Archives for posts with tag: Essentialism

Before I started reading Refiguring Bodies by Elizabeth Grosz, I was watching CNN. One of the top stories was entitled “Slutwalk.” I found that to be very intriguing since the term did not seem to be politically correct.  An organizer for the protest against sexual violence proclaimed “Its not about the name, its about the message.” The first paragraph of Grosz reminded me of the Slutwalk protest.  “The body has remained a conceptual blind spot in both mainstream Western philosophical though and contemporary feminist theory. Feminism has uncritically adopted many philosophical assumptions regarding the role of the body in social, political, cultural, psychical, and sexual life and, in this sense at least, can be regarded as complicit in the misogyny that characterizes Western reason.”

The global movement was sparked by a comment made by a Canadian police officer to a group of college women after a rash of sexual assaults on their campus that in order to not be victimized they should stop dressing like sluts. A diverse group of women marched down the streets of New York chanting “Stand up! Fight back! Stop the violence!” in solidarity. Many protesters wore “provocative clothing” or lingerie during their march. A protester declared that rape has been used as a form of torture and genocide and that clothing is not an excuse to rape an individual. You don’t have to look like Pamela Anderson to be a victim of rape. An organizer’s reply to the officer’s ignorant comment was as follows, “Not only was this a ridiculous and inaccurate statement (women wearing trousers get raped. So do women wearing tracksuits, t-shirts, jeans, jumpers, skiing jackets and burqas), it was incredibly damaging to women around the world, painting them as perpetrators — rather than victims — of a disgusting, violent crime.” Another protestor said that she was “marching because her best friend still thinks that her rape was her fault, because the authorities never looked into it, and because it will always haunt her. And that is not OK.” And another remarked: “We live in a society that ranges from publicly shaming the victim of an honor-rape to insinuating that a rape victim may have somehow ‘led her attacker on’ through her clothing or demeanor.” There is much truth in these statements and that is disgusting to say the least.


The amount of rapes that go unreported are astounding. As stated in class, IU has a very low conviction rate in rape cases. According to the annual Security Report with Crime Statistics by IUPD, there were less than 30 sex offenses both forcible and non-forcible reported to IUPD or BPD in 2010. It would be hard to convict offenders if the offenses go unreported.  However the judicial system also brings difficulty when trying to convict rapist. Only recently, did the law change in favor of women.  Before 1974, the law required corroboration. Many men (who were also law makers) thought that it was abhorrent that a man could be convicted solely on the unsupported testimony of a woman. The law upheld the man and the man’s honor. Unlike robbery or burglary, when a woman has been raped they may never get over it. Women are entitled to special considerations by the judicial system.

A rape case that was close to my hometown as well as extremely disturbing was the case of Katie Autry. She  was raped, sodomized, beaten, stabbed and left to burn in her dorm room at Western Kentucky University by two men, Lucas Goodrum and Stephen Soules. Both were indicted on several charges but only Soules was convicted.(He was a minority!) Lucas Goodrum, the son of a very wealthy man, was acquitted of all charges. If it weren’t for the extremities of this case and the resulting death of Katie, I do not believe that this case would have made it to trial since she was supposedly drunk and knew the two men.

Other cases that I found to be upsetting were the cases of Marguax- an IU student, Jeanne Clery and Laura Dunn. According to NPR, their stories are far too common for many women who are sexually assaulted on their college campuses. Another far too common  story is the failure of universities to investigate a criminal matter such as rape and then punish it. The Center for Public Integrity and NPR News Investigation found that colleges almost never expel men who are found responsible for sexual assault- only 10 to 25% of perpetrators are expelled. The U.S Department of Education has failed to aggressively monitor and regulate campus response to sexual assault. They have the power to fine universities and to find that a school has violated a law that prevents discrimination against women. Colleges are also ill-equipped to handle cases of sexual assault. In most cases alcohol is involved and prosecutors are reluctant to take on these cases causing the cases to fall to campus judicial systems to sort through conflicting claims of whether the sex was consensual or forced. Campus discipline systems do not enforce criminal laws and lack the ability to collect evidence, interview suspects and call witnesses.

IU Rape Case:

Dunn Rape Case:

Moreover,  both cases involved alcohol and acquaintances. Both women were raped in their dorm rooms. The victims were in and out of consciousness thus “discrediting” their accounts without physical evidence or witnesses. It then becomes a case of he said she said where the man’s word is worth more. Both women were reluctant to report the assault and were discouraged from further prosecution by local police. Both women were embarrassed. Both did not get the justice or protection they deserved. Not only should the men who assault women feel deeply ashamed but the men and women who uphold our judicial system that fails to protect women from violent crimes. These cases further prove the need to further the women’s rights movement as well as the feminist movement.

Melissa Brake

I hate being told that I chose to be gay. Absolutely hate it. It doesn’t help that the majority of people who claim this are clutching to a Bible and never question their logic. Infuriating. As far back as I can recall, I’ve never made a conscious decision to find attraction to men. Of course I remember labeling my feelings as gay, but these feelings go further back than accepting that sexual identity.

This has also been a consistent peeve with a lot of gender studies classes I’ve taken. Of course I believe that gender roles, sexual identities, and meanings ascribed to the sexed body are socially constructed, but I never understood how we can talk about strict constructivism and not once question it. For example, strict constructivism would say my sexuality is totally molded by society and gender norms. But I’ve always known these feelings and I certainly wasn’t raised in an environment that endorsed it.

When Lady Gaga’s cd Born This Way came out, I remember a good chunk of my gender studies friends having a tizzy because it’s an essentialist claim and no one is born a said way but society creates it. I agree to an extent that the social meanings, labels, and even dichotomous understandings of gender are all socially constructed, and in that context my fury echos theirs. But I always think back to when I was growing up, knowing nothing about sexuality and attraction, and having the same feelings that I do today. I wasn’t born labeling myself gay or knowing the meanings and connotations behind queer attractions, but I knew there was something about the other boys that interested me.

This being the case, I dislike the essentialist/constructivism binary I’m presented with to explain gender and sexuality. It seems like we’ve left the problematic claims by essentialism in favor of constructivism without considering the potential limits it presents. How does constructivism explain these feelings? How do they validate the trans experience?

The relief I felt reading about Julia Serano’s intrinsic inclinations to explain human gender and sexual variation was great. It was the acknowledgement from a scholarly source that my feelings weren’t a result of ignorance or lack of understanding. Finally, there’s a way out of the the essential/construction binary that seems to suit me. Though the intrinsic inclinations can seem relatively simple and applicable to everything, at least it’s a start and I can sleep better tonight.


-Lucas Zigler

I identify as a woman. I am used to hearing the female pronoun, “she”.  I also realize because I am female bodied, I will likely be addressed in such a manner, and also not asked whether or not that is my preference. This is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. In Farsi, the language spoken in Iran, there is no word for “he” or “she”. When referring to someone, we use the word “oon” which means “that one” or typically someone’s name more often in conversation. But in English we don’t have the luxury of being less gendered with our language. So much of our lives are dictated by defining ourselves and our world in order to make more sense of different situations. The need to define has forced people to come up with specific language to make that possible. We use words like “his” or “hers” to function as clarifiers, but we often do not acknonwledge that they function as alientators as well.

I have close friends that identify as queer. They have challenged me to learn more about how I speak and recognize that our society has an essentialist outlook that your birth sex must lead to your gender identity. In our society, we assume that people are male or female, “he” and “she”. My best friend and I have been through multiple life stages together. I have grown up with “her” and I am so unconsciously aware of the fact that when I speak about “her” I automatically use the female pronoun. At this point in “her” life, “she” would prefer to use a gender neutral pronoun. This change, while difficult because I have grown up with “them”, is inspiring me to think about the way I view people and to make less assumptions and instead ask people what they would prefer.

Using gender neutral pronouns can be powerful. First, not everyone can identify as man or woman, nor should they be forced to. A gender neutral pronoun is a way of eliminating sex as an identifier. Why should it matter what sex you are when we are all humans? Second, a gender neutral pronoun helps to call attention to the fact that our society is so gender based. Even though the dichotomy is likely accessed subconsciously, we need to make a more conscious effort to destabalize the lines that have been so clearly drawn by our history, our anatomy, and our society.

So I am making a decision to be more conscious. To consider that all people will not be comfortable being called “she” just because that person has breasts or wears clothes from the ladies department. I have started to think of ways of going about this. Maybe I will just use gender neutral pronouns for everyone.

Using gender neutral pronouns!

It is hard though, to know if all people will be comfortable with that. Some trans persons may be very adamant about their gender, and want to be referred to as the gender with which they identify. Maybe using pronouns like “they” for someone who is female bodied but has changed their societal identity to male would be offensive, suggesting that even though the person identifies as male, society will not acknowledge that and would use “they” or “them” because the person did not fit into our dichotomy. Perhaps I can use gender neutral pronouns and then ask a person if they would prefer me to think of them as a gender. I am still working on that part. Regardless, I want to encourage everyone to try and be more aware and to realize that even a simple word can make someone uncomfortable and an effort can make a change.

I am comfortable being called “her”, in case anyone wanted to know!

-Parisa Mansoori

When we talked about spaces where we felt ‘free’ last class, I instantly thought of my gender studies classes (DUH CAUSE WE’RE ALL SO AWESOME LULZ). Then I started to think about my other (mostly English) classes, and I realized that one of the main differences I perceive between my gender studies classes and my non-gender studies classes is in who speaks.

Gender studies classes are such a freeing and positive space for me- there are, as I mentioned in class, both a high percentage of queer kids as well as a general awareness of the stupidity of societal gender expectations. And in gender studies classes I’ve had, not only are there often more women than men, but the women seem much more comfortable speaking and much less apologetic than in other classes. I’m sure there are are a number of reasons for this, but let me give some examples of the kind of apologizing/discrediting/devalidating that I often hear women expressing in the classroom, and that seems to be refreshingly absent from g-stud classes:

“Okay, I could be totally wrong about this, but…”

“Well, I think- and I have no idea if this is right, but maybe…”

“This is probably a really dumb question, but…”

It’s so depressing to see super smart women constantly discrediting themselves, and I even hear myself doing it all the time. It really got me thinking about all the incredibly pervasive societal messages telling girls that they aren’t smart, that they don’t have the authority to speak, etc- see examples below- and I know this is old hat, but every time I become aware of a new dimension of an old oppression it gets me down all over again.

The essentialism v. constructionism debate is one that we gender studies majors re-learn every year (or every semester) but I find myself continuing to be shocked (AND ENRAGED) at how deeply we as a culture ascribe to such ridiculous essentialist beliefs as those which would distance a woman from her intellect, to the extent that intelligent women feel they must discredit themselves before speaking in a classroom.

-Blair Dietrick

Judith Butler refers to the concept of “institutionalized heterosexuality” on page 34 of Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire. Now, one of the primary things that has always fascinated me about the subject of “Gender Studies” is that it is so interdisciplinary. That’s almost one of those Gender catch-phrases, isn’t it? Anyway, that off-handed mention of heterosexuality as something that is institutionalized made me think about how exactly sexuality is formed or how categories of sexuality are formed. With education, religion, and governmental institutions, there are physical institutions that correspond to each abstract institution. And, these physical spaces–schools, churches, the Pentagon, and so on–all serve as a primary site for passing on the values of these institutions. What if there were an actual physical structure in which sexuality were taught, preached, and regulated? What would that look like?

Yeah, I’m just picturing walking into a giant penis-shaped tower right now… Maybe through doors that look like labia… Man, I am going to have some weird dreams tonight. Or, great ones, I guess, depending on your point of view…

The humor in imagining sexuality in such blatant terms is that lessons about sexuality, gender, and desire are supposed to be innate and natural, when really these categories of identity are socially constructed to such a degree that it become easy for us men on the ground to even recognize this. These categories are formed by many, many institutions, including those already mentioned and many others that are also maybe a bit harder to pin down–family, media, and so on. And, more than that, they are formed by human agency, the choices individuals make, day in and day out.

On one hand, I can see how it may be sort of… tempting–from a socialist’s sort of perspective, maybe–to essentialize a person or group of people. But, when you think about how incredibly complex people are and how much the institutions in our lives shape who we are, I actually find it hard to believe that it happens. Although, seeing ourselves as being only socially constructed totally ignores free will…

Like the free will to take this test! “This test will determine if you are gay or strait…”

You better hope you pass, so you can make it into Hetero School. So, you can be more like this…

Night ya’ll! Have a good week!

Lynn Beavin

What exactly is the essence of female?

Is it some sort of natural inherited behavior? Or having female genitals?

When discussing gender and sex differences outside class you are often confronted with various thoughts on what the concepts of gender and sex really are. Most of the time, at least in my experience, a consensus can be reached that gender is constructed, and gender performance is something personal. However, more often is the answer to these questions: You can do whatever you want, but sex is biological!

The idea of the biological sex as the essence that everything comes down to sex is in line with Plato’s Theory of Forms. Plato thought that everything we see in the material world is not real but only a replica of the real object in the real world. The real object is the Form, which is the essence of every object in the material world. So according to Plato, an ideal must exist, since we can only make sense of our reality through this ideal. Back to the discussion on sex and gender; does this mean that an ideal of male and female exist?

Gender essentialism argues that the way you were born is your destiny. This way of approaching gender and sex is often also referred to as biological reductionism. Biological reductionism makes the agenda clear: everything is reduced to nature, and through that essence becomes the telos, an end in itself. It sees distinct destinies for men and women and limits the range of action, since, in the end, it is true that only women can be pregnant.

So, according to this, is it safe to say that everything is relative except for my biological sex then?

Every answer that comes to mind turns out to be problematic. Especially after reading Angier, Foucault and Lorde, who argue that every norm has nothing essential to it, but provides a meaning of the essence which is only in so far real as it means something in a society. Not even biology can give the right answer, for example if we consider AIS: females with female genitals, but a y-chromosome, who would rebut all kinds of claims of not being female solely based on a tiny chromosome.

This is where Butler ties in taking the discussion to the next level. In her book Gender Troubles, Judith Butler addresses the issue of gender essentialism in pointing out that “women” is as much a constructed category as every other constructed normality. The term “women” is not self-evident, since not even biology can provide one definite answer. Not every biological “pure” female can become pregnant due to various reasons, or even wants to have children. “Women” asks for boundaries and a definition like any other term, too.But how can I define such boundaries when no essence exists?

The answer is you can’t, but people do, and that’s the problem.


– franziska krause