Julie Hanlon Rubio – « Masculinity and sexual abuse in the Church »

2. Gender as a lens for understanding sexual violence 

Questions about gender which have occupied theorists since the 1990s have only recently been taken up by Catholic theologians, so to use gender as a lens to consider clergy sexual abuse will require going beyond existing lines of analysis. As Judith Butler notes, feminist thinkers originally distinguished biological sex (male and female) from gendered expression (masculine and feminine) and focused on gender discrimination, but now gender has come to signify an embodied identity with a complex mix of biological, social, and psychological sources and varied performances, and gender-based violence targets a broad spectrum of those who transgress the binary.[1] The Catholic tradition is struggling to catch up.

Feminist theologians are leading the way by criticizing gender ideals that limit what women and men can do, but few have engaged the more complex questions of gender theory. Most embrace greater distinction between sex and gender, affirm the existence of diverse sexual orientations, and object to complementarity as well as ‘feminine genius’. Some have substantively engaged French postmodernist feminist theorists to argue both for some enduring feminine and masculine characteristics and for diverse gender expressions. Womanist, Latinx, African, and Asian theologians assume and build upon early feminist distinctions between sex and gender and employ gender (along with race, class, etc.) to analyze a range of issues.

There is broad acceptance of feminist theorists’ claims about the (partial) social construction of gender, gender and power, and sexism, along with attention to sexual violence understood as an act of power.

However, gender theorists have gone much further. Over three decades ago, Butler argued that gender is not simply socially constructed but constituted by ‘the stylized repetition of acts through time’, or culturally specific performance.[2] A woman or man walks into a feminine or masculine identity as an actor walks onto a stage, with a script, props, a director, a voice coach, and a costume designer. Each actor interprets an existing role in his or her own way, but ‘the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space and enacts interpretations within the confines of already existing directives’.[3] In Gender Trouble, Butler essentially dissolves the distinction between sex and gender, musing, ‘perhaps it was always already gender’ and claiming ‘the body in itself is itself a construction’, noting with enthusiasm new ‘possibilities for agency’.[4] If sex was once assumed to be biological but is, we now know, more complicated to determine, gender becomes the more fundamental category, not simply an expression of sex but an identity one practices, embodies, and reinterprets.[5]

Understanding gender as ongoing performance seems particularly important for analyzing sexual violence and clergy sexual abuse in particular. In order to resist it, we have to first understand it as a gendered phenomenon. But most analysts of the crisis are not talking about gender.

[1] Judith Butler, Undoing Gender, New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 6–7.

[2] Judith Butler, ‘Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory’, Theatre Journal, 40.4 (1988), 519–531. 

[3] Butler, ‘Performative Acts’, 526. 

[4] Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, New York: Routledge, 1990, pp. 7–8, 147. See also, Katie Grimes, ‘Butler Interprets Aquinas: How to Speak Thomistically about Sex’, Journal of Religious Ethics, 42.2 (2014), 187–215. 

[5] Judith Butler is the most influential of contemporary gender theorists, but some question her claim that ‘all gender is performance’, see Julia Serano, ‘Performance Piece’, in Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman (eds), Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, Berkeley: Seal Press, 2010, pp. 85–88.

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