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Reflections on Gender Normativity

Contemporary discourses on gender normativity, which manifest themselves in both the behaviors characteristic of modern male and female relationships and the perceptions males and females have of themselves and each other, revolve around what has been termed “the double bind;” men and women are socialized with contradictory, mutually incompatible instructions on how to behave toward the opposite sex, and are given equally contradictory requirements for how they must portray themselves. The writers Susan Bordo and Jackson Katz, in their works discussing these norms, demonstrate how these contradictions contribute to a social environment in which sexual violence and aggressiveness is, if not explicitly condoned and encouraged, at least implicitly tolerated and enabled. In this brief analysis of their works, I will detail the discourse of the “double bind of masculinity” as described by Susan Bordo along with the contradictory expectations of female sexuality as described by Jackson Katz. From there, I will set out to demonstrate how these norms affect male and female sexual relationships, and will connect these discourses to my own experiences as a modern-day male.

In “Gentleman or Beast: The Double Bind of Masculinity,” a chapter of  Susan Bordo’s broader work on the social norms affecting men, Bordo describes how men are expected to be “an animal and a gentleman;” that is, society celebrates “untamed male aggression” (Bordo 234) yet also expects it to be “nicely, sexily contained at the same time.” As evidenced by the popularity of aggressive sports such as football and boxing, male violence, “primal aggressiveness,” which drives the equally “primal” male sexuality, is digested and rewarded by society, for it breaks from the taboos of civilization, allowing us to act out, or at the least experience vicariously, the inherent aggressiveness within us all. Figures such as boxers or sports stars are given a significant amount of leeway in their reckless behaviors, or are even allowed to get away with rape, creating a perception in men that they should embody the characteristics which define these individuals. The tremendous admiration and respect placed upon male aggressiveness develops an understanding that the societal taboos against violence need not apply to them. Furthermore, as Bordo puts it, the primitive, aggressive, violent male “turns a girl on” (Bordo 236), bringing out her primal urges as well. Accordingly, men develop an understanding that, to be a “real” man (and therefore a real sexual being), the taboos against violence should not apply to them. Men who do not fit the characteristics of the aggressive male, who display elements of compassion or tenderness, are meanwhile dubbed as “gay” (Bordo 240). From this comes the allowance for the aggressive, primal man to commit acts of violence, and thus sexual violence, with a degree of tolerance, the “boys will be boys” phenomena. Meanwhile, the men who are least likely to commit violence toward women, the ones who are compassionate and nonviolent, find themselves “paralyzed, caught between [their] desire to ‘act like a man’ and fear of giving offense” (Bordo 240). The “double bind” which they experience as a result of contradictory expectations keeps them from actively redefining sexual discourses and norms through action.

Jackson Katz, in “It Takes a Village to Rape a Woman,” a chapter of his book “The Macho Paradox,” discusses the idea of “rape culture,” in which pervasive social norms create an environment conducive to sexual assault. Katz focuses on the norms involving female sexuality, detailing how girls “link their feminine identity with men’s use of their bodies” because of society’s portrayal of a woman’s femininity as being intertwined with her sexuality (Katz 152). Furthermore, women experience a “double bind” in the pressures they feel to present themselves as both sexual beings while also maintaining an air of chastity, forced to be, as Katz puts it, “both a virgin and a whore” (Katz 152). Yet because of elements of victim-blaming in our society, and because of the pressures to present themselves in a chaste manner, women who are sexually aggressive are despised, and are considered not the victim of sexual assault but as the catalyst for it. Because of these two pressures, women find themselves believing that “men have a right” to their body, thereby making them susceptible to accepting unwanted advances, and, when assaulted, often fail to consider themselves as the victims of rape… for society derides the sexualized, sexually active female as a “whore” rather than as a potential victim (Katz 152).

These, then, are two prominent discourses which comprise the cultural norms surrounding male and female sexuality and sexual relationships, from which arises an environment which incubates sexual assault. Because of the discourses surrounding manliness, men feel as though they must be sexually aggressive, violent individuals in order to to portray themselves as “men;” a sexually aggressive, violent man is not one to readily accept “no” for an answer from a woman rejecting his sexual advances. Women, meanwhile, feel that they must act sexual in order to exhibit and embody their femininity, and thus are more susceptible to accepting undesired sexual advances by men lest they appear “prude.” Yet, because women fear being labeled a “whore” due to the contradictory expectations society has placed on them, they are much less likely to consider themselves victims of sexual violence or assault when placed into circumstances that resemble it; if they dressed provocatively (as society expected) and acted sexualized (as society expected), then it must be their fault that they were raped. This, then, is a culture in which men feel that they must be aggressive toward women sexually in order to embody their manliness, and women feel as though they must let men have their bodies yet cannot consider any advances toward them as illegitimate or as assault. Such is a context in which rape can occur, and indeed, such is the context in which rape often occurs without any reporting and with women being put into the position of not even considering the action rape.

My own personal experiences as a contemporary male in this society has reflected, to a degree, these different discourses on sexuality and relationships. I find particularly pertinent to my experiences Bordo’s concept of the “double bind of masculinity,” in that I would consider myself the compassionate, non-violent man who does not embody the traditional characteristics of “manliness” and who therefore does not portray himself as a sexual being. This has left me rather frustrated in the realm of my sexual relationships, where I have not found overwhelming levels of success; after all, it is the aggressive, primal male who “turns women on,” not the intellectual, compassionate male. From this is emergent a degree of disappointment toward women and a degree of tolerance for the aggressive actions “primal” men display, actions which often contribute themselves to rape. If they can “get some” by acting violent and brutish, at least they’re “getting some,” which is more than could be said for me. This degree of tolerance, borne from envy, does not and cannot allow for the changing of broader discourses about sexuality nor does it do much to help end the crisis of rape characteristic of our society.

I also find myself timid, “paralyzed” even, when dealing with sexual situations, for I find myself recognizing the “double bind” that women are placed in; I often worry whether women I am sexually engaged with are accepting my advances lest they appear they had led me on, or if their “indicators of interest” (flirting, etc.) were simply appearances made to satisfy the requirements of society rather them demonstrators of real interest. Of course, my timidity is likely borne from other reasons as well, yet these discourses about sexuality still serve as a basis in shaping the way I think.

The discourses surrounding male and female sexuality, as demonstrated by Jackson Katz and Susan Bordo in their works about these norms, create an environment which, if not explicitly tolerates, at the least makes possible, sexual violence and rape. Expectations on men to act aggressively and violent makes them more susceptible to committing sexual violence, while expectations on women to act sexualized puts them in the position to be assaulted. These discourses are pervasive, and, as evidenced by the continuing crisis of rape, run deep in our society. Furthermore, in my own experiences as a contemporary male, I’ve found my behaviors and perceptions influenced and shaped by my understanding of these norms.

Simon de Beauvoir on “the Other” and Women

The philosophical concept of the “Other” has served as a foundational basis for self-identity and social identity throughout the breadth of human thought and consciousness; “Otherness” refers to those and that which are separate and distinct from the “Real” or “Absolute.” Recognition and acknowledgment of another’s “Otherness” allows one to define themselves through a duality of qualities; for whatever qualities or characteristics they possess, the “Other” is set up to possess the distinct opposite. The subject can only posit itself through an opposition, asserting itself as an essential while setting up the “Other” as an inessential; an “object,” as Hegel puts it. In this introduction, Simon de Beauvoir explored the concept of the “Other,” extending it beyond conventional examples and applying it to the position and status of women in relation to their male counterparts.

To define the concept of the “Other,” Beauvoir utilizes a number of examples which demonstrate this duality of qualities. Alterity is a fundamental character of human thought, she says, as demonstrated by the conceptualization of Day-Night, Good-Evil, Sun-Moon, and God-Devil. Anti-Semites find an “Other” in the Jews, who likewise find an “Other” in the Gentiles. Poor whites can find solace in their otherwise destitute conditions by creating an “Other” out of, as Beauvoir puts it, “filthy niggers.” The bourgeoisie feel threatened by the rising status of the “Other” that is the proletariat. Then there is the case of women, who are made into an “Other” by men without reciprocity. The man, as conceptualized in philosophical thought tracing back to the foundations of the West, is “Absolute;” the man represents the positive and neutral of innate humanity, the man is right by virtue of being a man. The woman, however, is a negative, a “peculiarity” as Beauvoir describes it; a female is, like Aristotle argued, a female by virtue of a certain lack of qualities. Beauvoir points out this conceptual trend throughout works of Western thought: in the Genesis story, Eve the woman is not innately human, but rather created out of the bone of the man. Michelet writes of woman as the “relative being.” Saint Thomas decreed that woman was an “incomplete man, an ‘incidental’ being.”

What is particularly striking about this exploration of female “Otherness” is how it details its distinct nature from the “Otherness” of other groups. The Jew or the Black understand their groups to be “we,” and create an “Other” out of the Gentile or White; they are in position to, Beauvoir posits, turn all of Humanity Jewish or Black, thereby eliminating any “Otherness.” Women, however, do not think of themselves as “we;” rather, they think of themselves as “women.” From the biological necessity to cohabitate and cooperate with men in a world developed by men, women have not only been subjected to “Otherness,” they have been co-opted into believing they are indeed an “Other.” A man, Beauvoir points out, may think himself without woman, yet the woman does and cannot think herself without man. Such is, perhaps, why the woman, despite constituting half the human population, despite being intricately interconnected with the man, despite the man relying upon her for livelihood and reproduction, is still, as Beauvoir puts it, a “vassal,” who, in all things being equal, will still receive less pay, less respect, and less opportunities.

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