Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
“I have bad news. If you’ve been sitting there and thinking ‘oh, Julia’s pretty cute,’ you suffer from a condition called gynandromorphophilia,” Julia Serano joked during her lecture Sexualization and Marginalization, referencing a real entry in the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) pathologizing individuals for an attraction to trans women.
Serano’s talk was held last Sunday as the final event of this year’s annual Queer and Trans Conference, a public, student-run conference that has brought in speakers since 1989 to discuss issues relating to the queer community. The theme of this year’s conference is “Resisting Violence, Building Queer Safety.” In her lecture, Serano explored how sexualization affects marginalized groups in different ways.
Serano, a transgender writer, biologist, and activist, has authored the books Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity and Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive.
The talk began with a definition of rape culture, which Serano described as the set of social practices that serve to condone and tolerate rape within our society. However, she soon specified that her talk would extend beyond rape, an area she felt had been covered more than subtler forms of sexualization.
First, Serano distinguished the difference between individual sexuality and the act of sexualization. Sexuality, she argued, describes an individual’s past sexual experiences and sexual orientation. Sexualization, on the other hand, describes a non-consensual act in which a person is reduced to their body by an outside source. Sexualization is also a mechanism for others to exercise power over a group of people. “Sexualization is a spectrum of different types of behaviors that all share a common thread of reducing a person to their sexual body and behaviors, and ignoring them as a whole human being,” she said.
Serano began by talking about the effects of sexualization on marginalized people. Individuals who are sexualized are viewed by others as less serious and competent, and are more difficult to empathize with. “This is why if you’re in the workplace and you’re being sexualized, that can have an undermining effect, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with physical abuse,” said Serano.
Serano went on to detail the way in which stereotypical traditional gender roles encourage a “predator” and “prey” relationship between men and women. She also highlighted several problems that emerge from this view. First, this makes female aggressors and male victims invisible within our society. Furthermore, this simplistic model completely erases female autonomy and desire. “You can decide to be sexually open and initiate what you want to initiate, but when you do that you’re seen as opening yourself up for sexual objectification,” Serano said.
This mindset also hides sexualization outside of stereotypical heterosexual relationships, Serano argued, such as abuse within same-sex relationships. Furthermore, this narrative also completely erases the experiences of anyone who falls outside of the gender binary.
Pointing out that marginalized individuals can also be sexualized as predators, Serano provided several common examples of this. This trend can be seen in the way men of color are portrayed as hypersexual and dangerous, the way in which homosexual men are portrayed as pedophiles, and the way trans individuals are seen as dangerous sexual deviants.
Serano also discussed the way in which bisexual individuals are portrayed as aggressively promiscuous in an objectifying way. This stereotype disproportionately affects bisexual women. Serano pointed out that bisexual women are almost three times more likely to have experienced sexual assault than straight or lesbian women. “There could be multiple factors playing a role, but I’m sure one is the assumption within our society that bisexual women are especially promiscuous, and the way in which that is used to justify sexual harassment,” she said.
Next, Serano discussed the way we view “legitimate” and “illegitimate” forms of attraction. While appreciation of traits viewed as desirable is treated as legitimate attraction, appreciation of “undesirable” traits is seen as a “fetish” and is sometimes treated as pathological, as Serano pointed out by citing “gynandromorphophilia” as one notable example. “One of the ways in which trans people are sexualized is the ‘fetish’ concept,” Serano said. “The idea that you can only be attracted to trans people as a fetish means that I can only be a fetish object.”
In her lecture, Serano also discussed forms of sexism unique to trans women. First, she mentioned a common assumption that trans women transition for sexual reasons. Next, she mentioned the common image within popular culture of trans women as prostitutes, an image that disproportionately affects trans women of color. These images have serious consequences for trans women. “Trans women are often stopped by police for walking down the street under the assumption that if you’re a trans woman you must be doing sex work,” Serano said.
Serano ended the lecture by highlighting how sexualization is “a basic tool in the toolkit to beat up on marginalized groups” and how being aware of it can help individuals become more conscious of instances of oppression. “I can’t expect every person in the world to know everything they should know about trans issues,” Serano said, “but if they knew what sexualization was, and they saw a trans person being sexualized, they might be more aware, and I think this [understanding] is a useful tool to encourage that awareness.”
Featured image by Max Hernandez-Webster ’17/The Daily Gazette.