Much as we might wish to claim the unique and individual nature of our world view, we are inevitably shaped by the culture that surrounds us. A huge body of work including visual art, literature, myth, music and religious text has informed our thinking as to the nature of the relationship between men and women. Culture imposes a powerful influence upon the unconscious through the complex interaction and influence of its many manifestations in our daily lives. The unconscious as the site of primary mental processes, dreams, fantasies and wishes makes its presence known in disguise, displacement and condensation. Escaping the repression and censorship of everyday discourse and disrupting the conventional ways of being, it operates outside the rules of logic. Culture, art, religion and myth can wreak havoc within that lawless region. Rustin (2007) pointed out that creative artists dating back to the Greek tragedians have illuminated those unruly thoughts, desires and connections well before their psychoanalytic discovery. Our experiences with reading and re-reading literature, for example, become in Caruth’s terms (1996) an encounter, both moral and epistemological, of that which we cannot know in conscious thought. Through artistic symbolization this exposure creates within us responses to the human condition that are wider than our own individual worldview. The relative immortality and permanence of great art gives its insights respectability and stature that validates our own resonate musings even as it sends our disclaimers scuttling for cover. Thankfully the cross-disciplinary movement in the humanities of the last thirty years has allowed us a far more sophisticated view of the complex structure of patriarchal mores and the insidious ways in which it perpetuates female subordination.
Religion and myth have been highly influential carriers of culture since antiquity. Religious texts make clear from the very beginning that the female is scarcely a person in her own right but rather one who is defined by her reproductive capabilities and whose very existence is dependent upon the male. In Genesis we read that after God had created the earth and all living creatures including man it was discovered that man did not have a partner, a help meet. The Lord caused a sleep to fall upon Adam and took out one of his ribs. He made from it a woman and took it to Adam. Adam then affirmed that this creature would be a part of him: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh. Genesis 2:23.” He named her “woman” because she was taken out of man. In a compelling moment that rings down through the ages the female is defined as a part-object of the male. In Sex and the Superego: Psychic War in Men and Women, Lewis (1987) writes that the text from Genesis not only denies the importance of the womb but is a fusion of thoughts about the penis in the vagina. The rib is a symbolic equivalent of the penis. Eve was created from the rib of Adam. We are given the image of a woman created from a male body part when the actual gestation of humans takes place within the womb. Making matters bad for men but worse for women God tells Adam and Eve that they will be under a curse: Adam will labor by the sweat of his brow but Eve will be ruled forever ruled by her husband. Parenthetically one might ask whether in the Garden of Eden the sexes would have been equal. But after they are expelled from the Garden it is certain that this will not be the case. Her task moreover will be to bear children. Throughout the biblical narrative women are mentioned infrequently and most often in relation to their capacity for having children, specifically sons.
Societal norms as they are conveyed in and through the culture continue to influence and appropriate women’s sexuality and reproductive capability. They will do so until we unravel their powerful but subtle messages.
A Womb of Her Own: Women’s Struggle for Sexual and Reproductive Autonomy),
Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.