At the age of 37, it is relatively easy for me to self-reflect about the patriarchy within me. It is within my norm to observe the sexual biases that I have. It is common for me to reflect on my past and to do the work to ensure that I do things differently now and in the future. And it’s commonplace for me to discuss the patriarchy and the male-dominated society with friends, colleagues and in public.
But to revisit myself as a teenager and young adult – I don’t know if I had even heard the word patriarchy. If I had heard of it, I would likely have believed that I was not part of it. I certainly was accused sometimes of being sexist by female friends, but in most instances, I would likely have denied their viewpoint and defended myself.
There has been a substantial transition period for me from being oblivious to the patriarchy to just beginning to understand my sexist biases and my complicity in and benefit from the patriarchal systems, to the work I am doing now to deprogram myself from the patriarchy.
I’d like to share this journey for numerous reasons. Sharing this journey is part of my path to personal liberation and liberation of my own mind from the male-dominated society. In sharing my example, I hope to be of service to other boys and men who have been raised by the same society as I was and who desire to break free and contribute to humanity. I desire to contribute to a more equitable, inclusive, safe and harmonious culture for girls and women and I believe that I must overcome the dominator within me to truly be an ally. Like many of my peers, I am seeking the liberation of humanity and believe we will never become liberated if the girls and women of this society are not fully liberated. Like many others, I am seeking the liberation of Earth. I do not believe that we will ever live in harmony with Earth and our plant and animal relatives unless we as a humanity create true equality between men and women and all genders and sexes.
Exploring the Origination of my Sexism
Some men – and even women – may be reading this and thinking, “You? You, have sexist biases? Come on. No way!” Based on how I carry myself in society it would be quite easy to assume that inside of me there is harmony. Not only is there not perfect harmony, but this is far from the case. And given the society that I grew up in, I would imagine there are few men, if any, who don’t have the patriarchy ingrained in them to some degree as well. Let me explain a little bit.
I was born on August 28th, 1986 in the small town of Ashland, Wisconsin in a country often called the United States of America. I was born with complete dependence on my mother and father and their small social circle. Everything I learned from the time I was born was from the people around me. And these people learned much of what they knew from the society around them. Simply put, I was a product of my surroundings and from a young age I had very little choice but to be this product.
At the time I was born, the nation existed in a state of male domination which dated back to the foundation of this nation. Women were not considered a full citizen or a full human. Women did not even have the right to vote until 1920, a full 247 years after the nation was founded. During my childhood, a woman was paid about 60 cents on the dollar for doing the exact same job as a man. There were laws and customs that were even more powerful that defined what a woman could or could not be, and these laws and customs were largely imposed by men. From the foundation of this nation, we have been a male-dominated society and this foundation has trickled or poured into every facet of society. By the time I was born, some progress had obviously been made, but still I was born into a highly patriarchal and male-dominated society. And although both of my parents had substantially alternative views to much of society, most of my influence came from the society outside of my small family.
There were very clear ideas of what a girl or woman could or could not do in the society I grew up in. There were very clear ideas of what a boy or man could or could not do as well. We boys and men could do just about anything we wanted – except for a few tasks and roles that only girls and women took on. Women on the other hand had a very select number of things that they could do and a very long list of things that they could not do.
Women were portrayed in such a limited number of roles to me that I developed a limited belief of what roles they could play, who women could be.
Men on the other hand were portrayed in such a wide range of roles that I developed a wide-ranging belief as to what roles men could play, what and who men could be.
This was almost all subconscious, thus, I was unaware about it at the time.
Some of this was the product of the subconscious playing out in the positions of people of influence and much of it was by intentional design.
How could I have expected to come out of this upbringing without at least some of these beliefs ingrained in me? I didn’t SEE women in positions of power. I didn’t SEE women as courageous leaders of the community. I didn’t SEE women portrayed as highly intellectual. The list goes on of all the ways in which women were not represented to me by our society. Even though I had some education that taught me of the fight for women’s equality and I knew that there were issues, I didn’t have the capacity as a child to think of this with every interaction I had. Rather, my lack of seeing women in most positions created the belief that women just are not those things, or even are less capable or incapable of being those things. Instead, I saw women in select roles, which were ingrained in me as the roles that women play in our society.
What I saw in public was not a product of what women could be or have the capability of being. Rather, what I saw in public was the product of a society that suppresses women and creates systems of control to keep them from gaining equality in society. What I saw in public was not a product of men being superior to women or being more naturally gifted. What I saw was a product of a system that prioritized men and provided the resources for them to advance in society substantially more than women.
It was an overall environment of male superiority and female inferiority. I was influenced by these concepts almost every day of my childhood, continuing on into almost every day of my adulthood.
None of this was outward for me. I didn’t dislike girls or women. I didn’t have any desire for them to be held back or to not succeed. I didn’t have any ill wishes toward girls or women overall. I just had very limited beliefs about them.
The Origin of My Over-sexualization of Women
I’ll never forget this moment from the first few weeks of beginning university. I was in a dorm room on the fourth floor with some of my new friends. It was a sunny Fall day and we were looking out the window onto one of the main common areas. All of us were excited to be there, starting a new life of independence. We noticed a group of female classmates that were out in the commons doing some sort of organizing with signs. None of us had probably seen this happen before. That’s when one of my new friends decided to yell out the window to the female peers four floors below, “I rape women for a living”. They looked up at him – at us – and we all ducked below the window, both laughing and cringing.
I wouldn’t have said it myself, but I knew he was just making a joke and overall I found the situation to be somewhat funny. Our female peers did not feel the same however, and within a short time, an authority had identified Jason. I don’t remember what the consequences were exactly, but he was not expelled or suspended. The situation was treated quite casually by the university and life went on.
This was the environment that I spent my early adulthood in. First, that it was funny to make a joke like that and second, that it could be made with minimal concern of repercussions. I don’t recall any proactive education from university about respect for our female peers or on consensual sexual interactions. At best, the environment was neutral, but we all know that neutrality in a time of inequality is not neutral at all. It was an environment where the boys and men could mostly get away with “being boys” or “being men”.
Earlier I shared that I had limited beliefs in what roles women could play, but there is one role that women played very centrally in my life, and that was for my sexual gratification. At a formative age, I was exposed to movies like American Pie I heard songs on the radio like Ricky Martin’s “Mambo No 5”, where he lists dozens of names of women as prizes in his sexual quest. Hollywood movies like American Pie were my peers’ playbooks for how to relate to the girls that I grew up with. This is where I learned what was a “normal” and acceptable way to interact with my female peers. Some of my earliest education on sex was whatever pornography I found on the internet in the mid-1990s. I now look back at those influences and shudder. These songs, movies and the pornography were representative of the over-sexualization of women that I was raised with by mainstream society. The covers of movies and magazines, billboards and advertisements, pornography … there was sexual objectification of women all over for my developing mind. Every time women were portrayed as sexual beings was a time when they were not portrayed for their intelligence, skill sets, leadership, professionalism or many other traits. There were sexy nurses, sexy librarians, sexy police officers … even when I did see them represented in a societal role, it was still often as a body to desire.
This over-sexualization is so pervasive and so normalized that many of us don’t even see it. But if we compare American society to many other societies today and many in the past, it is clear that women are widely over-sexualized. Not only was it pervasive in the movies and media, but in the society of adult men and the boys I grew up with. As a boy, the first thought I had of most girls was whether I was sexually attracted to them or not and this continued when I became a man and the girls became women. This sex-first thought pattern started in childhood and continued through my early twenties and into my thirties. Everywhere I looked, women were portrayed first and foremost for their physical attributes, rather than their countless other human traits. This penetrated deep into my psyche and I carried it in my thoughts, my words and my actions as an adult.
My Over-sexualization of Women Manifested in my Actions
Women as sexual objects dominated my mind at university. It was all about sex. In class, in the library, on the sidewalks, at parties, everywhere, one of my primary objectives was to have sex. I didn’t just want to have sex though, I wanted to have sex with a lot of my female classmates. My influences had gotten to me and just like that Ricky Martin song, I wanted to be able to list the names of the women I had been with. When I look back now, I clearly see that there was more than sex I wanted though.
Sex with many women was my way of gaining respect. In that culture, having sex with a lot of women gained you respect from other men. It was my way of impressing others and being cool, which at the heart, was my desire to belong and to matter.
Respect, belonging and to matter are basic human needs and we can all strive to have these needs met. However, the way I went about meeting these needs was often not respectful to the young women I was involved with. Because of my objectification of women, I pursued women in a way that was often disrespectful and selfish. I put pressure on. When they weren’t sure, my mental programming was that it was my role to make them sure whether through my words or by turning them on enough. Even thought it was a two-way relationship, my needs came first. I wanted sex and through that sex I not only wanted the sexual satisfaction, I wanted to prove that I was a successful and meaningful human being.
Learning about Consent
To all of us young men this was normal. It was accepted by much of society, not only accepted but lauded by much of society. Still today, to so many of us, this comes across as normal. This is what we were taught by much of what came out of Hollywood. But in cultures where women are not portrayed as sexual objects, it’s just not like that.
Some of what I did was sexual harassment, and I also stood by and condoned sexual harassment. I normalized sexual harassment and solidified it into the culture around me.
Once in my late twenties or early thirties, I was in a bathroom and there was a flyer on the wall about consent culture. This was one of my first times reading about consent. I certainly had never heard the term in university. On the flyer, it said that “anything that is not an enthusiastic yes is not consent”. I was horrified reading this. Much of the sex I had was not consensual. It haunts me to this day. Even when I wanted to speak, I was so anxious to talk about sex with my partner or potential partner and clueless of how to talk about it. I was never taught how and the Hollywood movies sure were not an example of consent culture. I know a lot of the young women I was with in university didn’t know how to talk about it either. They were raised by the patriarchy, too.
It took me until my early thirties to fully grasp consent. It wasn’t until my early thirties that I started to understand power dynamics. I’m a male in a male-dominated society, so generally there is a power dynamic with any woman that I’m with. But even more so, I am a leader and a well-respected person by many, which creates a substantial power dynamic. Once I learned this, I learned that consent was not even enough. I had to be self-reflecting much more deeply and really listening to my female counterpart to ensure a truly harmonious relationship.
Seeing Women for their Whole Being
The product of a mind that is constantly thinking about sex and a life that is driven to have a lot of sex, is sex being at the forefront in the majority or at least a substantial number of interactions with women.
What this meant is so often I was not seeing women for their whole being. I was not focused on who they were inside and their aspirations in life. And the same went for the women who I was watching on TV and reading about. I so often did not see them as complex, intricate, whole beings.
In late 2017, at the age of about 31, I realized that almost all of my heroes were men, and mostly white men. I realized the people I respected the most in society were men. Almost all the musicians I listened to were men. All of the comedians that I watched with joy were men. I saw this as a window into my mind. I had a deep preference toward men in numerous areas of my life – especially who to look up to. It didn’t feel good. I didn’t necessarily feel guilt for it, because I knew that it came through societal programming, but I did decide that I was now responsible about it. I didn’t know before, but now I did and now it was upon me to take responsibility for my mind and my interactions with women and society.
Since 2011, I have been on a path of deprogramming the societal biases and norms within me. Around 2017 is when I started to be more intentional about deprogramming the male-dominated culture that had so deeply penetrated my brain. It was clear that in many ways I viewed men as better. It was clear that I had elements of male superiority and female inferiority ingrained in me. (That hurts a lot to write, even today). I didn’t BELIEVE that men were superior to women. Consciously, I didn’t seem to really have thoughts of male preference. Theoretically, I could say that I wasn’t sexist, but when I really looked at the patterns, it was clear that the programming was there, inside of my mind. It was clear that I was the only one who could change that.
I also saw that I would so often be surprised when a woman held certain qualifications, when I would not be surprised if a man held the same qualifications. I would be surprised when a woman had a masters or PhD. I would be surprised when they were independently wealthy or successful. I would be surprised to see them succeed. Of course I was surprised, because deep down I didn’t believe in them.
It was clear that I had to take responsibility for my mind. So I did.
I found women leaders to respect. I found women musicians to listen to. I found women authors to read. I filled my social media newsfeed with women who I could listen to and learn from. I got involved with women-led organizations. I listened to highly empowered women. I learned life lessons and skills from women. I took advice from women. I prioritized developing platonic relationships with women, where any sexual involvement was fully out of the question. I became colleagues with women that were mutually empowering. I spent more time simply hearing their experiences in life.
I was aware of how the programming of the mind works and I was aware that I could deprogram the mind by creating new associations. Wherever the associations with women had been lacking prior or wherever the associations were skewed in a manner that didn’t reflect how I wanted to perceive women, I worked to create new associations. Wherever I had beliefs of what women couldn’t be, I found them being that and observed them being that, to rewire the old beliefs with new truths.
At the same time, I was intentional to cut things out of my life that were contributing to beliefs I no longer wanted to have. I stopped watching movies and shows, reading media and listening to any music that played into patriarchal stereotypes. As I have also been subconsciously programmed by racist societal structures and systems, my work to see Black women as full humans has been even more complex. I address this with more depth in: On Exploring and Overcoming My Racial Biases.
I saw meaningful change in my conscious and subconscious mind within months or a year, and now as I analyze my life, I see something very different than what I had seen in 2017. Today most of the leaders who I look to are women. Most of the time I am listening to someone, it is a woman. Most of my education over the last years has come from women. Where before there was a clear lack of respect, now I can truly feel the respect within me. And I mean I really feel it. It is a physical sensation of respect, admiration and love. Now when I love a woman, it is not a sexual love, it is a love for what she represents. It is a love for her power. It is a love for her achievements against the odds of this society. It is a love for what she is doing for her community.
It feels really good to love in this way and I intend to continue to foster this love. My aim in life is to develop a universal love for humanity. Hatred is something that I nullified from within quite quickly. But respect for all, especially women, has taken much longer. And I don’t think that universal love can exist without universal respect and dignity at the foundation.
I still have a lot of work to do. I hope that in sharing my progress you don’t read this as my shrugging off the patriarchy in me that I have yet to overcome. I do still have patriarchy in me to overcome. I hope you don’t read this as me being self-congratulatory and writing away my past. I still mourn my past, but I am celebrating right now.
As I reflect on this path of overcoming the dominator within me, I am celebrating inside. I am also crying right now with a mixture of emotions. I am crying with relief that I’m not still where I was six years ago. I’m crying as I reflect on how I so much would have liked to have done things differently and for the women who got the dominator side of me. I’m crying because I know that most men aren’t doing the work to overcome the dominator in them and that there’s a lot of suffering for girls and women. I’m also crying for the men. Under systems of oppression, nobody truly benefits and from what I’ve seen the men are suffering deeply under this system, too.
I certainly have suffered and I still am suffering today, although less. I know that many people around me have suffered, but I celebrate that they are suffering less now, too. I am celebrating that we live in a time when many of us do have the power to reduce this harm we cause through the dominator society.
And I am hopeful that some of the boys and men who read this will start to deprogram their minds and overcome the dominator within them.
For any man that follows me and respects me, I strongly encourage you to embark on this path of inner exploration and healing. I strongly encourage you to educate the boys in your life about perhaps what you didn’t know as a boy. I encourage you to take a stand for equity for women and take a stand against systems of inequity.
I spent the year of 2023 having no romantic or sexual relationships, largely to overcome over-sexualization of women and to foster more holistic and healthy relationships with women. In A Year Without Sex or Romance, I write about why I am striving to overcome my over-sexualization of women and the progress I have made through this year of practice.
At the same time as I have been working to overcome the patriarchy in me, I have been working to overcome my racial bias. Read about that here: On Exploring and Overcoming My Racial Biases.
In On Understanding and Acknowledging My Privilege I also explore and address my privileges, especially as a white man.