Bro, Is This Sexist? A Conversation About Sexism And Feminism For Men

Hey folks,

Today, we’ve got an email that’s a little different. This one resides somewhere between a typical Ask Dr. NerdLove and a Post-Mortem. It’s less a “help me with my dating issues” question so much as “can you explain some things to me?” letter. He has a few issues he wants clarified and rather than summarizing it all at the end, we’re going to take it point by point. Strap yourselves in, this is gonna be a long one.

Dear Dr. NerdLove,

Long time fan, you’ve had a major impact on my life, but I should get to the point…

Am I a sexist?

I’ve recently debated with my girlfriend about SJW extremists and how they probably do a little more harm than good. Don’t get me wrong, I believe:

  • Rape is practically equivalent crime compared to murder.
  • You should never ever hit a woman, unless in self defense.
  • There is no excuse for physical or mental abuse regardless of gender.
  • Death and rape threats is aggression going to stupid levels.
  • I am middle of road politically, because I think extremists are why both politically parties fail in my eyes. I do however tend to lean left most of the times.
  • I support the rights of LBGT community
  • Grew up in home with a single mother, so I know a woman can do anything man can do (Except some biological stuff).
  • I think the entire men crying complaining about being in the friend zone is just a part of them being immature.
  • Elliot Roger has a nice place in hell.

…and the list goes on. But here some things that some people get easily offended get mad at me about…

I’m going to break in right at the start and point out the obvious irony: you’re asking me, a straight dude, to explain feminism to you. I mean, let’s be real here: I have at best a 101 level understanding of feminism. I’m by no means a scholar or authority on feminist issues, the history of the movement etc. There’re any number of resources out there that could explain a lot of your questions and objections to you, including Finally Feminism, the Geek Feminism wiki and XYOnline, or read some authors and writers like bell hooks, who’re far better equipped to handle this than I am. But you’re asking a dude to explain it. That, in and of itself, should be something for you to think about as we go through these.

But here we are.

The short answer answer is yes, you are sexist. So am I. So is everyone else. We’re all a product of the culture that we grow up in and that means we’ve all absorbed sexist attitudes growing up. To be sure, it’s gotten better over the years, but it’s still there. It’s the background radiation of our lives — we don’t necessarily see it because we’re so used to it that until someone points it out to us, we have no idea that something we said or thought is sexist or offensive. How many times have you said “Of course… I’m a guy?” to a question without thinking about it? Or made a statement about how all guys are X or all women are Y? Right there, you’re falling into gendered stereotypes about men and women without realizing it.

Women do this too, by the by. Women will say and do things that correspond to sexist stereotypes about women just as men will say and do things that correspond with sexist stereotypes about men. You see this when there’s pressure to be “the cool girl” or “the one who’s just one of the guys,” the feminine-presenting woman who’s bagging on a tomboy, or the more butch girl complaining about girly-girls.

The big questions are
a) how aware of it are you, and
b) what do you do when you notice that you’ve done or said something sexist? Ideally, you recognize it and try to not do it again, maybe even educate yourself a little about things.

So with all of that in mind, let’s dive in. I want to warn you in advance: you’re about to have a lot of your ideas ripped apart. Try to keep in mind: this isn’t an attack on you, it’s about dismantling and correcting a lot of mistakes, biases and assumptions that you and a lot of other people have, too. And hey, I may well be wrong on some of these, so I encourage folks to discuss this in the comments.

– I don’t support is extremist left, whiney, and sometimes elitist culture that sites like tumblr promotes.

Hi, welcome to the Internet. You may have noticed that people form communities based around similar interests. Folks like to get together, create safe spaces for themselves and other people to discuss issues, share their experiences and ideas, even vent. Sometimes they organize attempts to correct issues as they see them. You’re not obligated to be part of them or even acknowledge their existence. Nine times out of 10 they aren’t going to affect you, and the one time they do it’s usually ignorable.

For guys, anyway. Women have an entirely different experience online. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Tumblr is hardly unique in having the appearance of a dominant culture. Reddit is notoriously seen as conservative, reactionary, entitled, predatory and even racist… despite hundreds to thousands of sub-reddits to the contrary. 4chan, SomethingAwful, Ebaum’s World… they all have their stereotypical dominant culture that doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality.

But let’s circle back to something you called Tumblr culture: “whiney.” This is a popular insult that gets applied to traditionally progressive types – we’re “whiney” because we’re constantly talking about issues that affect us or others. It’s a way of diminishing some very real concerns that people express. It’s easy to say “Oh, so-and-so is whining because people are being meeeeean to them on the Internet,” f’rex, when it’s not part of your day to day existence. But that’s just it: it’s not part of your day to day existence. This is what’s known as “privilege” — the invisible benefits that you’re often not aware that you have. To give a concrete example: I’ve written extensively on women in the comics and gaming industries and topics that are considered to be “Social Justice.” Aside from the occasional troll in the comments or the angry tweets, nothing happens to me. On the other hand, just about every woman I know who writes about harassment, from Amanda Marcotte to Janelle Asellin, Amanda Hess to Laurie Penny, inevitably faces a backlash of harassment, rape threats and even death threats. Anita Sarkeesian has been chased out of her own home because of death threats from stalkers. This isn’t someone being “whiney,” this is shit they face on a daily basis for the crime of being a woman online.

Then, there are friends of mine who deal with various mental illnesses and traumas; they have very legitimate issues that make their lives difficult — often even nightmare-ish — but are told over and over again to suck it up, quit complaining, grow a thicker skin, get over it and quit whining. You especially see this when it comes to the debate around “trigger warnings” and the arguments that “you don’t have a right to not be offended” and complaints that Social Justice Warriors want to put padding on all of the sharp corners of the Internet. Do I think some of it is overblown? Sure. But I also don’t have the experience of having had something so horrible happen to me that I get flashbacks. Meanwhile, I have close friends who have PTSD from things they’ve survived — shit that would’ve crippled other people. So I try to have some empathy for them and not mock them as “whiney” just because they’re dealing with something I’m not.

And I’ll be the first to tell you: there’re groups I consider whiney. I ain’t perfect. But “whiney” is frequently used as a way to dismiss legitimate concerns or the need for empathy. So consider that a bit more carefully in the future.

– I haven’t liked movements like the “die cis scum.” I think it is a step back for people getting transgender rights.

I hate to tell you this, but that’s not a movement. What you’re talking about is people who’ve had their existence denied, who’ve been told that they’re damaged, deviant or subhuman blowing off steam in a space they’ve carved out for themselves. It’s no different than vocal feminists posting pictures of themselves with mugs labeled “Male Tears.” And as a general rule of thumb, I’d advise you to be careful about telling a minority group “this makes you all look bad” or “this is a step back for you.” Again, you’re coming at this from a place of privilege telling someone without those same privileges that they “have” to act a certain way in order to be considered “one of the good ones.”

– I believe Anita Sarkeesian has very bias opinions about things she didn’t put a lot of research into. Also think that her art theft and other things she’s done are morally reprehensible, but I don’t think she should get the death and rape threats, thats just immature.

I don’t have enough time or patience to go into the many, many things that people have accused Anita Sarkeesian of, but “not putting a lot of research into things” is ridiculous on the face of it. Even a cursory view of her videos makes it pretty damn clear that she’s put a lot of research into the topics. You may disagree with her, but that’s a different beast entirely. The big “gotcha” moment that people use as “proof” about how she doesn’t know what she’s talking about stems from the question of whether you’re “encouraged” to kill women in Hitman — as she stated in a recent video. The fact that you’re penalized for killing women doesn’t change the fact that you’re able to in the first place. The entire point of them being there at all is about putting an obstacle in the player’s way. There’s literally no need for them to be there other than designers deciding on that particular challenge. Similarly the “art theft” accusations hinge on ignoring things like the “Fair Use” clause in copyright law. As for other “morally reprehensible” things? Such as? Just about every accusation about her being a con or a fraud is laughable and — critically — comes from people who don’t have any money invested in her video series. The claims tend to be either she faked the harassment for sympathy — rather demonstrably not true — or that she’s somehow misusing the funds because… well, nobody can really explain other than playing Fantasy Accountant. The same people who complain that she got more than she was asking for aren’t exactly going to Tim Schafer and telling him to give the money he got back when his Kickstarter got overfunded. You may also notice that none of the Kickstarter backers have been demanding their money back. Which should tell you what you something.

Ian Steadman’s article “Tropes vs Anita Sarkeesian: on passing off anti-feminist nonsense as critique” in the New Statesmen covers the other common anti-Sarkeesian tropes far better than I could.

But death and rape threats aren’t “immature,” they’re fucking reprehensible. Calling them “immature” diminishes the impact and portrays the people who receive them as overreacting. This isn’t a bunch of teenagers indulging in puckish pranks, these are people trying to harass and terrorize a woman into silence – something even more disturbing when one of them demonstrates that he knows exactly where she lives.

– I think that saying rape is bad, is really just a common sense thing to me rather than a slogan thing for me. Honestly preaching about it how it’s wrong just makes you look stupid.

So, wanna guess how many people thought that the Steubenville rape victim “brought it on herself”? How many people called Retaeh Parsons a slut and a whore after she was raped, leading to her suicide? How many people think that it’s ok to force a woman to have sex with you because you’ve spent money on her or she’s had a lot to drink? The number of people who think that if she doesn’t actively say “no,” it’s not rape? In 1962, it was legally impossible for a man to rape his wife. Spousal rape was only made illegal in the 1970s. In 2014, South Carolina still requires a higher level of violence than standard rape in order to charge someone with sexually assaulting his wife.

– I think teaching “not to rape” is impossible due the lack of empathy that most criminals have. We can teach consent, but I think people like that are or will be rapists are almost impossible to reeducate. Its like making alcohol illegal during prohibition, people still found a way to have alcohol.

Hooo boy.

First of all: I hope you realize you just said “it’s on women to not get raped,” right? Do I have to explain how incredibly offensive that is? I don’t, right?

Second of all: you’ve just fallen victim to one of the classic blunders: assuming that the majority of rapists are strangers leaping out from bushes to assault women and that rape is an obvious and violent act. One of the reasons why nobody intervened when the Steubenville rapists were assaulting a girl right in the middle of the party, putting their fingers into her or trying to force her to go down on them? Because so many of those bystanders didn’t recognize that she was being raped. They saw rape as the “dude’s got a knife, pulling her into an alleyway” crime you see so often on Law and Order: SVU, not a couple of their buddies horsing around with someone who was blackout drunk. You also seem to severely underestimate the number of people who will admit to rape — as long as you don’t use the “r-word.”

Teaching people not to rape? Really goddamn important.

– I think woman have it pretty great now a days, when compared to about maybe 50 to over 100 years ago.

Oh, I agree. But I don’t think you realize just how recent some changes have been. Just focusing on U.S. law — women weren’t allowed to practice law until 1971. Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, women weren’t able to get loans or credit lines without a man co-signing the application. Women didn’t have the universal right to birth-control pills until the Supreme Court decided Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965, and said ruling would then go on to affect Roe v. Wade in 1973. Sexual harassment wasn’t defined until 1980. The Family and Medical Leave act didn’t get passed until 1993. Women routinely make 77 cents for every dollar men make. Women are perpetually questioned whether they can be a “good” mother AND work outside the home. Women politicians are continually questioned and judged in the media on their looks, their fashion choices and their “bitchiness” vs. their actual accomplishments. Meanwhile, women’s right to regulate their own fertility has been drastically reduced in recent years, with many people in government trying to remove the right entirely. New laws restricting abortion are passed each month, many with the express intent of shaming the woman into not having an abortion. Insurance coverage of birth-control pills is considered highly controversial while coverage of medications for erectile dysfunction are de rigueur.

And then there’s the fact that women’s sexuality has been so long ignored or dismissed that scientists had to discover the true size of the clitoris three goddamn times .

“Better” ain’t “perfect” or even “equal” yet.

– I wonder just because a character looks sexy doesn’t mean it is sexist. I don’t like blatant fan service, porn never had good plots anyway, but let us judge the character by how the character acts and by not how they look. Thats slut shaming with fictional characters.

You may want to look up the definition of “objectification,” but for the purposes of this discussion: “treating someone as an object.” That’s precisely what so many sexualized characters are in TV shows, movies and games. They are there as decorative or consumable objects for the (male) viewer or player.

But when you’re talking about fictional characters, you are talking about characters — they don’t have animus or agency. They don’t have consciousness. They don’t make decisions. The writers, artists and directors create them, decide what they look like and how they act. Princess Daphne doesn’t dress like she does in Dragon’s Lair because she’s an empowered female who enjoys her own sexuality or even because it makes her feel pretty, she’s dressed like that because she’s a sexy reward for the player. Those strippers in Hitman aren’t there because they have college loans to pay off and they’ve decided to go into sex-work, they’re there because a game designer decided to stick ’em in the scene. The criminals in Arkham City aren’t threatening to rape Catwoman because they have issues with assertive women, they’re doing it because the designers decided that this is what they’re going to say while you’re controlling Catwoman. Fictional characters don’t do anything on their own; their behavior, personalities and very existence is due to someone deciding that this is who they are and how they’re going to act.

– I prefer the term egalitarian compared to “feminist” because it better fits with the definition of “equality for all.”

I see that you assume that “feminist” means “female superiority.” People have made a concerted effort to make “feminism” and “feminist” a dirty word because it encourages people to avoid it — even people who’ve benefitted from it like Katy Perry and Taylor Swift. Here’s the real definition — feminist: a person who believes in the social, political, economic equality of the sexes.

That, incidentally, comes from an awesome TEDTalk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and I encourage you to watch it.

(I’m not going to get into the multiple different forms of feminism, the various “waves” of feminist thought, the conflict between white and African-American feminist authors, or trans-inclusive vs. trans-exclusive feminism… that’s all a topic for a different time and for people who are much better versed on the topic than I am.)

But let’s address the difference between “feminist” and “egalitarian.” Y’see, while calling yourself an egalitarian is all well and good, it’s also missing the point. It’s also really common. I mean, hell, for a while, on this site, I described myself as “egalitarian” or “humanitarian” rather than feminist, because… well, the label has baggage that I was trying to avoid and I wasn’t willing to really examine it. These days I proudly call myself a feminist.

The whole point of feminism is not just that women aren’t the social, political or economic equals of men yet, but about identifying and addressing the causes. “Egalitarian” sounds like you’re being broader minded, but implies you’re coming from a place where equality has already happened (it hasn’t) or that the lack of equality isn’t because of actual oppression from a system that is rigged against women. It also implies that you (general you, not you Questioning) are ignorant of just what feminism has actually accomplished. This is one of the reasons why the Women Against Feminism Tumblr (hey look, a right-wing tumblr!) and hashtag are equally laughable and frustrating; because the people taking part are ignorant of what feminism actually represents and how much it’s benefitting them already and how much further there is to go.

And here’s the thing: feminism helps everyone. If you’re a guy who isn’t the model of traditional masculinity, feminism helps you because it pushes back against outdated, toxic gender roles. Wish women were more open to casual sex? Guess who shames ’em for being sexual: men. Want a job that traditionally codes “female,” like nurse or kindergarten teacher? Feminism is part of why it’s acceptable for you to pursue it.

– I think people who get overly offended are immature, weak willed, and usually have some double standards in their lives, but don’t we all. I just hate having to watch everything I say so someone doesn’t have a mental break down. I think people who overly sensitive are just a crowd I am better off not hanging out with.

Remember what I said earlier about “whiney”? You’re reflexively assuming that people don’t have real, legitimate issues simply because you don’t share them or don’t see them as being a big deal. Yes, dealing with specific individuals on occasion can be the equivalent of tip-toeing through an emotional minefield.Yes, there are people who are incredibly delicate flowers out there, but the fact that some people live to be offended doesn’t excuse you from having a bit of empathy and consideration for people who don’t share your exact life experiences.

– I don’t think “saying at least all men aren’t like this,” especially after Elliot Rodger, is sexist. I am only saying I am glad we aren’t all assholes, I am not excusing his actions, I am just saying look on the bright side of life.

The reason why so many people get irritated over #notallmen is because it’s a case of a dude running into the middle of a conversation — usually one that didn’t involve him specifically — in order to protest that he wasn’t one of the bad ones.

Primilarly, when guys run in to “play devil’s advocate,” they’re prioritizing the concerns of somebody else — usually someone who’s a harasser or abuser — over the people his behavior affects. If you’re not acting like the guy they’re talking about, then cool, take it as written that they’re not talking about you.

– I think we should focus on how we can better life rather than focusing on every negative thing thats wrong with the world. Yes people do shitty things, but lets start doing something that actually makes a difference, and stop crying.

Funny thing: before you can make things better, you have to figure out what’s wrong first. If you want people to stop doing shitty things, you have to make people aware that a shitty thing is happening in the first place. If you’re standing on my foot and I’m complaining that you’re standing on my foot, I’m not focusing on the negative, I’m trying to get you to realize that you’re standing on my goddamn foot and need to get the hell off of it. Once again, dismissing people with legitimate complaints with “stop crying” diminishes the very real troubles and concerns people are having because you find it inconvenient or annoying to be reminded that they exist.

Remember what I’ve said about understanding and empathy earlier? Still applies.

While we’re at it, you may want to read this entry on “tone policing.”

Honestly extremists just ruin everything, don’t they?

Google “false equivalency.”

I get in a head ache thinking about this stuff, and it leads to some self doubt. Am I wrong because the majority on this topic says so, or am I actually being logical about this? I am starting to have self doubt.

Self-doubt is good because you’re starting to question things. Questioning is the first step on the path to knowledge.

I seen other people of both sexes with opinions on both sides of topics like these, and so far I find my self in the middle with both sides telling me I am a wrong and need to reconsider my life choices.

The reason I ask you is because you are a better philosopher in these matters than I, and I put your opinion in high regards out of you helping me with my own issues with your fantastic articles.

Sorry for the long letter,

– Questioning

Remember when I was talking about privilege as the invisible benefits that we get without realizing it? This is one of them. I have more credibility with guys on this subject, not because I’m an authority on feminism or feminist issues (I’m not) or because I’m a respected scholar (I’m not) but because I’m a guy. Men are less likely to dismiss my thoughts on the subject — despite the fact that there are far more women out there who are better qualified than I am to comment on this — simply because I’m male. Think about that for a second.

(This, incidentally, is why I keep writing about issues on harassment and gender relations. As long as I have this privilege, I’m going to try to use it for good.)

Questioning, you’ve got a lot of misconceptions and prejudices to work through. But the fact that you’re starting to listen and to ask these questions is a good thing. It means you’re starting to engage with things you’ve always just passively accepted as true. The more you question yourself, the more you interrogate your beliefs and — critically — the more you listen and learn — the more you’ll understand. And you’ll be a better person in the long-run.

Good luck. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

featured image – Shutterstock

This post originally appeared at Dr. NerdLove.

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