Gender Roles: The Results of Static Thinking

Think about the consequences of gender roles in a different way. Image from thefrisky.com.

I’ve recently become reacquainted, during the process of doing clinical assessments with domestic violence arrestees, with the stunning depth to which gender has infiltrated human societies. This isn’t news, exactly — generations of humans have asserted or decried gender or sex-based differences in social roles. What has come back into my attention, for the first time in a while, is how gender norms and expectations damage all of us.

We’re used to talking about how sexism hurts (cis) women, for example. Western women contend with a glass ceiling and the myth of Superwoman. Central African women face genital cutting in response to myths about female sexuality. And Muslim women around the world fight dual wars against too much and too little emphasis on their hijab. It seems that women can’t win, no matter where we go. And the statistics support the fact that, even in our families and intimate relationships, we’re not exactly safe.

What’s been bothering me lately, however, is how this emphasis on the victims (for lack of a better term) of sexism functions to isolate, marginalize, and render invisible others who are victimized by violence and abuse. This isn’t to join in on the “men’s rights” movement by any means. Because there’s no way that we can claim that sexism hurts (cis) men “more” than anyone else. Rather, I’m concerned by the way our assumptions about sexism can create a situation in which someone who is victimized — but for whom gender and sex roles have been reversed from their stereotypical standard — is prevented from seeking help, support, and justice.

As an example, I frequently get assigned to do clinical evaluations of arrestees in domestic violence cases. These evaluations involve an intensive assessment and interview process and include information about an individual’s personal history, relationship history, coping skills, strengths and weaknesses, and prior trauma(s). All of my evaluations thus far have been for arrestees in heterosexual relationships, and all of them have been of cisgendered individuals. Normally, during the process, I look for both descriptions of prior and ongoing abuse in the relationship and for patterns of minimization, denying, and blaming — all things that both offenders and victims tend to do when asked about the abuse. But what’s been interesting, from my perspective, is how heavily gender has weighed in when these cases get staffed amongst the clinicians.

What does that look like? Well, let’s say an arrestee reports that their partner has used hitting, screaming, an incident of questionable sexual consent, and accusations that the arrestee is worthless as conflict tactics. The gendered disparity is so great that, if the arrestee is female, the unanimous assessment is that the arrestee is a victim of domestic violence. But if the arrestee is male, considerable skepticism is expressed that he is telling the truth. The assumption is that he is both blaming the true victim for the abuse and minimizing his own role in the conflicts. We go round and round, of course, and continue the conversation until we have an agreement on the power and control dynamics in the relationship, but I find it interesting that the first assumption is so gender-biased.

It’s easy to respond to this with a focus on statistics. Based on reports in the U.S., for example, approximately 85 percent of individuals claiming domestic violence victimization are female. The likelihood that the “true” number of victims is disproportionately female is still high, given America’s various cultural values about women, men, and appropriate relationship dynamics. It’s also true to that the same behaviors, when perpetrated by men or women, have different implications. A man threatening to leave his female partner with their children and no viable income is a different threat than when the genders are reversed — statistically, a woman in that situation is going to face discrimination for being a single parent in the workplace, is likely to earn a lower income than her male coworkers, and is likelier to turn to a new intimate relationship to compensate for the lack of support.

When the way we think about gender roles is static, does anyone win? Image from libcom.org.
When the way we think about gender roles is static, does anyone win? Image from libcom.org.

But even in this example, we can easily poke holes in the theory that gender alone can account for the power of a particular threat or behavior. Maybe the woman has education that the man doesn’t, or has more friends and family that can help out. Maybe the man, if left with the kids, would have minimal support from child care agencies, nannies, or employers who don’t understand how parenting is his job (yes, this happens). Maybe the family finances, the mortgage, the car, the credit cards are in her name. Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that the dynamics of the individual situation can readily trump the influence of gender-based power dynamics.

An even simpler example: I recently worked with a male survivor of sexual assault who needed safe housing. There were no safe houses — none –– available to him. He got a couple of nights in a hotel, and that was it. Why? Because, according to the statistics that fuel federal funding, males aren’t sexually assaulted enough to merit more support. (This is not true, by the way.)

I’m addressing this here because we’re so concerned, in so many ways, with the way that global power dynamics render some people or struggles invisible. We’ve had some wonderful discussions of how individuals and media corporations can influence global perspectives to such an extent that local viewpoints are entirely ignored. But when it comes time to get down to business, limited funding, attention spans, and empathy often mean that we leave survivors and victims out in the cold.

So here’s my challenge to you: The next time you encounter a situation of power-based personal violence, or even just a gender-focused situation that seems sketchy, ask yourself how you’d respond if the genders of the people involved were changed or reversed (in a cis-centric world). Do you feel differently about certain behaviors, comments, activities, or facts? Maybe you do and maybe you don’t; after all, we do live in a world where cultural notions of gender are very deeply entrenched. The point is simply to consider it. And maybe we’ll start to view gender and power in a whole new way.

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