…and we need to stop telling its victims that it isn’t.
I found myself at a “Women in Science” meeting in my place of work a little while back. I remember little, save for when a female colleague who works a floor up from me spouted, in the middle of a conversation, something like: “Perhaps we need to consider that there is something about men… just makes them inherently better scientists”.
I was completely dumbfounded. I had no idea how to approach this not least as a man in a meeting about feminism and promoting women in science. Happily, the other women in the room rescued the conversation.
What’s the point of this anecdote, given the title? The point is, that even in a privileged/protected environment, it is possible for members of the protected/privileged group to harbour sentiments that discriminate against their own group. The justification I hear against anti-male sexism existing is that men have a great deal of privilege in our society. Which is true. Like my female colleague in the women in science meeting, we are just as capable of being sexist against men as women are against women. Unless we are really going to seriously argue that somehow men are more organised and coherent than women!
We really need to be clear what I am talking about when I refer to anti-male sexism. What I am categorically not talking about is things like gender quotas in jobs, or expectations of men to do laundry and hold down a job, or any of that. That is loss of privilege, which is different.
A-male sexism here refers specifically to problems that men encounter by virtue of being men, independently of actions that are taken to equalise genders in our society. Equalising genders is a good thing and it will solve a lot of the anti-male sexism issues by proxy. Stating that anti-male sexism exists is not an anti-feminist sentiment, and feminism is not the cause of anti-male sexism. It all stems from the same root problem of assumed gender roles.
Now is a good as time as any to do some serious privilege checking. Most anti-male sexism that I can comment on (I am a person of privilege, so there will be stuff that I miss) is low-level, every-day sexism. Even at it’s most egregious, when compared to what women face (#yesallwomen), we could be doing a lot worse. The anti-male sexism I have experienced is never going to be a limitation to my career, I don’t face the same threat of sexual assault, and I am free to make medical choice about my body. It’s emotionally harmful, particularly in one’s developmental years, but it is not a practical barrier. Nevertheless, as the every day sexism campaigns have been reminding us, everyday sexism isn’t okay.
The earliest example of anti-male sexism I can think of encountering was people picking my father being a househusband. I can remember facing lots of pointed questions about it, and then in secondary school even accusations of him simply being lazy.
What’s interesting about this is that only on one occasion did I ever experience any sexism that was directly about my mother being the main bread-winner- and even then, that was me getting sent to the head teacher in primary school, not because my mother was the main bread winner, but because I got in an argument with my (female) teacher about the fact that my mum was a medical doctor, and not as the teacher asserted, a nurse. The majority of the flak was aimed squarely at my father.
My brother used to suffer quite a lot of verbal abuse for having long hair. Perversely, at the same time a lot of people were giving me a lot of abuse for having no hair (which is not a decision I had any part in). Baldness ‘cures’ are getting more and more common. As a counterbalance, we do get Patrick Stewart and Jason Statham as representatives, so I suppose it’s not all bad.
Some anti-male sexism is quite subtle. In my school, as with most schools, we had sex education aged 15. There was a good, important conversation for girls about the fact that they could say no, should feel empowered to do so, and what to do if a boy was harassing, coercing or otherwise pressuring them. The boys did not receive this advice.
Fast-forwarding, aged 17 I was having a conversation with my girlfriend and two of her friends. One of the friends asked “So are you two going to have sex?”. “Yes of course!” replied my girlfriend enthusiastically, and then all three looked at me very pointedly. Had my girlfriend approached me quietly about this I might have given a different answer, but I found myself cowed into agreement. This was one in a series of incidents, but illustrates the point. I hadn’t been given the same advice in dealing with those situations as my female peers, and any attempt to talk about such with my peer group, and even adults who should have known better, was met with derision.
Gender assumptions continued to be a problem in my adult life. Long story short- I found my wife being unfaithful, and divorced her. I had several conversations about what happened with my parents-in-law, and they were incredibly supportive. In one of our conversations her mother was quite upset; she had been defending me against accusations from some of my ex-wife’s friends that I had been abusive. Because, ran the logic: “women don’t cheat unless the husband is abusive”. It should be noted that my wife never supported these assertions, nor made any of her own. I wasn’t perfect- but abusive I was not.
Such gender assumptions run into bigger trouble. A friend of mine works in a Human Rights research group. She is currently fighting to have male victims included as part of a study on sex trafficking, because men are conspicuous by their absence in the literature on such matters.
Men are not helping ourselves: in general, I have found my conversations with other men on the subject to be met with derogatory remarks; much of our anti-male sexism is put about by men.
Feminists, by contrast, have been a godsend. In general, when I have been in conversation about this with feminists, they have been understanding, insightful, and helpful. They know these issues because feminists are trying to work against similar and worse on behalf women. Men need feminists, if only to learn the lessons that feminism has to teach us. Feminists are not, in my experience a part of the problem, contrary to what some might tell you.
I have gained insight from “anti-male sexism isn’t a thing”. It is upsetting to have personal experience denied by people who have no familiarity with what it is to be on the receiving end. But even now, people deny that sexism is something that women experience. And frankly, they experience it in a way that is so much worse than what I have experienced over a lifetime, and to have that denied must be even more frustrating.