Genderphobia and Sexual Correctness

February 18, 1994|By RICHARD ALAN RUBIN

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco. -- Judging from a growing catalog of magazines, books and conversations on college campuses exploring "sexual correctness," it should not be long before psychiatrists begin treating people for a new disorder.

They might be tempted to label it "genderphobia."

The condition is manifested by an excessive penchant for misinterpreting communications between the sexes. In its severest forms, it is characterized by open and pronounced hostility.

While it can strike men, it mainly strikes women.

At the moment, the ailment appears confined to some militant feminists, crusading "rape crisis" attorneys, conservative educators and assorted disciples of the largely discarded Puritan ethic.

Scattered outbreaks have also been reported among college administrators inclined to view explicit flirtation between students as potentially suspicious.

If not treated early, the ailment progresses into full-blown delusions of victimization.

The only antidote is quarantining of the sexes.

The emerging picture this offers of American society -- and specifically of the American male -- is, at the very least, unsettling. The gathering hysteria surrounding reports of behavioral miscreants is beginning to sound a little like McCarthyism revisited. Instead of spotting Communists everywhere, we find male terrorists from schoolroom to boardroom.

Punctuated by the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas imbroglio and fed by such noted feminist authors as Susan Faludi, Katha Pollitt, Carol Pritchard and Robin Warshaw, who see date rapes and sexual harassment reaching epidemic proportions, the myth of woman as the helpless victim in a culture dominated by male bestiality is taking on epic proportions.

Disclosures about the alleged sexual misconduct of at least one U.S. senator have done little to quell the fury.

In such an environment, rational discourse is giving way to a rising tide of invective among warring feminists trying to outdo one another with battlefield statistics.

The more important and defining issues involving the changing roles of men and women are getting lost in the flood of angry rhetoric.

Not only does the current debate trivialize the concerns of millions of Americans who find all gender abuse abhorrent, but it stereotypes modern women as helpless creatures in need of continuing protection.

In attempting to punish real villains, we are in danger of snaring the innocent. Conduct not always tasteful may still be legal. Behavior offensive to some may fall within the imperfect yet accepted norms between permissiveness and over-regulation.

Rape can never be condoned. But when the dreaded word is stretched to include verbal persuasion, we have entered the gray zone where author Katie Roiphe says, "Someone's rape may be another person's bad night."

Setting out radar traps to catch sexual behavior before it starts, which some genderphobes appear ready to do, would be an ironic twist after years of trying to break the bonds that held men and women captive to antiquated notions of sexuality.

But if we must go about redefining the rules of sexual interaction -- which for most part have worked quite well -- we risk spawning a virulent pathology of gender alienation that may destroy more than it cures.

Richard Alan Rubin teaches communications and social policy at Golden Gate University.

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