How to talk about sexism?

Women face sexism daily. It’s a problem in the society and women are getting more vocal about it, but women’s protests against sexism are not always a success. Some men don’t believe in sexism or belittle its impact on women. Others feel wrongly accused and get defensive. Some men profess to hate sexism, and prostate themselves in front of women to show how respectful they are. And then, luckily, there are men who simply acknowledge that sexism is a problem, and want to do their part in the fight against it.

Sometimes men’s adverse reactions to women’s talk of sexism are due to the way we talk about it, but how about the men who simply deny the existence of sexism? They say there is no sexism. They may admit that women take a lot of crap from men (as shown by the everyday sexism project ) but the denialists feel it’s not a question of sexism but a question of some men being jerks, just like some women are jerks.

Well, yes and no. Let’s look at an example. Someone tweeted to the everyday sexism project that when she walked past a construction site, one of the workers shouted at her, “Show us your hairy axe wound, you fat cow!” Nevermind that the woman wasn’t actually fat, but do you think the construction workers shouted similar things to the men who walked by? I don’t think so! Yes, men can shout obscene insults to other men, but not at random strangers in the street, right? Imagine a construction worker shouting to a random male by-passer “Show us your hairy crack, you big twat!”

It just doesn’t happen. Men may exchange such insults as cheeky banter among friends (or among enemies) but men who are considered sane don’t yell such things to unknown men in the street. However, some men find it in themselves to yell insults or praise to bypassing women. They choose their targets on account of their sex. Therefore it’s sexism. There is nothing women can do avoid being yelled at. Attractive women get yelled at because they’re attractive, and unattractive women get abusive comments because for some reason there are men who think it’s okay to let a woman know when they don’t like her looks. It doesn’t much matter whether you hear sleazy whistles or obscene insults. Both are unwanted and aggressive attention that reduces you into an object.

So, the men who yell at women in the streets are without doubt jerks, but they are jerks in a specific way. They are jerks to women, for being women. To be fair, there are also women who are jerks to men, because they’re men. That’s sexism too, and it can be quite shocking for a man who experiences it. I can’t come up with examples off the top of my head. Maybe that’s sexism too? Maybe I don’t notice the sexism encountered by men because I’m focused on sexism experienced by women? Or maybe sexism practised by women is different, harder to perceive? If you have personal experiences to share, it would be interesting to hear about it.

Now, how about the men who get defensive when women bring up sexism? They don’t want to deny the existence of sexism but they get upset and angry when women talk about it. Maybe they feel wrongly accused or maybe some of them feel a twinge in their conscience if they realise they have been behaving in a sexist way without intending to? Either way, the men who get defensive don’t necessarily want to defend sexism as such. They just don’t want to be held accountable for some collective fault in men. “Bloody hell, I’m a stand-up guy! Is it my fault if some men are jerks?”

It’s not an unreasonable reaction. I don’t like to be lumped together with other women either. It’s not nice to hear, “women are like this, women always do that.” This is something that women might pay attention to when they talk about sexism. Sure, when we say, “men shout obscenities at women,” we don’t mean all men shout obscenities and all women have experienced it. We know what we mean, but would it be such a huge effort to be a bit more specific about it to avoid provoking those men who might be sympathetic to our cause if they didn’t feel they’re being accused for something they didn’t do? “Some men shout obscenities at women” allows for the fact that most men don’t.

Then what about the men who hate sexism so much that they proclaim to worship women as divine beings, and happily let us rule the Earth? Isn’t that nice? Not really, no. I appreciate the sentiment, at least if I think the speaker is being sincere, but really that kind of attitude is sexist, too. It puts women on a pedestal for no other merit than being women. What women want from men is the same respect they would show to other men, not worship. Fairness, not groveling. Equality, not pedestals.

As for happily “letting” women rule the Earth, that implies a patronising attitude and the inherent belief that men have the power to let women rule. But here’s the thing: I don’t want to rule the Earth. I don’t want to be treated like a princess. I just want to be treated like a normal human being. I don’t want to hear obscenities or flattery, or to get groped in the street, but I don’t mind getting polite compliments. However, don’t need compliments, so men shouldn’t feel like they have to say something nice to me because I’m a woman.

Finally, as for the men who acknowledge that sexism is a problem, and want to do their part in eradicating it – what can they do? Well, for starters, think about who usually makes the coffee at your workplace? Unless there’s a cafeteria or a person hired specifically to make coffee, don’t ask your female colleagues or secretaries to make coffee for you. If you want coffee, make it yourself. At home, do your share of the housework, cooking and grocery shopping. Don’t help your spouse with the chores. Children help. Adults pull their own weight.

And generally, if you have the guts, think about speaking out when you encounter sexism in your life. For instance, if a male colleague of yours belittles a female colleague, you could either call him out on it then and there, or if that doesn’t feel appropriate, you could point it out to him later, privately.

Women could also try standing up for themselves more. The problem is, when women try to fight sexism, things may get even worse for them, so they don’t always have the courage to do it. But when you go to a meeting and a male colleague asks you to bring coffee (because you’re a woman), you could say, “It’s not in my job description.” Or you could say, “Sure! Could you come along and bring the cups/the cakes/whatever?”

Of course, women shouldn’t have to fight against sexism. In an ideal world, sexist men would just become aware of the error of their ways and adjust their behaviour, and we could all live together without trying to oppress the other sex or struggling against oppression. But for that to happen, we need to start somewhere.



About inmyinternest

A thirty-something woman, watching the world turn
This entry was posted in Culture, Equality, Feminism, Men, Women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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