What’s the Sex Binary Got to Do with Rape?

by John Stoltenberg

This is a story about storytelling.

In particular it’s about the story you are told if it is determined at the time of your birth—on the basis of visual inspection of your baby groin—that you should grow up to be a boy and then someday a man.

Now, I know that not everyone is told this story as their story. But what I’m going to say is for the sake of everyone, because everyone has a stake in understanding the story.

If you are someone who was told this story, you were not only told it; you were taught to tell it to yourself, and you were taught to tell it to others. And if you learned the story the way it is supposed to be learned, in your body and brain, you will need to tell it somehow to yourself and to others over and over for the rest of your life.

The story doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s not yours alone to tell. It’s being told all around you almost everywhere almost all the time. Hard to avoid it, actually. But it’s just a story. And as such it can be revised or rewritten or retold another way or replaced by a different story altogether.

I’m talking about the story that says you can only be who you are supposed to be by always making certain that you’re not who you are not supposed to be.

By “making certain,” I mean: so there’s absolutely no confusion, in your mind or anyone else’s. And by “who you’re not supposed to be,” I mean—well, you might think it’s everyone whose baby groin inspection didn’t entitle them to tell the story that you get to tell. And you might think that your story—the story you were taught to tell yourself all the time so there’s no mistaking it—is all about letting everyone know how your baby groin inspection turned out. Simple as that.

Except that’s not what the story is about. That’s not the reason your story gets told.

Because your story is about who you must be and must not be in an either/or identity system. You’re supposed to grow up to be a man, a real man, a man who knows he’s a man and a man everybody takes to be a man. That’s your job in life. Your story says so. Stories told all around you say so. And if you don’t cut it, if you don’t measure up, if you fail to leave absolutely no doubt in your own mind and in the mind of everyone else, then you’re not only not a real man. You’re not just a wannabe man. You’re not even someone who’s having an off day but you’ll be back at your job in no time and you’ll make up for any work you missed.

No, that’s not what happens if you don’t do the job your story says is yours. What happens is that you’re less than nobody.

Notice I didn’t say you’re someone whose baby groin inspection came out different.

Your very identity doesn’t exist. There’s no longer any you. There’s only a nonentity. Because as the story goes in the either/or identity system, failure to tell your story convincingly means annihilation of your sense of self.

That little plot twist comes with your story, and it’s embedded in all the stories being told around you.

If you’re not a real man, you’re less than nobody.

There may be names you will be called. There may be bullying done to you. There may be lots and lots of bad consequences that will befall you if you fail at being a real man. But the worst, the very worst, is what the story promises will happen. The story that everyone who mocks you is telling you by mocking you. The story everyone who beats up on you is telling you by beating up on you. The story you’ve been taught to believe deep down inside: If you’re not a real man, you’re less than nobody.

Now, you may have noticed there’s a lot of anxiety in the world about that little plot twist in the story. Panicky people trying to tell the story convincingly to themselves and others, asserting it by any means necessary. Rage, aggression, violence—those are some common methods. Sexual assault is right up there, too; and the reason it’s so popular is that sexual assault tells the story unmistakably, incontrovertibly, flesh to flesh, victor to victim. Nothing unclear or vague about it. Story told. Identity decisively and definitionally declared and defended. End of story.

Except of course it’s not the end of the story. Belief in the either/or identity system persists, requiring that the story be told, again and again. And so the story lives on, claiming and maiming life after life.

I grew up learning to tell that story. I tried telling it by teasing and provoking my younger sister. Meanwhile older bigger boys in the neighborhood were telling it by teasing and tormenting me. I didn’t make the connection then between my storytelling and theirs. All I knew was that compared with others I saw telling the story, I was never really good at it, which made me feel really bad about myself: Like yikes, “I’m not a real-enough boy!”, then later “I’m not a real enough man!” Oh, sure, I had interests and achievements, friends and family who liked and supported and accepted me. But I always knew deep inside that my identity, the core of my being, was riding on how well I could tell that story.

This is not, by the way, merely one special snowflake’s identity anxiety. As you may have noticed, it goes on around the globe, like a snowfall everywhere.

Near the end of my twenties, two things happened that made me think about that story differently from the way I learned to think about it growing up. One is that I became aware of the battering and raping that others were doing to make that story be true, to make it feel real, to make it seem to themselves and others to be an actual fact about who they were: real men, not less than nobody. And becoming aware of all that human harm really troubled me. I knew exactly what story they were telling. I recognized it. I knew I had tried to tell it too—not with physical violence but in other ways, and there are plenty of other ways. Now for the first time I realized I did not want that story to be mine.

And the other thing that happened in my life is that I began to understand that the story I thought I needed to tell is not true. The either/or identity system is itself a made-up story. Our species is actually multisexed, meaning that there are as many sexes as there are people. The sex binary is BS. Besides, guess what? Belief in the sex binary is not about baby groin inspections or anything else biological. It’s about a culturally transmitted hierarchical sociopolitical class system driven by a vast collective identity panic induced by…a story. The same story that billions have been taught to tell well or else: To not be less than nobody, treat someone else as nobody instead.

A lot of good people have been trying very conscientiously to tell that story differently. Trying to modify it, tweak it, trying to tell the story so that they can make it be true about themselves, feel real to themselves, make it seem to themselves and others to be an actual fact about who they are—just with not hurting anyone, or putting anyone down, or harassing anyone, or insulting anyone, or laughing at anyone’s expense, or bullying anyone, or impoverishing anyone, or sexually assaulting anyone, or offing anyone. Any hey, let’s say these people figure out a way for themselves to tell the story that’s perfectly victim-free. No one ever has to pay a penalty so these people can have their identity. It’s simply never ever in doubt. Like, if their identity is ever impugned, they don’t get bummed; they don’t sulk. Or if their identity is ever challenged, they shrug it off, they don’t snap back. These perfectly conscientious storytelling people may truly be special snowflakes, but for argument’s sake let’s say it’s theoretically possible to tell the story and do no harm doing so and be totally okay with that all the time. Well, so what then? Really, so what?

Does that supplant the story that gazillions of people are still driven to tell? Does that even edit or redact it such that the story gets better, bit by bit, one storyteller at a time? How would that work, exactly? Some perfect storytellers going around saying, “I can tell the story better than you other guys”? How is that a different story? It’s still the same story inside an insidious either/or identity system. It might seem superficially new and improved, and it might make you appear to be a quite nice guy. But sometimes, sometimes, it doesn’t quell the identity anxiety that the story has imprinted onto your autonomic nervous system and burned into your brain and that can be triggered in an instant and erupt in rage or whatever so someone has to pay the penalty to rescue your identity from ignominy. You know those times when nice guys turn out to be not nice? That’s the story still being told.

Here’s what I think. The story won’t stop being told in damaging ways until we give up the story altogether. It’s a story that exists solely so that the binary sex hierarchy will persist. The binary sex hierarchy has got to go. The story that keeps us believing in it has got to go.

We have to go beyond the binary, and live outside it in our lives, and raise children untrapped by it. And if we do sexual assault prevention and education work we must do so without reifying it, and honor in solidarity those survivors who are not bound by it, and stop enabling the binary-based identity anxiety of bystanders, like for gosh sakes stop saying, “real men don’t rape,” because raping is exactly what the story says will assert that one is a real man.

We need to tell a completely different story. A story about multiplicity and individuality. A story about community and conscience. A story about being a good human. A story about how nobody is a nobody and everybody is somebody. As an evolving, progressing species, we must.

(This article was adapted from a panel presentation the author gave, “Binary Assumptions About Gender in Sexual Violence,” at the International Summit to End Sexual Violence at Fordham University in New York. Copyright © 2016 by John Stoltenberg.)

 

John Stoltenberg, a longtime activist against sexual violence and a radicalfeminist philosopher of gender, is the author of Refusing to Be a Man: Essays on Sex and Justice, a radical examination of male sexual identity, and The End of Manhood: Parables of Sex and Selfhood, a practical guide to life as a man of conscience. Many of his articles and essays have appeared in anthologies. A contributor to Voice Male, he conceived and was creative director of the acclaimed “My Strength Is Not for Hurting” rape-prevention media campaign. He lives in Washington, DC, and tweets at @JohnStoltenberg.