My patient Charlie, though in many ways a good, caring, and generous person, acts out another familiar cultural script. In some part of his makeup he views women as sexual objects, lacking in humanity or subjective presence. When he seeks out prostitutes he loses contact with his humanity. He is meeting a need and the woman becomes a thing, an object whose function is to satisfy his need. Charlie is able to encapsulate his feelings so that he doesn’t have to imagine what it is like for the women he sees. He tells himself that he is kind. He doesn’t beat them or perform sadistic acts. He talks with them and hopes they will talk with him. But he is unable to empathize or view them as real in important ways. It does not register that, though the woman is not technically forced to perform these services and receives pay for them, her situation in society is such that she doesn’t have a choice. She may need money to support a child. She may be forced by a pimp who acquired her when she was a child. Perhaps she is using the money to better herself but the wounds to her being will never be healed.
With these two patients we see the complex interplay between the cultural and the intra-psychic. The culture becomes the carrier, the enforcer, if you will, of biological differences between the sexes and the messages, insinuated into the psyche, are enacted willy-nilly in the lives of men and women. My clients, Michelle and Charlie, are thoughtful people—well able to undertake the intellectual rigors of psychoanalytic treatment. They are able to focus on and comprehend layers of meaning that propel human behavior. Yet the biological imperatives, clothed in the robes of culture, to which each are subject–having a child before time runs out, or satisfying sexual urges—hit like a Mack truck and undermine purer, more self-actualizing intentions. In the grip of these motivations their action takes on a fire and urgency that destabilizes everything in its path.
Am I suggesting that we are all really at the mercy of our biological urges or that we may rely on evolutionary biology as an explanatory concept? I am not. I am proposing that we have not as yet fully untangled the multitude of ways that patriarchy has organized and encoded sexual differences. I am stating that women as bearers of the species have not as yet had their say and that we do not have a fully explicated narrative as to the horrors of rape, the humiliation attendant upon sexual slavery, the pain of infertility, the mandate to multiply and replenish, or the unforgiving tedium of childcare. At this point in human history we have the female narrative as it is determined by biology largely from a patriarchal perspective. The task we have assigned ourselves is to extricate the lived subjective female experience from its grip.

Ellen Toronto, PhD is a clinical psychologist in Ann Arbor, MI. She co-authored A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy available on Amazon. See additional information about Ellen and her practice on her website; to schedule an appointment email [email protected] or call her at 734.761.5501.