A New Language

There is hardly a more deeply rooted in organisational tension than that of the relationship between men and women.

A few years ago I did a Graduate Diploma in Business at RMIT. One of the chapters I wrote for my final paper focussed on one part of this theme. As I discussed it with my fellow students it came to be known as ‘The Sex Chapter.’

Here it is…

The second year of the program starts with a five day workshop around
organisation level consulting skills held at the Melbourne Zoo and consequently
referred to as the ‘Zoo Workshop.’

On the first afternoon of the Zoo Workshop Leisa remarked that she was missing
Jonathan because he represented the male sexuality of the group.

The final morning of the workshop was devoted to discussing issues that
arose from the previous four days. We returned to Leisa’s comment.

A lot of time was then spent around gender relationships in organisations
and, in particular relationships between men and women in our group. The
program consultants encouraged us to speak about our feelings for each other.

There was a rich atmosphere that morning, This is to the women present that
morning.

To my friends who happen to be women

Some of you showed great courage and generosity in speaking honestly and
openly. Barb, you told of having sexual dreams involving Steve and sending
him poems via email. Cathy, you spoke about taking, for the first time in
a long time, the risk of showing off your attractiveness and your feelings
of rejection after being dismissed by Jonathan. It was a moving time.

We men, however, were silent.

At the time, I was aware of incredibly strongly conflicting feelings. In
one way, I thought I could escape the dilemma of participating in this discussion
because I had spoken at a previous workshop of my strong feelings toward
Naomi and had reaffirmed them that morning. But I knew that was only an
excuse and, there was a part of me that wanted to offer something of my
self, my male self, to you, my friends in the group who are women. I could
sense that you wanted something from us, some indication that we really
did love you, we cared about you and respected you. And I wanted to give
it. But I didn’t.

Speaking later about the workshop in a one on one with Naomi she said, “Where
were the men in that discussion? Where were you? Where was your generosity?”
At the time, I thought that I was holding back out of fear for what might
happen if your pent up anger was released on us. I imagined a scene of carnage.

I wanted to be really honest, and to give something of worth. To do this,
I, or any other of the men, would have to speak about our physical attraction
to you, the women around us. We know only one way to talk about your bodies
– the locker room language – where we emphasise our desire to
have power over you by reducing you to objects to be graded, used and discarded
by us. Even though this is not the way most of us actually think about you,
it is the only way most of us know to speak about your physical beauty.
It is vulgar, coarse and derogatory. It is also something for which most
of us carry a great deal of guilt.

Gary Brooks has written about this in his book, ‘The Centerfold Syndrome’.
Here is some of what he says

“One might think that since girl
watching was such an emotionally draining experience, guys would spend considerable
time talking about it, questioning its value, speculating about its causes,
wondering about alternatives. This was far from true. Although I can remember
countless hours spent talking about beautiful female bodies, I can’t
remember a single conversation in which any of us seriously questioned the
inevitability of girl watching. It would have been nice to have had a forum
for open exploration of this and many other aspects of our lives, but asking
questions and sharing insecurities was not a big item among my young male
friends.”

So in speaking our thoughts, we are afraid of your anger towards us. The
words spoken by ‘Christine’ at the story telling workshop we
read about in the course readings, were the words I feared I might hear:

I chickened out.
You didn’t get the knife in the throat
Your hair ripped off your head
Your prick flung limp to the floor.
I didn’t even tip you off the chair
Where you sat
Cock sure
Soft Irish brogue still lilting
With your tale of travelling
Your man’s story
A so called hero’s journey
Into pus poverty.
Here you get your slick badge
Cheap with ‘different’ women
More easy going
Loosely inhibited lithesome
Childwhores
Serving, starving, conned and tricked
By tradition
Soft sister
I didn’t act
But you may strip the sham
Of European privileged aftershaven
Warriors
And swallow his raping pillaging soul
Along with the spunk
Do not jest thou pallid man
Beware of wounded women

There is perhaps no conflict felt more deeply on the face of the earth than
the conflict between us as men and women. Most of you and many of us attribute
the majority of the blame for this conflict on our shoulders. This is why
I thought I was afraid of on that last morning of the workshop.

A different view

However, now I think something a little different.

I have spent a great deal of my life feeling guilty about part of me. I
have felt bad about the way I look at women. Gary Brooks breaks the male
code of silence when he says

“I can remember times when driving around (or in my younger
years, riding my bike) I’d go past a particularly attractive young
girl in shorts or halter top and risk an accident through my efforts to
visually follow her in my rearview mirror as she walked in the opposite
direction.”

I would be surprised if the men around me aren’t nodding with embarrassed
assent as they hear those words. I still catch myself trying to find vantage
points to get a better view down a low cut dress, or perhaps, if I am lucky,
a brief glimpse of a bra-less nipple.

When reduced to words on a page, these activities seem purile, and, if not
for the resultant impoverishment of relationship that they cause, would
be just plain hilarious. But they aren’t.

I have tried to make up for this by finding ways to be kind, gentle and
compassionate. When I am with women, I talk your talk “Men are bastards.”
I say. I surprise you by agreeing with you. I am aware of what other men
are doing to you and I say so. So many times, one of you have said “I
never expected to hear a man say that.” This makes me feel good. When
you say that, I can believe for a moment that the other part of me doesn’t
exist.

I have often said “I want to resign from the male gender.” I
love being with women.

I realise now that I love being with women as a man. As Lisa once said to
me, “There is that energy between us.” If I did resign from
the male gender, my experience with you would be left empty. I now know
that it is that other part of me, the part that I hide, that makes the experience
so good – for both of us – but by hiding it, I deny both you
and me the fullness of it. And I am sure that you find it frustrating that
I hide it when I am with you

This is what I think you wanted at the Zoo workshop. You wanted to see our
appreciation of you in its fullness. You did want to know that you are attractive
to us. You wanted to know how we really feel about you. But you didn’t
want the power laden locker room talk. As Di said in class one night “Perhaps
we need to find a new language. A language that expresses how we feel but
doesn’t offend.”

This is exactly what I think we need to find.

So what was I afraid of that morning? I think I actually could have withstood
your scorn, although I was nervous about revealing that this caring compassionate
man had the same base instincts as all the rest of ‘them’.

What I was afraid of was speaking a language that I had never spoken before.
Speaking about the deep feelings inside me that the sight of your bodies
arouses. Not the base feelings that you know about, but my need to be loved,
to be known and understood and to be cared for. It doesn’t sound like
much. From what I know, you women talk about these things all the time.
But we men never learn this language. We know the feelings but learn to
believe that we are alone with them – for no other men (or the boys
we once were) we know ever talk of them. At least not in our everyday talk.
Perhaps in poetry, or art or music, but not directly to each other.

So we come to believe that there must be something terribly wrong about
ourselves. To open our mouths about these feelings in front of you would
not be too bad – even though we do not know the words to use –
we know that you know them. But to do so in front of other men, would be
to stand naked before them and expose ourselves to their ridicule for being
alone with such sensitive emotions. It is no excuse for the way we treat
you, but it is the reason. I hope you come to see us as much psychologically
impoverished victims of our actions as you are.

Naomi gave me this poem once –

All that I withhold diminishes me
and cheats you
All that you withhold diminishes you
and cheats me
When we hold back ourselves
for each other’s sake
That is no service to us either one
We only collude in the weakening
of us both.
(Herman & Korevich, 1977))

You did not withhold. We did. I hope you will encourage us to venture into
understanding and relationship with you, to let go of that which we are
afraid and share it with you.