Creating Healthy Relationships & The Importance of Healing from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Childhood Trauma

The effects of trauma have a tremendous impact on our ability and capacity to create satisfying bonds with other people. Trauma can be the result of child abuse, sexual violence, date rape, racism, sexism, and verbal attacks. Trauma does not have to manifest physically to have a profound and lasting effect on the brain. It also doesn’t have to be a one-time event; “slow drip” trauma can form over years, such as the experience of being neglected as a child. Perhaps you were sent to good schools, fed, and clothed, but  no one hugged you, no one asked you how you were feeling when you seemed sad—this is still trauma.

When my daughter was about two months old, I went to her baby carriage to adjust her baby blanket. We made eye contact, and she wiggled her tiny toes and gleefully smiled. Suddenly my heart started racing, my hands began shaking, and I felt engulfed with an escalating feeling of anxiety that made my head feel at risk of floating away. My anxiety kept rising for a minute or two but it felt like hours. I had no idea what was going on. My husband asked me if I was ok. I told him I was feeling really scared—he asked why, but I had no clear reason. He held my hand as we walked slowly through our neighborhood. Eventually I was able to take deep breathes, and my heartbeat started to calm. But I was spooked and afraid that I would feel that way again.

I found an excellent therapist who described what was happening to me as flashbacks to traumatic events in my childhood. The technical term is Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,  which is caused by violent events. This sounds extremely grim. I loved my parents very much, but the truth is that they were not able to function as well as they might have—caring for and protecting me at times presented a huge challenge for them. In studying their lives—I later discovered that they were both trauma survivors—I was challenged to heal my transgenerational internalized wounding and patterning.

After the baby carriage incident, I had other moments in which I felt flooded with fear—for no apparent reason. The odd thing about my flashbacks was that they started happening at a time when my life was quite wonderful. I was stunned and annoyed that these feelings were surfacing all of a sudden. Because the odd thing about my flashbacks to the chaos of my upbringing, was that they started happening at a time when my life was quite wonderful. I felt triumphant as a first-time mom. In fact, I had willfully overcome so many negative family patterns:  I had a kind, loving husband. I had overcome a chronic cycle of binge eating. I had ended unhealthy relationships to narcissistic people that I seemed preternaturally attracted to. It felt unjust that after so much diligence and work these uncomfortable feelings would be bubbling to the surface now.

What I hadn’t realized was that even though I had divested myself from unhealthy behaviors and people, I still had to integrate parts of myself that were shattered by the trauma. I was to learn that part of the reason the repressed feelings were surfacing was because I was in a stronger, better place to do this next part of my healing

Trauma from abuse, rape, incest, and other forms of violence has a profound effect on the brain and the psyche. Extensive research on this subject shows that the brain itself can be changed by trauma.  One way this manifests is by the brain staying in a state of hyperarousal.  Our brain has a built-in response to danger that is designed to keep us safe, giving us the ability to escape or otherwise deal with the threat. But when that threat is ongoing or particularly violent, your nervous system can remain in a state of hyper alert. Even after a person is out of danger—away from the disturbing event or person—the nervous system can be in overdrive and continue to respond to “triggers” that may be completely benign. This can go on for years.

In my case, my daughter’s tiny size, her complete dependency on me, and her vulnerability triggered in me a multitude of feelings associated with not being properly cared for when I was a child. Her very being triggered a profound fear in me: How can I keep this innocent, defenseless baby safe—when I wasn’t safe? Years later—although I would not have said it at the time—I am glad that these feelings, memories, and parts of me emerged to be understood and integrated. It has made me a stronger person and a better mother. I also feel much more serenity and peace.

Fortunately, research is also showing that the brain can heal from the negative effects of trauma. The process of healing from trauma—especially if the trauma happened at the hands of trusted caregivers or authority figures—can be a long journey. There are many resources: individual therapy, PTSD groups, and meditation focused on body awareness and soothing, to name just a few. I have found that steady work yields grounded long-term results.

But here’s the thing: when trauma happens at the hands of other people, true healing can really only happen via meaningful relationships with others. When we are able to create stable, loving bonds with even just one person, we have achieved tremendous progress.

Untreated trauma will prevent authentic relationships with children, partners, and others. Part of healing trauma is being able to heal our wounded instincts. Ongoing abuse can start to feel “familiar’ to the point that we expect and prepare for negative relationships.

These responses are designed to keep us safe. They can be healthy responses when dealing with danger. But where the trouble begins is when your brain activates your nervous system into hyperarousal—but there is no danger or the present danger is being seen through the child you were when you were originally wounded. There are situations that are challenging even dangerous but I can handle them as an adult with my adult resources. In my case the birth of my daughter triggered my brain to hyperarousal—having an innocent defenseless baby around triggered fear—How can I make her safe—when I wasn’t safe? Logically as an adult I could make my daughter safe. But I was viewing the situation through the eyes of a very scared six year old—without help or protection.

Many people who have survived personal trauma go on to enter relationships that are better than they’ve ever experienced. However at some point, healthy interactions may feel frighteningly unfamiliar to the degree that they initiate fights—because warfare in relationships is what they know from their childhoods. Other survivors may be triggered by intimacy, which can result in a numbing response. Ways that people numb out are through binge drinking, overworking, excessive TV watching, or drug use. The result of fighting or numbing out in your relationship could be that you unwittingly start to diminish intimacy and connection.

You don’t have to be perfect to be in a healthy relationship, but knowing when you are triggered and what you need will put you in a better position to have healthy, stable relationships. Understanding ourselves can be a confusing process. I have many friends who have healed trauma. I depend on them for “reality checks”. When something upsetting happens—which some weeks can feel like they happen hourly—I reach out to a trusted friend who understands this process of coming back to oneself. I check in and get some feedback. Sometimes we get a good laugh—if for example I used a metaphoric sledgehammer to swat a fly.

If we want to create safe, healthy, open bonds with people—the need to deal with ones trauma is a crucial part of the process of being intimate. If we ignore or bury our wounds we may never learn to sustain loving relationships. There are times we can be so triggered that we aren’t sure if we are being victimized in the moment. Wading through this confusion, sorting out what’s real and what may be an overreaction from the past, and what is a healthy response to present danger is the work. We are putting ourselves back together again, but not perfectly—as Leonard Cohen says, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

The Sex-Positive Movement and the Entitlement of Pleasure for Everyone

The sex-positive movement is an ideology that sex is normal and healthy. It is a powerful concept that contradicts many of the principles and practices that have come out of the puritanical history of the United States.

A huge issue in the sex-positive movement is sex education for our children and teens. The battle is for comprehensive sexual education that includes information to prevent unwanted pregnancy and STDs and also includes education on the entitlement of pleasure.  Pleasure as an inherent right is a privilege routinely granted to boys  but lacking in our conception of acceptable femininity. The sex-positive movement has a clear intersection with equal rights and feminism. But this is being lost in all the noise and confusion of Internet memes, the old brogan of what a feminist is, and an easily accessible mostly male gaze porn culture on the Internet.

As a parent, it has become a passion of mine to help my children gain the knowledge and strength within themselves to demand the entitlement of pleasure. For teenage girls, this has become oddly and tragically challenging. My kids tease me that I am like Samantha in Sex and the City, and we are similar in our sex-positive nature. (But it is disturbing that she wears a Playboy bunny necklace and is only interested in superficial hook-ups.) Hugh Hefner was not my idea of a feminist icon. Yet because the idea of being a feminist and loving sex has become antithetical, the image of hip female sexuality has been co-opted.

In the current culture, a cartoon version of female sexuality seems born of a teenage boys’ wet dreams: girls who gives blow jobs but never ask for cunnilingus in return, girls who hook up without any requirements of intimacy or respect. Although this has certainly happened throughout history, girls of the 2010s feel a pressure and obligation to be a superslut and engage in meaningless hook-ups—like a boy would in a porn flick.

The thing that young women don’t seem to understand is that the idea of being sexually liberated is being used against them. Because the image of liberation is largely being manufactured by male-gaze pornography! Commercialized porn and social media has upped the pressure. Girls are being pressured to be and graded by a “hot” factor that has nothing to do with their own sexuality and pleasure. Boys feel entitled to use social media platforms to grade and harass girls. If teenage girls don’t hypersexualize and objectify themselves, they are seen as a prude or a virgin, which is also socially unacceptable. Yet, girls are also still harassed for being sluts–so there is a no-win scenario.

The term “sex positive” is even used against women in an exploitive way. Ariel Levy, in her book Female Chauvinist Pig, describes today’s raunch culture, a hipster “sex positive” world that encourages girls to do what they have done historically: dissociate from their bodies and strive to appear pretty and pleasing. Porn has taken over as an acceptable norm of sexual modeling—and Hugh Hefner is seen as a renegade of sexual freedom. But Hefner never pushed for equality in sexual encounters. Playboy is sexuality that serves male needs even though his  “feminist” daughter is the current CEO—a perfect example of a female chauvinist pig.

In the ’60s, during the second wave of feminism, women stood against being marginalized and were labeled “complainers” who somehow hated sex and fun. Feminism is still at war with itself on how women can be sexual and powerful at the same time.  But being sexual and embodied is one of the principles of the feminist movement. We get to drive our own sexual encounters as opposed to being the object cast into a scene that we had no hand in writing.

How is the entitlement of pleasure and sex positivity important to marriage?

We risk losing the vibrancy in our marriages if we don’t have a positive view of sex. If sex is “dirty” why would we want to do that with someone we love? If men primarily focus on their sexual needs as lovers—which is reinforced by Hefner-type role models—sex becomes really boring—or worse—for the woman. As a sex-positive person, I am not anti-porn; I’m anti one-sided porn. We need porn that shows men versed in the artistry of stimulating the clitoris and g-spot—not just men receiving head. Porn that shows equal pleasure for both genders—not women acting out male fantasies, which constitutes the majority of porn—is conceivably useful. We need erotic stimuli from books and videos that deeply explore techniques and fantasies that are sexually fulfilling for men and women. Our culture lacks routine, sex-positive, and ongoing sex education that includes information about female anatomy (the g-spot, clitoris, lips of the vulva, etc.)  and pleasure.

Our culture’s sex-negative view of sexuality directly contributes to our collective notion that sexual passion fades in long-term relationships and marriages.  A sex-positive philosophy in marriage allows for people to expand the depths of their connection—by allowing for an ongoing project of exploring aspects of their sexuality and expecting to foster and maintain an ongoing sexual spark. A sex-negative culture prods us to move on, away from pleasure, to more serious endeavors in our married lives—an ideology clearly grown from our puritanical roots![Society promotes the idea that once married, you give up sexual pleasure for things like parenting, working, paying the bills—but  pleasure needs to be on par with those things not on the back burner or completely absent.

How is sex-positivity important to parenting?

A sex-positive conversation is a gateway discussion to talking about identity, sexual harassment, self-worth, body awareness, power, and sexuality. Being able to educate your kid about sex in ways that are positive and not fear based (such as mainly being focus on STDs or  pregnancy prevention) opens up new levels of communication and understanding even in areas seemingly unrelated to sexuality.

Comprehensive sex education needs to include a conversation around pleasure. Pleasure is something that boys and men too often feel is their birthright, whereas girls and women are often indoctrinated that it is their duty to give pleasure and look pleasing. The intimate act of advocating for your own pleasure could almost be seen as the most basic fundamentals of equality and feminism. But to demand these rights a girl needs support to be fully embodied.

The Internet has changed our perceptions in many arena—memes that go viral become part of our collective reality. Our fantasies used to be more personal but now that visually provocative material is rampant and easily available—younger people are assuming male-gaze porn is normative reality.

As a sex-positive person I am completely supportive of erotic entertainment. Erotic books, films, and pictures can be empowering and stimulating. However, healthy erotic materials are vastly different from trafficking and violent pornography. Unfortunately because so many parents do not comprehensively educate and talk to their kids about sex, teenage boys are getting a lot of their sex education from pornographic memes.

What is alarming about this is that the images that young men are learning from do not have any information about the reality of female sexuality. Male-gaze porn has scant information about the clitoris and how to perform cunnilingus adequately, and there is little focus on women as fully whole sexual beings. I have friends who have made porn films that show women in their full sexual power, not just as pretty objects. But the majority of Internet porn is from a hierarchical power over male gaze. Although playing with power roles can be fun and erotic, watching a real woman actually being trafficked or raped is beyond wrong.

Why should I be invested in a sex-positive culture?

Because it encourages knowledge and an awareness that breeds the ability to make healthy, conscious choices. It is also real—not a fantasy. A sex-positive culture embraces with the truth of what turns people on. A sex-positive culture is a safer culture in which  people can discuss sexuality and educate our children and teenagers, thus preventing dangerous, exploitive situations. Sex positivity and comprehensive sex education should not be a fear-based endeavor. Comprehensive sex education helps to round out a person so that they can actualize themselves in all areas.

Relationship Artistry: The Path to State-of-the-Art Loving

As an artist, author, and performer, my orientation to art is to devote many contemplative hours to build something beautiful. I realized I could invest the same amount of love and creativity to my relationships. In other words, to not just have “good enough” relationships but have fantastic relationships.

Relationship artistry is the ability to think creatively about building relationships that are based on consent, equality, and respect.  It is not a set of skills, though it requires a set of skills to hone it. Relationship artistry is a mindset and quality. It is the opposite of ownership mentality, which is based on a power dynamic, such as in a master-slave relationship.

Like any art form, relationship artistry requires flexibility, self-knowledge, an ability to be present, humor, imagination, curiosity, vulnerability, and an appreciation of the beauty and ridiculousness in any relationship challenge.   Most of all, relationship artistry must be consistently honed and practiced—because one’s relationship is always evolving—which means that you are constantly working on your craft. It is not about mastering skills to achieve an endgame, though. And honestly, it can feel elusive, just like being a master potter or master pianist is elusive because…what does being a “master” really mean? No matter how skilled the artist, there is always work to be done, new creations to make, new directions to explore, practice, failure, success. But again, keep in mind that relationship artistry not a process. It’s a mentality that involves bringing an artistic (open, creative) approach to relationships.

Relationship artistry involves several skills that take practice over and over again on a daily basis to become truly proficient.  State-of-the-art communication, understanding boundaries, empathy,  healing, and understanding the parts of ourselves that are wounded or traumatized are all aspects of excellent relationship skills. When these skills are regularly practiced (like a singer practicing scales, or ice skater practicing spins) we gain some facility in ourselves along with the capacity to create fulfilling, thrilling relationships.

Relationship artistry is not about perfection. One of my theater teachers worked as a thespian with the improvisational comedy troupe The Second City in Chicago. She said that when they had a bad night onstage in which they were “off” and the audience seemed completely bored or even comatose—afterward they would run down to the lake and jump in! The cold water would both startle and refresh them—and they’d laugh at themselves and how rough the night had been. Then they’d be back at it—with enthusiasm and devotion to making art together. That was the mindset that allowed them to blow it—but also be vulnerable enough to apply themselves again to achieve new levels of mastery.

That is how I endeavor to live in my relationships. I want to be vulnerable—sometimes I’ll blow it—but I am still in the game, responsive to all the information I am receiving from (as actors call them) my fellow players and willing to evolve to create more artistry in my relationships.

How does relationship artistry relate to parenting?

Children are educated in a multitude of different subjects at school. Math, science, history are all worthy endeavors. But they don’t get educated on basic relationship skills. Think of the magnitude of importance that relationships with other people play in our lives. Peer groups that can lead children astray, marriages that end in divorce and devastate us for years. Raising children that have the emotional intelligence and capacity to not only pick but maintain good relations with peers and life mates must be one of our fundamental objectives as parents. The people and relationships in a person’s life have a huge impact on the quality and even trajectory that that person’s life can take.

Relationship artistry with kids means modeling excellent relationship skills while teaching them. Most parents want their children to thrive—it is the most fundamental wish for our children. But what if instead of trying to control our children, we focused on keeping our children safe and healthy while helping them thrive? Helping children illuminate their authentic self and unique path forward is the most essential way to support them. Artistry in the parent/child paradigm involves keen observation of who your child is, what he or she needs, then helping him or her have the self-awareness in both areas so the child can thrive.

Sometimes people ask me if manners fall under the health and safety guidelines—I think they do. Good manners, at their most basic, are about treating people respectfully, and this is smart people skills. It can open doors in a variety of ways—we all enjoy being around people who are kind and respectful.

How does relationship artistry work in intimate relationships or marriage?

Relationships are not static, we do not simply get married and live “happily ever after.” Yet this fantasy is pervasive and ultimately inhibits positive growth in our marriages. Too often the only time couples roll up their sleeves and devote time and energy to shaping their relationship together is in a couples therapy office when things are not going well. This is commendable—it is good to work through difficult times together! My point—and this is important—is that the time, effort, compassion, and curiosity you exert to motivate you to see a therapist can also be brought to all interactions with your life partner. Relationship artistry can be an exciting way to keep a long-term connection spontaneous, exciting, and vital. It does require that both of you be willing to learn to “dance” well together—alternating who leads–while being responsive and attuned to each other.

Guidelines for Practicing Relationship Artistry

  1. Speaking in “I” statements
  2. Learn  state-of-the-art communication skills
  3. Practice impeccable boundaries
  4. Cultivate  curiosity
  5. Engage in active listening
  6. When parenting, focus on health and safety as opposed to control

(Stay tuned for articles explaining all of the above)

Ownership Mentality: The Death Knell of Love

The idea that we can own other people has been played out since time immemorial—and it’s still pervasive in our cultures, communities, and homes today. If we believe we own our spouse and our children, our interactions come from a sense of entitlement. Put another way, we think—however consciously or subconsciously—that we have the right to dictate what others do with their body, mind, and decisions.

 

Ownership mentality gets its roots from the slave trade, colonization, and human trafficking. Even proselytizing is a form of owning how people should believe and think. The assertion of a superior position of power and hierarchy over others is rife in our world. It is so embedded in our thinking about what is fair and acceptable in relationships that egregiousness overstepping of appropriate boundaries between individuals often goes unnoticed.

 

In America today there are still loopholes and laws that allow people to “own” others. The 13th amendment allows for jailed people to essentially be used as an unpaid workforce—continued slavery. Parental rights often trump the human rights of children—sometimes allowing for continued abuse. Look no further than the ownership mentality played out among white men in government-issued uniforms and the black men, women, and children they’re tasked with protecting and serving.

 

But can you take that critical eye even closer to home? Conventional marriage carries the routine assumption that we now own each other’s sexuality, desire, bodies, and sometimes freewill. That assumption is the death knell of any spontaneity, kindness, or authenticity in a relationship. Couples can fall into patterns of “ordering” the other person around, and assuming certain “obligations” as a mandatory part of marriage. Cultivating a feeling of “you owe me” brings  a commerce-like rationality into personal relationships—which ends up negating personal will.

 

Don’t get me wrong—I do believe that for adult relationships to work there must be reciprocity and balance. Reciprocity is when both parties show investment and generosity through their actions. People contribute different qualities, acts, and tangible gifts in relationships—as long as both parties feel there is a balance, all is well. The opposite of an ownership mentality starts from a place of neutrality, without assumptions, and involves checking in with the other person on a regular basis about how you are co-creating your relationship. It is a different practice to make conscious agreements (versus static rules) in areas of money, sex, housework, and childcare.

 

How does an ownership mentality play out in parenting?

Have you ever heard parents say things like, “My house, my rules”? While it is true that overly permissive parenting can lead to rude and unruly kids, it is also true that extremely domineering parenting can lead to alienation, resentment, rebellion and distrust. [“limiting” feels vague. Can you be more specific?]. No one likes the idea of being controlled and having no freedom. Being related to as if you have no agency  leads to alienation and resentment.

When child-rearing, I think the best gauge of boundaries is parameters guided by issues of health and safety. It feels very different if someone is trying to keep you out of harm’s way versus control you.  Often societally acceptable “rules”  start to veer into an ownership mentality and ageism with children—as in I’ve lived longer and I know more—therefore I am always correct. [how so with ageism? I’m not following] as well. A common example are parents that dictate what their teenagers can wear—particularly females. The underlining belief here is: I own your body, I own your “honor” or sexuality. Again, I think it’s fine to have a conversation about what is appropriate dress for work or school—but that conversation has an entirely different tone when it is not coming from a place of hierarchical overstepping.

 

As a parent, I set boundaries with my children when health and safety issues arise. When we are crossing a busy street, I insist my 9-year-old holds my hand. If my teenager wants to go to a party, I need more information about where it is and who will be there—not because I “own” her but because my intention is to make sure this is a safe situation.

 

I spend a lot of time educating my kids—for example my husband and I researched rape statistics. We found that most rapes happen when drinking is involved. We discussed this at length as a family.  My daughter internalized the idea that to stay safe, it probably wasn’t a good idea to drink with people she didn’t know or in any kind of situation where she needed to be alert of her surroundings. I was not encouraging my daughter to drink but being realistic about the fact that many teenagers experiment with alcohol and then make poor choices. We also had conversations about never drinking and driving, or taking a ride from someone who’s been drinking.

 

This process was not about controlling her but encouraging her to learn how to keep herself safe. If we had simply set down rules, or shamed her for wanting to go to parties as if we had the right to dictate her desires—she likely would have resisted our efforts to protect her. By trusting her innate intelligence (see relationship artistry)  she developed an internalized a gauge of how to make sure she was setting up a safe situation.

 

How is an ownership mentality important to marriage and intimate relationships?

We don’t own our partners, we don’t own their bodies or their sexuality. Domestic violence is a clear expression of ownership mentality: I own you, I own your body, I dictate what you do.  If there is an ongoing sense of control in a marriage, over time there will be a deadening of the connection. There is no space to expand, change, grow, or even have empathy for a partner in this scenario. Checking in with the other person—not trying to exert control but instead discover more of who he or she is, while being curious—is the opposite of the ownership mentality. It grants those we love the space to evolve freely.

 

For relationships to thrive, over time there has to be fluidity and responsiveness built on a foundation of consent and equality.  Please see my article on relationship artistry—the other end of the spectrum in terms of creating intimate relationships that allow both people to thrive.

Feminism — A Call to Arms

It is the early ’80s. I am debating with my entire high school English class about the merits of passing the Equal Right Amendment, a very simple amendment to the constitution that stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The boys in my class ask me if I want co-ed bathrooms—as if equality would wipe out differences between the sexes. I say, I don’t care—bring on co-ed bathrooms! But I also point out equal right being equated to co-ed bathrooms is silly propaganda. So is the notion that feminists hate men or sex. In my teenage brain it is a crystal-clear issue: How could anyone be against equality of the sexes? Simply stated, I am equal to the boy I am sitting next to—and should be treated as such.

But the ERA was flailing, proposed to congress way back in 1923 by the women’s party. Congress finally passed the ERA on March 22, 1972, but the next step was ratification by at least 38 out of 50 states. Sadly, on June 30, 1982, only three states short of passing into law, the window of opportunity closed, at least for that century.  It was a heart-breaking moment for those of us fighting for equality.

Feminism has always been both a beacon and a compass for me. It helped me defy my violently abusive stepfather, and it helped me create an identity as an Amazon and not only a survivor of misogyny and adversity but a powerful woman with agency. As a teenager, I was mystified and disappointed that the ERA failed to pass into a law. To this day, I continue to be saddened that a civil rights movement could go “out of vogue”—with influential, highly visible women now declaring they aren’t feminists–because they like men or sex, or porn.

The boys in my class asked me if I wanted “co-ed bathrooms?” As if equality would wipe out differences between the sexes. I said I didn’t care– bring on co-ed bathrooms! But I also pointed out equal right being equated to co-ed bathrooms was silly propaganda. So is the notion that feminists hate men or sex. In her book Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay examines why the idea of being a feminist has become an unsavory label. Gay points out that the term “sex-positive feminist” is a misnomer—because it assumes that feminists who like sex are exceptional. I heartedly agree—this and other propaganda continue to obfuscate what feminism is truly about: equality under the law, as well as empowerment and personal agency for women and girls. How did we get so turned around when most of us could agree that equality of the sexes is a good precedent? Why aren’t the majority of us today declaring ourselves feminists?

A short history of feminism holds some of our answers.

The first wave of feminism happened in the mid-1800s. In 1848 the first organized feminist conference was held in Seneca Falls. This first movement was focused on basic legal rights such as the right to vote. Feminism evolved out of social reform groups such as the Abolition of Slavery and Temperance movements. In this wave of feminism the Equal Rights Amendment was first written.

 

Second-wave feminism began in the early 1960s and addressed sexual harassment, domestic violence, legal inequalities, equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights, and marital rape. The second wave started in the United States then expanded worldwide.

 

Third-wave feminism began in the early 1990s arising as a response to perceived failures of the second wave, and it addressed the backlash against initiatives for reproductive rights, sexual harassment, equal pay, and domestic violence prevention.

In the 2010s we are still in the third wave of feminism. The issue of intersectionality is being examined as a necessary part of feminism to succeed as a movement. In short, intersectionality involves examining other ways women are oppressed, such as by class, race, physical capabilities, and sexual orientation. Intersectionality asks that we as feminists be a more inclusive political movement that recognizes the challenges of all women. Perhaps the greatest gain of the second wave is that people don’t want to be perceived as sexist. But sexism prevails in many industries. Perhaps the most prominent business in the US today, the high-tech industry, is rife with stories of sexual harassment and lack of equal opportunities in terms of career advancement for women.

 

The defeat of the ERA holds one of the keys to what is currently derailing more unity and force of power in the feminist movement. Phyllis Schlafly, a republican constitutional lawyer, made a career of campaigning against the ERA and was largely responsible for its defeat. Schlafly was a wealthy white woman proclaiming that women should stay at home and focus on family—while she made a career doing exactly the opposite. Schlafly enjoyed many of the principles of feminisms: she had a career, made her own money, enjoyed her own political power and agency—yet at the same time worked against other women getting the same.

Fifty-two percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, a president who brags about sexual harassment. What were they thinking? Internalized sexism and identifying with the oppressor are rampant problems in the current political climate. With a backlash as potent as we are experiencing, feminism can’t afford to be relegated to some stylish fad now out of vogue. It is a necessary ongoing battle for equality that has worldwide implications.

Token female CEOs who declare that they are “not feminists” are turning a blind eye to the oppression of women in their communities but also to the orders of magnitude of suffering for women worldwide. The United States must uphold its leadership in fighting for equality of the sexes. There are women in other countries who are dealing with honor killings, domestic violence condoned by law, forced marriage, child brides, marital rape, and clitorectomies—just some of the injustices suffered by women internationally. How can we turn away from that?

How is feminism important to marriage?

The personal is political: issues of housework, money, domestic violence, and sexual satisfaction are perhaps even more challenging to confront in the private realm. Now that we have same-sex marriage, hopefully some archaic patterns of marriage with rigid sex roles will fade away. But, if our marriages (comprised of a man and a woman) still do not reflect our beliefs around equality, we are crippled at the roots. Being empowered comes in many forms. Looking at marriage from the framework of equality can still be a radical endeavor. We can and should notice the politics of pleasure and demand that “good sex” not mimic porn mainly focused on male pleasure. Advocating for your needs in the bedroom is a conversation that is perhaps the most vulnerable of equal rights discussions. Insisting on  emotional support to expand as a person and have work that is meaningful is yet another personal issue in marriage that hold significant political weight.

How is feminism important to parenting?

This current practice of girls and women not identifying as feminists is disturbing to me—especially as a mother. I’m alarmed by the trend of women adopting a “male gaze” around sexuality and  aspects of what it means to “make it” in today’s workforce. Many teens are getting their sex education from commercial pornography geared  to a male audience. We need to be coaching our children on what it means to have equality in relation to their bodies, sexuality, and emotions. While the backlash is taking a particularly ugly turn for teenage girls, the patriarchy doesn’t work for boys either. Raising boys who are empathetic, sensitive, and able to express their feelings means we are raising boys who will be repulsed by rape culture. But the fact that fraternity hazing—with its beatings, forced binge drinking, and hierarchical power structure—is still an acceptable, widespread, coming-of-age ritual is alarming in its implications. We are instead raising boys who are being indoctrinated into a concept of maleness that encourages them to become dehumanized and brutish. Feminism is about saving our boys too.

Many feminist theorists acknowledge that the patriarchy is not working for men either. It calls for feminist households that allow for boys and girls to discover their true authentic selves, and thrive without having to dominate, malign or subjugate the feminine. The full actualization of both sexes is a feminist agenda that must be in the forefront for every parent.