There exist amongst us those so utterly in control of their self-possessed selves that when confronted with behaviour that makes them feel – because of their gender – small, less-than, or bullied, has the perfect cutting witticism and the confidence with which to execute it. They nip a limiting, rude comment right in the bud, like swatting away a fly, easily refusing to be silenced by the misogyny or sexism of another.
I am not one of those people.
When it comes to battling the examples of sexism I experience almost every single day – against women, and, less often but still apparent, against men – I get tongue-tied and flustered, only assembling the perfect put-down in retrospect, when the moment has long gone. Or, maybe I know exactly what to say, but I want to be liked, and I worry speaking up will hinder that, for whatever reason. I don’t want to be pegged as judgmental, or as a hippy “leftie”. THIS DOES NOT MAKE ME A BAD PERSON. This makes me, as ever, human. I don’t like conflict, or tension, or pissing people off to assert my moral superiority – earned or otherwise. I get anxious, sometimes, yes, but also I’ve an appreciation that the way to change the minds of some of the worst sexist offenders isn’t to get aggressive and heated, like my first inclination might be. Often, the louder we shout to make our point – on anything – the less the other person hears us. I’m a fan of gentle side-angle correction over a head-on collision. In my own experience, I find a tempered lulling more effective than an out-and-out argument.
It’s not straightforward, is what I’m saying. Overcoming sexism is complex, and nuanced, and I am intimidated by the preach-to-the-choir mentality of both males and females who don’t make breathing room for those of us who need a softer – but still principled, still engaged, still active – approach to tackling the sexism that debilitates us. Sexism is a loaded, emotional issue, and the loudest voices would have us believe that affirming our rightful place within gender equality is simply a case of saying, “Fuck you, offender!”
That way doesn’t work me. Maybe it’s the same for you, too. In which case, there are other ways to respond to the incidents of sexism that could otherwise flummox you – because the one thing we’ll all agree on is that, unless you fear for your physical safety, ignoring it just isn’t an option. We need to figure out our own way of handling what hurts us, then. Because we do need to handle it.
I like to be respectful, and presume the best in a person. Maybe they didn’t realise what they said was inherently sexist. Especially if it’s a group situation, I don’t want to humiliate anyone, because that’s just not the business I am in. I prefer to think of correcting faulty thinking around gender as education, not attack, and so staying calm and low-key is primary for me. I don’t like to persist for too long, nor am I looking for the offender to “surrender”. Education is a process. I find appealing to self-image to be effective and measured, as is referring to my own feelings, over pointing the finger and belittling the offender. For example, “Oh wow – I thought you were way more open-minded than that, Eric! It really surprises me that you think that,” over, say, “You sexist prick. Don’t say shit like that.”
I find it easier to approach sexism when I focus on what was said, over the characteristics of who said it, and sometimes humour helps. Sometimes, I will throw myself at the alter of sexism to raise a wider point, which bothers me, but feels like a means that serves a greater end. I can deal with that.
Some specific phrases and sentences that I try to bear in mind in incidents of sexism include: That sounds sexist – did you mean it to? What do you mean by that? I don’t find that funny. That’s not nice. Would you say that about your mother/father, or sister/brother, or daughter/son? I won’t talk about women/men that way. Call me by my name, please (when the “darling”, or “babe” card is played). I’m not here to please you: I’m sorry if you thought that.
Conversational sexism can be much less confrontational than street harassment, in which case, if it’s safe, I favour the “could you repeat that?” approach, forcing the offender to look me in the eye and say their words again. Often, they will skulk away, awkwardly and embarrassed, because I’ve demonstrated that I will not be intimidated. And often, that’s what street harassment is: power play. In the odd instance where the offender happily repeats a sexist comment, I’ve said, that’s not a nice thing to say, sadly and deliberately. Unwavering. It’s not an attack, per se, and it’s not aggressive. I’ve found, personally, it elicits apology. When that happens, I say thank you and end the conversation. It doesn’t always happen, mind. But often enough for me to be hopeful it helps.
If you miss an opportunity to speak your mind, defend yourself, or address an issue that bothers you, don’t ride yourself too hard – I used to, but now I’m learning that to fight my battles where I can is all I can ask of myself. Question what hindered you, what you might do differently next time, and learn from it. You’re doing your best. I’m doing my best. We all are. Change gonna come.
How do you handle everyday sexism? Have you ever been accused of sexism? What advice can you share from your personal experience? I’d love for you to write your stories in the comments, to help both me, the author, learn, and anyone else who might benefit from a sisterhood, brotherhood, HUMAN-HOOD.
Let’s talk about this.