Babies are gendered before they even leave the womb! And once they are out, the sexualization begins. Bridget Welch reflects on how her son “flirts” with women and girls before he’s even clear on what a girl (or boy) is!
“He’s such a flirt,” was a common refrain when my son would gummily smile up and giggle at the women who stopped to see him. And they did stop. In droves. Remember, I told you how damn cute he was (is — thank you, see picture for exhibit A). The problem was that men stopped too (he was — is — that damn cute). Old, young, in-between, Stormaggedon (remember, this is my son’s fake name) would get love from everything on
two feet. And he would smile and burble away at all of them. Equally.
Not too long ago I was at an ice cream social with several of my colleague/friends and Stormaggedon. There too was a little girl that goes to school with him. Stormy spent the next hour running after her, calling after her, dancing with her. The adults around said stuff like, “Oh, she’s going to be trouble” and “WOW! Stormy’s got a girlfriend already!”
He’s two. She’s two. He was chasing her because: (1) He’s a toddler and has way too much energy BEFORE being given a dish of ice cream and a cookie; (2) He knew her and regularly plays with her at school; and (3) She was faster (and it doesn’t help that he demands to constantly wear Spiderman wellies that are two sizes too big — shown on the wrong feet in the picture). He wasn’t chasing her to kiss her or ask her out on a date. And, even if he did kiss her (it could happen) it wouldn’t have been sexual it would have been slobbery (trust me, I know his kisses). Again, because HE’S TWO.
The fact is, Stormy “flirts” with men as much as women. He chases boys as much as girls. But it is only when a girl is involved that his behavior becomes sexualized. The reason relies largely on the fact that the US makes heteronormative assumptions. Heteronormativity is a cultural belief system that takes for granted that human beings occur as either male or female and form romantic and sexual attachments to those of the opposite sex. As a result, heternormativity results in the erasure of bodies that do not fit into the male/female dichotomy (born intersexed which occurs a lot more commonly than we think and is a 100% natural occurrence).
What does erasure mean? The image of the bathroom sign below shows that it is “gender neutral.” The purpose here is to allow a safe space for intersexed individuals or transgendered people. Yet, at the same time it depicts a “male” figure and a “female” figure re-inscribing that there are only two ways to be — not leaving any room for the experience of people who do not fit in those two molds — erasing them.
Assumptions that everyone is heterosexual run rampant as well. From depictions of families that show a male (dad) and female (mom), to Halloween costumes, Valentine’s Day gifts, to supporting soldiers, images show only opposite sex couples living, working, and raising kids in America. Heterosexuality is such a rudimentary assumption of social life that everyone is assumed heterosexual from the get-go.
This is what Adrienne Rich calls “Compulsory Heterosexuality.” Writing about lesbianism, Rich argues that heterosexuality is forced upon people (though she focuses on women, it happens to men too) and maintained through social policing practices. It’s easy enough to see how this works when we stop just a moment to watch how sexuality is policed in commercials. Watch this Brian Safi video (I’ll wait … go watch it). Crushed by beer, or wearing a skirt, if you don’t meet the sexuality assigned you pay a price. Moreover, every time you assume that when someone talks about their partner they are talking about someone of the opposite sex, you are playing into heteronormativity. And, by playing into it, you are SUPPORTING IT.
And so, little boys get put in shirts that say “Dude, your girlfriend keeps checking me out” or “Pick me up, I dig older chicks.” Normal child behavior gets read by a heteronormative system in ways that support heterosexuality. Smiling at a woman becomes flirty. Chasing after a girl isn’t normal active behavior (as it would be if Stormy had been chasing a boy), but instead makes that girl Stormy’s girlfriend.
My reaction has always been to say, “He flirts with the boys too” or “He’s an equal opportunity flirt.” I always undercut comments that assume Stormy’s sexuality because: (1) I do not support heteronormativity, there are other ways of being and doing besides opposite sex attraction which includes everything from same sex attraction (homosexuality) to no sexual attraction (asexuality — yes, this exists); (2) I won’t be part of a system that pressures my son into picking one way of being because who the heck knows who he’s going to be yet; and (3) Assuming that my two year old son is flirting with another little girl or an adult woman is sexualizing my two-year old. And that’s actually pretty sick when you think about it. I mean, gross really. He’s two. Please stop thinking about my son in a sexual manner!
- Define heteronormativity in your own words. Find an example (not discussed in this article) of material you come across in your everyday life that illustrates these assumptions. Explain.
- What is meant by erasure? How does making heterosexualized assumptions of children result in erasure of other sexualities?
- How could you create a bathroom sign that was truly neutral? Design a sign that uses both symbols and words and explain why your design is better than the one pictured in this post.
- I struggled with whether to use this image of Stormy in his underwear. Using the discussion in this blog post, what do you think my struggle was over? Why do you think given the conclusion of my post that I decided to use it?