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Healthy fraternity, sorority can improve relationships

My father was forever a Rotarian. He had 30-plus years of perfect attendance. Once each year, his local club had Kids’ Day. All the Rotarians would bring their children in for the meeting and introduce them.

What I remember most as a child at those meetings was the sound of men singing. Big booming voices all around me. Powerful. For me, formative.

Then women sued to be allowed to become Rotarians. Their argument was straightforward: At Rotary meetings, men networked and developed connections for business, and businesswomen were left out. And that wasn’t fair. And, suddenly, Rotary International was coed.

And things changed. Not saying it was bad; rather, different. Not saying that women didn’t have a just claim — they did! The inclusion of women was the right thing to do.

But my father experienced a loss in the change. Rotary International was no longer a men’s club. And he missed this occasion of the exclusive communion of men.

Years and years later, I often find myself pondering our post-feminist world, thankful for the issues of justice brought to light and in large part rectified by the movement, but wondering about something else. How do modern men find, claim and protect a fellowship that belongs only to men? How do women do likewise with women?

If you study premodern cultures, one of the things that jumps out at you is the way those cultures protected fierce delineations of gender. They symbolized and made ceremony of these delineations. Created taboos to protect them. There were simply places, actually and symbolically, that a woman did not belong. And other places, actually and symbolically, that a man did not belong. And to glance back over our post-feminist shoulders and decide that all these delineations are quid pro quo evidence of sexism is … ridiculous.

Now, I did not say sexism did not abound in some, even too many of these customs of culture. Of course it did. Remember Isaac Singer’s short story “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy,” about a Jewish girl who masquerades as a boy so she can discuss Jewish law and theology? Remember when fathers were banned from birthing rooms? Remember the oppressive folly of only men being doctors and only women being nurses? In “Clan of the Cave Bear,” author Jean Auel tells the story of a Cro-Magnon girl raised by Neanderthals. She is outcast, and, to survive, must violate the taboo of a woman laying her hands on a man’s weapons. Good for her!

Of course, we should repent when we recognize irrational and oppressive strictures preventing individual men and women from exercising authentic, individual vocation. It doesn’t threaten me if a man wants be a preschool teacher. Or if a woman wants to become an auto mechanic. It’s just that none of this is my point.

Here’s my point: A thriving life for a healthy man includes access to healthy fraternity. A thriving life for a healthy woman includes access to healthy sorority. And, by definition, women don’t belong in fraternity. And men don’t belong in sorority. Yes, each is sometimes invited and included in the other’s sacred circle, but that’s just it — he/she is occasionally invited. But the defining norm is exclusion. Because it’s not your circle!

I go to a local piano bar with my girlfriend and another couple. I’m in the men’s room, with men. We’re doing our business. In walk two giggly drunken girls. Oh, for them, this is funny as hell. Look! We can shamelessly transgress this taboo and pass it off as sexy, edgy and coquettish.

My offense is not a question of modesty. Nor a question of shame. We are not in here hatching plans to do evil to women. It’s no news flash that we use the toilet. And, in middle-age, you find yourself caring less and less about who sees you naked. No, my offense is, ladies, you don’t belong here. My friends and I joke that when a woman sees a urinal, then we have to call in a witch doctor to take the curse off of it.

Healthy fraternity/sorority is not clandestine. It does not protect secrets. What it protects is the vital mystery of “otherness.” Separateness. Men are not women. Women are not men. When both men and women deeply respect this, two things happen. First, each embraces themselves more powerfully and authentically as a man … as a woman.

Then a second, quite magical thing happens: Relationships between men and women become healthier and happier, too.

Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at skalas@reviewjournal.com.

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