in the field around the topic. She noted how all the men but one came with a no, for whatever reason, and almost all the women came here with a yes, and how non-accidental that was. She ended with a scream, saying, “what is the matter with you guys? What is it that you’re not getting; that is making it hard to join women when they ask you to join? What is it? What is it? What is it? How much more suffering do you need to hear about before you can join us?”
Simultaneously within the group there was gratitude to the men for choosing to stretch towards this experimentation, and in particular to the one man who was a yes. The gratitude to him felt like gratitude from all women.
I want to remind my readers at this point that this experimentation is happening within a group of extremely high trust and commitment to a shared orientation of liberation for all, within the foundational practice of Nonviolent Communication. I do not know that this work would be possible without the deep trust that none of what is written above contains any blame. It is simply the revealing of systemic phenomena and how they are experienced in our daily living. All of us in the group are longing for freedom and choice in relation to that so that we can have more capacity overall and access to creativity from within which we can begin to prototype a way of living that works for all.
Did the Sister Solidarity and Male Allyship Agreements have the Intended Effect?
Clearly, the agreements had an effect on the group and broke the ice on conversations that the women had never had with one another and that many of the men had never considered. It was stark to experience the 10 women, coming from 9 different places in the world, sharing about resonant experiences. We each knew of this intellectually, and to hear about it from one another and see the phenomenon of sexism living within each of us was something else.
Looking at what had been intended with the agreements and what actually happened, I see that even as there were many doors opened, they were different doors to the ones intended.
The agreements were mostly taken as though the intention of them was to curb touch. This is compared to their actual intention of creating a space of sister solidarity within which the women were both standing for one another within their different but similar experiences of navigating relationships with men within the perceptual grid, and could have some breathing space from the constant vigilance. They were interpreted as though they were saying that we are not able to tell the difference between sexual and non-sexual touch. This is compared to them being seen as an invitation to deeper inquiry into the relentless presence of the impacts of the perceptual grid on our experience of ourselves, other women, and our relationships with men.
What I took and what I am taking from this, both at the time of the event and now afresh as I write this piece, is inspiration and energy for uncovering ever clearer ways for us to collectively be able to begin to see and hold together these phenomena. I see, from this experiment, how fruitful it can be to create a material intervention rather than simply talking about something. This makes sense since our lives play out in the material world and the effects that we want to see through our interventions on systemic phenomena are material. What I am seeing more clearly is the importance of interventions that point more and more directly to the core of the issue and take action to shift its course. This leads to the next of the experiments which also happened at the same gathering and which I named the “it’s happening now” experiment.
This has been a long and intense post to write and I can imagine the same for reading it, too. I am ending with a sense of celebration about our collective willingness to experiment together and to make our learning from these experiments available to others. I hope that it has been nourishing for you in some way to read it and I would love to hear about it if so.
- Erica Sherover-Marcuse, https://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/liberation-theory-a-working-framework/
- Miki Kashtan – Connecting across Differences Learning Packet: https://thefearlessheart.org/item/connecting-across-differences-packet/
- hooks, b., 2004. The will to change: Men, masculinity, and love.