The Surprising Key to Rethinking Gender—It Has Never Been What We Thought It Was (A Cultural Maturity “Thought Exercise”)

In a recent post, I observed that modern age Romeo-and-Juliet–style romantic love is not only not some ideal and end point in love’s evolution, in fact it is not even what we have assumed it to be about. Rather than an expression of love as individual choice, it has in fact been a product of  projection. Much of the glue of relationships has been based on men projecting more feminine parts of themselves onto women, and women projecting more masculine parts of themselves onto men (in heterosexual relationships). I described how love that reflects two whole people in relationship (individuals as whole systems) is something we are only beginning to see. Such love is one of the defining attributes of Cultural Maturity and the “growing up” in how we understand and act it makes possible.  

My most recent book, On the Evolution of Intimacy: A Brief Exploration of the Past, Present, and Future of Gender and Love observes that we see  something similar if we look to the history of our ideas about gender. While we talk as if there are “opposite” sexes, the fact that we think of men and women in the language of opposites is again more a product of projection than of what has actually been the case. The book describes in detail how we can understand evolving perceptions of men and women through history in terms of how projective dynamics have evolved over time. It also describes how the same evolutionary changes that are beginning to make love between whole people newly possible also offer that we might perceive both men and women more accurately. (It also offers that we might be more comfortable with non-binary expressions of gender). 

I don’t see the fact that we have understood love and gender in the limited ways that we have as by itself a problem. In each case, thinking in the language of polarity has helped simplify what before would have presented an overwhelmingly complicated world of experience. But such limited perspective is very much becoming a problem today, and will prove increasingly a problem going forward. It will more and more get in the way of love that works. It will also get in the way of meaningful communication between men and women. 

What do we find when we more accurately perceive what has in fact always been the case?  Do men and women suddenly become the same? We frequently encounter this assumption with the postmodern beliefs  common today in academic circles. Any differences we might observe are assumed to be products only of conditioning. Creative Systems Theory counsels against confusing equality with equivalence. It proposes that unisex conclusions are less a product of seeing more accurately than the generally disembodied nature of postmodern thought—and sees them as really quite silly. It emphasizes that we are much more alike than we have assumed in times past, but it is also comfortable with real differences. 

Obviously there are physical differences and differences that follow from how experience differs as a function of those differences. CST is also comfortable with the idea of psychological differences, though it is careful to clarify that such differences are normative. It proposes that we find on average about a 60/40 balance of more archetypal qualities relative to gender (men embodying on average more of the classically masculine and women more of the classically feminine). It also emphasizes that there can be great individual variation. It delineates, for example, how, as a function of personality style, a woman can embody more of the classically masculine than the average man, and similarly, a man can embody more of the classically feminine than the average woman. (The Creative Systems Theory Personality Typology maps out these differences and how they are predicted. See www.CSPTHome.org.) 

Why is such a more systemic picture of gender differences important? Certainly just the ability to see ourselves and others more accurately has value. As significant, by helping us better appreciate both similarities and differences, it helps us have compassion for the experiences of people whose gender identification may be different from our own. In On the Evolution of Intimacy, I observe that current gender-related conversations such as those spawned by the #MeToo movement and the like could have two quite opposite outcomes. We could see important new levels of communication and steps toward a reconciling of the historical battle of the sexes. And just as easily, the result could be escalating polarization and acrimony not unlike we see today in the political arena. Bringing more systemic perspective to our understanding of gender and how that understanding has evolved through time takes us a long ways toward making the needed maturity of conversation possible. 

There is also a deeper kind of significance. In the previous piece on love, I proposed that the most important consequence of love’s new picture as we look to the future might be the evidence it provides for the necessity of Cultural Maturity’s broader “growing up” as a species. Love also provides an example—and one we can all relate to—that helps illustrate what Cultural Maturity’s broader changes ask of us. In a similar way, recognizing how projective dynamics have always before played a role in our ideas about gender—and recognizing the possibility and importance of seeing more accurately—helps both affirm the importance of Cultural Maturity’s changes and make more understandable the essential ways that Cultural Maturity’s changes alter our understanding of what it means to be human.