The Problem with Gender Identity
On May 19, a campus assault alert was issued because someone was sexually battered on the UC Irvine campus. I started thinking about the “Take Back the Night” rally held a while ago to raise consciousness about sexual assault and rape, both of which are an epidemic in American society. I wondered if the event helped to raise consciousness about violence based upon the construction of gender. What does it mean to attend a rally to stop rape and violence while simultaneously 28,000 children, teens and adults view pornography based on scenarios involving rape, according to professorhouse.com, which scholars claim creates a patriarchal, sexist rape culture?
Playboy is now a symbol of liberation, but isn’t it really a part of a patriarchal capitalist system that limits and conforms bodies to stereotypes that only lead to attacks due to our hypersexualized bodies? What about the attacker? How is “he” constructing the Other’s body? Is it a space in which access is always granted and never denied? Where does “he” get the information that anyone with a vagina is a body that deserves to be attacked?
For all the good that the “Take Back the Night” rally did, there is more work that needs to be done in order to improve the collective conscience of society. If we deconstruct this attack and treat it as a social sign, we discover something telling about the current state of the construction of “gender” and “gendered” space in postmodern America.
First, the relationship between the two bodies is treated with a hypocritical double-standard. The attacker is treated as a model of necessary power instead of an effect of gender construction. “He” is a subject that feels entitled to the space and thus, attacks the other. Afterward, “his” friends come to “his” defense. They enact the “gendered” construction, which caused the attack in the first place—or what anti-sexist activist Jackson Katz calls “the macho paradox.”
Gender construction also takes place within fraternities because they foster this “macho” set of corporeal significations, which makes them part of the larger context in the construction of “gender.” In an article entitled “Sorority,” published in “UC First Order of Business” magazine, Ana Levy eloquently detailed the tension between the construction of femaleness and the patriarchal capitalist influences within sororities and fraternities. Levy writes, “The emphasis for entrance into a sorority is not placed on intelligence, but hotness. Not only that, but for this boy to think that ‘he’ has the right to say what the girls should be like … as if they exist only to satisfy guys like himself.” These campus-sponsored organizations legitimize themselves only through a process of exclusion because one can only be a member if there are those who are not fraternity or sorority members.
This shouldn’t surprise us. The anti-feminist culture we live in “educates” the “male” student to construct the “female” as the other. This is especially true in the world of heterosexist pornography where “girls” are literally the receptacle of men’s bodily violence. Witness lust4porno.com, one of the myriad of sexist, phalli-centric sites of the pornography industry, which proudly boasts on its homepage: “Innocent virgin schoolgirl brutally raped” and “savage gang-rape in the girl scout’s camp” as part of its allure. The following headline reflects the tension within a culture that claims equality for all, but presents certain bodies as legitimate only when they are in pain: “Screaming will not help this poor girl getting gang-raped by men who love to see pain and suffering in her eyes—only $9.95.” While many students attended the “Take Back the Night” rally, many others probably viewed the very same rape scenarios the rally aimed to prevent by visiting sites such as lust4porno.com.
The victim in this campus assault case was not attacked because of provocation, but because “she” is “gendered” space, which is space constructed as a blank slate. If we look at the history of campus assault, it is telling that typically assaults of this kind are not reported against a “he” by a “he.” Even if a male attacker was sexually attracted to a “he,” the attacker doesn’t assault him because his body is not constructed as empty and passive. The attacker and “male” students know it; that’s why sexual attacks do not occur against “males” due to their “gender” identity.
The “one in four” campaign, which tries to educate the “male” student body about rape and violence, has noble aims. However, the success of the organization can only be gauged from within the larger social context of “gender” construction. If the “male” attacker in this case of battery at UCI violated the victim’s body, it was because “he” was enacting the construction of “gender,” which “he” thinks “he” is supposed to play, to be and to do. If the construction requires that “male” attacks “female,” then “he” legitimates “his” body through bodily enactments for social acceptance and value.
The victim’s body in our society is relegated to a passive state that is supposed to accept what happens to it; and anything the victim does for defense is questioned. Since consciousness cannot differentiate between what a computer simulates and what is natural reality, it is no wonder one in four “male” subjects will assault a “female” subject.
It may be fun to be the “hot” one for awhile, but a system of domination that denies the possibility of being anything other than a spectacle is conformist and sexist. Once wrinkles appear, skin sags and hair grows gray, one is tossed aside as the piece of trash one was already constructed to be. Then one finally realizes the role one played as the empty, passive, signified space in the construction of “gender.”
Nathan Tumazi is a fourth-year international studies major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.