Unmasking Rape Culture
Our Daily Verticality: “Mother Earth” and unmasking rape culture
Despite our love of nature, environmental destruction still moves forward. Despite our love of women, rape culture still moves forward. This essay explores why we apparently do not love the earth or women, and how unconscious influences shape our response, or lack thereof, to rape culture and environmental destruction.
Mother Earth is Sexist
I’m sad to announce that within our current, colonized, dual-sex and dual-gendered world, the metaphor Mother Earth (and Mother Nature) is sexist and oppressive, and using it inadvertently reinforces environmental destruction and rape culture.
It wouldn’t be an issue if male bodies/male gods/male gender roles weren’t conversely associated with the sky and the “higher” minds. But they are. Father Sky is always above and around, and Mother Earth is always below and within, and these positions along an imagined vertical axis become placeholders for attitudes towards maleness and femaleness. Then, on top of that, attitudes towards Father Sky and Mother Earth influence our attitudes towards psycho-social places along our vertical spines — our mouths, bellies, and anuses.
Fathers above; Mothers below. Eyes above; Blindness below. Air above; watery, suffocating Death below. Heads above; Anogenitals below. Perhaps this daily verticality that keeps women in their ‘place’ below men goes all the way back to hominization. While most mammals live somewhat horizontal with their mouth at the same height as their anus, we humans are different. Our upright posture puts mouths above anuses almost all the time, and this daily verticality holds up, structures, supports and affords our attitudes and perspectives on literally everything, from life and death to sex, gender, god, the universe, and the body. Everything is seen through our basic, bodily verticality.
Mouth and anus are the endpoints of a tube that runs through the body. It’s a tube that runs the body. Mouth and Anus are the most important and ancient openings in the history of our kind. They give life, and they influence our conceptualization of the sacred and profane, the divine and the disgusting, the clean and the dirty, men and women, and of our gods, Father Sky and Mother Earth. They play a leading role, but they are rarely acknowledged as actors.
Despite the fact that humans begin as assholes, and our lips are made of the same material that surrounds the anus, divine Mouth lives Above and is relatively Clean — we kiss it, look at it, touch it — while its twin, the Anus, is the epitome of the Dirty, gross, and disgusting. Anus is below Mouth, physically and symbolically, and this verticality is transcoded onto the city, where clean waters (tears, rains) and dry stones live up Above, basking in the disinfecting sunlight with the castles and shrines, while foul smells and sick bodies come from the damp darkness Below — the slums and sewage wastelands.
Mouth is valued over Anus because let’s face it, food is better than feces. It just is. Studies into the causes and ramifications of disgust (an “aversion emotion” related to hatred and fear) lead to other concepts like filth, evil, purity, waste, privacy, death, and decay. The head above contains noble organs of self-presentation and social identity, the point of honor, whereas the genitals below contain its hidden or shameful private parts, which honor requires us to conceal.
Above-Below logically relates to other basic bodily dyads such as Day-Night, Warm-Cold, Alive-Dead, and unfortunately, with male-female, especially when we say things like “Mother Earth.”
Look up! The daily gesture of looking up is already associated with ideas of ‘up’ and ‘over’ as ‘higher’ and ‘better.’ Introduced to us as infants long before we hear stories of ladders and angels, we experience verticality within our basic relationship to mother, whose eyes, framed by sky, ceiling, or father, look down at ours. James Fowler in his seminal Stages of Faith claims our relationship with mother (or primary caregiver) sets up all future relationships with others, including our relationship with the wholly “Other” and the highest “Self.” When we drink, when we eat, when we wake up and are lifted up from our beds, there is an ‘up there’ to which we look, we aspire, we trust.
Literally and metaphorically children look up to their parents, to adults, and to cultural heroes — sports players, celebrities, movie stars, religious figures, teachers, transmitters of knowledge — and this sets the world up into vertical stages and hierarchies of knowing and being. Cultural historian Peter Sloterdijk (2009: 113) calls this “a psychosemantic system of co-ordinates with a pronounced vertical dimension.”
The early human psyche is set up with imagined vertical stages where ‘higher’ means ‘better.’ Please consider this review of orientational metaphors related to “Up”. Essentially, Happy is Up; Sad is Down. Conscious is Up; Unconscious is Down. Health and Life are Up; Sickness and Death are Down. Having Control is UP; Having No Control is Down(“I am on top of the situation”). More is Up; Less is Down (“The number of books printed each year keeps going up”). Good is Up; Bad is Down. Virtue is Up, Depravity is Down (high standards, upstanding citizens, “When they go low, we go high.”), Rational is Up; Irrational/emotional is Down (“He couldn’t rise above his emotions.”) Lakoff: “In our culture people view themselves as being in control over animals, plants, and their physical environment, and it is their unique ability to reason that places human beings above other animals and gives them this control.”
Finally, vertical metaphors aren’t just used in our abuse of women and the environment, but also in our class warfare. Journalist David Wong on why we hate poor people: “I heard far, far more complaints — and church sermons — about how society was being dragged down by the lazy drug addicts than I ever heard about greedy bankers and CEOs. America, they said, was rotting from the bottom.” (my italics)
Sexing the Planets
“Mother Earth” reinforces the imagined and socially sanctioned hierarchy of male gods over female gods, of male bodies over female bodies, of male perspectives over female perspectives. This attitude is also reflected and reinforced in the gendering of the planets (see Sexing the Sky).
Verticality, like rape culture, is as old as the hills. It’s part of our experience of landscapes, of our bodies, our metaphors, the “hierarchy of the senses,” the planets, and it is a primary perceptual framework through which our myths, stories, and life scripts take place. Jacob’s ‘ladder’ or staircase of angels, for example, points to this persistent vertical axis. The dream ladder reflects downward into the corporate ladder, into sports teams and universities, cults, television— perhaps all western history is the translation of Jacob’s Ladder from the dream sphere into daily culture. Sloterdjik: “Where there was dream hierarchy there shall be real hierarchy.” We can also see this verticality in the physical ladder that Nietzsche’s acrobat must climb in order to masterfully control his body over gravity like a wizard. “Man is a rope, stretched between beast and Ubermensch.”
Superman, the Ubermensh, and the Great Chain of Being links the weak and sad world below with the strength and glory above. This notion that the Earth (and by extension, the mother/Mother), and all direct experiences gathered by our senses bring men down from what is most important up high is a central theme of our culture. Not only in religion, but the denigration of the flesh is essential to science, where a body is considered nothing but a machine and where direct experience is considered mere anecdotal evidence — a voice to be ignored while we search for the real signal (see Derrick Jenson’s A Language Older than Words).
Just as the angels stand above one another in ten ranks, so do the planets, and the members of the actual existing church stand above one another, a pyramid of men extending downward until at last they touch the women below. Within the Catholic Church, female bodies are never invited into the higher positions of power — that of cardinals, priests, and popes. Sisters serve those functions anyway, just unofficially. Legend has it, there was once a female pope, Pope Joan, would have been great, but she was soon caught, tortured, and killed when she couldn’t conceal her pregnancy and gave birth. Because of her, a legendary chair, the sede stercoraria, “the throne with a hole in the seat,” was installed to make sure the pope indeed has male genitals. Cardinals line up to cop a feel and say “Testiculos habet et bene pendentes!” I guess only a man with testicles can speak for God, who is also, apparently, a man with testicles.
Not only “Mother Earth,” but the ancient and modern psychology of the self is heavily influenced by verticality: Depth psychology and Height psychology take verticality as their central metaphor. The popular American philosopher Ken Wilber says the metaphor of height is actually “lovely,” and, “in the final analysis levels of reality and levels of consciousness are two phrases for the same thing, and thus we can usefully speak of the ascent of consciousness, the heights of the soul and spirit…” Wilber can convince anyone: “This metaphor, too, is grounded in something that we know already: every time we move beyond a narrow concern to a broader perspective, we feel we have risen above the situation.” There is a sense of being free, a sense of release, an increase in spaciousness, a transcendence, all inherently gendered masculine. “To move from egocentric to ethnocentric to worldcentric to theocentric is to ascend into greater and wider and higher spheres of release and embrace, transcendence and inclusion, freedom and compassion. Sometimes this ascent is also felt concretely, as when, for example, kundalini energy literally moves up the spinal line. The metaphor of vertical height also works well because in many spiritual experiences, we sense that Spirit is descending from above into us (a factor emphasized in many spiritual practices, from Aurobindo’s descent of the supermind to the Gnostics’ descent of the holy spirit). We reach up to Spirit with Eros; Spirit reaches down to us with Agape. These, too, are wonderful metaphors.” (Integral Psychology: 111)
Are they, Ken? Are they wonderful, considering their subconscious linking of women with the unconscious below? ‘Spheres of being’ isn't any better than chains or ladders of being; ‘intraphysical’ isn’t better than ‘metaphysical’ if it reinforces a directionality away from the ground and toward the larger bubble of horizons.
Depth psychology may explain humans one-sidedly ‘downwards’, underestimating or entirely neglecting their involvement in what Sloterdijk calls “a register of metabiological realities, the sphere of intellectual and spiritual values.” Height psychology equally relies on vertical metaphors: Max Scheler in Ressentiment: “All ancient philosophers, poets, and moralists agree that love is a striving, an aspiration of the “lower” toward the “higher,” the “unformed” toward the “formed,” … “appearance” towards “essence,” “ignorance” towards “knowledge,” a “mean between fullness and privation,” as Plato says in the Symposium. … The universe is a great chain of dynamic spiritual entities, of forms of being ranging from the “prima materia” up to man — a chain in which the lower always strives for and is attracted by the higher, which never turns back but aspires upward in its turn. This process continues up to the deity…” (emphasis mine)
The cross-cultural “Great Chain of Being” is usually given as something like matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit, with the material world existing at the bottom, or farthest away from pure Spirit or Godhead. St. Augustine got right to the point: “I know nothing which brings the manly mind down from the heights more than a woman’s caresses.”
Gendered and sexed sky-gods are associated with sky-senses, like seeing and hearing, detached and expansive, while feminine senses like smell, taste, and touch, are gathered down below with the dirty peasants and savages. These ‘lower’ senses must take hold of the world and ingest it to figure it out, whereas the eyes and ears get to take in the world from a distance.
Mirror Images, Compliments, Opposites
Sky-Earth, Above-Below, Male-Female…with this ‘dual’ view of people and of the world, the feminine becomes the opposing ‘compliment’ to the masculine, which is a disaster. “She is my ‘other half,’” means “my aggression is matched perfectly in cosmic balance with her passivity.” This. Is. Rape. Culture. And it is widespread (see Theweleit’s Male Fantasies, a study of Nazi masculinity that will sound eerily familiar). We see this in the ideology behind the Yin-Yang, and promoted most recently by the popular psychologist, Jordan Peterson. It appears so balanced and so wise, but let me ask you: how does China and other countries that use Yin/Yang imagery treat their women and queer men?
Cult leaders in America like to call their teenage wives their “compliment.” Masculinity is seen as the complement and opposite of whatever femininity is. This reifies the otherness of the feminine and the animality of the female body. Because sky is categorically not earth, and heat is not cold, and day is not night, men are not women. Women and men are as different as Night and Day, Venus and Mars, Earth and Sky. Dorothy Sayers, in Human-Not-Quite-Human (1947) describes this perplexing habit of positioning women as “opposite” men. “The first thing that strikes the careless observer is that women are unlike men. They are ‘the opposite sex’ — though why ‘opposite’ I do not know; what is the ‘neighboring sex’? But the fundamental thing is that women are more like men than anything else in the world.”
If the sexes aren’t opposites but are ‘neighbors,’ then men live in the apartment above women.
Rape culture takes place; takes place. I think it’s clear that tying the female body to the ground by activating Mother Earth and Mother Nature imagery harms more than it helps. Your thoughts?
“Realization and liberation are simultaneous.” For more on this story, please see my essay Gender-Landscape Reciprocity.