Learning about sexism
I do not understand sexism and misogyny. I am heading towards the wrong side of forty and I am still trying to make sense of it, but one thing is for sure I am quite certain that it is real.
I was raised in a comfortable middle-class bubble by two very caring and hard-working parents. For most of my pre-teenage years my parents both worked, as family doctors for the NHS in the UK, and so my earliest memories are of my mother being an absolute equal to my father in every way. In fact until my father finished the Medical Degree he started when I was two years old one could have made the argument from a position of ignorance on the outside looking in that my mother was his superior, that their relationship was an inversion of the norm, though I know perfectly well that this was not the case. They had a joint bank account, they both drove, they both worked, they were both doing the work of being my parents, though I often spent time with my grand parents due to their work commitments. I knew that Mum didn’t like to swim out of her depth and Dad loved boats and the sea, I knew other women, the mothers of my friends, who were confident swimmers and other men, the fathers of my friends, who were not. To me, men and women were people, different but the same and neither more worthy than the other.
I grew up not only seeing equality in my immediate nuclear family, but also amongst my grandparents and extended family. If I think about it really hard I cannot remember a single adult woman that I spent any appreciable amount of time with who was not “just the same as any man” to my eyes as a child. My Aunt Margaret was a professional woman as well as running her family home and doing her part in raising my cousins. As far as I could tell she was absolutely my Uncle’s equal. Both of my grandmothers were strong, independent women, who knew their own minds and were not only formerly life-long members of the workforce, they were also undoubtedly equals with their husbands, even if they had different interests or strengths.
In fact I don’t remember ever knowing of or being exposed to sexism as a child. It was only as I approached my teen age years, as I became what we might now call a tween, that I started to realise that there were people who thought women were not the same as men, and worse still that they were not as good as men. I simply did not understand it and I was blessed with being white, male and middle-class so I did not give it a lot of thought, if I am honest.
My blindness to sexism was not challenged by the schooling I experienced in my teenage years. I was lucky, in many ways, to be able to attend a reasonably prestigious all-boys boarding school in the North of England, and as such I experienced a pretty phallocentric approach to growing up, and no mistake. Now it is true that the foundation of my position on gender politics had been strongly laid in the equality camp in my formative years, so I was horrified by some of the teenage rhetoric about girls and women, and their position in the mostly imaginary lives of my cohort, but I had my own problems with oppression in that odd microcosm (which I may discuss at another time), so again I did not over-examine the prevailing wind of opinion and I tried as much as possible to keep my head below the parapet.
It was not really until I arrived at University that I started to realise that not everyone felt as unthreatened and egalitarian about the place of women in our society. I started to realise, through a variety of experiences, that quite a few men had a problem with the ideas of equality for women and of consent in general, which had never seemed complicated to me, and more to the point that even at a seat of learning like the one I was attending there were more than enough people with pretty horrid and bigoted opinions, which did not seem to jive with the open minded pursuit of knowledge that I had been assured would be coursing through the matriculating student body.
Let me be clear, I am not asking for any kind of “pat on the back” or some kind of award for having been raised to believe that all people are equal regardless of the differences layered on top of our fundamental humanity by our gender identity, our race, our sexuality and then our politics, our taste and our demeanour. Treating women as equals was so baked into my persona by nurture that I was not really aware of it, and I certainly did not have some kind of epiphany as a three year old and decide to be an egalitarian pluralist who was gender blind; I was just very lucky.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, University presented me with my own set of personal challenges and I must be honest and admit that I did not really get the hang of the existence of Sexism by that point either. In fact it was not really until my mid to late twenties, that I started to realise that there were a lot of women, and a couple of men, that I knew and respected who were pretty vocal about feminism. I started to pay attention and I started to hear about the daily grind of the “death of a thousand paper cuts” of casual abuse and disrespect that most women experience at school, in the workplace and even just in the street, let alone the far more disturbing shared narrative of physical and sexual abuse and rape that I discovered was the untold story of womanhood.
I made some mis-steps, fell down some predictable holes with regard to finding feminism in some of the places I encountered it to appear to be very aggressively anti-men (even when it was not, really), and I have done my share of well-meaning “mansplaining” and “notallmen” arguing. These are broadly speaking common experiences on the road from ignorance to being an ally, as far as I can tell. For what it may be worth I also learned that I do not agree with all feminist thought. I do not feel the need to apologise for being a man (though I am regularly upset | angered | sickened by what some men do), nor do I worry that the people I respect see me as a threat, as a misogynist, as a rapist-in-waiting. I have landed in a place that is probably “Post Feminist” or “Sex Positive Feminism”, for a variety of reasons, but the core of what I have learned is pretty universal:
1. I absolutely believe that all women are equal to all men and that there is nothing remotely acceptable about believing women to be inferior to men.
2. The Patriarchy does exist. Just because I and other men who identify as allies and male feminists try every day to support women in ending the grotesque imbalance in privilege that women suffer under, does not negate the experience of sexism that almost all women deal with on a daily basis. Trying to be decent and ethical is not a route to grace and favour either, it is just the required minimum of behaviour once you can no longer deny the existence of Sexism.
3. No one has a right to or ownership of another person, so consent matters, context matters, and understanding that choice trumps all conditions is the only route to true equality.
Do not misunderstand, I still “get it wrong” from time to time and there are people out there that cannot or will not see me as an ally, so I am neither perfect nor a saint and I am not claiming to be either, but I am trying. I still do not understand why some men hate women; honestly it defeats me, but I cannot deny it as truth.
Now, married for almost five years (two days to go), the father of two wonderful (if frustrating and complex) children, one of whom is a girl that I want to bring up in a world without all this and the other a boy who I want to teach to be like me, but more comprehending of the whole picture sooner, I find myself staggered by how little has changed for almost the whole of our race.
Is the fact that I noticed, that I “saw the Fnords” as one friend would have it, remarkable enough considering my privilege and the fact that I could have gone on in blissful ignorance forever if I so chose..? No, I know that it is not enough. I doubt whether true gender equality will exist even for my grandchildren, should I be lucky enough to have them, but even if the march of progress continues at its current glacial pace, or even picks up a tiny bit of momentum over what has changed in my lifetime so far, there is no downside in trying to move the needle every time we are offered a chance.
If you are like me — if you are a white man who has (some) money and presents as straight and ‘normal’ to anyone who does not know me very well — then you are in a position to be an ally. Every challenge that you make against the status quo changes things, even if it is only an infinitesimal change. The aggregation of those small changes, if we all take up the cause, can move the needle like never before, and all we have to do is actually speak up. For sexism to triumph, all that is required is for men to say nothing. I will say that if you stay silent you need to make your peace with enabling what really is going on all around you.
If you are reading this, and you haven’t seen it yet then do me a favour. Instead of attacking me or this post out of fear and ignorance, go and ask your wife, your partner, your sister, your mother, your co-workers and friends that are women. Ask them to tell you about all the little things that they minimise and ignore and laugh off. Ask them to tell you of the strategies they never talk about but often use to feel safe, things that quite possibly have never even entered your mind. Do not ask or expect to be confided in about the larger crimes, the abuses or the rapes, just ask them about the little, constant, daily things that they are made to deal with simply for being women. Be clear that you really care and that you want them to be honest. Listen to them. Then, if you still believe that there is no problem, feel free to come back here and say your piece to me, tell me I am wrong. It will be useful to have a list of the people that really are the problem.
This article first appeared on my blog Thoughtcrime