“See, Pat, the thing about me – I have a very masculine energy. I like building and creating. I’m good at opening doors but not so good at closing them after me.”
“So, I have a very feminine energy, Pat. I like organising, tidying, putting things in order.”
These were statements spoken to me a few days apart, both by colleagues who also work in the psychedelic community, and both times it surprised me.
I would not have expected these people to use gendered terms to describe their personalities, because it felt so thoroughly unnecessary. And it made me start thinking about why they had decided to use the terms masculine and feminine to describe their personality traits. It was one of a string of events that made me start to seriously reflect on the prevalence of gendered concepts in the psychedelic space.
It’s common in psychedelic circles for gendered terms to be brought up without preamble or justification. “Now we’re going to connect with our masculine energy” or “Feel the divine feminine within you” are phrases you may be familiar with. Perhaps, like me, you’re also left surreptitiously glancing around the room… wondering if this is supposed to mean anything to you, or worrying that your idea of femininity is different from the facilitator’s.
The phrases “The divine feminine” or “The divine masculine” are bandied around a lot in our community. Especially in mens’ and womens’ circles. Yet they are rarely (if ever) accompanied with an explanation of what these gendered archetypes are, or what makes them so worthy of worship.
Had these people been through the same psychedelic experience that I had? Aren’t psychedelics supposed to dissolve our social prejudices, make us open to non-binary views of the world?
To me, it seemed like these gendered concepts opened up so much opportunity for prejudice and sexism, or even an infectious strain of biological essentialism. It didn’t seem to fit with the understanding of egalitarianism that psychedelics had so deeply fostered in me.
I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was missing something. That there was some fundamental truth I was unaware of. So in the true psychedelic spirit of universal uncertainty, I decided to question my potential dogma, and ask some people in the psychedelic sphere what this paradigm of a “divine feminine” or “divine masculine” meant to them.
What does divine gender mean to people?
From my discussions with people, both in-person and online, there was a bewildering and rich variety of opinions on this topic. Things would often get emotional – although not surprisingly, it was only in online discussions where hackles rose.
The three main viewpoints that I saw could be summarised like this:
- Hardline biological essentialism. Men and women are innately and inescapably different, and to build a just and harmonious society we need to accept this, and encourage women to explore their nurturing instinct, and men to explore their building instinct.
- The familiarity argument. Men and women may or may not have innate, archetypal differences. Nevertheless, gendered concepts are real to people, and in exploring ourselves it helps to name these characteristics by describing them in familiar, gendered terms.
- Gendered concepts are exclusionary. Using gendered terms not only perpetuates patriarchal standards of masculinity, but excludes people who don’t associate with patriarchal gender concepts from psychedelics spaces.
People were passionate about these issues, and it became quickly apparent that gender means very different things to different people.
Many people argued that gendered terms are potentially necessary, if false, simplifications that help us understand each other:
“I suppose one interesting thing to debate [is] whether we accept that ‘masculine/feminine’ terminology [is] now so widely misunderstood to be synonymous with gender that [we] have gone past the point of no return and we should stop using them, or whether there is a case for re-claiming the words, by educating those who misunderstand them as relating intrinsically to gender to instead see the terms as tools to simplify reality (when simplification is necessary).”
Some went a little further, insisting that gender roles are necessary for societal function – even if they may be somewhat fabricated:
“Gender politics is as old as society itself – conforming people to roles is a necessary component for the survival of any society or tradition, and gender roles are no different.”
Others looked to justify biological essentialism, insisting that ancient wisdom teaches us that masculine/feminine concepts are as inescapably true as night and day:
“The theological point being made at a fundamental level is that many of these [Eastern] traditions identify the observer (witnessing consciousness/emptiness) as the masculine principle, and the world of form (that which is witnessed) with the feminine principle – it’s complex, but well worked through in eastern theology.”
Unsurprisingly, there was some criticism of the idea that nature is so simply binary:
“I think there [are] interesting things you can say about different personal qualities and how we embody them at different times, e.g. active vs. receptive. But I think identifying these qualities with particular genders is reductive and deeply harmful. I was joking with someone the other day that people like to add the prefix “divine” to concepts they don’t feel comfortable questioning or deconstructing!”
There was even a response from a spiritual scholar refuting the notion that most religions have such clearly binary concepts of gender:
“Consider Kali, the (female) Hindu deity who is at once divine mother and world-destroyer. […] In Greek mythos, Persephone is at once bringer of Spring and Queen of the Underworld. Odin is the queerest god there is – at once the bravest warrior (which the Norse considered masculine), and also master of divination (which they considered feminine). So for the purposes of pseudo-tantric sex magic, “active” and “receptive” are sufficient… But in reality there is a lot more depth to other cultures’ notions of gendered divinity.”
To add to this, one person experienced in Tantra explained to me in person that these “active” and “receptive” concepts are a mostly Western invention, as traditionally the power in Tantra is female-driven.
I also had some conversations with women about the harms of defining gender by the specific functioning of sex organs. Many felt like some gendered psychedelic spaces glorify reproductive capacity above all else, implying that the height of “womanhood” was the ability to give birth. Clearly this is exclusionary to many women and trans folk.
It soon became apparent that the voices we should be listening to most attentively are those of non-binary, queer and trans people, who stand to be most marginalised and excluded by this sort of biological essentialism.
One genderqueer occultist suggested that the universe may be essentially binary; but that doesn’t mean it has to relate so directly to gender:
“I’ve spent quite a while confronting these teachings [of gendered concepts in religion] and also my vivid personal experiences of encountering an energy that I recognised as pure ‘femininity.’ But I realised that my labelling of this energy was most very likely socially conditioned. The experience was real, [but] my interpretation and recognition was of course open to dispute.
My current working hypothesis is that there are metaphysical energies that we might call ‘yin’ and ‘yang,’ or ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine,’ but that ancient societies, in the hope of conforming themselves to the divine pattern they spent so much time cataloguing and exploring, started to conform people to these ideals based on the arbitrary configuration of their genitalia. Thus our labelling of these polarities is socially constructed, but the underlying polarity exists independent of any notion of gender.”
Finally, this opinion struck me as being especially balanced:
“Seems to me, binary understandings are everywhere in all cultures. Alive/dead, night/day, yes/no, etc. However, I’ve rarely encountered a binary that stands up to close inspection.
Binary understandings often are extremely useful and they represent a fundamental symbolic mode of the brain. In queer culture we rarely acknowledge that cis/queer is a false binary: but it’s a useful one for now.
Sometimes a binary understanding illuminates a situation, other times it obscures more important truths – depending on where the culture currently stands. Sometimes a simple answer helps overcome confusion, other times a simple answer is a way to avoid a more complex truth.
So it’s going to be personal and subjective. But as a non-binary gender person I reckon it’s time to let go of simple stories about gender. Sacred or otherwise.”
Who we need to listen to now
The discussions surrounding this issue are fascinating, diverse, and highly subjective. But despite the nuance, a clear pattern starts to emerge.
While many people do not feel that their identity is linked to any archetypal gender concepts, a considerable number do feel like there is a fundamental gendered energy connected to their identity.
Those latter people often describe their worry of expressing this – fearing being labelled as sexist and intolerant.
What these people are missing here is that there is nothing to fear from stating, clearly, that a divine masculine/feminine paradigm means something to you. What they should be afraid of is an assumption that all of reality is objectively gendered – and subsequently applying concepts of biological essentialism to other people in very non-egalitarian fashion.
It’s possible to implicitly (and perhaps without awareness) force your belief in biological essentialism on other people if you use phrases like “masculine energy” when describing personality characteristics. Instead, consider statements like “… a characteristic that feels masculine for me.”
Everyone should be free to go to gendered spaces and enjoy exploring their own relationship to gender concepts, if that’s what they choose. Indeed, many trans people will tell you that allowing people to explore what gender means to them is a crucial part of fostering a society that is free from oppressive gender constructs. Psychedelic men’s and women’s groups are arguably a necessary segregation to help heal the wounds of patriarchal conditioning. Tantric spaces exploring “divine gender” paradigms can undoubtedly be useful for some journeys of healing or discovery.
But the point is that if you export that onto the whole community, some people will not be free to express themselves or explore their identities. We must define the limits of these gendered spaces, and learn to prevent the enforcement (implicit or explicit) of gendered concepts in the wider community.
The psychedelic community desperately needs to invite more space to minority voices. This includes our non-binary, queer and trans siblings, who are surely as welcome in sharing our space as any others, and who need to be part of the shaping of an inclusive, egalitarian psychedelic renaissance.
The psychedelic experience has always been associated with freedom; an acknowledgement of ultimate connection; a realisation of our fundamental cognitive rights. But how can we continue to espouse these values if we are not a truly open community? If we do not welcome everyone?
We must avoid having this discussion in a bubble. Ask your non-binary, queer or trans friends how they feel about this topic. They should be offered the forefront of these issues. Let’s listen to more marginalised people. Let’s give people the platform to describe their experiences, so we can learn how to improve our accessibility and approachability.
Otherwise we are dangerously close to developing a psychedelic community not for the many, but for the few.
I would love to hear your comments on this topic. Reach me on twitter @rjpatricksmith.