Rationalizing the Taboo: Personal Essays on Gender and Species

By Helena Heinisch

When I think about being a woman, and when my consciousness of that state of being was first recognizable, I invariably and inevitably return to my origins of sexual abuse at the hands of a male family member.  For me, gender was not a result of society’s rules or regulations, or the fact that my mother had my ears pierced when I was an infant, but rather the fact that my godfather saw me as a suitable sex partner.  Possibly because of my childhood experiences, I have become privy to others’ most intimate stories as well – perhaps because those of us who survive this type of abuse can recognize each other as if there were a neon sign flashing above our heads.

I have dated men who have been abused, and I have many gay, lesbian, and heterosexual friends that were abused.  For men, the sex of the abuser becomes very important.  If the abuser is a woman, such as an aunt, as in the case of a male friend of mine, he is constantly questioning how it was that a woman could commit this crime.  Women, like his mother, are nurturers and could never consciously hurt a child, so what was done to him must have been an act of love or physical attraction.  My friend seemed to romanticize the abuse and convinced himself that this made him more of a man because, even as a seven year old boy, an adult woman deemed him ready for sex.  He was proud of his “achievement,” just as my husband is proud of the fact that his fifteen year old female babysitter chose to abuse him when he was eight years old.  My husband views this experience as a welcome rite of passage and believes that every young boy should have an older woman initiate him in this way.

On the opposite side of the abuse spectrum, if the boy is molested by a man, he often will internalize that abuse and struggle with questions of homosexual orientation throughout his life.  A man I dated when I was fifteen, and he was twenty-six (yes, he was a pedophile), was raped repeatedly during as a child by his father and uncle.  I later found out that he had an intergenerational incestual family in which the cycle of abuse seemed to span decades.  His family tree tended not to sprout in many directions.  His father was also his grandfather and his stepfather was also his half-brother.  Even though the victim was dominantly attracted to women, he experimented with male relationships in adulthood, reasoning that because gay sex was done to him, he must be gay.  Unfortunately, as a result of that experimentation, he has now contracted HIV.  It never occurred to him that as a little boy he could have done nothing that would have overtly invited these male members of his family to be attracted to him.  He believed it was proof of his latent homosexuality that he had been raped by men.  I once asked him if he enjoyed sex with men, and he recoiled in revulsion as if that was out of the question, but the fact remained that he continued to seek out male partners, erroneously identifying himself as gay, or at least bisexual.

For women, like myself, being abused by a man will either inhibit the woman sexually so that she becomes frigid or make her want to re-enact the abuse by becoming promiscuous.  Either way, she has identified herself as a sexual object, whether that identification is welcome or not.  I have spent much of my life in therapy trying to convince myself, or have someone else convince me, that I am not merely worth what I can give a man in the way of sexual pleasure.  The identity that the abuser successfully places on the victim is one that often becomes the main indicator of the victim’s own sexual identity.  As with the men I have met that are proud of their abuse by older women, choosing to view the experience as an initiation into adulthood rather than victimization, converts a negative into a positive.  Likewise, I have come to believe (if only because of the overwhelming prevalence of abuse cases) that being abused is actually a common rite of passage and should be considered when categorizing the  stages of psychological development, along with  the Oedipal and  Anal stages.  By treating cases of abuse with disdain and negativity, society stigmatizes the victim and creates a lifelong identification of the self as a victim.  If sexual abuse, whether it be simple molestation or actual rape, were actually viewed in terms of statistics rather than a puritanical American lens, abuse could be seen as an inevitable part of growing up and not something that should set those victims apart, but rather unite them.  Perhaps because humans are really just animals and operating on primitive instincts and drives, like a female cat that will mate with her own male offspring, the real taboo is one in which adults are made to feel that their sexual attraction to children is not natural, when statistically it is.  I am not positing that this is a healthy atmosphere for raising children; merely that it is a factual travesty that should be acknowledged as commonplace.

If this is where I locate my gender, in a negative connotation, then what must my views of femaleness be?  I certainly have never felt that being a woman was advantageous, even though I do believe that women are the stronger sex, and I cannot say with any enthusiasm that I am glad I was born in this body.  I have always thought in ways that might be classified as personifying male ideologies and, at times, have thought I might be a lesbian because of my masculine views.  My gender identification is not a product of society or the ways in which my mother and father treated me but are specifically found in the reasons why I was abused.  Had I been male, my godfather would not have been attracted to me; therefore, I would have been left in peace, unmolested.  But because I had the misfortune to be born female, I was preyed upon, and for that I have always resented this body that keeps me in servitude to the male libido.

Rationalizing Murder

When I think about being a human being and what that means, I am immediately reminded of a particularly enlightening session I had with my marriage counselor in 2006.  I had been worrying about not being able to get pregnant, while simultaneously being thankful that I was sterile because of the problems in my marriage and the state of the world.  With the war, global warming, and the dictatorship of George W. Bush, it all seemed so hopeless.  My therapist told me that my fears were legitimate, but not to think so fatalistically.  My counselor, being a very wise crone, told me that although the world might be on the brink of disaster, my child could be the one to come up with a solution.  I laughed, thinking she was being ridiculously optimistic, but she continued to persuade me.  “Helena”, she said, “What if your child is the next Einstein?”  This reasoning resonated with me, not because I am a narcissist and think the product of my loins will be a genius, but who’s to say it won’t?  However, after thinking quietly about this for a few moments, I then wondered aloud how people could commit the horrible acts that they do; genocide, homicide, torture, rape.  All these horrors made me feel the world is too dangerous a place to bring a child in to but that day Bonnie gave me a second piece of unforgettable advice.

We are all animals, really, and it is because of our expectations that we have about what it means to act like a “human” that people are disappointed when others don’t act with reason and compassion.  If we look at our time on Earth since the beginning of life in an evolutionary context, the modern human has been plodding around for a millisecond.  So why is it at all shocking that we kill each other with such abandon?  What should be surprising is the fact that we can get up in the morning and dress and feed ourselves with our opposable thumbs.  The morning newscast should not consist of the latest story of pedophilia but rather the astonishing fact that someone was able to do a kind act for the well-being of another.  This argument may lead some to wrongfully determine that I think animals are soul-less, uncaring, and naturally violent if I am using the term “animalistic” to describe violent human nature.  I do not believe that animals are soul-less.  I have five cats and they are my children; I see in them a capability to love unconditionally and form close bonds with each other that are identifiable as spousal, maternal, paternal, and sibling relationships.

The problem with humans is intelligence.  We know just enough to make us dangerous.  As the clumsy, barely upright (if we are supposed to stand on our hind legs, why is lower back pain such an issue?), fumbling humanoids that we are, our intelligence provides for us the ability to rationalize violence.  Most of the time, animals kill for two reasons, both of which are propelled by instinct: to eat or to defend.  The only thought that is required during the act is “I am hungry” or “I will fight”, both of which really equal a dominant need to live.  This survival instinct, which comes naturally in all animals, is twisted in the mind of the human animal.  Yes, Stalin was responsible directly or indirectly for the deaths of millions of his fellow Russians, but he was able to justify every act as a means for his survival, and for Communism.  For example, if a man kills his daughter after he rapes her, he can justify the murder by saying to himself that he had to in order to silence her or else she would have told on him and he would have ended up in prison, where he might be killed, so his killing of his daughter was really just an act of self-preservation.

I do not consider myself human; to be human is to be vile, wicked, dirty, and cruel.  I rather prefer to identify myself as an animal.  A female animal that is capable of nurturing, protecting, and feeding those I love.  Not restricted by any social norms or roles, just the law of nature.  I do not have to be faithful to one mate, I am not a Trumpet Swan; instead, I can have as many mates and offspring as my body and time allow.  I can allow my children to grow up and go out into the world without feeling a need to dominate them or keep them close to me.  I am warm and loving, and I like to be petted while I curl up in a loved one’s lap.  And if that loved one finds the right spot, I may purr to let them know my content.  What I will not do is kill, or hurt, or maim in the defense of survival while hiding behind some political or cultural rhetoric that allows me to be a tyrant, claiming patriotism as a reason for killing innocents.  I cannot, and refuse to ever be a war-like human, with all of their abominable Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.  Even beautiful, sweet Eros is twisted into something ugly in the hands of a jealous human.  A lion king may fight the young male who is attempting to mate with his preferred female, but that doesn’t mean he wants her forever; and that same young cub may have the chance to be king himself one day.  Then, he can choose any female he wishes.  There is no rationalization to the problem. It is just survival of the fittest, which does not entail the destruction of all those who are weaker.  The king’s genes will be the most prolific in the pride, and that is the definition of success.  As my biology professor would say, “Those who die with the most kids wins.”