by Jason Stotts
“For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity
is hero-worship—the desire to look up to man”
~ Ayn Rand
In this essay I am going to present two views of masculinity and femininity: those of Ayn Rand and then my own. I will also present my reasons for my views and the differences between Rand’s so that you can understand the importance of the differences.
For Objectivism, we do not need to look too deeply to understand masculinity and femininity. Indeed, we need to look no farther than Atlas Shrugged to find Ayn Rand’s best presentation of these in the characters of John Galt and Dagny Taggart. John Galt is the Objectivist ideal: the man of uncompromised integrity, of absolute rationality, and dashing good looks. He embodies all of the virtues and is living his life to his potential: he is the great-souled man incarnate and the hero that Ayn Rand had always wanted to bring into existence. Dagny Taggart, on the other hand, is the Objectivist ideal woman (at least by the end of Atlas Shrugged, once she has resolved her inner conflicts). She is in every way John Galt’s equal: her character is virtuous, she is productive and excels in her field, and she in passionate about her values. Yet, it is more than moral perfection that attracts Dagny to John and John to Dagny. Indeed, one can have a deep respect for another person’s character and moral development without having sexual feelings (we call these people friends).
So what is it in John that Dagny is attracted to? Let’s have Ayn Rand explain in her own words:
For a woman qua woman, the essence of femininity is hero-worship—the desire to look up to man. “To look up” does not mean dependence, obedience or anything implying inferiority. It means an intense kind of admiration; and admiration is an emotion that can be experienced only be a person of strong character and independent value judgments. A “clinging vine” type of woman is not an admirer, but an exploiter of men. Hero-worship is a demanding virtue: a woman has to be worthy of it and of the hero she worships. Intellectually and morally, i.e., as a human being, she has to be his equal; then the object of her worship is specifically his masculinity, not any human virtue she might lack.
This does not mean that a feminine woman feels or projects hero-worship for any and every individual man; as human beings, many of them may, in fact, be her inferiors. Her worship is an abstract emotion for the metaphysical concept of masculinity as such—which she experiences fully and concretely only for the man she loves, but which colors her attitude toward all men. This does not mean that there is a romantic or sexual intention in her attitude toward all men; quite the contrary: the higher her view of masculinity, the more severely demanding her standards. It means that she never loses the awareness of her own sexual identity and theirs.
Thus, it is not only his moral character that is attractive to Dagny. Indeed we might say this serves as a necessary, but not sufficient condition for Dagny’s attraction to John, but it is John’s specifically male aspects that attract Dagny: his masculinity. What is John’s masculinity? It is his specifically male traits. What is Dagny’s femininity? It is her desire to worship John’s masculinity. It is clear, that if we are to understand the Objectivist position, we need to dig deeper.
Why is it that the feminine woman never loses sight of her femininity or a man’s masculinity and how are these things connected? They are connected because a woman’s femininity is a response to a man’s masculinity. It is through one’s awareness of the contrast of the opposite sexual essence that one is able to fully understand one’s own: that is, it is the contrasting sexual essence that makes one sexually visible. In the “sex speech” from Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand says that it is a woman’s surrender that allows a man to experience his full masculinity and we have already seen that the essence of femininity is to worship, and surrender, to a hero. Thus, the essence of masculinity is domination of the feminine. Now, Ayn Rand thought that this was a natural extension of the physical differences between men and women in a sexual context: that is, in a sexual context a man penetrates a woman’s vagina with his penis. The male is the (metaphysically) active partner in sex and the woman is the (metaphysically) passive partner, since the man penetrates, or dominates the woman, and woman allows herself to be penetrated by the man, or surrenders herself to him.
This, then, is Ayn Rand’s view of masculinity and femininity as best as I understand it.
For those of you worried about the implications of the Objectivist position towards homosexuality, you should be. Ayn Rand thought that one could not naturally be attracted to a person of the same sex, since masculinity could only be oriented to femininity and femininity could only be oriented to masculinity (much like magnetic North can naturally only attract magnetic South). “To classify the unique emotion of romantic love as a form of friendship is to obliterate it: the two emotional categories are mutually exclusive. The feeling of friendship is asexual; it can be experienced toward a member of one’s own sex.” The obvious implication of this is that romantic love cannot be experienced towards a member or one’s own sex.
At the Ford Hall Forum in 1971, after presenting her essay “The Moratorium on Brains,” Ayn Rand was explicitly asked about her position on homosexuality during the Q&A section. The question was this:
This questioner says she read somewhere that you consider all forms of homosexuality immoral. If this is so, why?
To which Ayn Rand responded:
Because it involves psychological flaws, corruptions, errors, or unfortunate premises, but there is a psychological immorality at the root of homosexuality. Therefore I regard it as immoral. But I do not believe that the government has the right to prohibit it. It is the privilege of any individual to use his sex life in whichever way he wants it. That’s his legal right, provided he is not forcing it on anyone. And therefore the idea that it’s proper among consenting adults is the proper formulation legally. Morally it is immoral, and more than that, if you want my really sincere opinion, it is disgusting.
I think Ayn Rand’s position on the subject is clear: homosexuality is immoral and, although she did not give her reasons explicitly, I think it’s clear that it is because it involves an unnatural orientation of the masculine for the masculine and the feminine for the feminine (just as magnetic north attracting magnetic north would be unnatural). Since the masculine necessarily involves the drive to dominate the feminine, for a man to be a bottom in a homosexual relationship is necessarily emasculating as he is assuming the role of the woman. (This was the same objection to men who were exclusively receptive homosexuals in ancient Greece: that they destroyed their masculinity by being passive like a woman.)
Now that we have seen Ayn Rand’s position on homosexuality, let me state formally that I completely disagree with her on this point. In order to understand why I think she is wrong, we need to reconsider the natures of masculinity and femininity, as it is here that her critical error lies.
What reasons do we have for assuming that masculinity is simply the desire to dominate the feminine? It is certainly a ubiquitous idea in our culture and we can certainly weave a story from the obvious physical differences between men and women. But is this enough or is it even accurate? When we look more critically at the idea, we shall see that it is not.
The problem is that we are assuming that the masculine element in a man can only be actualized, or brought out, in response to the feminine element in a woman. It can’t, for Ayn Rand, be the case that it could be activated any other way or else this opens the door for homosexual interactions, which she thought were unnatural. However, what if a man is capable of feeling masculine in a non-sexual context? For example, what if, as a man, I am capable of feeling masculine while I am exercising with weights and feeling my muscles straining to achieve the goals I have set for myself. Or what if watching my progressing muscular development in the mirror and comparing my form to an ideal male, such as the legendary Adonis, makes me feel masculine? While Ayn Rand could try to link this to femininity by saying that it increases my ability to dominate a woman, what if I truly am only thinking of my increase in strength and the shape of my own body? Then we have a clear instance of masculinity being actualized without the contrast of femininity.
I think the important aspect of the actualization of the sexual essence involves our experiencing our distinctly sexual aspects and feeling ourselves as an embodied man or woman. Through this, we become sexually visible to our partners and to ourselves. For example, I am not usually aware of my penis in my day to day life, but when I am nude around a woman I am very aware of my penis and the contrasting differences our bodies: the differences between my muscular chest and her soft breasts, the differences between having my penis be external and open to sight, while her vagina is internal and hidden. There is no doubt that this situation of contrast with the feminine makes me feel distinctly masculine. However, it is also the case that when I exercise and my body starts to assume the ideal male shape, and I contemplate this in the mirror, I clearly feel like an embodied man and am aware of my distinctly male characteristics (in this case by comparison to an ideal man). Although this ideal man is more similar to me than different, especially when compared to a woman, he is still capable of actualizing my masculinity. Thus, there must be another means of actualizing a sexual essence than besides contrasting it with its opposite.
I would like to term this second kind of sexual essence actualization mirroring as it operates primarily on similarity. In some ways it is like a Narcissistic form of attraction for ourselves: I can see my own sexual essence reflected in the body of a person of the same sex. Furthermore, in a homosexual encounter, I enjoy a privileged position that I cannot have in a heterosexual encounter: I can truly understand how someone of the same sex feels in a sexual situation, how their body reacts, how things feel to them, and I can do this directly through my own experience, instead of anecdotally. Similarity, as well as difference, can make me feel masculine.
If this is true that there is a second avenue for the actualization of sexual essences, then this is a serious problem for Ayn Rand’s position as it removes the charge of homosexual arousal as being “unnatural.” However, we are far from done as the existence of a second avenue for the actualization of the sexual essences forces us to reconsider the essences themselves and their identity. If masculinity can be actualized, at least in some cases, by another masculine essence, then what does this mean for the nature of masculinity? Since we initially defined masculinity as the drive to dominate and to force the feminine to submit to his will, we shall have to redefine this definition if it is to include homosexual arousal as well. Although I don’t propose here to offer a complete answer to the problem, let me sketch an outline of the questions that need to be asked and some possible answers.
The first question that needs to be asked is this: in a male homosexual encounter, do both the top (the penetrator) and the bottom (the penetrated) feel masculine or does only the top feel this way? This question is very important as if it is only the top that feels masculine, and never the bottom, then perhaps we can change our definition only slightly to that of masculinity being just the drive to dominate. However, if the bottom also feels masculine during a sexual situation, even though he is passive, then this will cause problems for defining masculinity this way. Indeed, if such is the case, perhaps we have made an error in identifying masculinity and femininity as being tied to certain sexes and not, instead, to patterns of action. Indeed, if we free masculinity and femininity from biological sex, then we could assert that the bottom in a gay male relationship could feel the onset of a sexual essence, although it would be the feminine sexual essence and not the masculine.
Although controversial, the removal of the biological sex restriction allows us to make the kinds of judgments that are culturally present: such as calling a male homosexual who is exclusively a bottom “feminine,” “emasculated,” and “woman-like.” Remember that this was the epitaph that the Greeks called this kind of man and the reason he was derided: the Greeks thought that he had destroyed his masculinity through passivity.
The obvious problem, though, is that if we remove the biological foundations of masculinity and femininity, then what makes dominance masculine and submission feminine? It would seem that it would be definitionally true, but there would not be much basis beyond that. Worse, though, is that if masculinity is only to be dominant, and there is no foundation in biological sex, then any act of dominance could be considered to be an instance of masculinity: whether it was by a woman, a person in a non-sexual situation, or even by a pre-pubescent child. This seems to completely fly in the face of any understanding of masculinity. Clearly, there must be some bounds to this concept if it is to retain any meaning and relevance to reality.
So, how can we bind masculinity to being biologically male without making homosexuality into something unnatural and immoral? It seems that we can either redefine masculinity to include more than dominance or allow that one can feel masculine without actively dominating another, but merely by recognizing one’s ability to do so, whether or not one chooses to actualize this possibility or not. On the other hand, perhaps masculinity is no more than the recognition of one’s maleness and the experience of masculinity is the experience of being an embodied man. Perhaps we have been trying to pack too much into the concept of masculinity, more than it could have reasonably been expected to hold. Indeed, this seems perhaps to be correct as it removes some contradictions from that result from our former conceptions of masculinity and femininity, such as how to understand a “normal” heterosexual relationship between a man and a woman where the woman is the sexually aggressive and active partner and the man is sexually submissive and passive partner.
Now that we have disconnected masculinity from dominance and redefined it simply as being the experience of one’s embodied maleness, we need to look a little further to arrive at a better concept of masculinity. Let us return to one of the first things we said on the subject: that in a (heterosexual) sexual situation, the man desires to penetrate the woman with his penis and the woman desires to receive the man’s penis into her vagina. Metaphysically, the penis is an instrument of penetration, not dominance; while the vagina is an instrument of reception, not submission. This recognition of the metaphysical role of the sex organs, combined with the idea of the experience of sexual embodiment, is the key to understanding the sexual essences. Through it, we can understand masculinity to be the experience of embodied maleness combined with the desire for penetration. Likewise, we can understand femininity to be the experience of embodied femaleness combined with the desire for reception. These definitions have distinct advantages over our former conceptions as they don’t require any sort of additional metaphysical baggage to be added into the concepts and they do not result in any sort of contradictions.
In addition to this simpler conception of masculinity and femininity, we can utilize the concepts of masculine traits and feminine traits to talk about the usual expressions of these sexual essences in a specific culture or time period. For example, we can say that dominance and strength are masculine traits in our culture, but this would not imply that their absence would be the same as the absence of masculinity itself. Through reconceptualizing the natures of masculinity and femininity, we can maintain almost all of the Objectivist conception of sexuality and open up Objectivism for homosexuality.