The Trauma of the Gendered Child
From around 2005 until early 2006, I delusionally entertained an idea of myself as ungendered. Then a radical activist friend, Yolanda Carrington, pointed out to me how politically absurd this notion of mine was. And I realized that the white male supremacist mind—mine in particular—is quite capable of generating lots of mental CRAP. How could I have grown up in a deeply white male supremacist society, and not be socially and interpersonally gendered? Her point was that regardless of what I thought of myself as, I am in a real world where gender—and race—matter, a lot. And being gendered, as a woman or man, a girl or a boy, is not something one can escape. Privileges and power are distributed based on how we are perceived, and according to our anatomy. The anatomy is biological, but the political meaning is entirely social.
The central contention of this essay is that human beings are dehumanized in traumatic ways by being gendered, and that trauma is repressed and acted out in atrocious ways. I paid attention, from the age of nine, approximately, to what the hell was going on. I saw people struggling to become boys and girls while also being coerced into these compulsory identities.
I have most forms of male privilege, but not the complete set. I am socially perceived as a white male of the human species, which in patriarchy means first as a boy, then as a man. But I never deeply identified as such; I didn't willfully do many of the things that meant being either of those identities, especially not IN ORDER TO BE a boy or a man. I also did not wish to be a girl or a woman—as the cost of being a white female in U.S. late 20th century patriarchy was still very high—even with a white women's movement happening all around me. I rebelled, internally, or, rather, I held my moral ground—or so I thought. I believed I was resisting being gendered. But because I was perceived as male and white, I was afforded white male privileges. And once you got 'em, they're yours.
As an adolescent, I took full advantage of the right, the entitlement, to violate others visually, by using pornography and through acts of private voyeurism—unethically turning whole people into sexual things for my viewing pleasure. With pornography, the corporate pimps do this work for me—the people-turned-things are already, and often traumatically, prepared as such for my patriarchal pleasure. These forms of acting out my entitlements, my power, continued well into my adulthood. Due in part to the loss of a dear feminist friend over this behavior, I have since stopped voyeuring, and have also, with emotional and social support, consciously and conscientiously, left behind the desire for the person-as-thing. I'm not repressing it, but instead seeing it for what it is—a serious form of sexual violation. My erotic life is currently free from CRAP's expectations and imperatives—others are no longer in danger of being turned into
fetishized things when around me. Now THAT'S personal sexual liberation! But males of many ages are also taught, formally or not, through family behavior, mass-media (including pornography), or social custom, that we are entitled to physically aggress against girls and women. This leads to terrifying atrocities such as battery and rape.
A question that has been with me for some time, while the obviousness of the answer stared me in the face, is this: what is it about being raised to be a boy and then a man is traumatic-while-status-giving, such that boys and men do what we do, call it "my right," and disregard it as harm to others?
When I was a kid I saw boys slowly or rapidly dis-identify with girls, and girls do the same with boys. "Ew, I'm not one of THEM" was a commonly heard childhood expression. At the same time, one group (boys) was given rights to behave in certain ways, while garnering social status for doing so. Girls, it appeared to me, lost out in the deal. "Throwing like a girl" was never intended as a compliment on any playground I was ever on. The girls I knew thought boys were gross in certain ways, but also deeply envied their freedom of movement and, in some ways, their freedom of expression. Boys, after all, could get away with being, well, boisterous. Many girls I knew wanted to be like boys, but not BOYS, exactly—although some girls did deeply desire to be the only other gendered option. They wanted the freedom from the physical restrictions of being a girl, and in patriarchy, that means becoming a boy, and then a man. Transsexuality, as a practice, can only happen in a politically enforced dual-gender society with a patriarchal medical system willing to perpetuate and perpetrate the idea that gender is biological, not social and political. In most patriarchies, it's a two-party
hierarchical gender system, and in the U.S. it's the kind of party where there's plenty of brew and an abundance of acquaintance-rape. And sometimes the rapists aren't intoxicated and the raped have been drugged into unconsciousness.
The budding misogynist boys I knew had no easy ride. It was not ALL about freedom of movement and expression. No. What being a boy, what making that compulsory, enforced choice meant, was that boys had to give up important ways of being humane, in order to be proper boys. They not only had to dis-identify with girls, but also had to shun whatever activities and modes of being were associated, culturally, with girls. To not do this brought ridicule: shame and punishment—the loss of respect from friends, and the loss of approval, in some cases, from family.
Each culture operates a bit differently, and in any culture there are customs and ways of being and behaving that play out this drama of gender trauma differently, but usually with the same basic message and results: boys gain status by not being girls. Girls cannot obtain that status. Girls obtain stigma. Boys can get that stigma by doing what girls are mandated to do. This is not to say that all boys don't like being boys or that all girls hate being girls. No. It is to say that there is no real choice, no meaningful choice, in this happening, if by "choice" we mean we could opt out (say "no thank you") without
suffering negative consequences. As a corollary, as a middle class Western child, I had no choice as to whether or not to go to a certain kind of school. Did I like that schooling? Sometimes, but it was accompanied by a rigid racist, patriarchal curriculum and lots of bullying. Did I have any real options? No. This is how it is with gender, in my experience. Except now some rural and suburban middle class white kids I know are sometimes home-schooled. But one's home, in most communities, is usually not a place to escape the pressure to be gendered.
The trauma of being gendered includes removing from consciousness many parts of one's pre-gendered self. These dimensions of being and behaving must be put away—stigmatized, self-ridiculed, and banished. I think this part of the process is normal and therefore invisibilized as harm to humanity. In patriarchy, enduring this trauma is required if one is to become a successfully gendered human being. This psychologically bloody sacrifice is seen as necessary, in order to go on living as a socially acceptable (while dehumanized) gendered person. Gender, in the dominant West at least, is deeply dualistic, hierarchical, and oppositional, with little to no room for grey areas. This means that the individual and non-dominant cultural complexities of our diverse humanity are shoved, not delicately, into one of two camps, by the dominant culture's patriarchal imperatives. These emotional and spiritual concentration camps necessitate ignorance of who we really were (pre-trauma), are (while enduring the trauma), or could be (if we'd never experienced the trauma). To replace these lost parts, spiritual and secular traditions resurrect these parts: as the divine or degraded feminine, as the heroic or horrific masculine.
When I was little, I saw the price paid by males in CRAP. I think most males can relate to this odd combination of socializing forces: as a child, then a teenager, one got some privileges, and also got to be sacrificed in neighborhood gang wars or off-shore military wars. But becoming a man—at whatever age such a behavior-made identity was unconsciously, if anxiously, sought—meant one had to publicly disrespect women, or actively hate or harm them. It also required boys to sacrifice (try to destroy) the most vulnerable emotional parts of ourselves. We must make ourselves as invulnerable to other men as we can, in order to be socially acceptable. There are regional, class, and ethnic differences in what it means to be a man, but every male had better become one, or else. If he's especially successful in this psychological and behavioral transformation, he will get paid better at jobs, if paid at all, will gain more cultural status, and will always have social access (visually and/or physically) to a population of females for sex, usually those within his own ethnic group and economic class. Should he want to avail himself of this unjust access to real human beings seen as being essentially "for him"—and becoming for him to the degree that they are unjustly accessed sexually—they are "his", whether through affection or aggression, with religious and secular law historically on the man's side.
White-dominated feminism came along, and by the 1970s had proposed a better way for women to raise children: to not gender them. Feminist children's books and other media promoted this humanely open "free to be, you and me" approach. Then patriarchy caught wind of the potentials for radical human transformation, and began a systematic backlash against feminism, claiming it, not patriarchy, was to blame for all this gender mess. Apparently, as conservative patriarchs argue, having no choice is better, and, bizarrely, means freedom. But the freedom "no choice" provides is a conservative-liberal (not radical) freedom only to be men who exploit and oppress women, unrelentingly and mercilessly. Primary parents, disproportionately female, are entrusted, in patriarchy, with the terrible task of gendering their children. Feminism-bashing reveals a shocking level of denial about the real causes of men's harm to themselves, to women, and to children. Patriarchy is the cause; feminism is the cure. But men have so learned to demean women and praise men that the idea of critiquing patriarchy simply hasn't occurred to most men, I find, while the idea of blaming women for men's woes is both notorious and ubiquitous.
Men hardly know patriarchy exists. Most women, on the other hand, viscerally know that it exists, because they must survive it, daily. Men in most societies, having privileges and entitlements relative to women in their own economic and ethnic groups, can benefit from patriarchy in a way that women cannot, in my experience. Women tell me their tales of date rape, being accosted, being stared at and stalked, being commented on in racist-sexist ways, working inside and outside the home (which is nothing new for African-American women), and being seen and treated primarily or only as a patriarchally female thing (in the family, on the street, and at the job-site). No woman has yet told me about being treated, her whole life, or in any portion of it, as a free person with full human rights. Most women I know have been sexually assaulted, at least once, for being girls or women, or to punish girls and women for not being patriarchally acceptable enough. Sexual violence often makes the recipient submissive and deferential to one man or many, in order to survive: social submissiveness is part of what is expected of "well-adjusted" girls and women. To adjust, according to dictionary.com, means several things:
1. To change so as to match or fit; cause to correspond.
2. To bring into proper relationship.
3. To adapt or conform.
4. To bring the components of into a more effective or efficient calibration or state.
This is all a part of the gender trauma for girls and women.
The United States, as a nation, is at least male supremacist and misogynist; in the last several hundred years it has simultaneously been thoroughly racist through the savage and brutal manifestation of an ideology of white supremacy. The deeper, even more denied and repressed truth is that the dominant ideology of Anglo-America is white male supremacy.
Denial and repression of knowledge, and varying degrees of dissociation of the complex vulnerable traumatized self, are the primary ways to survive as children and then adults in patriarchally gendered and misopedic (child-hating) societies. Children are
forbidden to know what has been done to them, from their families, by media, and in cultural peer groups; this means that men can remain deeply unaware of how patriarchy has shaped them, through a whole lifetime, however short and troubled that lifetime is. It is safe to say that most women who are close to men can verify that men are deeply unaware of what patriarchy has done to them. And women suffer for it. Men's lack of insight and access to the vulnerable self, means women (and children) are often not safe, sexually or otherwise. Since women occupy lower status levels than men, relatively speaking, in patriarchal cultures, men can get away with blaming women for their woes. To instead hold patriarchy accountable would not only require the painful re-acquisition of this knowledge of dehumanization, but could also result in a loss of status at least, and violence at worst, to the humanized rememberer. So self-unawareness and denial become key values in patriarchy. With these values psychologically in place and socially enforced, a patriarchy's misogynist status quo is thus preserved.
The boys who did not act enough like boys, when I was growing up, were not treated well by those who strove to be real good patriarchal boys. Those “politically correct” patriarchal boys, as noted above, had sacrificed parts of themselves to become that way, often unconsciously, or with willful pain and effort. In order to complete the process of transformation to gendered being, they had to beat the shit out of, or at least systematically shame, all the boys who didn't follow suit (a masculinity-adoring suit): vulnerable boys, effeminate boys were hurt and humiliated. Boy culture was vicious when I was a kid: troubled, insecure, and cruel. (It has worsened since then: now boys sexually exploit girls at much younger ages.) At one point in dominant Western culture, boys were obsessed with toy Transformers. I believe this obsession derived from what they were doing, unconsciously: remaking themselves (repeatedly, compulsively) from emotionally vulnerable humans to hard invulnerable machines. See: http://www.hasbro.com/transformers/
When I was a sissified and systematically attacked male kid, I noticed that boys knew they could not be human in certain ways without garnering the stigma branded into girls. But I also saw, quite clearly, that boys, and all children, DID have vulnerable feelings. Pesky things, those. Boys (and not a few girls) just had to put them away. If this "putting away" is accomplished through force by parents, or is done self-aggressively, then those boys and girls are likely to be aggressive and hurtful to other children who show those feelings publicly. Peer pressure to act inhumanely towards others is yet another dynamic. Through a combination of individual trauma re-enactment, and acquiescence to peer values, tough girls and boys didn't like or tolerate me, while still-sensitive kids liked me just fine. Those marginalized sensitive, vulnerable kids and I were physically and emotionally abused throughout childhood. (I wonder what happened to them.)
So conflicted and hurting are these almost-boys, that they force onto others what patriarchy has made them do to themselves. A boy on the playground who is crying because physically hurt is attacked mercilessly. Patriarchal boys swoop in like vampiric vultures, picking at (on) the vulnerable boy who shows what others regard as weakness. This weakness is marked as feminine. Girls see this horror show. Girls learn, consciously or not, that the stigma they carry cannot be beaten out of them, but, rather, is likely to be beaten more deeply into them. Mainstreamed boys can dream of an adulthood of relative safety and sometimes find it. Whether or not girls dream about such a future, no such world awaits them. Boys become men, and they still rage inside and outside about what they had to banish or destroy in themselves to be proper patriarchal men. And so they despise seeing it displayed in others—males and females. But they long for it too, like a lost friend. Yearning and contempt is what most normal boys feel, in my experience, for those vulnerable parts of themselves. Publicly they say they want to "get a piece of ass" and privately they want to be held, touched, made whole through non-patriarchal, safe, caring intimacy. But because too many men have sacrificed their capacities for certain forms of intimacy, they leave behind that kind of eroticism, shredding it, and forge ahead into the dehumanizing world of adult patriarchal sexuality.
Patriarchal sexuality is an enforced eroticism of gendered and raced inhumanity. It is founded on the entitlement to violate others, visually or physically, and to act callously as one addictively and/or predatorily seeks to consume what one desires both because of what one has become and has not been allowed to become. Also, corporate-patriarchal advertising works. Billions, annually, wouldn't be spent on ads and pornography-production if they didn't work to shape our values and tastes, our desires and behaviors. (What soda, cell phone, and sex do you most like? Corporate America will tell you what choices you have, in each case.) Men, and women, mass-consume what is marketed and sold as patriarchal sex. This kind of sex is sexxx: racist, misogynist, hetero-normative, objectifying, fetishizing, and otherwise degrading. Sexxx is CRAP. Hurting, deep-down-vulnerable boys and men go to pornography because it teaches them how to have sexual feelings in a way that produces exciting sensation, while eliciting none of those pesky, trampled emotions. Men rape in order to have sexual experience (theirs, not women's) without vulnerability, while sadistically witnessing the raw vulnerability of the raped. Once through the adult door of the world of pornography, boys and men learn that prostituted women are all women, that misogyny is sex, that ethnic hate is sex, that sexxx is sex (whether lesbian, gay, bi, transsexual, or heterosexual). The sex that one can have without being “vulnerable”—that awful thing that brings with it the degraded status of girls and women—is the sex that boys and men, and increasingly girls and women too, eagerly want and addictively consume. For good examples of this racist and sexist hate-as-sex/fun, see the images at www.hustlingtheleft.com. WARNING: I must alert you to the fact that the images at that website are graphically and overtly misogynistic and racist, among other things. Survivors of racial, ethnic, and sexual abuse are likely to be deeply triggered by seeing them.
Admittedly, some people prefer sex without extreme forms of harm; they simply get off to gendered humans as objects with fetishized body-parts. The sex the not-overt-harmers have still requires dehumanization, however. It is not sex that is about intimately, vulnerably being with another person, in spirited fun or tender fondness, but sex that is about getting off on or in a person-seen-as-hot-thing. "Feeling used" is the common experience of those treated in this manner. I think most of us can recall such an experience, or a dozen, or more, as initiator, recipient, or both. Boys are prepared, through the trauma of being gendered, to desire a corporate, racist, patriarchal sexuality that provides excitement without nurturance; this system actively produces and fuels the desire to do inhumane things to gendered, raced human objects, or non-human animals. There’s nothing “natural” about it.
Boys are not prepared (socialized) to be humane with human beings. Sometimes heterosexual women in heterosexual men's lives try very hard to get them to be real, humane beings. Sometimes those women give up, and become pornography for those men. Sometimes men, acculturated to the racist and sexist world of pornography, impose those values, graphically depicted in aggressive actions, through similar actions, against boys, girls, and women. Sexual atrocities result: incest, child molestation, child rape, date rape, marital rape, stranger rape, and the unethical procurement of prostituted, trafficked, and enslaved children and women, disproportionately poor and of color, worldwide.
Pornography is now so intricately involved in these trans-national human rights violations, that it is rendered invisible as a determining agent, along with the trauma of being gendered. To see this linkage clearly: boys’ gender trauma, to pornography use, to committing sexual atrocities, would be to know more about the contemporary patriarchal social order than CRAP wants us to know. So, we experience CRAP, daily, but we don't know what it is or how it works. Those of us who have witnessed, up close and personal, those links, and have not repressed or denied them, know well how it works. And when we say what we know, we are simply not believed.
This stunning and astounding level of defensive non-belief is also known in other contexts: I once told a sort-of surrogate father of mine that I was concerned that my surrogate mother (his wife) was an alcoholic. She was a person despairingly caught in the traditional life of middle class heterosexual womanhood: she was economically secure through her connection to her husband, and, as wife and mother, was, typically, chronically neglecting and abusing herself. We had spent five years in close friendship, sharing holidays and vacations. After bringing this to the conscious attention of her husband (I knew from their daughter that he was deeply upset by his wife's daily drinking), I was purged from their family in a matter of days. They have not spoken to or contacted me since, except to send me, in a large box, some clothes that I'd left in their guest bedroom closet; the box contained no note.
The socially dispossessed, marginalized, and mistreated know how that works: if you speak the truth, you are told to shut the fuck up, or are otherwise silenced. The sudden loss of that family's connection and affection made me very sad and is still kind of shocking to me, even as I write this. (Yes, I'd been warned that could happen, by a friend who had two alcoholic parents. But that forewarning didn't make the reality of permanent separation hurt any less.)
These are enforced, mandated, compulsory traumas; they both create and lead to racist, heterosexist, and misogynist sexuality; these specific processes of manufacturing harm are never identified as systemic, institutionalized—political. Instead we are told they are only hormonal, genetic, or a consequence of innate brain differences in order to keep us in denial about what patriarchy—as organized, structured power—actually does to us. How patriarchal racing and gendering—how systematic racism and sexism (more accurately called white male supremacy)—affect the development of the brain, the condition of the psyche, the health of the body, the stamina of the spirit, has not, to my knowledge, been astutely studied. Patriarchally "objective" white male scientists do not tell us what they do not want to know: they, like most of us, had to become dehumanized in order to desire what they do because they, too, often enjoy sensation-based sex, rather than vulnerability-based eroticism. Their studies cannot study something they do not want to uncover. So, in the CRAP-unconscious world of biopsychology, and, more appropriately, in the field of social psychology, there is not likely to be a lot of funding or interest for discovering and revealing the traumatic implications of living in CRAP.
Most boys and men desperately crave "sensational" sex because it is the only route to something that even remotely resembles the real comfort and intimacy they need, but are too afraid to ask for or accept, or, more tragically, too invulnerable to desire and deeply receive. And, often, men get mixed messages from those around them, in queer and straight culture, about the degree to which they are to be vulnerable AND a stud. Do we want men to have a functional heart or a functional penis? Men shallowly and medically choose the latter, often, to avoid deeply experiencing the former, regardless of the requests of loved ones for a more emotionally, spiritually present partner.
Once men kill off all that is considered "womanly" (read: humane) in them, they can be molesters, batterers, rapists, and serial killers. Once men do this to themselves, or have it done to them, they can, as noted earlier, violently despise and resent seeing it in others: in vulnerable boys and men, as well as girls and women, of course. So misogyny is, inside patriarchy, socio-psychologically (not biologically) constructed in the socialized male. This leaves boys "ready" or "desirous" or "hungry" for pornography, or other forms of exploitation and inhumanity.
"Natural human females" (I'm positing here an apolitical, asocial condition of being that isn't culturally real) do not appear in pornography. Only man-made, usually prostituted, often abuse-surviving women are chosen to pose. No doubt, some sexually mature, economically enfranchised, and enthusiastic adult females choose to be in the sexxxism industries. This demographic is, by all sociological accounts, a miniscule minority of women who are, more commonly, seduced and trafficked as children by pimps and parents, often under excruciatingly horrendous circumstances of poverty and coercion. But that this tiny population of sex-workers exists at all, only means the gendered, pornographic norms of patriarchy work to teach women that their value and esteem, their desire and desirability, their pride and their power, ought to come from being sexxxually objectified by strangers. Can women, "authentically" make this choice? Yes. Can those same women choose not to endure the gender trauma, and not absorb patriarchal, misogynist values? No. No such misogyny-free, ungendered social or psychological zone or community exists in corporate patriarchy. CRAP's economies pay women more to be sexxxually available to men than to do anything else. The fact that women cannot choose to live human lives WITHOUT these racist-sexist messages being systematically dispensed and enforced, and this economics of white supremacy and misogyny being coercively present, is a point most "pro-sex" academics, addicts, and apologists do not note as they champion the sex-work many of them have never done.
Pornography teaches males the details of heterosexist and racist misogyny-as-sexxx, which becomes sex for them, and, increasingly, for everyone who is also consumed by this patriarchal desire callously cultivated by multi-millionaire corporate pimps. Gay and lesbian pornography, contrary to predominant queer belief, is not operating out of any other value system than CRAP's. Read Unpacking Queer Politics (2003), by white British lesbian-feminist Sheila Jeffreys, for an astute analysis of primarily white, increasingly patriarchal—woman-harming—queer culture. It includes a whole chapter on gay pornography.
Boys and girls need lots of safe space to have their more tender feelings, and instead are systematically shamed, and otherwise abused. Men are coercively privileged for becoming anti-woman and otherwise inhumane. For women there is the on-going degraded status, the negative social stigma, the efforts to survive in patriarchy, against great odds. But women, too, are made inhumane. Usually white women who rise to relatively high power positions in CRAP's economy are just as likely, in my experience, to be patriarchal and corporate in their values and actions as the men in comparable positions already are. A patriarchally good (politically correct) white middle class woman may cry on a TV talk show—especially when discussing sexual violence and its related survival strategies (compulsive sugar consumption and obesity, post-traumatic stress, addiction to drugs and alcohol). But she is not often encouraged by male partner, psychotherapist, or talk show host, to rage, especially in an organized fashion, in a militant style, against patriarchal atrocity. Rather, she is hospitalized and medicated, or she self-medicates, drugging down (depressing) the rage of being treated as a thing-for-men. Sometimes, especially in economically and racially privileged societies, she purposefully starves herself to death.
Anorexia, a disease primarily afflicting and killing white middle class or wealthier females, is one of many forms of lethal self-harm that being gendered and raced can produce. Heart disease and hypertension wreak havoc disproportionately on African-American women, killing them slowly. Racist-sexist magazines and other media that promote dangerous and debilitating white beauty standards, simultaneously invisibilize or
insult physically substantial white women, and all women of color. Come on, Vogue!
Now that stimulants like methamphetamine and opiates like oxycodone are prevalent in white suburbia, the popular media are beginning to pay attention, but will not, of course, make the links made here. Economic trauma, race trauma, and sex and gender trauma are the leading contributors of addiction, disease, depression, and despair. But the popular media are corporate: racist and patriarchal. Will they put these pieces together? And, whether they do or not, what will we, collectively, do about this?
When not-yet-boys and not-yet girls are given safe space to have their more vulnerable feelings, and have them SEEN and RECOGNIZED as meaningful, important, valuable, and precious, (that is, socially statused by family, peers, and media) then they can stay humane in a way most children don't stand a chance of being and becoming in contemporary patriarchies. An ungendered humanity also necessitates not being rewarded, by family, peers, and society-at-large for being inhumane to girls and women. When "effeminate" or "womanly" qualities, however patriarchally contrived or compulsory they are, stop being denigrated and ridiculed, then humanity may stand a chance of living fully humane (ungendered, unraced), ethnically and erotically diverse human lives.
When the each of us turns to look at what we all do to ourselves, to be accepted into CRAP, and when all our stories are told, when all our suffering is real to us, neither repressed, denied, or turned away from, then we will all know why our world is as it is. In the very mean time, I remain defiantly hopeful, with dreams of that humanely diverse world.
Health and peace to us all.
Julian Real is a full-time anti-CRAP activist-writer, a radical humanitarian who is working to support environmentally sustainable, economically humane, increasingly diverse, spiritually deep, caring cultures and communities, through social change movements led by women of color. His email address is julreal[at]gmail.com.
Copyrighted 2007. All rights reserved. No duplication or reproduction through any means, electronic or otherwise, is allowed without written permission from the author.
Note: CRAP is an acronym I coined in the summer of 2005, to make the world's suffering more comprehensible to myself; it stands for Corporate Racist Atrocious Patriarchy.
A special thank you goes out to Audre Lorde and Alice Miller, for all their humanitarian work.
[To post a comment, please click here. Yolanda Carrington's blog is called The Primary Contradiction.]