Violence against women: erasures, feminist perspectives

In light of divergent film portrayals, what sense can we make of Sheriff Laux's refusal to believe that Lotter and Nissen would pull Brandon's pants down without sticking something inside of her? Does this line of questioning betray Laux's internalization of cultural constructions of the female genitals as 'nothing-to-see'—a void, a hole, an envelope for the male penis—and/or of female sexuality as violability? Or, rather, is it a statement of Laux's certainty about the criminal intent and capabilities of Lotter and Nissen? Or, as Boys Don't Cry suggests, was Laux simply trying to get Brandon to admit that he was raped? And do these different interpretations matter? If, as the film suggests, Sheriff Laux encouraged Brandon to report his sexual assault—if in fact his questions were motivated by a sensitivity to the underreporting of sexual assault among female survivors—then why did he make no attempt to apprehend Lotter and Nissen on rape and battery charges after taking Brandon's oral statement?

What explains Laux's inability to imagine that a man could see female genitals without penetrating them? How does this relate to his disdain for lesbian (or female-to-female) desire, and his unwillingness to trust a woman who 'lied' about her sexual identity? How does all of this intersect with Laux's relative silence and inaction with regard to Brandon's rape accusation and, ultimately, his failure to intervene in a crime that culminated with Brandon's murder? [34] There are important connections between the sheriff's assumptions about Brandon's sexual identity and the murder of Brandon Teena. Beliefs about the body, truth, sexuality, and pathology always intervene in apprehensions of identity, and help to construct normative discourse about the 'truth' of sexual identity. Why didn't Sheriff Laux act? Because to him, Brandon's body and identity were female, invisible, depraved or pathological, dehumanized, monstrous, and other: "Brandon was an it"; "I don't want it in my house." [35]

Discursive constructions of sexual pathology and deviance, coupled with symbolic erasures of the female body and sexuality, exist on a continuum with hatred and physical violence. What I want to demonstrate in this case is a slippery slope between misogynist hatred and murder. Sheriff Laux's inability to imagine that Brandon's assailants would accept the 'truth' of his genitals at face value—without penetrating the vagina with a finger or other object—is informed by a cultural imaginary that posits female genitalia as a hole, gaping wound, or abyss. The Sheriff's incredulity also disturbingly correlates to the misogynist and homophobic hatred and will to truth that Lotter and Nissen enacted while exposing Brandon Teena's genitals. Laux's characterization of Brandon Teena as an 'it' dehumanizes Brandon based on his inability to be neatly classified as either male or female, either gay or straight. Laux perceives Brandon's relationships with other women as a sign of monstrosity, perversion, and pathology. Because Sheriff Laux regards Brandon's gender identity crisis as a willful act of deceit, he discredits his police statement and ultimately unfounds [36] Brandon's rape charges. As a result, Laux discounts the threat made by Brandon's assailants to silence him permanently should he publicly disclose the crime.

Sheriff Laux's (in)action demands an inquiry into the nature of law enforcement officials' duty to protect endangered citizens. At what point along the continuum of violence are law enforcement officials obliged to intervene in order to protect a life? When can someone's life be defined as 'endangered'? As a general rule, law enforcement officers may not be held liable for a failure to protect individual citizens from criminal acts. On appeal of Brandon's case, however, the Supreme Court of Nebraska noted an exception to this rule. The Supreme Court found that Laux did have a duty to protect Brandon because of a 'special relationship' that existed between him (in his role of law enforcement officer) and Brandon. This relationship was created on the basis of Brandon's willingness to aid law enforcement officials in the performance of their duties. [37]

Because Brandon's murder was enabled by an entire spectrum of violence exercised by Nissen, Lotter, and Laux, I would second the prosecution's argument that Brandon was raped and ultimately murdered "because he was a female who dressed like a male." In other words, Brandon's rape and murder can be appropriately construed as extreme forms of gender- and sexuality-based discrimination, domination, and violence. By virtue of his dehumanization of Brandon, coupled with inaction, Sheriff Laux breached his duty to protect Brandon from known assailants.  [38] He did so in the wake of both a brutal assault and an explicit threat to Brandon's person. Because he breached the duty to protect Brandon, dehumanized him, and invalidated his testimony, Sheriff Laux served, in effect, as an accomplice to murder.

Laux's behavior in Boys Don't Cry points to a need to reassess what constitutes "violence against women." Does violence against women mean something different when it is perpetrated against a FTM cross-dresser? In Brandon's case, violence was used to punish a biological female for violating gender norms. Rape is often fueled by a desire to put women 'back in their places' through physical domination. As one man in Beneke's study explains:

When I see a woman who has a certain sense of power but no gentleness, that makes me angry...I feel like ripping her apart both sexually and physically. One of my favorite images is making love in the sand dunes and just seeing the indentation of somebody I've just fucked about two and a half feet down. It's like total power. [39]

Since tomboys, lesbians, and other butch women are often ridiculed and abused for similar acts of gender transgression, one might conclude that violence against transgendered people does not require any novel feminist approaches to the problem of violence against women.

Indeed, existing feminist analyses of violence against women provide us with a useful starting point for understanding the rape of transgendered individuals. For example, feminist criticism has shed light on the popular practice of blaming the victim in and out of the courtroom. To this end, feminists have contested the admissibility of evidence that purports to convey incriminating 'truths' about a woman's sexual practices, history, or orientation, or about her style of dress at the time of the attack. Feminist analyses of sexual violence have also highlighted widespread insensitivity on the part of police personnel to the emotional needs of rape survivors. Because of this insensitivity, many women feel raped a second time by law enforcement personnel and the criminal justice system.

Prominent feminist scholars including Susan Brownmiller, Andrea Dworkin, Sharon Marcus, and Susan Estrich have explored the complex dynamics between sex and violence as they play out in a rape culture. In their view, most cultures equate masculinity with aggression, and promote an understanding of the female body as weak and vulnerable to attack. To illuminate the intense emotional and psychological struggles faced by rape survivors, feminists have established the psychological concept of rape trauma syndrome. Feminist perspectives on sexual violence have also alerted news media to the need to protect the privacy rights of rape survivors. As a result, the news media routinely maintain victims' confidentiality in matters of public record, unless a woman chooses to be identified as a rape survivor.

Ultimately, feminist efforts to challenge violence against women have helped to establish more sensitive practices, institutional responses, and legal remedies for rape survivors. These include rape hotlines and victim advocacy organizations, dedicated health centers for rape survivors, institutional training to raise sensitivity levels among police and medical personnel, court advocacy, and greater attentiveness to the emotional, medical, and psychological needs of rape survivors in the aftermath of sexual assault. These fruits of feminist research and activism directly benefit victims of transgender violence and help to ensure that they will not suffer the same fate as Brandon Teena.