Reflection 61: Women, Boundaries, and Sex

Radical Decency was created to answer this question: Living in an endemically indecent world, how can we create better lives and meaningfully contribute to a better world? In response, it offers – not an answer – but a process: Of reflection, dialogue, support and collaboration, trial and error, guided always by our values-based approach to living.

This reflection exemplifies this ever-exploratory aspect of the philosophy. Being a psychotherapist, you never stop learning – and never know where the next area of insight and growth will be. Some time ago, now, I realized that my practice included a group of powerful, assertive women who had, what I call, curious power outages. Often, but not always, it was around men: The felt need to placate or put a romantic partner, father, or other significant male first. Working with these women has heightened my sense of how the culture’s gender-based stereotypes play out in the lives of women, the topic of this week’s Reflection.

I have run men’s groups and written about men for many years, and do so with some confidence. Writing about women, however, is different since in key areas I lack the “gut knowing” that comes from shared experience. But assuming an unbridgeable gap in understanding between the genders would defeat our larger purposes. A radically decent relationship requires respect, understanding, empathy, appreciation, and acceptance. And these qualities can only emerge if we feel fully capable of understanding the other’s reality. So here are some of my insights about being a woman in this culture, gleaned from my journey of discovery, first of all, with my wife Dale – my teacher and partner in every sense of the word – and with the amazing group of women in my practice. I offer it with what is, I hope, appropriate deference.


Women are, without question, pushed by the culture toward care-taking dispositions. To illustrate this point, Terence Real and Carol Gilligan tell the following story. Ask an 8-year-old girl what kind of pizza she wants and she will tell you. Ask an 11-year old girl and she’ll say, “I’m not sure.”  Ask a 13-year-old girl – now fully socialized to her assigned gender role – and she is likely to ask, “what do you want?”

13-year-old girls – and 30-year-old women – don’t stop wanting their pizza with mushrooms and onions. But engrained in their habitual way of being is a reflexive instinct to compromise their needs to the perceived needs of others. So when it comes to setting appropriate boundaries in their relationships – boundaries that work for them – an inescapable conflict is created. Their wants and desires, often suppressed to the point of unconsciousness, are regularly at odds with their felt need to tend to others.

And even as girls are being socialized to be accommodating and compliant, a complementary process is pushing boys in the opposite direction: To be forceful and aggressive but to suppress their relational needs and desires.

When sex is added to the mix, this already confusing situation becomes even more complicated. Transacting the tricky business of sexual desire in this bifurcated world greatly exacerbates the conflict and confusion that women (and men) experience when is comes to setting appropriate relational boundaries.

Here’s how it works on the women’s side.

Teenage boys long for the relational closeness they are told they shouldn’t need. So starved for affection, touch and stroking, sex takes on inordinate importance – since it is the one place where they can get these needs met in a culturally condoned way.

Raised as men, they typically have no trouble asking for sex, often in deeply aggressive ways. The result? It is the rare women who, from her teenage years forward, hasn’t regularly faced significant male boundary crossing, much of it explicitly sexual.

Given this reality, here is the situation a teenage girl faces. Even as she struggles with her newly emerging sexual desire, she is required to deal with persistent male boundary crossing – and to do so in the context of an insistent, culturally groomed, internalized voice telling her to tend to her partner’s needs. This is a prescription for confusion and pain, not only for a teenage girl, but also for a 30-year-old woman, if she hasn’t cultivated the understanding and emotional tools needed to move beyond her engrained care-taking habits.

Note, very importantly, that this painful pattern plays out with equal force outside the bedroom as well. Men – engaging, unaware, in their part of this culturally dictated dance – regularly cross women’s boundaries in ways that are uninvited and overly aggressive: An unwanted sexualized look; a dirty joke; a rat-tat-tat of sarcastic comments that put the woman in her place; a fart followed by a smirking laugh. Given women’s boundary confusion, their ability to clearly and unambiguously respond to these sorts of behaviors is, all too often, compromised as well.


For women – and men – moving beyond this engrained cultural dance is a vital but tricky business. One significant obstacle is the fact that, while we internalize our gender roles, we are also deeply inducted into the pattern itself. So when women “turn the tables” – becoming sexual aggressors, skilled at emotionally dominating their partners – they do little to heal their boundary confusion. Instead, the pain of the culturally assigned woman’s role is exchanged for the confusion and pain of the man’s role – with the underlying pattern persisting with undiminished force.

The true path of healing requires disengagement from the pattern itself. Instead of fighting fire with fire – learning to be as aggressive and boundary crossing as men – women need to let go of their reflexive care taking habits. This does not mean that their nurturing acts of love should end. Instead, these acts need to become more and more volitional. She is should be able to warmly respond to her relational partner’s needs and longings but just as capably say no – to unwanted sex or to a pepperoni pizza.


What I see regularly see in my practice, even in the midst of my clients’ steady progress toward this new mindset, is a subtle and corrosive process that sucks them back toward their old ways.

So, for example, a woman, estranged but not separated from her husband, establishes a clear physical boundary and no sex rule. But instead of respecting her choices, the husband – in his instinctually male way – seeks to erode and push through her boundaries.  He makes her morning coffee, offers unsolicited back rubs, and insinuates himself back into her bedroom and bed. She, in turn, groomed by the culture to be a caretaker, yields to this relentless pressure, inch by imperceptible inch. In the end, the physical and sexual distance she needs to feel safe is compromised.

Another women struggles with a sense of being judged by her husband as the dirty clothes accumulate in the hamper. He, like her, is aware of their gender-based patterns and seeks to do better: Making requests and not boundary crossing demands; pro-actively taking on house keeping chores. But despite their efforts, the old patterns persist and re-emerge. Why? Because his tone of voice and emotional energy communicate far more impatience than he thinks. And she, in turn, is primed to amplify whatever tone of insistence and judgment she perceives in his words and deeds: “My job is to tend to my husband, home and family and in his eyes – and mine – I am falling short.”

A third woman – my wife – is planning to spend Saturday with her girlfriends even though this is a time we usually reserve for each other. Not at my self-aware best, I slip into male boundary crossing behaviors: Annoyance and pouting.

When Dale (my wife) is on her emotional game she comfortably, and lovingly, maintains her autonomy and integrity leaving me with a reassuring hug and these words: “It’s nice to know that my leaving matters you, that I’ll be missed, that I’m loved so much.”  But, at others times, my boundary pushing triggers her engrained care-giving habits of mind and – feeling guilty about her choice – she responds to my behaviors with defensiveness, anger, and withdrawal.


As these vignettes illustrate, women face an enormous challenge as they seek to move beyond their engrained care-taking habits of mind. The work requires new levels of understanding, awareness – and enormous persistence. It also requires the presence of mind and emotional bravery to make new, very different choices in the most trying of situations. But change is possible. Doing so, women can progressively let go of their old patterns, allowing their innate power and assertiveness to emerge.

Finally, because our gender roles are so enmeshed and reinforcing, we men need to recognize the vital role we can play in the growth work of the women in our lives. How?  By tending to, and healing, our own gender-based ways of operating.

Indeed, aspiring to be the best possible husband, parent, friend and co-worker, nothing less will suffice.