Sex, Myth and Politics:
An Interview with Riane Eisler
By Scott London
Looking back over the history of western civilization, it appears that our culture has long been dominated by stereotypically "masculine" values like competition, violence and domination. Our history books are replete with tales of battles, conquests, and the struggle for dominion. But there is growing evidence today that it wasn't always that way.
There was a time in early human history, culminating some 5,000 years ago, when the feminine principles of inclusion, partnership, and harmony between the sexes were the norm in human affairs. What's interesting is that much of the anthropological probing in this area is being done at a time when we're beginning to recognize the need for new models and new ways of organizing human affairs in politics, economics, education and, not least, personal relationships. The old formulas no longer seem adequate to address our mounting global problems.
Riane Eisler has been at the center of the effort to create a more "gender-holistic" society. She's the author of The Chalice and the Blade, an international bestseller translated into more than 20 languages, and widely recognized for her work in anthropology, human rights, peace, feminist, and environmental studies. She's also the author of The Partnership Way and Tomorrow's Children.
I spent an afternoon with her exploring her views on women, men, and the politics of sexuality. Our conversation ranged widely, touching on subjects like Paleolithic art, pornography, Charles Darwin, Christianity, modern business practices, and much else. But it began with the subject of her then newly-published book Sacred Pleasure.
Scott London: What inspired you to take up the relationship between sex and spirituality?
Riane Eisler: I actually began to see the connection the way many people begin to see it experientially. We know from studying evolution, and we know from studying neuropeptides now (which is such a fascinating area of study), that we get chemical rewards not only by being loved but also by loving someone, not only by being touched in a pleasurable way but by touching another, be it a lover or a child, in a way that gives pleasure. So I think that many of us who have left behind this notion that sex is bad and dirty, and that our bodies are somehow sinful, are able to have what we might call an altered state of consciousness experience with sex an ecstatic experience. So, for me, there was a link there. It's the same kind of experience that you might have while meditating or fasting that moment of incredible illumination that you cannot put into words.
But there is an intellectual way in which I also linked sex and spirituality by studying the history of sexuality and spirituality and asking, "How did we get here?" "How did we come to this place of so much confusion?" As a culture, we are now trying to reconnect this link. So many people today are saying, "Wait a minute, I want to put them back together I want sexuality and the sacred back in my daily life right now."
London: The title of your book Sacred Pleasure brings together two words that many people would be hard-pressed to use in the same sentence "sacred" and "pleasure."
Eisler: Yes, we have been taught to associate the sacred with fear, not pleasure. People associate spirituality with the fear of God, or with divine retribution, or with Hindu deities chopping each other to bits often it's associated with either the inflicting or the suffering of pain. But this was not always the case. The sacred was originally associated with the celebration of life, with nature, and, yes, with pleasure. That is something that many, many people today are trying to move toward. So, that is how the title Sacred Pleasure came to be.
London: One of the things you've set out to do in your work is to dispel some pervasive myths about sex and spirituality.
Eisler: Yes. As you know, a myth, at least in the scholarly sense, is a story that represents some ultimate sacred truth, one that people often take for granted. Because so many myths have been shown to be "illusions," we tend to equate myth with falsehood. I use the term myth in both senses as a story we have been taught about the ultimate truth, and as a story that came out of the social construction of human relations.
London: So, in that sense, the story of Adam and Eve represents a myth, for example.
Eisler: Yes, very definitely. That is a myth that offers some fascinating clues to what archeology, linguistics, art history, and the study of folklore increasingly regard as the key event shaping culture as we know it. It helps us understand the shift from a partnership way of structuring human relations to a what I call a dominator model.
Look at what that story tells us. It tells us that there was a time when woman and man lived in harmony with one another and with nature. (It got very idealized, but it was certainly more of a partnership model.) But then, about four or five thousand years before the common era, you begin to see signs of severe stress, of enormous climate changes and natural disasters, and horde after horde of nomadic invaders from the more arid fringe-areas brought with them a very war-like, male-dominated, strong-man-rule way of living. Now, all of a sudden, people are ashamed of their bodies. Shame, fear, guilt, we all know, are means of controlling people, aren't they? Woman also becomes subservient to man. This is reflected in the myth of Adam and Eve. And, of course, the very next story after that in the Bible is one of brother killing brother
London: Does Christianity have something to do with the body becoming associated with sin and pain and violence?
Eisler: That idea certainly became one of the centerpieces of medieval Christianity. But if you analyze so-called primitive Christianity and the teachings of Jesus you find an emphasis on caring, non-violence, and compassion. He stopped the stoning of a woman, he fed the hungry and he healed the sick "women's work," right? He exemplified stereotypically feminine values. Only later did the Church become authoritarian and rigidly male-dominant. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the witch-burnings these are all chapters of our history that we need to understand for what they were wars against women by the Church.
So it wasn't simply a question of religion, and it certainly had nothing to do with the teachings of Jesus. It is one of the ways that dominator systems distort this enormous human yearning for bonding and for connection that we have, by constantly associating it with domination and with violence.
So I can't really put it at the door of the Church. But what I can say is that it's shocking that to this day the Church has not condemned violence in intimate relations be it against children, against women, or against men as part of its central teachings. That is shocking and highly immoral
London: Another way in which the connection between sexuality and the sacred can become perverted is through domination and control rather than sin.
Eisler: Yes, we see a lot of that in pornography the linking of sex with domination and violence. It's not natural; it's part of the social construction of sexuality for the requirements of this top-down model, man-over-women, man-over-man, nation-over-nation, race-over-race. Ultimately, of course, these rankings are backed up by fear of pain and violence, as they must be.
London: Alan Watts, in his book Beyond Theology, suggested that the Church's strict disapproval of adultery, promiscuity, and so on was a necessary means of keeping sex sacred. It was also a way to make sure that sex didn't become boring, because if it were freely available it would no longer be regarded as sacred.
Eisler: I like much of Alan Watts's work, but he must have been totally ignorant about Church history to make a statement like that.
London: Or he may have said it partly in jest, as he was wont to do...
Eisler: Let's hope so. But even half in jest it's very misleading, because what the Church condemned was not sexual violence, but sexual pleasure. If sex were so sacred, why would the Church hierarchy be celibate? And why would we have teachings like "it's better to marry than to burn"?
The truth of the matter is that this was a period in which people were being canonized for mortifying their bodies in the name of erotic love. You know, in the mystical writings pleasure was definitely condemned as being sinful. It is crazy pathological but that is part of our heritage.
London: I was just talking to a woman the other day who told me she objects to some of the connections you make between sex and spirituality. She said that she doesn't believe in God and doesn't think of herself as a spiritual being. What are your views are about sex between two people who don't think of themselves as spiritual?
Eisler: Well, first of all, the notion of God and spirituality as being inextricably linked, especially this God who is a king and a lord... I mean, I can understand how a lot of people have basically rejected the whole notion of spirituality along with religion. But I would like to suggest that there is a difference between institutional religion and spirituality. And if she objects to the term "spirituality" let her use something else. But there is a dimension in evolution that makes us unique in terms of our yearning for love, our yearning for beauty, and our yearning for justice. We are the only known species which has been struggling to create a more just and equitable society. I think we need to be able to find ways of honoring that through what has traditionally been called the spiritual.
London: You referred to the shift that took place as we moved from a social order based on partnership and equality to one based on domination and violence. Your research suggests that this shift was one of the defining moments of our history as a species. How did you come to that realization?
Eisler: Well, it was really through the process of simple observation, free from what I think of as "the blinkers" that have impeded scientists from seeing the whole picture. My model is one that takes a dynamic view of human society and culture, and what I began to see in my historical research were patterns that had not been visible before connections between different elements of social systems. For example, I saw that in tribal societies and in highly advanced industrialized societies, the more that society was rigidly male-dominated, the more it went along with a strong-man-rule approach in the family and the state, and the more it accepted institutionalized social violence from child-beating and wife-beating to warfare as part of the social system.
As you move to the other side of the spectrum say, for example, the Scandinavian bloc countries in our time where you have a much more equal partnership between men and women you find a guidance-system of more stereotypically feminine values. There is funding for "women's work" taking care of children, caring for people's health, caring for the environment. There is economic and political democracy. It is not coincidental that the first peace academies came out of the Scandinavian bloc countries. Why? Because they are oriented more to the partnership configuration.
This model has been very useful to many people around the world for getting beyond the old categories which don't help us, such as capitalist vs. communist, the developed world and the developing world, and so on.
London: You have synthesized a tremendous amount of data about prehistoric cultures which suggests that men and women in those early days essentially did live in a partnership mode.
Eisler: Yes. And that is another reason why I was able to see these patterns I drew from a larger database. Most sincere studies concerned with our mounting global crises tend to focus just on what is happening today. That is limited. You don't see patterns and you can't learn from what has happened in history. I drew from a database that includes the whole of our history, including, as you noted, our prehistory. Although, I have to say to you, at the beginning of my work, these patterns... I mean, I saw them without even going into prehistory, but once I understood the partnership and dominator configuration it was so compelling because the evidence was right there.
London: Did we fall from grace as a civilization?
Eisler: There was a period of thousands of years much longer than the 5,000 years of what we call "recorded history" when indeed societies lived according to a different set of values. They were not ideal societies and it wasn't perfect you know, there is always a matter of degree. But there is no evidence that these were societies where men dominated women. There is no evidence that these were societies that were chronically at war. These were also societies that saw nature not as something to be exploited. There was what we today call an "ecological consciousness." They saw the world as a great mother from whose womb all of life ensued, to whose womb all of life returned at death like the cycles of vegetation once again to be reborn. It is very much like this supposedly "new" Gaia hypothesis developed by Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. Well, that is an update of the belief systems of early societies we are now finding out about.
London: So, in a way, we are coming full circle today.
Eisler: I sometimes think of the last 5,000 years as a "detour." But, I must say, my model of cultural evolution is non-linear; it's not a cyclical one. It certainly is a huge departure from the nineteenth-century notion of cultural evolution as being a linear progression upward from savagery and barbarism to "civilization." I mean, look at Hiroshima or the death camps in Nazi Germany. Those were periods of tremendous dominator regression.
London: The image many of us have of our heritage has been handed down from our reading of Charles Darwin and evolutionary theorists who have told us that we are the descendents of cave-men who dragged their women around by the hair. Your work tells a very different story.
Eisler: Yes. The cave-man archetype is a projection of our own society. In the cave art of Stone Age societies, there isn't a single image like that. First of all, there are no images linking sex with domination and violence. In the art of the Paleolithic societies, you find that women's bodies are a form of sacred art. It is part of a view of the world in which art serves to answer questions about where we come from before we are born, where do we go when we die and so on.
What I have tried to show in my work (and once you articulate it, it's perfectly obvious) is that how we learn to think about physical and intimate relationships not just sexual relationships, but also those between parent and child, for example is a basic template for all relations. If we are constantly bombarded with images where one person dominates the other through sex and violence, then that unconsciously keeps us trapped. It makes it very hard for us to envision any human relations in which the mutual exchange of benefits pleasure, if you will is the primary cement that holds society together.
London: So, you're not talking about sexism here so much as basic, unquestioned assumptions that men and women both share.
Eisler: That's right. The basic model of how two bodies should relate is the male-superior, female-inferior model. Because of this some people may say, "Oh, this is something against men." No, the problem is not men. Women have internalized that macho image as the ideal just as much as men have. Women, like men, have also bought into a notion of femininity that is passive. That is ridiculous because women are no more inherently passive than men. Just look at women; given half a chance they assert themselves. Sure, women will manipulate if they can't assert themselves. All disempowered people will do that.
London: What you are talking about reminds me of the work of Carol Gilligan. In her groundbreaking research, she discovered that men and women basically inhabit different psychological cultures or orientations. Does that fit your perception as well?
Eisler: But I want to make something crystal-clear that sometimes gets fuzzy, and that is that this is learned behavior. We know perfectly well that there are women who can be very cruel and violent, just as there are men who can be very caring. Indeed, today, men are becoming so much more attuned to, for example, doing fathering in ways that stereotypically used to be called mothering having the immense pleasure of taking care of their little babies in an intimate way, of doing "women's work." If it were all innate, men couldn't do this. And if women were indeed less inherently active than men, you wouldn't see women climbing mountains and flying airplanes and putting out all this energy. So that is nonsense.
Some of the major contributions to science have actually been made by women. However, because we have had such a male-centered approach to science, some of the names of women are not even known to people. That needs to be reclaimed. We need to reclaim our whole history, including the major contributions women have made in non-traditional that is, male roles as well as in their traditional roles (and by "traditional" I don't mean "subservient," which is the way it is used by the fundamentalist Right; I mean in the care-taking roles that men are also beginning to fulfill).
London: There is a wing of feminism now, exemplified by scholars like Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, which feels that men are inherently dominating. They talk, for instance, about the fact that men's approach to nature is akin to the approach of a rapist you know, plundering, ravaging, penetrating, that sort of thing. What has their response been to your ideas?
Eisler: Well, Andrea Dworkin and I have had direct contact and she really likes my work very much. I think MacKinnon and Dworkin although I must admit that they sometimes get very depressing have been misunderstood a great deal. I think it's because they are not as careful about constantly saying, "Wait a minute, this is not inherent." I think it would be very helpful if they would do that more.
I think what they are talking about is the social construction of a dominator-mindset. But I think it's a great disservice to all of us to say to that "that is men." Women can share that mindset, and some women actually do, of course. It's a dominator mindset, not a male mindset.
London: Feminists have often used the expressions "patriarchy" and "matriarchy," but you've abandoned these in favor of a different set of concepts. Was this a deliberate choice?
Eisler: Yes, this was a very deliberate choice. When archeologists in the 19th century found evidence that there were societies where great goddesses were worshipped, where women were priestesses, etc., they immediately thought, "Oh, if it isn't patriarchy, it's matriarchy." Even though some scholars, like J.J. Bachofen, made a point of saying that women didn't dominate men in these societies that they were more mother-centered, or that there were no illegitimate children they did two things: 1) they called it "matriarchy" (matriarchy is rule by mothers and it is semantically the other side of the coin of patriarchy), and 2) they got caught in this linear model, saying in effect, "yeah, it was nicer living then, but it was an inferior state of evolution." The implication is that patriarchy is a higher stage. Why? Because it came later. I mean, this is the trouble with the idea of linear progression.
And there was another reason why I wanted to abandon patriarchy. It's a very emotionally-laden word. For some people, the "patriarchs" are the fathers in the Bible who begat and begat and begat. Patriarchy for them is all these guys begetting [laughs]. For other people patriarchy is this 5,000-year horror-story. So I just felt that I needed a new terminology. And because the language didn't give us alternatives to "matriarchy" and "patriarchy," I had to invent them.
London: In some respects, your work is rooted in your own personal experience. In the opening pages of The Chalice and the Blade you talk about your own childhood, which one could say was a lesson in domination.
Eisler: Yes. I think that what we study has a great deal to do with us, with our life experiences. Certainly, having been born in Vienna at a time, within my cultural framework, of massive dominator-regression...
London: This was in the 1930s during Hitler's rise to power.
Eisler: Yes, when you heard the motto "Let's get women back into their place," and you had strong-man-rule in the family and in the state. As the historian Claudia Koonz writes in terms of gender stereotypes, the ideal Nazi man was a warrior and the ideal Nazi woman was his mother. There you have pure dominator stereotypes she had no other function in life except to give birth to a guy who was going to go kill. It's a crazy model when you analyze it from that perspective. It's almost funny. But that's how it was. That was a traumatic experience for me. We had to flee for our lives.
London: What happened?
Eisler: The Gestapo came to our house with some Austrian looting-party types because coming to a Jewish home and confiscating was also a way of lining your pockets, of course. In those days, "confiscate" was a nice code word for "armed robbery." When they came my mother recognized one of the men because he had worked for the family business. She just got furious. She said, "How dare you come here, we have been so good to you. This man who you have just pushed down the stairs and dragged away from here, he has been so good to you, how dare you come here?"
London: Referring to your father.
Eisler: Yes, my father. She could have been killed. But something really miraculous happened. Part of it had to do with the fact that the dominator personality responds to authority. And also greed, because she was told, "Bring so and so much money to Gestapo headquarters and we will give him back to you." Now, if she hadn't spoken up like that, both my father and mother and I would be dead, because my mother and I, like so many others, would have stayed, waiting and hoping that he would be released, and would have, in turn, been sent to the gas chambers. Some people feel that I have a great deal of intellectual courage courage to challenge intellectual sacred cows, and so on. I think that my mother has a great deal to do with that.
London: Your background may also help to explain why your work is so empirically grounded.
Eisler: Yes, my passion for finding alternatives has always been very empirical. For example, the idea of cooperation vs. competition has always seemed a little pie-in-the-sky to me. People can "cooperate" within a dominator system to do the most horrible things to other people. So my work tries to show what we all know from simple observation that, yes, you can have human relations based on domination backed up by fear of pain; but we can also have human relations based on the mutual giving and receiving of benefits, of pleasure and that is what we really yearn for as human beings.
We have been trying to find a better way for over 300 years now. All of the various social movements have challenged one or another form of domination from the Rights of Man movement against the despotic rule of kings, to the women's movement against the despotic rule of men, to the Civil Rights movement, the abolitionist movement, the peace and pacifist movements. These movements have all challenged patterns of domination. What I have tried to do is to really provide an integrated conceptual framework. Part of that is a revisioning of not only our future, but also of our past really setting the record straight. My work says: This way of living is not the only human possibility.
London: You were trained as a lawyer. How did you make the jump from law to women's issues, and later to history and anthropology and all these other questions?
Eisler: Actually, the anthropology and sociology came before the law, and so also did my work as a systems scientist at the RAND Corporation doing very different work, war games, rather than the work that I'm now interested in.
But the law was very important in terms of my development as a multi-disciplinary scholar and as a systems theorist, because in law you have to recognize patterns. A client doesn't come to you and say, "Would you apply Section 1222 of the Civil Code." They say, "Hey, I've got a problem, this and this happened," and then it is up to the attorney to see the patterns. So it wasn't just training in anthropology and sociology, and later a tremendous amount of work in the study of myth and ancient religion, but the legal training was enormously helpful.
London: You've said that we're living in a time of "massive dominator regression."
Eisler: Yes. Just to give you one example, Congress just gave the Pentagon $7 billion for new weapons programs more than it wanted or even asked for. That's fine, except we are told we don't have enough money for so called women's work feeding children, caring for our environment, caring for people's health. Now, that hidden subtext of gender is not, I would submit to you, a women's issue, it's a central issue of our survival as a species at this point. It's a question of the mix of a dominator-ethos of conquest and domination and high technology. Well, the "blade" in terms of the title of my earlier book is the bomb, it's bacteriological warfare, and man's conquest of nature is about to do us in. So these are central issues. From a systems standpoint, we had better pay attention.
London: Tell me about the response to The Chalice and the Blade. I think I read somewhere that, at its peak, you received some 300 letters a day from readers of the book.
Eisler: Well, it's been a phenomenal response. It's been an international response, ranging from the former Chairman of the Board at Volkswagen to scholars at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who have basically used my cultural transformation theory to write a book called The Chalice and the Blade in Chinese Culture.
London: Do your readers consist mainly of women?
Eisler: About half of my mail is from men, actually. Some men have written about Sacred Pleasure saying "this is the book that is going to end the war of the sexes; this is the book that can heal us," because it debunks so many silly notions about.
London: You have also taken your ideas into the corporate world. You've lectured at Dupont and Volkswagen and Disney. What does the private sector have to learn from your ideas?
Eisler: There is a movement toward teamwork and toward a redefinition of the manager as a facilitator rather than a cop or controller who exercises power. In the sense of the chalice and the blade, it is the power to elicit from others their highest potential, rather fire or punish people. My work validates a great deal of these positive movements. But, look, there are people in the corporation who think this is all Greek "What do you mean?" They are still very firmly in the dominator mode. That is part of the modern revolution in consciousness, the consciousness of alternatives. Unfortunately, both inside and outside the corporation many people still think that a dominator way of structuring human relations sexually or otherwise is just the way it is. And, of course, my work shows that it isn't, that we do have alternatives.
London: As a culture, are we moving in the right direction?
Eisler: As you know, my model of history is a dynamic one, it's not one of linear progressions, or "constant" progress. We have made enormous progress in the last 300 years. But, until now, a lot of the challenges to entrenched patterns of domination have been at the top of what I call the dominator pyramid politics, despotic kings, the brutal and quite open exploitation of people economically. That's very, very important. But we also need to focus on our day-to-day intimate relations, on the so-called "private sphere." My optimism is that we do seem to stand today at the threshold of a new integrated politics of partnership where we are beginning to see organized challenges to entrenched patterns of domination and violence in our intimate relations.
For example, it used to be said, "if rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it." Today, we recognize rape as a crime. It really is a form of terrorism against women to maintain women in their "place." It used to be that if a man beat a stranger, he went straight to jail. But if he beat someone he said he loved, someone he had sex with, well, walk him around the block. Now that is changing.
The rights of children, the rights of women, are understood as human rights. We are moving toward what I call an integrated model of human rights where the rights of the majority, women and children, are no longer split off from human rights. This is of profound importance for women, children, and men, because it is in these personal, intimate relations that we first learn whether to accept human rights violations as "just the way things are."
So I have a guarded optimism. But the stronger the partnership thrust, the stronger the dominator resistance. So one has to understand the dynamics. We are at a bifurcation, it could go either way. We could have a massive dominator regression far worse than what we are already seeing. And given our state of high technology, that could be catastrophic.
This interview was adapted from the public radio series "Insight & Outlook."