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Gentlemen, I’d Like to Talk to You About Sexism

Hello, Gentleman. You’re a good guy. I know you are, and you know you are. And I know — based on my experience as a very privileged person — that sometimes having your privilege called out is an unpleasant (even hurtful) experience. Unfortunately, we need to have a talk about how you approach this feeling when people around you start calling out sexism, misogyny, and the flaws in patriarchy.

The solution is not to ignore it, nor to surround yourself with people who enable you to dismiss it. While confronting sexism is a nuanced issue, I’ve broken it down into three big things that will make the conversation (and hopefully, your future involvement in that conversation) easier. The solution is not to be quiet about sexism. It has to be confronted continually by both women and men. But even if fighting sexism isn’t your schtick, we can at least come to a series of agreements that removes you from accidentally behaving in sexist ways.

1. Patriarchy is the cause of the things that ail you, too.

Let’s pretend that you’re not a good guy. I don’t believe that, but unfortunately, Not Good Guys are out there and they really don’t give a shit about the plights of people who aren’t like them. These Not Good Guys really only care that discussion of sexism makes them feel bad, and point out all the ways that men suffer differently from women in society. Not Good Men will then argue that this suffering is more important than sexism (mostly because Not Good Men tend to believe that they are more important than women).

Still, I’m not here to deny that suffering. Men are less likely to gain custody of their children in a court, they work more dangerous jobs on a whole, and they are often expected to be the breadwinner. Men are treated like they’re too dumb to engage in basic household tasks, and the Bumbling Dad trope is a gross example of how we view the family dynamic in popular culture.

These are as much mechanisms of patriarchy as the things that harm women, such as earning less for the same work and being blamed for our own assaults.

Patriarchy on the whole believes that men should be one thing, and women should be another. Men are strong, men are in control of their emotions, men do “manly things” like support the family and engage in dangerous, laborious work. Patriarchy would have you believe that men are incapable of handling family tasks, and assumes that a man is lesser if he’s doing “womens'” work. It’s patriarchy that says “boys will be boys” and assumes that men are such animals that they can’t control themselves.

Feminism isn’t where the idea that “men are incapable” comes from. I acknowledge that we sometimes engage in it as a means of striking back at a system that continually makes us lesser, because it’s exhausting and every human lashes out sometimes. That doesn’t make it okay, though, and many of us do our best to fight the patriarchy without fighting men.

Patriarchy is holding us all down. By balancing it out, we give more power to women and men. It allows every person more options to be whatever they want to be, whether your daughter wants to fight in wars or your son wants to be a stay-at-home parent.

2. We need you to respond to sexism with empathy.

Back in November, I had a dear, dear friend post about his disgust with people who were upset by Dr. Matt Taylor‘s pin-up girl shirt. You surely heard about that. A lot of his friends rallied in to talk about how silly it was that women were upset and hurt by a shirt. I was called some unkind things in that comment thread for being vocally opposed to that viewpoint. My friend privately sent me a message of support, but remained pretty publicly silent as the thread ballooned up to 200+ comments.

This part week, now a month later, he posted about having his holiday cheer dinged because he saw a woman wearing a sweater that said, “Three Wise Men? Be Serious!” A few of his friends then had things to say like, “I hate that trend in this culture.”

I’m not trying to call out my friend, but it’s the best example I can to make the point here: think about things as they would impact you. Because this is an example of a microaggression: a thing that is not inherently sexist but nettles and pushes buttons all the same. Because when a woman has her science buzz harshed by a tacky sexist shirt, she’s being overly sensitive and looking for reasons to be a victim. When a man has his holiday buzz harshed by a tacky gender-biased1 sweatshirt, it’s an sign of a hurtful trend in our society.

Gentleman, when you find yourself being made to feel lesser or dumb because of your gender — a thing you and I have agree is wrong — please take time to remind yourself that women feel this way very frequently. Consider adjusting your own behavior accordingly, and call out the other men in your life who still lack that empathy.

3. It doesn’t help to jump in and remind us, “Not all men…”

Gentleman, we both know that you’re not a rapist. You’ve never hit a woman, and you’ve never violated a person’s consent. I understand why hearing women shout about their experiences with men in an umbrella that includes you makes you feel falsely accused, mistreated, and defensive.

However, the wrong thing to do is to jump into a conversation where women are discussing the sexist and misogynistic experiences and remind us that you are not part of the problem. You actually become part of the problem at the moment. The post “The Problem With ‘Not All Men'” makes several good points on why you should probably resist the urge to remind us about this, but here’s (I think) my favorite part:

When women and their allies talk about these things (patriarchy/sexism/misogyny/rape/violence against women) we are NOT talking about men as individuals. We are talking about structural issues: patriarchal society, institutions and systems. You are the one who takes it upon yourself to make this personal with your “not all men” slogan. We must never forget that one benefits from privilege by being part of a group, not because of anything you have done to earn or deserve it.

I do entirely understand the urge to shy away and just ignore the issues as they make you uncomfortable. It took me a very long time to learn to quietly listen to and absorb conversations about racism, because it took me a long time to confront my own white privilege. The thing about being privileged is that we can easily forget our own privilege; it becomes simple background noise. It’s especially easy when we don’t feel we benefit from it.

However, the best thing we can do is listen to each other, respect each other’s experiences, and work together to dismantle institutions that enable violence and damage against women and encourage the dismissal of men.

1. I’m not sure the best word to use here. I don’t believe that men experience sexism, in the same way I don’t believe that white people experience racism. Biases and hurtful assumptions exist and happen, but they are not sexism.

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