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Doctor of the Soul

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 63 - April 2001

Givers and Takers

I was in New York recently, where I had lunch with a former colleague, Harriet, who is now a high-flying industrial psychologist, whatever that is. I think she travels around giving courses to businessmen on how to use psychology to earn more profits. She is well paid for this service, compared with the meagre salary of a university teacher.

Harriet has also become a devout feminist. The table conversation was devoted to a lecture to my ear on the evil behaviour of men against women. Most, if not all, of the problems in the world, according to her new world-view, are a direct result of the male sex dominating the weaker female. (Weaker? Her? I never met a tougher infighter in my entire career; how do you imagine she worked her way up to, first, a prime professor's appointment and is now manipulating her way up the private corporation greasy pole of success?)

In any event, I was polite and listened to this litany of generic gender politics without taking a stand. After all, I was still tired from jetlag, and besides, I had heard it all before. Many of my women colleagues had built careers on this premise, teaching feminine psychology, working as feminist psychotherapists, leading women's groups, etc. Who am I, a mere male, to question her guerrilla war against men? The new Zeitgeist: woman as victim; man as perpetrator. I had a feeling that there were some basic flaws in this simple scheme of things, but didn't dare express any objections at that point.

The upshot of all this is that when the bill came, Harriet fell back on the traditional female role and asked me to pick it up. Why, I said? Since you believe in equality, I do too, so let's split it 50/50. She trumped me by stating that she had forgotten her purse. Knowing that she lived around the corner from this place, her favourite fancy eatery, I defended the equal-rights platform by saying, "Why don't you go home and get your purse; here's my share". I left some money on the table, and I got up in a swirl of triumph.

I never heard from her again, and good riddance to another hypocrite, say I!

After this meeting, I must admit there was a moment of joy at the skill with which I had hoisted her on her own petard. What a hypocrite she had turned out to be – first lecturing me on gender equality for an hour, and then expecting me to revert back to the old superior 'male role' of paying the piper.

However, on further reflection, I was somewhat disheartened by the low level of discourse. We had always been good colleagues, able to discuss differences amiably. Now all that had been replaced by the simple rallying cry of slogans. If one chooses to see human relations in terms of a constant power struggle, is it necessary to simplify it to this rough degree? Man versus woman, women as victims of the male perpetrator. Surely, this simplistic paradigm is not a realistic portrayal of the complicated infrastructure of male-female relationships.

Instead of hiding behind generalizations, look at the more complicated texture of real life. Just as we have all known blatant examples of men who have taken advantage of women, it is also true that there are many instances of women using their power to manipulate men. It is difficult to believe in the helplessness of womankind when one is confronted with a strong, sophisticated career woman such as Birgitta, for example. An old friend of mine, she has never let any man control her, and has just accepted a job offered by a headhunter, as chief executive of a large corporation. In her private life she also rules the roost, while her husband Sam stays home to take care of their two children. No typical female victim here.

Sure, there are women who have been used by men, but there are also men who have been exploited by women. I note that feminist Susan Faludi's latest book focuses on men, and the problems they have in this new gender-blurred environment.

Let me speculate on a new typology here. Instead of dividing the world into men and women, with men representing evil, and women as helpless victims, a more nuanced description of the world is as follows: there are givers and takers. Some men are takers, while others are givers. The same is true of the female sex. It is not a simple story of men exploiting women. People are different and follow various patterns of behaviour, crossing over the sexual divide.

Here's one example from real life to bolster this point. Laura, an attractive woman of 26 when I first met her, used to complain to me that men used her, exploited her, etc. A few years later, during the high times of the 1960s' flower power days, she experimented with lesbianism. The next thing I heard from her was that now she felt exploited by women, just as she had been used and misused by men previously. So it is not the gender divide that is decisive; Laura is one of the unfortunate givers in life, who is apt to pair off with takers.

If one is conscious of this, one can move beyond blaming men for all one's troubles, and take a closer look at what is going on in each situation.

A few years later, I ran into Laura at a Chinese restaurant, where she was with her new young husband and a newborn child.

So before we hasten to blame 'men' or 'women' for our ills, let's remember the other possibility dichotomy, more realistically dividing the world into the givers and the takers. As my philosophical friend Arnold remarked after reading this text: "I've been a giver all my life, now I'll see how it is to be a taker."


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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