Gender Politics and Affective Relationships

from the political to the personal
12 juillet 2005 par  Fin

Society is a product of all interpersonal interactions. That is all communications passing between two or more people. Any given society contains common themes and patterns [norms] of interaction between its members giving it a certain character. These patterns are perpetuated over generations due to the actions of socialization active construction of the self by the individual which internalises social norms and behavioral policing of alternative behaviours by others. Categories other than behaviours act as norms also. For example physical sex operates as a norm. Male is the norm is seen as right and normal anyone who doesn’t fit into this category is seen as different and will often be subjected to behavioural policing and limitation through the actions of sexism. In a patriarchal society the dominating norms are those of competition and the acquisition of power [as opposed to cooperation and sharing of responsibility]. These norms have generated a societal structure of implicit hierarchies. Fulled by fear and violence all interactions have become status interactions. Survival of the fittest, the rat race. The natural world is used again and again as a way to justify and maintain the status quo. Umm okay but are we not rational beings ? Dont we have a choice ? In other cultures in other times has it not been different ? Maybe even better ?

Hierarchy is a value system in which your worth as a person is measured by the number of people and things you have control over and how dutifully you obey those above you. Hierarchies operate through status interactions between individuals and groups. Status is basically territorial behaviour in which alpha players are in charge in a certain setting with betas are ranked beneath and around them. All interactions involve status [that is who has the power] from having a conversation to walking past someone on the street, to close interpersonal relations and the dynamics of the family home. In all of these interactions there exists an exchange in which one person defers to another. In which one person is left feeling more than/raised above the other and one is left feeling less than/lowered beneath the other. People are constantly giving off subtle cues about about their status, through their body language, verbalisations, clothing, speech mannerisms. More obviously than any demonstrations of personality, your status is also influenced by your race, class, gender and age. This system, this society runs smoothly and it is easy to be oblivious to such things in everyday life. It is in those moments where there is ambiguity between people over who is the highest status, or a situation of challenge occurs between people that it becomes apparent we are locked in power dealings with others.

Sexism is alive and kicking. In every home, on every street, in every place of work. The accepted societal norm of physical sex is male. Male is right and normal. Female is sinister and abnormal. Generally by default all men occupy a higher social status than women. This is situation existent and reinforced by the internalisation and playing out of behavioural patterns one has accepted as oneself in the course of ones personality development, regardless of gender. This is ’normal’ it is an underlying theme of society. Behaviour which differs from this norm is met with hostility and attempts at behavioural policing “look who’s wearing the trousers in that relationship !” What about feminism ? Ummm didn’t that all get sorted out in the 60’s/70’s ? People are educated these days to believe that equality exists between the sexes, however this is not the case and it is apparent to many people. What are the implications of this in our interpersonal relationships ? The reality is that there is a power struggle perpetuating fear and violence in our interactions with others as people try to balance their belief in equality with their the reality of a hierarchical society created by their ingrained status based behaviours. A reality they learn of in their very first relationship as children the lowest societal status in the hierarchy of the family home generally raised by women people of low social status themselves. People are mostly unaware of how this system is operating in their interactions. Unaware of how their behaviour is engendered by internalised roles and norms and are helpless to know how to create healthy equilateral relationships with others. Society is sick and we carry the viruses in our personalities. What does this mean for affective relationships ? Generally to have a relationship with someone raises ones social status and this creates undercurrents of ownership and control in both directions. That is one reason it is hard for people to break up with each other, they automatically lose status. Couples have higher social status than singles in groups, their united power can be brought to bear on others, that can be a comfortable place to be. Couples may feel more comfortable socialising with other couples and singles with other singles. This also avoids competition and jealousy entering into interactions as people may consider singles of the same sex as themselves to be a threat. Ownership of another is perpetuated through by our patriarchal norms of power acquisition and competion. “All is fair in love and war” Women compete with women for the attention and protection of men. Men may raise their status through how many women they can consume, although high status men will benefit from access to more sexual partners than low. Apparently there is some brotherhood in this boys consumption society where women are objects to acquire. The feelings of others and the psychological health of a community are given low priority, the position of individuals high. This does not create happy or healthy situations for people. The impoverished dynamics of unhealthy relationships can cause all sorts of unpleasant side effects. People become depressed, alienated and damaged from their relationship experiences. Or play out the violence upon others which they themselves have been subjected to. In this form of power play, old unhealthy roles may be repeated. How many people play the hard done by martyr only to stumble from physically violent partner to physically violent partner ? If it is what you know, perhaps you had a destructive relationship with a parent it may seem familiar and comfortable. How many people assuage their desire for status through controlling others with subtle rhetorical games/verbal emotional violence ? ’If you really loved me you would ........’ or ’its people like you who give .......... a bad name for .........’ reason. Twisting others sense of self and reality until they no longer trust themselves and give in to the desires of the other raising that person. How many people subjected to controlling and violent behaviours towards themselves when young grow up to repeat these behaviours when the only choice they see in life is abused or abuser and prefer the later role. How many friendships suffer over the competition for the sexual attentions of a third party ? Powerful or powerless. We feel powerless when we experience coercion from outside ourselves put powerful when acting positively and creatively ourselves and in cooperation with others. In our patriarchal society we are constantly at the mercy of authoritarian coercion and the attempted coercion of others. It is only in mutually supportive and positive affective relationships which begin to step away from this model, that we can be free to create healthier modes of behaviour. If status connot be removed from our interactions it does not have to be experienced as negative or damaging. Status transactions with friends are present in every movement and every articulation. Status games are actually something friends play with each other by pretending to raise or lower their status. Friendly sarcasm is a common an enjoyable phenomenon in healthy relationships. So we have a choice, to play for power or to play for fun. To remain victim to our ingrained programming or begin to question ourselves and our motivations and fool around with the norms of behaviour when interacting with others. To begin to create a society based on cooperation and respect and personal and interpersonal responsibility.

Much of the theory behind this article was developed for Genderlab, a theater workshop begun in London in 2004 which practically encouraged the experience, observation and subversion of ingrained gendered behaviors. If you would like to communicate about the ideas presented here or are interested in inviting genderlab to run workshops with your affinity group please contact