Sexism, like racism, to many people who either hold privilege or have internalized oppression doesn’t exist unless it’s extraordinarily obvious. These are the people who don’t see racist microaggressions as racist, because someone needs to be wearing a white hood and burning a cross in order for their actions to qualify. Today I’m offering you, dear readers, a lesson in casual sexism: the ways in which actions done sometimes deliberately, sometimes thoughtlessly, sometimes without malice intended and sometimes as a “joke” creates and perpetuates sexism in homes, offices, public spaces, and our culture at large. Whereas rape might be “obvious” sexism, today we’re talking about the stuff that makes up the broader cultural contours that inform women they are not welcome, that their interests and concerns don’t matter, that they are less-than in a host of situations. The stories I’ll share below have been mostly submitted via Twitter and have been anonymized to protect the submitters.
This is part 1: some groundwork, then family and social sexisms. Next week we’ll talk casual sexism in the workplace. Get ready to roll your eyes reaaaaaalllly far back in your head.
Sexism is quickly defined as prejudice, stereotypes, and discrimination based on sex (thanks, google). Sexism when thus explained impacts both women and men: it’s our sexist system, for example, that argues men shouldn’t show their emotions or that they are lesser caregivers than women. Another way to look at it is that sexism is a form of prejudice with power: that it’s harder, for example, for women to be actively sexist because they wield, institutionally, very little power. Indeed, even our sexist systems that limit men are the creations of men; America in particular is a country grounded in masculine violence, and our concepts that follow come from there.
Another factor to consider is that sex—biologically determined—is in fact a limited category for considering sexism. Gender is a better one. Gender is how we express our identities and for many decades was decidedly linked to biological sex. Got a vagina, you would wear dresses and pine for motherhood—that kind of thing. We live in a much more visibly fluid age, and sexism is often wielded against those women who fit their gender identity to their sex as well as a host of those who express more fluid identities.
Sexism in the Family
One Twitter user reported, “I am one of three girls. My dad told me once that he feels like he missed out on a part of parenting because he didn’t have any boys. I have several more I can think of but that’s the one that sticks with me always.” This user’s father likely did not intend any harm with his comment and can certainly be forgiven for wondering what the experience of fathering boys might have been. However, the framing of his comment—that he lost something as a consequence of having daughters—and that he told this to one of them caused her to feel less-than, and she’s held it with her for years.
Another Tweep told her dad about her eagerness to take martial arts when she was a kid. His reply: “you’re a girl – you’re too small and weak to take martial arts.” Comments like that work to tell women and confirm for them if they already have suspicions that certain spaces and hobbies (nevermind full-on work) are not theirs. Perhaps this person’s dad felt he was saving his daughter some potential heartbreak because she was small at the time, but what came out was “you can’t: you’re a girl.” And that’s pretty classic sexism.
Some sexism in social settings is completely innocuous. I had a convo with a woman who, like me, is a whiskey drinker, and when she and a male friend orders drinks the whiskey is often automatically given to the guy. This has happened with me and my husband. Usually we all have a laugh and the waitstaff chuckles at their own assumptions. It’s not hurting anything, even as it’s rooted in sexist assumptions that men drink whiskey and women order the sangria.
Another casual social sexism is the assumption that women will keep on top of things for men. One Tweep in a board game session shared that, “Every time we had to pick up resources they waited for me to hand them theirs. Each time I picked mine up & said ‘oh, these are for me.’ I almost asked them how they played when there were no women.”
Other people report casual social sexism that bespeaks bigger issues. “Standing in a group with 4 men, another man comes to introduce himself. Shakes hands, gets the names of the 4 guys I’m standing with and completely ignores me. I was standing in between two of the guys so he literally had to skip over me to introduce himself to the next guy.” Sure, we could argue that this is just annoying, or the guy is just an idiot. He might not have meant anything by it. Maybe he’s afraid of women. Who knows. But this kind of dynamic yet again suggests women don’t belong and are invisible. Another “reason” for his behavior could be that he figured this woman was with one of the men and would be thus introduced, which gets us to…
“‘I’m not interested’ is a less effective way to get a guy to stop hitting on you than ‘I have a boyfriend.’ I’m not sure why my overt denial of my interest doesn’t matter but already being spoken for by another man does.”
I wrote a piece a couple of years ago for a higher ed publication about being stalked by the professor whose TA I’d once been. It only ended when my then-boyfriend got on the phone and demanded he stop calling. I’d said as much half a dozen times to no avail. This kind of thing—far less malicious than sexual assault, of course—is grounded in the belief some men have that they are entitled to women. The current North American wake-up to the “incels” who see women as f*ckable property that owes them sex is the far end of this line of thinking, but it turns up all the time in casual avoidance of women as individuals participating in social situations (or persisting as they try to extricate themselves from those foisted upon them).
Lastly, the intersectional nature of sexism cannot go unacknowledged. Many women of color deal with casual sexism that reflects racist stereotypes as well. “I had a guy tell me at the bar he knew better than to mess w/ a Latina. We’re hot and great in bed but batshit crazy.” Here we’ve got layers of historic stereotypes of non-white women as especially sexual and exotic layered with garbage about “hysterical” women yet again grounded in old stereotypes about people of color.
Thanks for the Advice
Sometimes family and social sexism coincide with “advice” from members of either group towards women that’s firmly rooted in assumptions about what women should want and be. Indeed, I started thinking about this post when I heard from a friend of mine. His teenage daughter has a TF sticker on her water bottle and took it to the polls where she volunteered during the election. All day long she got comments-masked-as-“jokes” that she’d never get a husband with a sticker proclaiming her feminism. She left that day a little less naïve and a lot more jaded. Telling women a) feminism is bad and b) it’s incongruous with marriage and c) that marriage is her goal and d) that marriage should be with a man is a whole host of assumptions rooted in stereotypes.
Here’s another: “I went car shopping by myself. I wanted a smaller vehicle. The sales guy kept telling me, ‘no, one day you’ll have kids, you need a bigger car that can hold car seats.’” When I got married some 12 years ago family kept telling me similar things: they’d ask when I’d be having kids (never) and then chuckle at my answer—“oh, you will!” People intend this ‘advice’ to be benevolent ribbing but in doing so they make the assumption that we all share the common value of woman as mother, and that we all aspire to it. We don’t. Please shut up. And unless you ask men the same questions—“this here car seems small, 28 year old man! You should get a minivan just in case!”—you can really stop dispensing such advice to clients, friends and family.
Now none of this is to imply that men don’t also face shitty social, family and work situations that are also grounded in stupid stereotypes and assumptions. Both kinds of sexism (overtly against women and also against men) are key elements of a patriarchy. The distinction, however, is that women lack the power in our world. That’s not saying we can’t change things or that we lack any power or authority; but our system is set up in such a way that men largely run it (look at our political systems; look at who our social system favors) and are largely supported by it. Even our garbage stereotypes about manliness come from a means to keep men at the top (“men are not emotional! They are fighters! They don’t have time for babies!). And none of this is to say that all men are overtly sexist towards women, or that women do not perpetuate the patriarchy. Men can be feminists and many women are vehemently not. But if we don’t acknowledge how our systems work, we cannot tear them apart and replace them with something better.
So that wraps up part 1. I hope that some of you have read this and found solidarity; I hope for others, you have come to understand how this kind of seemingly-innocent stuff is part of a larger, grating sexist structure. I’ll be back in a week with part two: casual workplace sexism.