I don’t mean that they love to be “sexist,” although they do. Men love “sexism” because the very concept is a cover for and a distraction from what men really do to women. And some women want very badly for men to be part of feminism because they don’t understand that. It’s not that women who want men in the movement don’t understand that women are treated badly by men, they do get it, that’s the reason they’re feminists at all.
But to be a feminist and continue to believe that men will reform themselves is to believe that the problem really is “sexism” and that it can be defeated; that in turn requires that one not see what goes on behind the cover of “sexism.” Hand-in-hand with this is the hopeful idea that — of course! — once “sexism” is pointed out, the light will dawn for men and the lion will lie down with the lamb in a purely respectful way.
Julia Becker and Janet Swim, feminist researchers in psychology recently came out with the results of their study about “sexist” behavior and men’s and women’s responses to it. Becker and Swim concluded that both men and women are “not aware of the overall prevalence and extent of sexism in their personal lives. Women endorse sexist beliefs, at least in part, because they do not attend to subtle, aggregate forms of sexism in their personal lives. Many men not only lack attention to such incidents but also are less likely to perceive sexist incidents as being discriminatory and potentially harmful for women.” But with all due respect to these feminist researchers, I think they missed the point of why all of this happens around “sexism.”
Indeed, men’s and women’s reasons for not attending to the (nearly constant) “sexism” in their daily lives are different, but the reasons are far uglier and more toxic than what Becker and Swim are theorizing. So let’s get real here; this is, what, 2011? And women don’t pay attention to the constant onslaught of sexism. Why would that be? It’s sad to have to admit that women benefit from not noticing all of it by not feeling like shit about their lives 24/7. And by not having to admit that their Nigels (yes all of them: sons, boyfriends, brothers, husbands, fathers, best friends, mentors) aren’t ever going to really get it and make changes, so women can continue hanging around with them without going completely crazy.
So let’s go ahead and admit that women don’t want to see all the “sexism” that exists and they have some pretty good reasons why they don’t. And if it really were just all about “benevolent sexism” (a term Becker and Swim coined to describe what appear to be just nice-guy behaviors toward women), maybe it would be ok for women to just have their small sanity-saving delusions. But as those same researchers point out, whether anyone is aware of “sexism” or not, just the existence of it reinforces inequality and injustice for women. But again, they missed the deeper point.
The existence of “sexist” behavior and “sexism” meet even more fundamental and intractable purposes for men. To see this we first have to be very clear about what we mean when we talk about “sexism.” We think we know, but that’s exactly why the word is in quotes throughout this article. So, what is “sexism”? How about this definition: “sexism” is the act of prejudging women generally or specifically as the personal embodiment of stereotypes about women. Sounds circular. I think it is. Something is “sexist” because it stereotypes women. And those stereotypes are “sexist.” There’s the first hint of what the problem is with the concept of “sexism.”
It’s an internally consistent concept, but it doesn’t get past being purely descriptive of something someone says or does. The word “sexist” is just a plain old adjective. That makes it fundamentally unlike the word “racist,” which is often also used as a noun, and which carries far more weight than as mere descriptor. Some women (and many feminists) may use the word “sexist” as a powerful pejorative in their own minds, but words only have weight if everyone hearing the word agrees on the literal meaning as well as the connotations of it. And that’s where women and men differ the most in the use and understanding of this concept.
It is not that men “lack attention” to “sexism” and it isn’t that they don’t “perceive sexist incidents as being discriminatory and potentially harmful for women.” In fact, men know exactly how “sexism” works on their behalf; it is the average woman who does not want to see it. And even women who call themselves feminists miss what is really going on with men and that concept. If we open our eyes we can see that men benefit from “sexism” existing, because it functions as a distraction, a diversion, a cover, a costume, a “dog whistle,” and a concession of no great value to appease women whose main concerns and demands are not being met.
But that reality hasn’t stopped many an internet feminist (and other women writing online about men’s behavior) from only talking about “sexism” in the basic sense. And doing so as if describing the behavior will be enough to make things change. But focusing on “sexism” is exactly why we’ve waited forever while nothing does change. Recognizing and calling out “sexism” is a kind of island that’s easy to cling to when we’ve been swimming in the cesspool of woman-hate that is the patriarchy. The full recognition of what’s out there is just so much worse.
Focusing on “sexism” keeps us from seeing the deeper truth. We understand why women want to think that men’s “sexism” is just bad training or a misunderstanding, but the stakes are just too high for us to keep focusing on the wrong thing. And calling something by the wrong name, especially one that is relevant to the situation, but not as precise and illuminating as it could be, keeps our awareness at one level instead of another. We’re looking at things through the wrong frame when we’re looking at things framed as “sexism” and it leads us in the wrong direction and confounds our efforts toward making real change.
Here’s a simple example. Recently, a brilliant musician and performer — one who has won all the awards and accolades possible in a long life of amazing work — was expected to perform and get around her very demanding workplace while wearing high heel pumps, at age 69, just months after suffering through what was reported to have been a nearly fatal hospitalization. [“
Queen of Soul fractures toe on designer shoe heel”] And then, after breaking a toe while wearing those “shoes,” she is still expected to wear one of them on her uninjured foot while hobbling around with a cast on the injured foot. Is what she’s experiencing “sexism” or something else?
On a very popular online news site, run by a very powerful woman, the coverage of this story ran on their “Style” page with an ad with this photo embedded within the text:
This is the kind of thing that many women, and even feminists, call “sexist.” But in those two examples, that word is a complete misnomer and therefore easy for men to ignore. They know that isn’t the word for what’s being depicted, they know it deep down in their souls. It’s women who are confused by that term. You have to want to see beyond the first level. Those aren’t “shoes” Aretha Franklin is wearing, they’re torture devices, designed for that purpose in a woman-hating culture. That photo isn’t merely sexualizing the model, it’s an invitation to rape and humiliation. And it’s placement right in the center of a story about Aretha Franklin? All of it is misogyny, pure and simple. Radfems know that of course; but the point is how the idea of and focus on “sexism” disguises and diverts from that so perfectly.
There are many more examples that help clarify how “sexism” works as a distraction, a diversion and a “dog whistle,” a costume, and a concession of no great value (a “sop”).
Earlier this year, Satoshi Kanazawa created a racist, misogynist mash-up of evol-psych bullshit and Psychology Today published it on their web site. [“Why Are Black Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women” — the article was taken down, but a search finds many links to stories about it.] He knew perfectly well that he was being “sexist,” especially because he’s written and published the same type of articles before and been called out for them. He knew it would happen again and he did it anyway. Why? Because he knew he had the diversion of “sexism” while what he was really doing was “dog whistling” to his male readers and fellows in his field so they could bond around being cruel and hateful about women’s desirability to men. He didn’t care about anyone’s negative opinion of his “sexism” and neither did Psychology Today. And he might have gotten away with it again, too. He thought he had his usual cover, but, oops, his racism busted him where his “sexism” never did. He got called on the racism far and wide, but what do you know, many of the articles written by men about this event included more photos of “attractive” women, just beckoning men to bond in their continuing misogyny while women are diverted on to seeing that merely as “sexism.”
Chastity Bono (now “Chaz”) has figured this out, too. She’s enjoying her newfound status as a “man” and flexing the powers thereof. In a statement that she knew would get play in the press far and wide, she let it be known that she was now a “sexist” and therefore, a real live “man.” Says Chaz:
“I never really understood women before, to be honest, but I had a tolerance for women that I don’t have now. No, really. I’ve noticed that Jen [Chaz’s longtime partner] can talk endlessly. I just kind of zone out. … I just don’t care!”
Is that statement merely “sexist”? Of course not, it’s deeply cruel to the woman Chaz is in a partnership with and Chaz knew that as well as anyone on earth because Chaz is a woman. But now Chaz has learned to speak in ways that will encourage men to bond with her. Great trick, eh? Take some T and treat women like shit, buddies will come out of the woodwork to be with you in all your glorious “manhood.” And there will only be a bit of tsk, tsking over the “sexist” comments.
But sometimes there’s a bigger reaction that makes it look like men actually do care. Just recently, the liberal blogosphere was up in arms — incensed! — at the bald “sexism” in the depiction of a female politician in an online political video (ad) that used stereotypes from gangster rap music videos. The video was produced by a right wing political action committee to discredit Democrat Janice Hahn, who is depicted in the video as a stripper and performing a sex act. Of course it’s “sexist.” But pretty much every music video ever made is “sexist,” especially certain genres, and that’s the trope the creators of it were relying on people understanding. Why all the drama from doods suddenly about “sexism”? All their hand waving and histrionics about “sexism” covered the actual nature of the video: pure, unadulterated, unmasked, plain-for-all-to-see hatred of women. And as a bonus, deep cruelty toward the female politician who was essentially prostituted by the video.
Someone had to decide to depict her that way and they did so knowing they had an audience who would “get” it — all who share that deep hatred of women. The ad was a call from one group of men to another and they all understood perfectly well what was being said. And every one of them knew that women can be treated this way and the worst anyone will say about it is that it’s “sexist.” “Sexism” is the cover under which they can continue to operate like this and know that there will be nothing more than a relatively mild slap on the wrist in response. But you will not see anyone point that out, certainly not any men. “Liberal” dudes benefit mightily by calling this “sexist” because they wear the costume and mask of someone who cares deeply about something women care about, while not actually having any skin in the game, at all, ever. This is a sop to women, and liberal doods count on getting pats on the head for it and hence are only too happy to point it out sometimes, while never exposing the underlying hatred that they themselves take part in.
Those men count on the fact that their act of caring about “sexism” will give them cover for their own feelings and behavior. And politically “liberal” and “progressive” women — and feminists — play right into this on a regular basis. Recently, an elite liberal journalist, Bob Kuttner, came up with an obnoxious argument for why DSK attacked the hotel maid. (I know, shocking, right?) But the reaction from a liberal female journalist gave him an out:
“The simplest explanation for Kuttner’s take on DSK is that he tossed off a blog post and didn’t stop to do the kind of reflection that would have made these lingering biases evident to his better nature.”
[“Rape Isn’t Funny: On Making Excuses For Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Blaming the Alleged Victim”]
Let’s just be clear; what she means by “lingering biases” is “sexism” by another name. Indeed, her article has this as the subhead: “When a public intellectual of the left makes light of rape and makes excuses for an alleged perpetrator, we see how much work there is to do on sexism among progressives.” Yes, we’re supposed to believe that Kuttner has a “better nature.” And that’s because he has successfully flown under the radar by using a cover that distracts from his true nature. And here’s exactly how it works. Some editor on that site added this at the end her post:
“Kuttner offered an apologetic postscript to his original post, saying that some of his comments were intended to be ironic. He writes: ‘…this post clearly touched a nerve, and not the one I intended…on the subject of rape, one needs to choose one’s words with extreme care. The writer attempts irony at great peril.’”
OK, whew, he was just not careful with his words. Yeah right. In reality, this is another version of same concept and he’s counting on hiding behind it: sexism is a mistake made by being too casual and it’s just an “oops” moment, so all can be forgiven. Those of us who see it will just call it out and everything will get better. Soon. We promise.
Of course that’s complete bullshit. That someone hates us enough to want to see us constantly flailing, constantly failing, and forever in distress is the cold hard truth that we must see and must point out for anything to ever change. Many women have a very hard time believing this about the people they want to include in their lives or believe about the people they look up to. It is hard to take. It’s sad and painful and heart wrenching to realize that we are hated for no more (or less) than merely existing. We’d rather cling to the hope that maybe it’s just a few evil men, and a few more who are just a bit unthinking in their speech and behavior or who just have poor training.
Looking at things in that frame will keep things right where they are for women. The only way forward toward real change is to see the truth and help other women see it as well.
Stop using the words “sexist” and “sexism” and call it what it is: misogyny and hatred of women. When we use the right name for something, we can see what it actually is, how it works, and what it will take to dismantle it. When you see something that is obviously “sexist,” look further for the evidence of what’s really going on — and the hatred and cruelty behind that — and call that out. Change the frame by analyzing what’s going on beneath the cover of “sexism.” Practice seeing that even a man who wears the costume of someone who cares about “sexism” is someone who benefits from the hatred of women and very probably enjoys the cruelty at their expense. See for your self and point out the ways that men bond over their hatred of and cruelty to women. And never play a part in the game that uses “sexism” to hide that hatred and cruelty.