Gender, Sexuality, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 5 of 7)
Many people in the world face the persistent threat of sexual assault and see their career prospects diminished because of their gender, as a recent study shows. Some of these same individuals—but also many others—face ridicule and rejection because they find themselves attracted to people of the same gender. Some face similar treatment because they find themselves from a very early age alienated from their own bodies, understanding their gender identity to be other than their biological sex.
And then there is the rest of humanity. Some of us have the luxury of being able to ignore others’ struggles and to deny that gender and sexual identity define our lives in significant measure. Not all of us do ignore or deny their impact—and none of us should—but many can and some do. Straight, non-trans men, that’s us.
Ironically (and perhaps unfortunately), the cause of justice for women, including transwomen, for transmen, for gays, and for those who reject traditional binary definitions of gender and/or sexuality, depends in part measure on us.
I am not advocating the idea that women need men more than men need women. Neither am I proposing an androcentric noblesse oblige. Rather, I am drawing attention to the facts that those who are straight, non-trans, and male have been among the greatest perpetrators of injustice against those who are not, and that those of us who are not perpetrators are too often silent. People need people, and humanity needs all the people—or at least the vast majority of the people—to be on board with solving its most pressing issues. Issues of justice relating to gender and sexuality are no different.
You do not even need to believe that non-traditional approaches to gender and sexuality are moral to recognize that you and people like you, including your faith community, have been complicit in failing to love all people and love them well.
Imbalances of Power
Every few days seems to unearth some new story about how men have harmed women, trans and non-trans, gay and straight alike. Whether in new accounts or in the unearthing of old ones, the last year in particular has been a horrific one for news of physical and sexual violence perpetuated by men against women.
People are the problem, and not just any people. Those in power can exploit those around them or ignore those being exploited by others. That power can take many forms, ranging from the physical and economic to the social and psychological. For a variety of reasons, those in power have tended to be men. There are numerous exceptions. Women can exploit men when they are in positions of greater power, even if only for a moment, as one recent story illustrates. Yet the fact remains, men have historically had more power.
It is the nature of imbalances power, rather than the nature of men as such, that is the source of the problem. Power corrupts. For many, the temptation to exploit others is especially great when it is paired with the opportunity to do so without fear of reprisals.
Case Study in Power: Campus Sexual Assault
The issue of sexual assault on college campuses demonstrates many of the issues at play. I propose considering this issue because, I hope, sexual assault is so unambiguously morally wrong. In some issues of gender and justice, there are moral ambiguities. Not in this. By understanding the role of individual and community in addressing and preventing campus sexual assaults, we can understand issues of responsibility and guilt more broadly as they relate to gender.
In a campus sexual assault, the perpetrator can be male or female. So can the victim. No assessment of campus sexual assault should limit awareness of the wide variations of this crime. Male victims and the female victims of female perpetrators face even greater challenges at being believed than the probably more typical female victims of male perpetrators. I say probably because, due to underreporting, it is impossible to know for certain.
Because it illustrates the potential for gender to be intertwined with imbalances of power, my focus here will be male perpetrators assaulting female victims. Such perpetrators possess significant potential resources on many campuses: alcohol with which to ply their victims, with or without the help of date rape drugs; parties, where such substances may be administered and where socially adventuresome and naïve potential victims are likely to flock; social networks, including but not limited to those provided by Greek life, which can protect perpetrators with alibis and secrecy, and can even to provide opportunities for sexual assault.
Now alcohol, parties, and social networks are not the problem; but they can make the problem worse, because they provide perpetrators with power and opportunity, often while removing accountability even further from the equation. When a recent survey of college men found that around 32% “would have ‘intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse’ if ‘nobody would ever know and there wouldn’t be any consequences,’” this should give us all pause.
The above survey may not be correct. I hope it is not. But I also know that too many of us have let wishful thinking cloud our judgment at the expense of past, present, and future victims. If the survey is correct, 32% of college men, a critical mass if not a majority, are potential rapists. If some respondents lied, it is possible that the actual number is even greater.
It is also disheartening that in this same survey “only 13.6% admit to having ‘any intentions to rape a woman’ under these same circumstances.” That means that the remaining 18.4% who would consider forced intercourse, provided it were free of consequences, did not define forced intercourse as rape. There should not be any confusion or ambiguity in anyone’s mind about what rape is or about its morality. Any yet confusion remains. Not all would-be rapists define rape as rape. This should be disconcerting to us all.
Perpetrators often do not face consequences. When they do, the consequences are often minimal. Victims receive much of the blame. This should not be. And yet these tendencies persist. In cases where there have been consequences for perpetrators, there is still a high likelihood that the personal, legal, and educational consequences will be more severe for the victim.
Guilt is not an exclusively individual matter. Yes, in the first instance, the perpetrator is guilty. But it is foolish to think that your hands are clean if you have taught your son “never take ‘no’ for an answer” as a defining life principle; if the ways that you act (and fail to act) in your fraternity serve to protect your own at the expense of protecting the innocent; or if you lead a college to avoid scandal rather than to pursue justice. Parents, friends, and administrators can count themselves among those who are part of the problem.
The powerful have a greater potential to be malevolent, for power provides both opportunity and, in many cases, motive. Some wield power merely for the sake of wielding power. Even for those who do not deliberately abuse their power may have the luxury of obliviousness. If the aforementioned survey is correct, only approximately 68% of college men would not have intentions to force a woman to sexual intercourse, even if they knew they would not face consequences. These men cannot ignore the issue. In fact, they may be college women’s best hope of a solution.
Some have intuitively grasped the necessarily communal nature of responsibility for ending campus sexual assault. It has been encouraging to see many fraternities take up the cause. Public awareness campaigns have done much to educate those who in the past might have been unaware of what constitutes sexual assault and how to hold others accountable. These offer some hope. But the question remains: why has campus sexual assault become such an apparent epidemic, the true extent of which one can only estimate, if not fathom?
In Search of Empathy
What we have is a failure of empathy. Empathy is the ability to take others’ experiences personally, including their joys and pains. Empathy is not synonymous with sympathy. One need not agree with another person’s views to empathize with how they must feel in light of their experiences. Some are more gifted at empathy than others, but empathy can be practiced and increased as a skill. Even sociopaths and psychopaths can learn greater empathy, as one recent study has demonstrated. To empathize is to put oneself in another’s shoes and to seek to understand what it must be like to be them. In short, to empathize with others is to love them as oneself.
To take advantage of someone sexually is to demonstrate a lack of empathy. Perpetrators of sexual assault fail to prioritize the wellbeing of others, apparently as an extension of failing to consider what it would be like to be the one being assaulted; or, in the case of perpetrators who have themselves previously been victims, they fail to accept that the suffering of their own victims is as important as what they themselves hope to experience. As the above survey indicates, many of the potential perpetrators do not even define the sexual assaults in which they consider engaging to be sexual assaults. This is moral relativism at its worst, manifestly unable to safeguard the vulnerable when the powerful define exploitation as “what’s right for me.”
Those who condemn LGBTQIA individuals similarly demonstrate lack of empathy. This condemnation tends to be rooted in an appeal to absolute morality. Some who condemn offer simplistic protests of “it’s just plain wrong.” Others present their condemnations in the context of systematic understandings of the nature of gender and sexuality, often grounded in religious teachings.
Is it wrong for someone else to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, or asexual? That is not the most important question to ask. What is it like for someone else to question their own sexuality and/or gender identity? That is the question that matters most for those hoping to love others well. Even if, in the end, you do not sympathize with the views that someone has or the actions that they take in light of their feelings, you must empathize enough to realize that their feelings about their gender and/or sexuality have never been a choice.
Harsh Words for Harsh Christians
I will single-out my fellow Christians because, here in the U.S. at least, we Christians have been among the worst offenders in hating and judging LGBTQIA individuals. For example, this week at a funeral in Colorado, fifteen minutes into the service the presiding pastor refused to continue unless all photos depicting the deceased with her wife were removed. Given the choice between respecting the departed and comforting those who mourned her, on the one hand, and condemning her sexuality, on the other, the pastor chose the latter. In making such choices, he is not alone. This has shown signs of improving in recent years, but the problem remains.
What is particularly perplexing is that being hateful and judgmental are explicitly antithetical to Jesus’ teachings. In his most famous sermon, Jesus preached, “Judge not and you will not be judged” (Matt. 7:1; Luke 6:37). This principle is as straightforward as it is absolute. In July 2013, Pope Francis in an interview expressed a variation of this principle in answer to a question about a hypothetical gay priest lobby at the Vatican. He replied, “Who am I to judge them if they’re seeking the Lord in good faith?” What was so notable about both Francis’ remarks and the press’s response was not that this statement ran counter to what he should have been saying, according to the teachings of the Church, but that it ran counter to the ethos that many of the loudest Christian voices have been espousing for many years. Pope Francis simply said what Christians should have been saying all along, as indicated by Christ.
That Christians in the U.S. have historically done so poorly at not judging tells us less about the nature of Christianity than it does about the nature of people in general, especially people in power. Christianity’s declining power and influence in American public life has come with a reciprocal ratcheting up of moralistic rhetoric in certain Christian circles. (See, for example, this story about the recent Atlanta fire chief.)
There are those among us who are arguing about whether an individually is “really a he” or “really a she,” when this individual is suffering in utter despair, their very life in jeopardy. The recent suicide of transgender teen Leelah and her suicide note offer a poignant reminder of this, implicating her parents and their legalistic interpretation of their religion. I do not assume that you must agree with Leelah’s understanding of her gender; but I do assume that you must attempt to understand Leelah and those like her, to listen, and not to condemn. For Leelah, this was no argument about morality or grammar in the abstract, as if her life’s worth could be summed up in a gendered pronoun, one way or the other. For her, this was a matter of love struggling against rejection, of hope struggling against despair, of life struggling against death. For too many, death appears to win in the end.
Individuals must recognize the ways that their own faith local communities and denominations may have spread hate. Even if you personally are innocent of such things, if others have preached hate in the name of your God or your religion, a sincere apology may be the best starting point for genuine dialogue, healing, and mutual understanding.
Beyond “Us” and “Them”
Whatever differences make us distinct, these are ultimately less significant than the things that unite us in our common humanity. Straight, non-trans men cannot fully understand what it means to be LGBTQIA, but we can try to the fullest extent of our abilities. Similarly, we cannot fully understand what it is like to be women. But we can try. No matter who you are, you can observe, listen, read, and imagine what it is like to be those other than yourself. Your understanding may be imperfect. It will remain imperfect. But you can come to understand others better than you do now.
You need to see yourself clearly. From that position of self-awareness, you may be uncomfortable and some of that discomfort may remain. But with an ever clearer sense of who you are, you will be empowered to see those around you with even greater clarity, to see reflections of yourself in them. According to Genesis, when you see your fellow humans, you see a reflection of the image of God (Gen. 1:27). According to Jesus, when you see those in need, you are seeing Jesus himself (Matt. 25:35-36).
Once we understand what makes us us and what makes them them we can step beyond these divisions to embrace just how much we all share in common. You know what it is like to be gay or transgender better than you think you do, because those who are gay or transgender are people, like you. We all long to be loved and accepted. We all have hopes and desires. We all have insecurities and fears, including the fear of rejection. All of us can relate to that; but some of us do not want to.
Some people are afraid to carefully observe and deeply empathize with others because it would mean seeing a reflection of themselves, perhaps too close for comfort. Anecdotal evidence suggests that those who are the most vocally homophobic often tend to be those with the most urgent, secret insecurities, although there are surely others simply driven by the thrill of exerting power at the expense of others.
True awareness of oneself and others brings with it a sense of community. What groups, social systems, and sub-cultures are you a part of? In what ways does power, by its presence or absence, shape your experience relative to that of others? How do guilt and responsibility apply to you, both individually and in the communities in which you participate? These are some of the questions at issue. Answering them well has much at stake.
Unequally Shared Responsibility
Not all straight people are guilty of injustices against others; neither are all men guilty of injustices against women. But we are all participants in a society with systems, communities, and power dynamics that are often unjust. Those of us who are not the victims of injustice become complicit when they fail to actively fight it. Even if we are not active perpetrators, we risk becoming enablers of those who are, of becoming, in effect, complicit in our passivity.
If you have never felt threatened by sexual assault, this means you. If your gender does not place limitations on you in your advancement in your career and in society, that means you. If you have never questioned your gender identity or your sexuality, that means you. In short: we straight, non-trans men.
We cannot ignore the problems facing others. We are the ones who have been either silent or actively complicit in perpetuating injustice against women and against those whose attractions and/or self-understandings run counter to traditional societal gender norms. Everyone is responsible for addressing these issues, but many of us, even if we have not been actively making the problems worse, have still not been pulling our own weight.