Editor’s Note: The following is a two-part series by Stephanie Krehbiel on the connections between heterosexism and sexualized violence. She stresses why we cannot ignore race, class, or homosexuality in the conversation about sexualized violence. Look for the second post tomorrow, which helps us better understand how we can change the violence we continue to perpetuate in our churches and communities today. – RH
Because I write about heterosexism, people often ask me some version of the following questions: “Why do these anti-gay people care so much? Why are they fighting so hard against this after all these years? Why can’t they leave lgbtq people alone to live their lives?”
I don’t really know the answer. Or at least, I don’t know one answer. There are a lot of answers. But a lot of it, I know, has to do with these three ideas:
- men and women are distinct and wholly different beings;
- in order to truly be a man or to truly be a woman, you need to have sex with someone of the opposite gender;
- if anything about your life defies Idea 1 or Idea 2, then you are not fully a person and do not deserve to be treated as such.
Once we understand just how much cultural power these ideas have, we can begin to see why the umbrella term sexualized violence applies to the discrimination and injustice that people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and/or queer routinely experience.
Before I go any further, I want to define some terms.
Heterosexism refers to the many manifestations of the idea that opposite-gender sexual relationships are inherently superior. I find “heterosexist” to be a more broadly encompassing term than “homophobic,” because it refers not only to individual fear and repulsion but to a broad social system of heterosexual supremacy.
Gender complementarity refers to a heterosexist understanding of relationships between men and women, the notion that men are naturally good at some things, women at others, and legitimate romantic and/or sexual relationships require the presence of both. People invoke both religious dogma and notions of what is “natural” to defend gender complementarity. Reproduction is generally at the center of this logic. While in a Christian context most gender complementarians believe that men are better suited to power and decision-making, gender complementarity is not necessarily a philosophy of male supremacy. At least not in theory.
Misogyny is gender complementarity with the gloves off. It is not just male supremacy and hatred of women—it is hatred of anything that might be perceived as feminine. If gender complementarity is the “good cop” of the established heterosexist social order, misogyny is the “bad cop.” It’s the language that equates masculinity with the ability to dominate, and often through penetration. It’s the penis as a missile or a sword. It’s the denigration of the act of receiving penetration, the social force that makes us refer to intercourse as “nailing,” “plowing,” “banging,” and “screwing.” When we conquer something, we make it our “bitch.” We have someone “over a barrel.” Men who receive penetration are “the woman,” and that’s commonly understood to be an insult.
Okay. With those out of the way, let’s talk about how deeply racialized and class-dependent misogyny and gender complementarity are. There is, for example, the idea that poverty is caused not by systemic factors but by irresponsible sexual behavior, i.e. sex outside of heterosexual marriage. This is where conservative politicians get the not-at-all-evidence-based idea that promoting marriage among poor people is a viable anti-poverty program. (Heterosexual marriage, that is. Obviously.)
People of color are routinely suspected of gender transgressions. That suspicion is built into our language. The bread and butter of white supremacy and xenophobia are gendered insults. By white supremacist logic, there is always something dangerous or excessive about the sexuality and gender of people of color.
Men of color are regularly seen as unnaturally effeminate or dangerously hypermasculine. (For many Black men, for instance, crossing the street when they see a woman in order to avoid being treated as potential rapist is a basic survival strategy.) Women of color must often fight against the idea that they are inherently promiscuous; their right to control access to their own bodies is routinely under attack.
And women of color who are transgender are assaulted, raped, and murdered at such unconscionable rates that every peace-loving person should be paying attention. If we’re going to talk about sexualized violence and heterosexism, we absolutely have to talk about the experiences of these particular women. Many of our cultural discourses for denying personhood intersect straight over their bodies, and the rates of violence against these women tell us far more about our society than most people who are cisgender* want to know.
(*Cisgender refers to people whose preferred gender aligns with the sex that they were assigned at birth. Cis is the Latin antonym of trans.)
Sex work is often the only livelihood available to trans women of color. (That in and of itself tells us something. A whole bunch of things, actually). And sex work makes them extraordinarily vulnerable to the “bad cop” of misogyny, to the border guards of a brutally gendered and racialized social order that looks far more respectable dressed up in the church clothes of gender complementarity. Janet Mock, an American trans woman rights author, writes of her own experiences as a sex worker:
Multilayered systemic oppressions are stacked up against trans women from low-income and/or communities of color so the sex trade becomes a road well traveled, helping trans women alleviate financial woes while also making many of us feel desired as women (through an objectifying male gaze), women who are taught that we are undesirable and illegitimate.
There’s no denying that sex work is dangerous work. Engaging in the sex trades increases a person’s risk for criminalization, acquiring HIV or other STIs, sexual abuse and violence. It can also, for myself at least, complicate and conflate your image of self, of love, of sex, of value, not to mention the stigma that is internalized about the work you do, work that often leads others to define you and your character.
Mock survived this, but many trans people do not. Why are their lives so disposable? What do they symbolize that must be killed, again and again? What makes their fundamental humanity so illegible to so many people? What would happen to our entire understanding of gender, sexuality, and social violence if we all insisted—absolutely insisted—that women of color who are transgender, and who must sell sex to survive, are fully human, and worthy of every dignity that this implies?
In this white supremacist society, the “right kind” of non-white people, the ones least threatening to God and the nation, are the ones who conform most neatly to the idealized heterosexual family unit.
In the American popular imagination, this ideal family of color has babies, but not too many. This ideal family embodies “traditional” values. And this ideal family—which is an image painted in broad strokes over the real lives of real people—has become yet another dehumanizing symbol. This symbol is deployed for a political purpose that leaves women of color who are transgender, who must sell sex to survive, and who are vulnerable to rape and beating and murder, for dead.
We have to do better than this.