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Sam Keen on Men, Women, Sex and Spirituality

An Interview with Sam Keen

Copyright © 1993, 1997 by Bert H. Hoff

This article appeared in the May 1993 issue of M.E.N. Magazine



Sam Keen
Sam Keen


book cover
Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man
by Sam Keen
Order on-line





The Passionate Life:
Stages of Loving
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The Power of Stories
(Workshop)
Audio Cassette

Bert: What do you see as the major issues in men-women relationships?

Sam: Power, equality and violence are the major issues. On top of that we like to talk about communication, as in Deborah Tannen's You Just Don't Understand. Very often we turn the big issue between men and women into a communication issue, but I think it's a lot deeper issue than that. The gender arrangement that we've had in this culture previous to the last 25 or 30 years has been one in which there has been more of an inequality in terms of political, social and financial power. Men have had a dominant role. In order to change that women have been coming into the workplace and in the political order and claiming their own power, they begin to encounter the old thing, which is a gender relationship. That's where, for me, the real, crucial issue has to be violence. Men have had a virtual monopoly on violence, and that means a virtual monopoly on power. As women see violence done to them, they are having to re-think about their relationship to power, and also to military power. That's what I tried to show in The Faces of the Enemy. But I do believe that when you define the male in terms of the warrior role, then you're going to define him in terms of power and women are going to behind the victim end of the power-violence game.

Bert: Does that suggest that women need to move towards a relationship with violence?

Sam: Well, they need to take equal responsibility for the management of violence. We need to see violence in terms of systems. One of the biggest changes in our thinking in the last twenty years is to think in terms of systems, to stop just looking at individual things and to look at interactions. That is the one thing we haven't done in terms of men, women and violence. We haven't looked at their interactions. We haven't looked at violence as a system. There are many different players who participate in the violence system. Mostly what we see now is the victims of violence. In my terms, we have a way of thinking that creates "guilty producers" and "innocent consumers" of violence.

Just like the Exxon Valdez incident. We point our fingers at Exxon and say that they are "bad people," while we all drive along in automobiles that hog up gasoline and think nothing of our consumption of oil. We create the demand, and they were merely supplying the demand. So, I think the whole violence and warfare system flows from the fact that we made a decision in our culture that this is what we wanted to do. Violence against women is a product of this system. We're going to have to stop thinking of this issue in terms of men and women. That is the big issue, the hard issue, what kind of a world is it going to be if we do this re-thinking of gender. What I like to say is eliminating gender. "Help stamp out gender" would be my bumper sticker.

Bert: One image that comes to mind is a t.v. news scene from a bar outside Fort Lewis during the Gulf War. The soldiers' wives and girlfriends were as violent as the men. "We're going to kick their butt."

Sam: Right. If you'll remember, the approval rating went up to somewhere between 89 and 94 percent. What that is, is a vote on the macho image of man. Everyone who tied a yellow ribbon on a tree said, "Yes, we want men to be violent."



The Passionate Life:
Stages of Loving
Order on-line

Bert: In The Passionate Life: Stages of Loving you said, "Our only real hope for a more kindly and passionate pattern of relationships is our willingness to look at the ways women and men collude in perpetrating the long-standing battle between the sexes and the warfare system."

Sam: That's right. I still think that's an important passage.

Bert: In our last issue we had an article (Scott Abraham, "Take Care of Your Mother -- Or Else") in which the author said we needed a safe container in which to express our rage against our mothers, our sisters, and other women.

Sam: In a process of de-repressing any emotion, when it comes out, it's not going to come out neatly. It's true that when we express our rage, when the shit hits the fan, everyone gets sprayed. Hopefully, that doesn't last very long. It's not very individually creative, or socially creative. But, basically, that's what we have now, is a lot of people expressing their rage about everything. The problem is that it's making a pretty sick body politic. We've got a political situation now where everybody's a victim and everybody's needs to have a Divine right to rage. Rage is an entitlement. We all have a right to be outraged, because we don't have this, we don't have that, we don't have the other. Disregard the fact that, despite what we don't have, we're the wealthiest culture in the history of civilization.

I think this is a dangerous idea. Eastern wisdom have a different outlook. You have to recognize rage. Certainly, you have to recognize it. You can't forgive somebody unless you have felt the rage. But I think that the idea, somehow, that you have to go out and express that is a dangerous notion. There's something between blowing off inappropriately and repression. First of all, there's recognition. And then what I guess I would say, is "rationing out the rage."

My own way of doing this was that I learned to wrestle when I was a young adult, in my mid-twenties. And part of that had to do with rage. I found a very, very great way to handle it.

Also, your rage can be utilized in relevant situations. If you're in a relationship with a woman, you're really encounter the rage. As long as you don't give anybody the full load of a rage that's been building up for years. But, let's face it, that's also going to happen. You're not going to go through a relationship always mature, with all the emotions honed down to their proper size. No, part of what happens in a relationship is that you project your "stuff" onto other people. Then we've got to take it off. So, you're going to project your rage onto somebody else, and then gradually take it back.. What makes a relationship strong is not that you never vent inappropriate rage, but that they keep moving away from that.

Bert: You say in Fire in the Belly, "Honor your anger, but before you express it, sort it out the righteous from the unrighteous. Immediately after a storm the water runs muddy; rage is indiscriminate. But once the water runs clear, express your outrage against anyone who has violated your being."

Sam: That's good advice. I don't always follow it, but ..... When I get mad at my wife, sometimes I just blow up, and yell very loud. Then what I have to do afterwards is sort it out, and say what I'm sorry fore, and figure out which part is mine and which is hers. I mean, ideally, I would never do all that, but I haven't reached that stage yet.

Bert: We haven't here, either. But what my wife Bernetta is discovering is that every once in a while she will give vent at her rage, and she is amazed at how terrified some people are when she begins to show it, because she's a very mild and gentle person under 99.9 percent of the circumstances.

Sam: Generally speaking, sin and forgiveness is a better way to handle a relationship than the illusion of perfection. We learn from our mistakes. In intimacy, all of our childhood, infantile desires and emotions are elicited.

Bert: One of the things that's said is that men are unwilling to commit. Clarissa EstÚs says that men and women are both afraid to commit, because they're afraid of the "little death" of the self that happens in a relationship. That brought to mind Robert Bly's poem "A Third Body." " ... they obey a third body that they share in common. They have made a promise to love that body. Age may come, parting may come, death will come. A man and a woman sit near each other. As they breathe they feed someone we do not know, someone we know of, whom we have never seen."

Sam: The old word was "sacrifice," which is a very good word because what it actually meant was "to make sacred." We have a stupid notion that came out of the human potential movement, that "I'm going to do my thing, and you're going to do your thing, and we shouldn't compromise." It even gets confused with the whole notion of co-dependency. "Oh, oh, I'm beginning to see myself through your eyes." We don't have much relationship with sacrifice. Nothing gets done, nothing of value is created in life, without sacrifice. Raising a child requires an enormous amount of sacrifice.

Or take the notion of compromise, or "co-promise." You're binding yourself to a promise. But these are voluntary bounds, verses the bonds that are imposed on us by others. Bonds that we take on, in order to create in our lives.

Bert: I understand that some people are delaying having children, or not having children, because they're not willing to make the sacrifices involved.

Sam: Well, that's always been true in our culture. One of the sicknesses of our culture is that we value our children so little.

Bert: And we're unwilling to make that sacredness, that sacrifice.

Sam: This is reflected in our national debt. We're passing our debt on to our children. We don't have enough guts to put our own house into order. We're spending our children's future.


Gregory Max Vogt, Return to Father: Archetypal Dimensions of the Patriarch . (Dallas, TX: Spring, 1991) (order on-line)

Bert: One of the words that comes up in discussions of men's issues is "patriarchy." Gregory Max Vogt writes in Return to Father of a positive, non-authoritarian, "homologous" patriarchy. In The Passionate Life you write of the roles of the "matrix" and the "patrix," pattern, structure and rule-giving, in an infant's life.

Sam: I think the word "patriarchy" is a dumb word, because it creates a night in which all cats are dark. "Patriarchy" becomes, in a sense, everything that has happened in Western culture, in the sense that Western culture reflects those values we associate with "male" or "hierarchy." It's very easy to turn this into some kind of an excuse for male-bashing -- "Oh, everything associated with the patriarchy is no good." -- and praising everything that was matriarchal and matrilineal. Or, as RenÚ Eisner says in The Chalice and the Blade, to say that we had a "partnership" culture before we had patriarchy. Well, that's nonsense. That's ideology. It doesn't help. It doesn't help to distinguish what we have now. We don't have a patriarchal culture at all. We have what I call a "corporarchal" culture. We don't have a bunch of wild and fierce men up there controlling the society. The old patriarchy protected their own. "This is my tribe, this is my clan. No, we don't have that. We have wimps at the heads of corporations. As John Kenneth Galbreath described in The New Industrial Society, corporate leaders say, "I can't do very much. I don't have very much power."

Patriarchy is not a very accurate term. It doesn't get to the root of problems. There's a lot of problems with what men do to women, and vice versa, but the word "patriarchy" doesn't help us very much.

Traditionally, we think of the "matrix" as being the unconscious, and the "patrix" being the cultural values. And, traditionally, of course, that was male and female. Mothers were the source of the values of sensuality and intimacy. The male, the "patrix," was the source of the law, the culture, given to the male by initiation. I don't think that's accurate anymore. Did you ever notice that when that term is used, you have the feeling that you've read it all before? It creates stereotype modality situations, but it doesn't get us any further. It's a little bit like religion, "All is One, all is One." But what does that mean? All is many, also. The term "patriarchy" does not distinguish enough to be helpful term in our analysis of the present situation.

I'll give you an example. We are told that in this patriarchy women make 60 percent as much as men. It's an interesting statistic, but what is also interesting is that when women supposedly don't have any power, women actually account for 80 percent of all consumer spending. It's a weird little thing, they actually account for 70 percent of the sale of men's clothing and 50 percent of automobile sales. There are all kinds of power. And the language of patriarchy hits only one aspect, namely that some identified positive values are identified as male, that males head the political, economic and cultural environment. It looks at only that fact, and overlooks other ways in which women have power within the system.

Bert: What struck me about your use of the word "patrix" was that it described the value of necessary patterning, structuring, ordering, and rule-giving, as a complement in the young baby's life to the development of the sensitive, the intuitive and the erotic.

Sam: I don't think I would use those terms today. Even those terms are gender-biased terms. The mother is going to give us the sensuality, and the father is going to give us the rules. My father probably held me as much as my mother, and my mother gave me rules. If you look at any cultural situation, I think that you'll find that that's true. A father's way of holding the baby may be different, but I want to get rid of gender terms. I want to get rid of terms like "my masculine," "my feminine." I think they are very inaccurate. I think they perpetrate a schizophrenia that is not true of our actual experience. I think men should get out of the role of saying, "I am the law-giving one and she is the sensuous one." Both of these functions are necessary in any vital human being, male or female.

Bert: Would a male or female express their sensuality or intuition differently?

Sam: Maybe, maybe not.. I don't think it's necessarily true.

Bert: Depending on cultural conditioning.

Sam: Look at the Eskimo culture. Look at the way they play. They may not do this so much any more, since they have t.v. But on long winter nights they would play. They would play "faces," grabbing and contorting each other's faces. Incredible sensual, bodily play. I think that it has much more to do with a distinction between war-making cultures and relatively peaceful cultures. The more peaceful a culture is, the more everybody in that culture has permission to express their sensuality. The more war-like a culture is, the less permission there is to do this.

Bert: That beings up the major thesis of The Passionate Life. I've got to tell you, that the Seattle Public Library shelves that book with the other sex education books.

Sam: (laughing), Well, that's O.K.!

Bert: They're "idiots" in your classic sense of the word, private people who think that eros is best expressed only in privacy.

Sam: Well, better there than ... I don't know where. Better there than education.

Bert: Your whole concept there -- you have such an interesting way of asking questions -- what would happen if we embraced the world as lovers? As a sensuous and erotic experience.

Sam: Or even more interesting than that, to me, is the question what if we began to feed our erotic and compassion quotient rather than our intelligence quotient. We go bug-eyed over intelligence quotients. What if we really tired to increase our compassion quotients? We spend a vast amount of resources on our children's education, so we can "educate" them to "know" the world. What if we out an equal amount of resources into teaching our children how to open up and enjoy the world, to reverence and love the world? It would be an easy cultural project; it is not utopian at all.

Bert: Doesn't that tie into school boards' decisions in tomes of tight budgets, to cut out the arts and music?

Sam: Totally, totally. It is a Western supposition that the more objective "knowledge" we have about the world, the better we are able to live. That's the first assumption to question.

Bert: Especially in this day and age. I have more information on my own bookshelves than I could possibly absorb in ten lifetimes.

Sam: Right.

Bert: The whole topic of loving the world brings up what your topic is going to be when you speak here on Friday May 7th. Spirituality and sexuality. How do you see that connection.

Sam: Well, complexly. They both get very confused. It's easy to start with the traditions of our culture as being at the root of the problem. In our culture, the two are completely divorced, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition. It's a labyrinth supposedly governed by a celibate priesthood. But they aren't. We don't talk about the seduction of little boys and girls. So we have a rift, in our culture, between spirituality and sexuality. To make the reconciliation, we need to ask, "what are they about?" They're both modes of trying to overcome loneliness. Alfred North Whitehead once said that "religion is what one does with his own solitariness." A major way that we deal with our solitariness is through sexuality. All that that means is that sexuality is a bond between man and the world around him. And the other way is through our spirituality. And to find a reconciliation between the two, in our culture we have enormous capabilities, one of which is that we try to control what is "out there" and another is that our technology alienates us from it. So, paradoxically, the more we know about the world out there, the more we become alienated from it. And we have this enormous problem of how we deal with our longing for the world. Sexuality, then, is the longing of the body. Sex is part of our relationship with the world. I don't think in other cultures they have a separate word for "sex." Sex was a just a part of their relationship with life, and a gateway to the mysteries of the world. Therefore we have all kinds of boundaries around it, all kinds of rules about it. Sex used appropriately, is an enlightening experience. It's powerful stuff, because it leads you right into the heart of it.

Bert: Into the numinous.

Sam: Exactly. Into the numinous. Well, we have taken the numinous away from sex. And away from religion and our view of the world, too. Our problem is how to get it back in. That happens when we understand the depths of what we're doing in the world.




The Power of Stories
(Workshop)
Audio Cassette

Bert: There's an image that comes to mind for me, from the end of your The Power of Stories tape. You describe finding water for your cabin. You spotted ferns too high on the bank, and dug under the rock. Add there you were, naked, digging into the earth, getting into it, getting muddy. I saw something very primal, earthy and sexual in that image.

Sam: Well, certainly something very erotic. This is who I am, no matter what I'm doing. My way of relating to the earth is very erotic. It is to live in it. I can't be any other way, because otherwise there's no room for my spirit. So there I was, digging into the rocks and the roots. And I derived an enormous amount of physical pleasure in it. I'd be wallowing in the mud, and I'd go down there and dig around. It was so muddy there was no sense in wearing clothes, except maybe for a jockstrap, to protect the sensitive parts.

Bert: There's a whole other theme that comes out of that, about being in touch with our bodies. It's said that men are out of touch with their bodies, except from the neck up, and out of relationship of their bodies except to use as a tool.

Sam: I wouldn't say just men. I would say that in our society what happens is that work gets out of touch with our bodies. To the degree to which we become identified with economic work, we become Type-A people. I would like to point out the fact that in the late 1960's all the sociologists were saying that the greatest challenge we faced was how to use our leisure time. Marcuse talked about this. He said that machines would set eros free. We could have used machines in that way. But, instead, we increased the number of products we have to have, and began to work compulsively to get them.

Bert: And now what's happening, instead, is that it's become an economic necessity for both the husband and the wife to work. Otherwise they can't make it.

Sam: Sure. How are we going to buy the mountain bikes? How are we to get the lycra suits to wear with it? You can't ride a mountain bike without a lycra suit. We're the only society in the world that will spend $150 dollars for a pair of the lightest weight running shoes, and then spend another $25 to buy weights to wear on our wrists when we run.

Bert: My wife Bernetta is going to be amused to hear you say that work takes you away from the body. She teaches yoga, and her philosophy is that the focus of yoga is to be totally in touch with, in tune with, your body.

Sam: Well, good, maybe. That's true, probably. But people who work with their bodies professionally also get out of touch with them. I talk to a lot of dancers, and they talk of their body as an instrument. And even yoga becomes this pose, that pose, can you do this, can you do that. There is what I call the "tyranny of the lotus position." You can't possibly meditate if you can't get into the lotus position. Well, that's not true. The body doesn't feel that; not all bodies are made to do that.

Bert: If I were in the lotus position, if I could ever get into it, I probably couldn't meditate.

Sam: You probably couldn't get out of it, probably, either.

Bert: (Laughing) That's probably true.

Sam: For years they did this Fascist thing, that those who got into the lotus position told you you couldn't meditate, and the fact is that if you ever got into the lotus position, all that pain that you experience, well, you were supposed to overcome that pain. That was good for you. It's like flagellation.

Bert: When you were a young theology professor you wrote a book about Gabriel Marcel, the French Christian existentialist. One passage stuck out at me, because it seemed so consistent with your own later work. "The quest for being must begin by exploring personal experience in order to determine whether it contains any hint of a reality that resists the corrosive acids of criticism, despair and tragedy.".

Sam: That's a great passage. Did I write that, or did Marcel?

Bert: That was you. And then you go on to quote him. And in your later work you go on into how we get in touch with our own bodies, and how we develop our own stories.

Sam:. Yes, but that was not Marcel. Marcel went more in the direction of abstract emotions, or what he called concrete approaches, where he talked about fidelity or love, or joy. I think my unique contribution is that I say, "No, no, no, no no. Tell me your story. Tell me exactly where you're coming from. God lives in detail. Tell me a detailed biography."

Bert: Your prose and your prose style reflect that. I found your book on Gabriel Marcel interesting, and I was aware that I was reading a theological or philosophical textbook.

Sam: Right.

Bert: But Fire in the Belly and The Passionate Life was so much of your own writing, about your own life.

Sam: Right. Or even, An Apology for Wonder. It's a marvelous book, which I feel is very crucial to our culture. I did, unlike my formal, academic mode, write my own autobiography, most especially in my dedication to my father.

Bert: Well, thank you very much for this interview. We will look forward very much to what you have to tell us when you come up here to talk to us in May.

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