Globe and Mail

A feminist author heralds a new sexual revolution:

Relationships don't have to end with hurt,
Carol Gilligan tells ALANNA MITCHELL

Saturday, June 15, 2002 – Print Edition, Page F6
The Globe and Mail

I remember in the 1980s very solemnly sitting around with my feminist sisters-in-arms discussing whether any act of vaginal penetration -- consensual or not -- was, de facto, rape. It was an excruciatingly joyless phase of the feminist revolution.

I can't remember what we decided in the end. But the guilt that freighted that discussion (what if you liked penetration?) is seared in my memory, along with the apology it implied for being passionately in love. Modern feminism has moved well beyond that misery, and the proof is in The Birth of Pleasure,the newest book from the controversial feminist and psychologist Carol Gilligan.

For one thing, Ms. Gilligan herself exudes joy, laughing as she recounts a story -- "One woman," she says, "said that when she read it she had the emotional equivalent of a multiple orgasm" -- her slim body loosening up, long curly hair waving, eyes shining bright. For another, her book is a tender, hopeful way of looking at love, which she argues is permanently within reach, if only we would let ourselves hear our own inner voices.

Ms. Gilligan is a Harvard University psychologist who rose to fame 20 years ago when she wrote about how much separates girls' and women's voices from those of boys and men. That book, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development, made her one of the most influential feminist theorists of the 20th century.

Last year, actor and social activist Jane Fonda gave Harvard a $12.5-million (U.S.) gift to set up a centre on gender and education in Ms. Gilligan's honour. But she has as many feminist critics as fans, because the aim of her work is to celebrate the differences between men and women rather than to argue that their capabilities are the same.

In her new book, Ms. Gilligan posits that the mythologies of the past thousand years -- particularly the Oedipus myth -- have led us to understand that love is fated to die. That means we expect grand passion to wane and love to falter. The story is told in the statistics of the divorce court, and in the anguish poured out among the couples Ms. Gilligan sees for psychological counselling.

Ms. Gilligan contrasts the Oedipus myth (that Freudian favourite) with the lesser-known tale of Psyche and Cupid. She reads it as "an encoded map of resistance" that shows how to break free from a hierarchical cycle that dictates the loss of love.

"If feminism is understood not as a battle in the war between the sexes but rather a movement to transform a world in which both men and women suffer losses that constrain their ability to love, then the story of Psyche and Cupid is a feminist tale," she writes.

Born in North Africa in the transformative days of the second century, when African, Greek and Roman beliefs were melding with the growing cult of Isis, the Psyche myth finds form in Apuleius's book Metamorphosis, or The Golden Ass.

Psyche is a princess so beautiful that she draws the ire of Venus, who sends her son Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a wretched man. Cupid falls in love instead, and whisks Psyche secretly off to a palace where makes love to her every night under the cover of darkness. He forbids her to try to find out who he is.

When she becomes pregnant, Psyche's visiting sisters urge her to discover who her lover is, lest he be a monster waiting to devour both her and her baby. She lights a lamp one night, and, armed with a knife, unmasks Cupid as he sleeps. She falls in love instantly, but her lamp drips hot oil on him. He wakes and flies off without a word.

"In breaking the taboo on seeing Cupid," Ms. Gilligan writes, "and speaking about their love, Psyche reveals the world in which she has been living: a world where Cupid is hiding his love and where she cannot know what she knows."

Psyche starts resisting the tragic scripts of love by grabbing hold of Cupid's leg, but she falls. Perched above her, he angrily accuses her of betraying his orders and endangering his relationship with his mother. He abandons her, but pregnant Psyche decides to follow her love, or, in Ms. Gilligan's words, to "know what she knows."

The decision takes Psyche through uncharted, painful territory, but will allow her to find a love without taboos or arbitrary rules. It will be a love she can finally name, talk about and know openly. The tale ends with Psyche and Cupid marrying as equals. They name their daughter Pleasure -- thus the title of Ms. Gilligan's book.

"If you want a love in which pleasure can be born," she says in our interview, "you have to break those taboos."

Much of Ms. Gilligan's thesis was born from work she has done with couples in crisis and with children. She is convinced from this work that the dominant cultural framework installs impasses to love.

As early as 4 and 5, she claims, boys learn to suppress emotions and follow male ideals that tell them to succeed in an external world. Girls begin to distance themselves from their feelings later, in early adolescence -- they stop knowing what they know. Together, these toxic patterns show up as barriers within adult love relationships.

As well, Ms. Gilligan says traditional psychological techniques tend to reinforce the impasses -- the profound dissociations from reality -- rather than lead men and women to trust in relationships and follow their hearts' desires. Using those old methods, she believes, is akin to trying to chart a journey using "a flat-Earth map with dragons at the corners.

"It's just the wrong map."

Why is Ms. Gilligan unwrapping her theory now, rather than in the earnest days when feminists worried whether any orgasm was a suspect orgasm? She is convinced that this is a "tidal moment" in the history of human society, a time of metamorphosis recalling that in Greece and North Africa in the second century.

Patriarchy, she says, is falling. She points to the new improvisational forms of family, and to the liberation movements for blacks, women, gays and lesbians. The patriarchal myths that inform love can fall too, she says.

But such dramatic changes also pose a danger. "It is the moment," Ms. Gilligan notes, "people are most tempted to say, 'I have to go back to the old way.' "

Copyright © 2002 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc.