A. The Charge. For a long time perceptive writers and social scientists have observed a tendency among men to fear women (gynecophobia).
To be sure, both heterosexual and homosexual men harbor this fear, a regrettable constant of Western civilization. The idea surfaced in classical and medieval thought. Later it entered into the revealing nineteenth-century obsession with the “femme fatale,” or fatal woman, a seductress who delights in subjugating and controlling men.
For the most part heterosexual men are strong enough to overcome this anxiety - at least one would hope so. By contrast, men destined to become homosexual harbor the fear to an extraordinary degree. Hence male homosexuality reflects not so much an attraction to men, as a flight from women. If only these unfortunates could get help - from a counselor, life coach, therapist, or guru - they might be able to free themselves from their crippling disability. They would then find themselves able to lead productive lives as responsible husbands who cherish and honor women.
Instead, homosexuals resort to various evasions and coverups. They do this by cultivating friendships with token women. Sometimes a gay male will induce one to appear with him at very public social functions, where she must masquerade as his girlfriend. These unfortunate accomplices, known as “beards,” disparage their gender as a whole. In much the same way the homosexual selects a particular woman to be his confidante - known as his “fag hag.” In private, though, these poor accomplices are often pitied by the rest of society for lacking an identity, settling for a sham relationship that can never offer them sexual fulfillment.
Other women, more sensible, are alert to the insult that the exclusive preferences of gay men pose to them.
B. Historical Background. The primordial image of the toxic, fearsome woman is the Medusa of ancient Greece. This monster had the face of a hideous human female sporting a tangle of venomous snakes in place of hair. Gazing directly upon her would turn onlookers to stone. Later, Freud was to regard the Medusa as an emblem of the male fear of castration.
Less sinister are the Greek images of the anasyrma, a rite of lifting the skirt in a defiant display of the female genitals. Medieval figures of the Sheela na Gig show a similar form of genital presentation. While scholars disagree about the exact meaning of these figures, they all convey a sense of the power of the female principle.
By contrast, the biblical figure of Eve was ambiguous. Even though she was the temptress responsible for the Fall, Eve was still the first mother of all mankind.
During the Middle Ages, the witchcraft delusion focused on unfortunate old women who were singled out and stigmatized for their supposed power to cast spells and cause other mischief.
In later times the femme fatale emerged as the modern archetype of the mysterious and seductive woman, whose charms ensnare her admirers in bonds of irresistible desire. Often she will lead them into compromising, dangerous, and even deadly situations.
In early versions of the theme, her ability to hypnotize her victim with a spell counts as literally supernatural. Even in later incarnations the femme fatale is commonly described as having power over men akin to that of an enchantress, seductress, vampire, witch, or demon.
The Marquis de Sade created several celebrated examples, including the heroine of his novel Histoire de Juliette (1797-1801), where the dangerous woman triumphs. During the Romantic period, the femme fatale continued to thrive, as seen in the works of the poet John Keats, notably “La Belle Dame sans Merci” and “Lamia.”
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the femme fatale became even more prominent: she flaunts her wiles in the lurid paintings of Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt, Franz von Stuck, and Gustave Moreau; as well as in the canvases of the English pre-Raphaelite painters.
Oscar Wilde reinvented this archetype in his “Salome,” a work that stands at the pinnacle of fin-de-siècle decadence, In this play (written in French in 1891), Salome mesmerizes her lust-crazed uncle King Herod with her enticing Dance of the Seven Veils. He has no choice but to yield to her imperious demand: "bring me the head of John the Baptist.” Fittingly, Wilde’s text was adorned with illustrations by the lubricious Aubrey Beardsley.
In his 1903 book Sex and Character, the Viennese writer Otto Weininger held that all people are a mixture of male and female elements. Purportedly, the male aspect rejoiced in the following positive attributes: it is active, productive, conscious, and moral/logical. By contrast, Weininger stigmatized the female aspect as passive, unproductive, unconscious, and amoral/alogical.
Weininger believed that emancipation was only possible for "masculine women" (aka butch lesbians). For most women, he held, the female life was dominated by the sexual function: either in the form of the act itself (amounting to prostitution) or in its more respectable guise (motherhood).
Weininger - who committed suicide at the age of 23 - was probably a self-hating homosexual who loathed the feminine characteristics he detected in his own makeup. Once widely influential, Weininger’s book is now seen as a period piece.
For their part, psychiatrists and social scientists have attempted to put the understanding of the fear of women on a more rational basis. A pioneer in this endeavor was Karen Horney, a German psychoanalyst and critic of Freudian theory. Somewhat tentatively, she stated her conclusions in her 1932 paper on "the dread of woman." Later, Erich Neumann, a German-born Jungian analyst, dedicated an essay to the subject entitled "The fear of the feminine" ("Die Angst vor dem Weiblichen," 1959). Neumann regarded "patriarchal normality as a form of fear of the feminine.”
A contemporary contributor to the discussion is Chris Blazina, a psychodynamic psychologist and professor based at Tennessee State University. In 1997 Blazina asserted that "the fear of the feminine helps define what is masculine." In a paper of 1986 James O'Neil and his associates posited that the male fear of the feminine is a core aspect of the male psyche. They developed a 37-question psychometric test, a gender role conflict scale (GRCS), to measure the extent to which a man is in conflict with traditional masculine role values. This test relied upon the notion of the male fear of the feminine.
Werner Kierski, a London-based German-born psychotherapist and researcher, designed an empirical research program concerning the male fear of the feminine. Published in 2007, the results indicated that when men experience vulnerable feelings and/or other feelings associated with women, men can become frightened. According to Kierski, the fear of the feminine then acts in two ways: a) it takes the form of an internal monitor to ensure that men stay within the boundaries of what is regarded as masculine, i.e. being action-oriented, self-reliant, guarded, and seemingly independent; and b) if a man fails to achieve this status - thus feeling out of control, vulnerable, or dependent - the fear of the feminine can act as a defense, leading to splitting off, repressing, or projecting these feelings. Kierski concluded that male fear of the feminine can have a strong influence on both heterosexual and homosexual men.
Curiously, the research suggests that there appears to be a link between fear of the feminine and men's negative views towards counseling and psychotherapy. In other words, for whatever reason, patients aren’t buying it. In addition, the research pointed to four possible groups of experiences that tend to foster male fear of the feminine: 1. experiencing vulnerability and uncertainty; 2. meeting women who are strong and competent; 3. confronting women who are angry and/or aggressive; 4. encountering women who are like their mothers.
The early years of the modern gay and lesbian liberation movement saw tension between men and women activists. Some lesbians held they were undervalued by gay men, who relegated them to subordinate positions. Yet by the beginning of the twenty-first century, as it had become clear that lesbian women and gay men working together had made great strides forward, much of this tension had abated.
In a way that would have appalled Otto Weininger a century ago, trans people are now widely accepted and even admired. They challenge all of us to ask fundamental questions about gender and our own place within its complex configuration.
Still, not everyone today agrees with this enlightened view. Some macho men continue to decry gay men as feminine; along with women, they are seen as objects of disdain and even violence. Recently, one young male blogger, Alex B., put it this way: “In all honesty, we hate the f*ck out of gay people because they act like women. Gay people are men that act like women. . . Totally uncool.”
Much homophobic activity (including gay-bashing) stems from misogynistic beliefs that disparage traits mainstream society perceives as feminine. These are qualities that are embraced by some gay men. These traits include preoccupation with personal appearance, heightened emotionality, artistic flair, and lack of prowess in physically demanding activities - especially sports.
C. Response. In view of the genuine friendships that link heterosexual women and gay men, the blanket allegation of this fear is unwarranted, or at least greatly exaggerated, for its supposed workings do not constitute a barrier to social intimacy. Moreover, many gay men admire “strong women” because of their ability to challenge patriarchal norms that oppress them, for these same archaic notions serve to stifle LGBT people as well.
Some gay men, many of them at least, are instinctually turned off by the female genitalia. That said, this negative response does not produce a positive attraction to their own sex. Arising from the most basic realm of the personality, this attraction responds to the perceived qualities of the male gender itself. By contrast, if aversion to women were the sole factor involved it would simply produce celibacy and asexuality. Attraction to members of one’s own sex is a positive force, not a product of absence.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Karen Horney, “The Dread of Woman: Observations on a Specific Difference in the Dread Felt by Men and by Women for the Opposite Sex,” International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 13 (1932), 348-60; Katharine M. Rogers in The Troublesome Helpmate: A History of Misogyny in Literature, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1968; Bram Dijkstra, Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-De-Siecle Culture, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986; idem, Evil Sisters: The Threat of Female Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Culture, New York: Knopf, 1996; Jack Holland, Misogyny: The World's Oldest Prejudice, New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006; Werner Kierski and Christopher Blazina, “The Male Fear of the Feminine and Its Effects on Counseling and Psychotherapy,” The Journal of Men's Studies, 17:2 (March 2009), 155-83.