LOUISE O'NEILL: It is impossible for women to be sexist towards men

Louise O’Neill talks about the notion of 'reverse sexism' and how it is impossible for women to be sexist towards men.

For over a year, my Twitter bio read as follows - “Author. Feminist / Misandrist, depending on the day”. It was a joke, obviously, but I recently decided to change it to I Love Men™ (I do! And I’m single. Call me....) because the accusations of man-hating and reverse sexism were becoming so persistent that it didn’t seem worth the hassle to keep it as it originally stated.

I’ve spoken at length about why I find the man-hating tag to be insulting, lazy, and utterly inaccurate.

It is possible to criticise a societal structure that benefits white, straight men at the cost of others while still having the ability to love individual men who exist within that structure. The notion of ‘reverse sexism’ is an interesting one, and a more difficult concept to debate.

People often quote the dictionary at me - “Sexism is discrimination on the basis of one’s sex” - because, as we know, all complex ideologies are easily explained in one sentence.

This definition would seem to imply that either gender can be sexist but I’m going to make a rather bold assertion today. That isn’t true. It is impossible for women to be sexist towards men.

Women can, as Melissa A. Fabello writes in her excellent essay, Why Reverse Oppression Simply Cannot Exist, make stereotypical assumptions about men, they can be prejudiced towards men, they can discriminate against men based on those prejudices.

“However,” she writes, “only oppressed people experience all of that and institutionalised violence and systematic erasure... That’s why it’s not possible to be sexist against men.”

This isn’t to say that it’s morally right for women to be prejudiced against men. Making cursory assumptions about people based on their sex, race, religion, or sexuality is a ludicrous approach to take in any situation.

But to say that women can be sexist about men, that it’s ‘the same’ when a woman makes an offensive joke about a man as when the situation is reversed, is to be wilfully blind to the deeply imbalanced world that we live in.

Women cannot be ‘as sexist as men’ because that would suggest that women would somehow benefit from sexism, that they are the ones who hold the political, economic and cultural power in our society. It’s ignoring the importance of context.

Here are a few examples to illustrate my point. People are often publically shamed for being fat.

Those who are underweight will sometimes say that it’s just as hurtful to comment on their thinness, and that fat-shaming and skinny-shaming are commensurate in unkindness.

While commenting on the bodies of others should be unacceptable in any circumstances, there is a far greater price to pay for being fat in our society. Thinness, even extreme thinness, is celebrated in a way that fatness is not.

Similarly, people of colour using disparaging terms to describe white people does not have any of the same political and historical weight that the N-word or other racial slurs possess. It is preposterous to equate the two.

If we examine the manner in which female sexuality is treated versus the way male sexuality is, the disparity becomes even more apparent. When the Disney star, Vanessa Hudgens had her nude photos stolen in 2007, there was an outcry.

Her career was threatened, there was a serious possibility that she might lose her job. When Justin Bieber, another former child star, was photographed naked on a beach? He was applauded for being well endowed.

None of us exists in a vacuum. We all grew up internalising misogynistic values and beliefs without even being aware that we are doing so, and as a result, subconscious bias is a real thing.

In a randomised, double blind study in the US, members of a science faculty were asked to rate student applications for the position of laboratory manager. Identical applications were randomly assigned either a male or female name, and the ‘male’ applicant was overwhelming rated as more competent.

They were offered a higher starting salary and more mentoring than the ‘female’ applicant. Another study by Dr Dale Spender, an Australian lecturer, used audio and videotape to evaluate who talked the most in mixed gender classrooms.

Her results found that men always spoke more, regardless of the gender ratio of the class, but that when asked to assess their perception of the discussions, the male students perceived the discussion as being ‘equal’ when women talked for 15% or less of the time, and complained that women had dominated the conversation when women spoke for 30% or less of the class time.

It is clear that we do not live in a society that treats men and women in the same way.

The idea of reverse sexism fails to acknowledge the wildly different consequences of prejudice against men and that against women.

And while of course, a wealthy white woman is likely to have more privilege than a working class man of colour, when all things are equal - race, economic status, sexuality, etc - our culture rewards men for their achievements more while simultaneously excusing their misdemeanours in a way that is unfathomable for their female peers.

I am not indifferent to the issues that disproportionally affect men. Mental health difficulties, depression, suicidal ideation - these are problems that too many men struggle with on a daily basis, problems that require urgent assistance and support.

I agree that men are discriminated against, socially and culturally, by the expectation that they conform to a stifling idea of masculinity, a toxic model of manhood that insists talking about their feelings is ‘girly’.

Of course, this failure to express themselves is what is driving suicide rates in young men, but it is the patriarchy that is to blame for this.

The patriarchy, and its insistence on strict gender roles, is hurting us all. It needs to be dismantled, a new, kinder, more fair system put in its place. But in order to take it apart, every one of us is going to have to acknowledge that it actually exists in the first place.

It is clear that we do not live in a society that treats men and women in the same way.


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