The Trauma of the Gendered Child
by Julian Real
Copyrighted 2005. All rights reserved.
I am, for the most part, ungendered. This means something very politically important to me. From the time I was a child, I did not experience myself as a gendered being. For me, and in my experience of others around me, being gendered meant sacrificing parts of the vulnerable, complex self in order to be less-than-human: lower in status for girls and women, lower in humanity for boys and men. Both genders are dehumanised in traumatic ways, and then that trauma is repressed or acted out in atrocious ways. I paid attention, from the age of nine, approximately, to what the hell was going on. I saw people working to become boys and girls while being forced into these identities. (By identity I mean this: a self-identification with a set of feelings and behaviours as “mine” or “ours” that is socially compulsory and politically mandated.)
I also have some forms of male privilege, and not others. I am socially perceived, most of the time, as a male of the human species, which, in patriarchy means, first as a boy, then as a man. I never truly identified as such, which again means that I didn’t do many of the things that meant being those identities, especially not in order to be one of those identities. I rebelled, internally, or, rather, I held my ground. I resisted being gendered. But because I was perceived as male, most of the time, I was given certain privileges. And I was socially informed, informally, that I had certain political entitlements, and I did take some of those in as “acceptable ways of being”. Most notably the entitlement to violate others visually, by using pornography, and through private and public voyeurism, most of which was done furtively. Men are also taught, formally or not, that they have the right of access, visual or physical, to girls and women. This leads to atrocities such as rape.
A question that has been with me for some time, while the obviousness of the answer stares us 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 they do, call it “their 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 expression. At the same time, one group (boys) was afforded rights to behave in certain ways, and was given 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 boisterous. Many girls I knew wanted to be like boys, but not really BOYS. They wanted the freedom from the physical restrictions of being a girl, and in patriarchy, that means becoming a boy, and then a man. It’s a two-party system, and it’s no party.
The 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 “choice” meant, was that boys had to give up important ways of being humane, in order to be proper boys. They had to dis-identify with girls, and whatever activities were associated with girls. To not do this brought ridicule and shame and punishment: the loss of respect from peers, 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 that play out this drama of gender trauma differently, but usually with the same basic message: 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. I had no choice as to whether or not to go to a certain kind of school. Did I like that schooling? Sometimes. Did I have any real options? No. This is how it is with gender, in my experience.
Let’s get right into the trauma. The abuse of being gendered, as I shall refer to it, is that parts of one’s pre-gendered self must be put away, banished, devalued, and self-ridiculed. I think this is normal. I think in patriarchy this is required if one is to become a gendered being successfully. What is sacrificed is seen as necessary, in order to go on living as a socially acceptable (dehumanised) person, that is, with a gender.
When I was little, I saw this as the price paid by males in CRAP: one got lots of privileges, and also got to be sacrificed in off-shore military wars, but it meant one had to publicly disrespect women, or privately hate them, and also to sacrifice (try to destroy) the most vulnerable emotional parts of oneself. You must make yourselves as invulnerable to other men as you can, in order to be a socially acceptable man. You will get paid better, if paid at all, and will always have access (visually and/or physically) to a population of females for sex, should you want to avail yourself of this unjust access to real human beings seen as being “for you” and becoming for you to the degree that they are unjustly accessed sexually.
Feminism-bashing reveals a shocking level of denial about the real causes of men’s harm to themselves and to women. 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. They hardly know it exists. Most women, on the other hand, know well that patriarchy exists, because they must survive it, daily. Men, having privileges and entitlements relative to women, can enjoy 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 sexist ways, and being seen and treated primarily or only as a female thing, not an ungendered person. Most women I know have been sexually assaulted, at least once.
This denial, or repression of knowledge, of what children have to do to themselves, and of what has been done to them, in their families, by media, in peer groups, means that men can be deeply unaware of how patriarchy has shaped them. Since women occupy lower status levels than men, generally speaking, in many patriarchal cultures, men can get away with blaming women for their woes. To blame patriarchy (to hold patriarchy accountable) would, well, result in a loss of status, at least, and violence at worst.
The boys who did not act enough like boys, when I was growing up, were not treated well by boys who strove to be real good patriarchal boys. Those real good patriarchal boys had sacrificed parts of themselves to become that way, often unconsciously, or with great pain and effort, and in order to complete the process of transformation, had to beat the shit out of, or at least systematically shame, all the boys who didn’t follow suit. Boy culture was vicious, when I was a kid. Troubled, insecure, and cruel. At one point in dominant Western culture, boys were obsessed with toy Transformers. I believe this obsession derived from what they were doing, unconsciously, to themselves: from emotionally vulnerable human to hard invulnerable machine. See: http://www.hasbro.com/transformers/
Boys knew they could not be human in certain ways, without garnering the stigma branded into girls. But boys DID have vulnerable feelings. Pesky things, those. They just had to put them away. If this is done self-aggressively, then those boys are likely to be aggressive to boys and girls who show those feelings publicly. (Peer pressure to act inhumane is yet another dynamic.) So conflicted and hurting are those 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 they regard as weakness. Girls see this horror show. Girls learn, consciously or not, that the stigma they carry cannot be beaten out of them, but, rather, is beaten more deeply into them. Boys can dream of an adulthood of relative safety and sometimes find it. Whether or not girls dream about such a world, no such world awaits them. Boys become men, and they still rage inside about what they had to put away, banish, destroy in themselves to be good patriarchal men. And they HATE seeing it displayed in others, males and females. But they are drawn to it too, like a lost friend. Yearning and contempt is what most 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 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 patriarchal sexuality.
Patriarchal sexuality is an eroticism of inhumanity. It is founded on the entitlement to violate others, visually or physically, and to act callously as one predatorially seeks to consume what one has been told one wants because of what one has become. Men mass-consume what is marketed, advertised and sold, as patriarchal sex. This kind of sex is CRAP.
The hurting, deep down vulnerable boy and man goes to pornography because it teaches him how to have sexual feeling in a way that produces exciting sensation, but no vulnerable emotions. Once through the adult door of the world of pornography, boys and men learn that misogyny is sex, that ethnic hate is sex, that sexx is sex (whether gay 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 eagerly want.
Boys are prepared, through the trauma of being gendered, to desire a corporate, racist, patriarchal sexuality that provides excitement without nurturance, that produces desire to do things to things, not to be humane with humane beings. Sometimes heterosexual women in heterosexual men’s lives push them to be real, humane beings. Sometimes those women give up, and become pornography for those men. Atrocities result.
This enforced, mandated, trauma-induced sexual preference, in CRAP, is identified as hormonal, genetic, or a brain difference in order to keep us in denial about what patriarchy actually does to us. Patriarchal scientists do not tell us what they and we do not want to know: we and they had to become dehumanised in order to desire what we and they do, because we and they enjoy sensation-based sex, rather than vulnerability-based eroticism. Their studies cannot study something they do not want to uncover. So, in the patriarchally-unconscious world of biopsychology, there is not likely to be a lot of funding to discover the traumatic effects of living in CRAP.
Most boys and men desperately crave sensational sex because it is the only route to something that resembles the real comfort and intimacy they need, but are too terrified to ask for, or, more tragically, receive even when offered it. And, too often, men get mixed messages from those around them about the degree to which they are to be vulnerable AND a rock of support; do we want men to have a functional heart or a functional penis? Men shallowly choose the latter, often, to avoid deeply experiencing the former.
Once men kill off all that is considered “womanly” (read: humane) in them, they can be killers, batterers, and rapists. Once men do this to themselves, or have it done to them, they can HATE seeing it in others: in vulnerable boys and men, as well as girls and women, of course. So misogyny is socio-psychologically (not biologically) constructed in the male, and this leaves boys “ready” for pornography, and pornography then teaches them the details of (racist) misogyny-as-sexxx, which becomes sex for them, and, increasingly, for everyone.
Boys and girls need lots of safe space to have their more tender feelings, and instead are systematically shamed, and otherwise abused. Men, though, are also coercively privileged for becoming non-women/inhumane. For women there is the on-going degraded status, the stigma, the efforts to survive in patriarchy, against great odds. But women, too, are made inhumane. A patriarchally good woman may cry–especially when discussing rape on a chat show, but she is not often encouraged by male partner, psycho-therapist, or chat show host, to rage against patriarchal atrocity. She is, rather, medicated, or self-medicates. Sometimes, in economically privileged cultures, she starves herself to death.
When not-yet-boys are given safe space to have their more vulnerable feelings, and have them SEEN and RECOGNISED as meaningful, important, valuable, and precious, (and socially statused by family, peers, and media) then they can stay humane in a way most boys don’t stand a chance of being/becoming in most, if not all, contemporary patriarchies.
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, then we will know why our world is as it is.
Peace to us all.