Explaining Sexism to the Oblivious

I knew it was going to be a long conversation when a male co-worker, upon learning I graduated from a women’s college, asked me, “So you hate men?” I told him that it has nothing to do with hating men but with believing in equality and valuing myself and others no matter their gender or sexuality.

I’m busing tables in a restaurant. I’m not part of the waitstaff. I didn’t think I would need to deal with this much blatant and oblivious sexism immediately, especially not two days into the job. How I was that naive, I don’t think I’ll ever know.

everyday sexism

The man who asked me this question told me he never had to think about sexism before. He said, “I can’t really say much because I’m not a woman but in my mind men and women are equal.” If you did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. “Women might even be smarter than men. Men suck.” That’s an appeasement tactic. You’re throwing me a bone thinking that by praising women as greater I’ll believe you’re one of the nice men. The gentlemen who think holding the door for a woman means you’re not a misogynist. Try again, sir. Try again. “I just think that women only think men treat them differently. I think most men believe women are equal.” Tell that to the wage gap. 

“No.” let me say that again: NO. I told him that everything about our culture praises traditionally masculine qualities and devalues traditionally feminine qualities.

“Do you have an example to prove your point?”

The English language is inherently misogynistic. There are more ways to describe women than men and most of these terms are sexual and insults. The female equivalent to male terms always go the way of insults. For instance, a master is in command, but a mistress is a sexual being. Boys will be boys, but don’t hit like a girl/run like a girl/throw like a girl.

I laid out one or two examples as we stood in the back of the kitchen peeling potatoes. It was a moment of pressure because I was defending all women and all feminists. My answer would be the answer. I hated his smug white face as he nodded occasionally, but clearly didn’t believe me. He did not see sexism in the world because he never had to deal with it, only reap the benefits.

Just the fact that he needed proof is evidence enough that he valued my opinion less than a man’s. I had to defend myself. I had to explain sexism, knowing he wasn’t interested in anything more than being polite. I’d rather he wasn’t polite. I don’t want feminism to be tolerated and on the margins. Tolerance is far from acceptance.

I told him, “Feminism is more than just equal rights or thinking you treat women equally. You have to act on it. Feminism is active and you have to want it. You have to want to tear down the structure of male privilege.”

You have to seek out equality, not just ask about everyday examples of sexism too numerous to count. You have to want it more than anything else in the world.

and that I (gasp!) wanted to be there

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Take Up Space

It is not difficult to look into a room and know immediately who controls the area. Watch people’s body language. How do they sit? Who is standing? Where are they gathered and around who are they gathered? Who looks the most comfortable in the space? Chances are the ones in control of the space are men.

Count how many women sit with their legs or ankles crossed.  Count how many men sit with their legs splayed. Who is controlling the space?

Men are taught to take up space when they enter a room. Whether that is literally inhabiting more area by sitting with their legs splayed, or standing with confidence to dominate those who are sitting, men are taught they enter a space and they own it. Any competition to be top-dog exists between men only. Women in the space are fixtures of beauty to be acted upon and brought into their sphere of influence.

Just the other day I was standing and drinking tea with a male professor. Another man came by and asked if I was cold. I was not cold and for a moment I did not understand. Then it became clear: I was standing with my tea cup grasped with both hands in front of my chest and my shoulders hunched together. I looked cold because I was unconsciously trying to take up less room.

While men are taught to dominate public spaces, women are taught that their presence is tolerated so long as they don’t speak up or take the spotlight from men. It’s so easy to sink into the shadows when you’ve been taught your whole life the public sphere is not for you. It’s easy to relinquish control to the idea of male domination because most of this power dynamic is incredibly subtle.

It’s me standing with my whole body hunched in on itself to give my professor more room. It’s me walking just slightly behind a male companion to let him lead. It’s me readily giving up my control of a situation. Because that’s what this concept of public space is about: control.

If you control the space, you control the people in the space. You set the agenda for what is heard, what is said and what is taken seriously. With myself included, women need to take up more space. It won’t be easy because a woman who takes up space is a woman with a voice and a woman with a voice is a woman who is shot down at every turn. It is “unladylike” and you will be criticized for it. But it is better to have a voice and push to be heard because eventually you will succeed. With more and more women understanding this idea of body politics, we will succeed.

When women take up space we create a more equal playing field before words are even spoken. We challenge the status quo by putting our bodies out there as whole people who deserve respect. Respect yourself and take up more space.

Use the “F-Word” in Polite Company

I don’t swear. My friends are shocked if I casually say “damn.” But I think it is important to reclaim the “f-word” and not just on bumper-stickers. It is all well and good to proclaim from the back of your car: Reclaim the F-Word: Feminism,

but now, we need to proclaim it in the streets, in our homes, and in our work place. Feminism cannot be a silent presence, not when it can be so easy to look the other way and claim sexism is from a by-gone age.

I have a friend who is going into video game design and the last time she and I met up we talked about female characters in films. We talked about Tauriel in The Hobbit (I plan on making a post on my hatred of Tauriel, keep on the look out), the women of Frozen and Tooth from Rise of the Guardians. Without delving too deep into our entire discussion, it was clear we agreed that women in all forms of media deserved to be treated with respect and not rely on a male character to define them. We watched Wreck it Ralph and as my friend gushed at all the video game references, I told her about Feminist Frequency’s video series on Tropes Against Women in Video Games.

I mentioned the word “feminist” and her face darkened. She said she might look into it, but I doubt it. But, she is a feminist: she believes in equality for women. She is a woman going into a male-dominated field who believes she is just as good as her male peers. She is a feminist, but right now would not admit it.

I do not blame her. When I first proclaimed myself a feminist, it was entirely on this blog. I was ashamed of admitting it out loud for fear that I would be fighting a dead fight, that I would be viewed as a man-hater, that I would be insulted by strangers and family for my beliefs. And I cannot say my life as a feminist has been completely devoid of any of this, I do not need to compromise my morals by claiming to be anything that I am not.

I am a feminist. When I began my blog, I was terrified to publish even my about page . I had to whisper to myself “I am a feminist” until the words became easier to say. Now, I do not whisper. But about two years ago I wouldn’t even have dared to let the word “feminism” cross my mind. It was the f-word, and I didn’t swear. At my women’s college, we have a festival in the fall where different diversity organizations set up booths for arts and crafts. The Feminist Club had a booth to make buttons and pre-printed on every piece of paper was one word:

FEMINIST

Friends grabbed at the buttons and wrote slogans already made famous by t-shirts, but no less powerful in meaning.

I, on the other hand was threatened by the word feminist so much that I nearly took a button and wrote “I am not a feminist” in large black marker to offset myself from the hordes of women who were deluding themselves into believing women were not yet equal. Thankfully I did not make this mistake as I do not know how I would have gotten over the shame of my sexist views.

However, I have gotten over the shame of feminism. I do my absolute best to let my friends, their family, my family, co-workers and bosses know exactly where I stand on the issue of gender equality. It doesn’t have to be the first thing out of my mouth, but there is nothing wrong with using the f-word in “polite company” because feminism is not impolite. If those who hear it disagree or are offended, then they are offended. But at least you stood up and did more than whisper or put a bumper sticker on the car. The words need to come from our mouths and the words need to be loud and spoken with certainty.

I AM A FEMINIST.

I’m Not Here for your Entertainment

As if I need an excuse to love P!nk any more than I already do. But the other day I received a message on my cell phone from my brother where he told me in simple speech:

I’m bored.  Entertain me.

It’s terribly insulting to know that someone you love only calls you when they’re bored. You become a child’s toy to be picked up and abandoned at will, serving the whims and happiness of another. This is the underlying message made to women daily, which just so happened to be proclaimed in its full sexist glory on my cell phone.

I called my brother back later that evening and told him that what he said was sexist and insulting. He apologized and he said he meant it as a joke. But even as a joke it represents ideas that are pressed into the brain that men and women may not even be aware they possess. I wonder if my brother understood why what he said was sexist or if I was just throwing out words that told him “you insulted me” without a good explanation as to why.

It was so easy to drop the subject then. He apologized. Why should I press the issue?

But I don’t feel as if I am viewed any differently by my brother or by men in general (if you can indulge me in a momentary generalization). The prevailing attitude remains that women exist for the purpose of serving men in any way possible. From the most blatant to the most subtle. And no matter the form it takes, it remains sexist.

So, for your entertainment I want to bring back P!nk who’s music is always a great reminder for me of a woman who has broken the mold and sings the truth about gender relations.

What Does it Take to Defend Yourself?

I have always had a hard time standing up for myself. Somewhere along the lines, I was indoctrinated into the belief that women cannot be aggressive and being aggressive is anything that can cause a conflict. When I was in elementary school I would get into fights with my friends all the time over the stupidest things and so I fell into the trap of turning a 180: instead of causing conflicts, I would be a good girl and bring peace. Being a proper girl and being a peacekeeper were interlinked in a way I didn’t question when I was a child.

Unfortunately this way of thinking is still hardwired into my brain. And so when a man the other day called me a “little girl” (see my previous blog about the incident here) I lost my voice and didn’t say anything to refute his statement. Women are especially trained to not contradict men.

But I was able to stand up against a sexist comment I heard the other day claiming that all women were uninterested in sports and could amuse themselves by talking to other women while the men watched the NBA finals. He tried to justify his comment by asking me a question about which player got the basket in the last game, thinking that my ignorance of sports proved his point that all women don’t like sports. I told him his comments were sexist, unappreciated, and not funny.

It didn’t feel as if it took that much courage to tell this person off, but it felt impossible to stand up for myself when a sexist comment was directly aimed at me.

When you stand up for a movement-say the feminist movement-, you can claim righteousness in that you’re one among many who believe that women need equality. When you stand up for yourself, there might not be anyone to back you up. And that is terrifying. I know I get a gut feeling where I immediately question my worth: did I deserve the comment that was slung at me? Am I actually the little girl he pins me as? Is his perception of me my own fault?

All of these questions are worse than useless because I am playing into the hands of the person who insulted me. By the time I process all these questions, the moment has passed where I could have stood up for myself.

And I’m increasingly realizing that if I don’t stand up for myself, then it will be a self fulfilling prophecy where no one else will stand up for me either. But I’m also realizing that defending myself is more than just speaking words in my own defense.

I can defend myself by defending my ideals. This is very circular: I have an easier time standing up for a movement than I do standing up for myself, and standing up for myself includes standing up for a movement. And it’s so difficult.

I was at a party last night and I watched someone log his friend’s computer where his friend’s was logged into facebook. He posted as his friend’s status: fee fi fo fum; I want a penis in my  bum.

No one but me saw him do this to his friend’s account and I turned my back to him and pretended to be invisible. I didn’t know him. I barely knew the friend who was being pranked. But I knew I disagreed morally with what was going on.

And we’re back to women being taught to never contradict or confront men. We’re back to ingrained sexism and the shame of falling prey to it.

So what does it take to defend yourself? The way I see it, you can only defend yourself when you truly believe in what you’re fighting for and don’t care what the opposition says. Then you can defend your dignity, your sex, your race, your intelligence, your sexuality. Then you can defend your morals.

We are Trained to Take Sexism

It’s been almost a year since I discovered that I’m a feminist and have actively taken the route to pursue what this means. During the course of this year I’ve noticed all levels of sexism, from women hating on women, to being told it’s a man’s world, to people who try to invalidate me because of my sex. There comes a point where you think that even if you haven’t seen it all, then at least you have a good idea of the sexism that pours out of people’s mouths and that maybe you even have a response ready.

I’m always surprised by what people will say, but I’m even more surprised by how much I won’t say in response. I think I have my responses, and I know I know what I stand for, but I find myself freezing up.

Today a man in his early twenties had a conversation with me about how I don’t have a car and can’t get to a movie theatre close by. He told me to take public transit and then rethought his answer. He corrected himself: “Then again, I wouldn’t want to be a little girl walking in those areas by myself.”

What?

It took me a moment to process this because it came out of nowhere. This man is maybe two years older than I am. He would never say something like this to a man, but he said it so casually too that he didn’t even stop to think that he just called me a child.

And I didn’t have a response because suddenly everything I could have said felt weak and invalid because this is how I’ve been trained to think. This is how all women are trained: you do not contradict a man.

I now have a clearer idea of where my feminism needs to go. Now that I see sexism clearly in my own life and in the world scene as well, I need to make the same conscious effort to not just see it but give voice to it.

“Girls Shouldn’t Walk Alone”

I recently started working for an environmental non-profit as a canvasser. This means we go around to different residential neighborhoods and knock on tons of doors each night to raise money and get petition signatures.

And for all the people who are incredibly enthused to help out our cause, there are just as many people who instead of telling me “No” or “I would love to, but“, they instead offer me advice. The first house I went to last to last night I was asked by two older women if I was alone. I told them that there were other canvassers in the surrounding blocks. They proceeded to tell me to be careful, and the underlying whispers of you might be raped hung heavy in the subtext of their words. Just as I was turning to leave to the women called me back and asked me, “If you had seen two men sitting in this house and they invited you in, would you still have come inside?”

I told them that I would use my best judgment based on my own comfort level of the situation. They told me again to be careful. These weren’t the only comments I received on my safety that evening.

While I understand that these individuals were thinking of my safety, it was all women who lectured me about caution. This is the product or rape culture: women telling other women not to get raped. By this logic it’s all the victim’s fault for walking alone and having the audacity to have a job that requires walking alone. Women are constantly told to be dependent. When we’re not dependent on men to protect us from other men, we’re dependent on female friends to walk in a group and uphold safety in numbers. Or we’re dependent on relatives to keep us sheltered from the harsh reality of the world where women walking alone risk sexual violence.

I once had a conversation with a close friend of mine where she too was concerned about me walking alone, especially after it gets dark. I told her that I don’t want rape culture to run my life. I’m not going to quit my job or limit my activities because I fear being attacked. And if I walk alone because I need to, hopefully I can show other women that it’s okay to be independent. If there’s one more woman walking alone and challenging the authority of rape culture then we’re one woman closer to a country where it’s the norm for both sexes to walk freely and not fear violence.

I understand that this is dependent on the neighborhood and that there are extenuating circumstances, but a fear or being raped should not keep either sex dependent. Men get raped as well and I do not mean to discount their experiences. Rape culture effects everyone: the victim and the attacker. Everyone should be free to come and go as he or she pleases without fearing sexual violence. Freedom of movement should be a natural right.