Sexism: How men can be allies to women

This article is based on a talk I gave in 2014, to mixed groups of women and men. The audience was mostly people with identities other than white English.

The title of my talk is Sexism: How men can be allies to women, but this is also about human relationships in general, and how to improve them. There is far more to say about these topics than I will have time to say here but I hope to give some kind of picture of what I think is possible.

What is sexism?

First of all, I don’t want to stand here and lecture women about sexism – so please see this as a male ally trying to understand the situation for females.

Almost everything about women is seen as being less important and secondary to anything about men. This is largely unquestioned: it is accepted as ‘normal’ and ‘obvious’, and ‘biological’.

There has been a trivialisation of everything female, including female culture (what women and girls like doing) and importantly, the trivialisation of sexism itself.

Real-but-limited advances in equality for women have been taken to mean that sexism has ended, so the struggles you women have with sexism are seen as a personal failure. Further, when you do struggle it’s seen as a confirmation of sexist ideas, rather than because sexism has been hard on you as a woman and as a girl.

Women have been discouraged from talking about the sexism they experience, and I guess it may also be humiliating to admit to how much you still struggle when everyone is acting like there is nothing wrong. Women who try to highlight or challenge sexism are ridiculed or attacked.

When sexism is acknowledged, it’s mostly in ‘other’ cultures, and not the dominant culture. In fact a widespread fascination with the sexism of ‘other’ cultures has been encouraged in white cultures. Women in communities targeted by racism have often had to choose not challenge their men’s sexism because this sexism is used as an excuse for the dominant culture to target the whole community*.

[* For example, the invasion and war in Afghanistan was at least partly justified on the grounds of rescuing women from sexism, but has actually made the situation for women far worse. Or, in many liberation movements, women’s struggle against sexism within the movement was almost always seen as secondary, and to be postponed until after the ‘real’ liberation struggles had been won.]

The definition of sexism I’ll use in my talk today

For the purposes of this talk I’ll define sexism as the systematic mistreatment of women and girls, as a group and as individuals, with men and boys conditioned to be the primary agents of that mistreatment.

How mistreatment arises

I think it will be useful to say something about how mistreatment arises generally, and then look at the systematic mistreatment of women by men, and what we can do about it.

Basically, if you are mistreated as a child, and you don’t get to recover from the emotional hurt of that mistreatment, then you become vulnerable to acting out either ‘end’ of that mistreatment later in your life. That is, you are vulnerable to acting out your original role – that of a child being hurt. You are also vulnerable to acting out the role of the person who hurt you – by mistreating someone else. Further, while you are doing this, if you feel anything, you tend to feel what it was like when you first got hurt: that is, you feel like you are the victim. This can be very confusing!

All of us are vulnerable to mistreating other people because we all got mistreated quite badly when we were children, and we haven’t recovered from it*. Also, even if you only witness mistreatment you become vulnerable to acting out either ‘end’ of that mistreatment. It’s hard to face how much mistreatment every child in our society experiences or witnesses, and it’s hard to face that we now act out that mistreatment at other people, but it seems to be true of everyone.

[* There has been almost no understanding that, because we live in societies based on exploitation, all children are mistreated as part of socialising them into the roles of oppressor and oppressed (usually both). Because there has been so little understanding of this there has been little chance for anyone to recognise the significance of, or recover from, the effects of the mistreatment.]

We could do a quick survey of the audience here today. Raise your hand if you do this:

  • Have you ever been irritated with someone?
  • Do you ever want to have the last word?
  • Or feel like you have to win?
  • Or be seen to be ‘right’?
  • Do you ever react angrily to someone?
  • Or stay distant and uncommunicative?

[There was a lot of light-hearted agreement from the audience.]

These all result from being on the receiving end of, or witnessing, hurtful behaviour. If you do any of those things, you could ask yourself ‘Where did that come from?’

Power structures

Over millennia, almost all societies came to evolve power structures that organise, legitimise and encourage particular groups of people to act out their unresolved childhood mistreatment at other groups. This is a significant part of the organised mistreatment called oppression. It’s a self-perpetuating system that serves no human purpose.

Now to talk specifically about men

I want to look at what happens to boys, that sets us up as men, to become the primary agents of sexism. There is a lot to say about this, so I can only give a short and partial summary here.

As boys, any way we look different to ‘normal’, or ‘not like a man’, is attacked by other boys and by men. Especially, any sign of ‘weakness’ is attacked, so eventually we are forced to pretend that nothing hurts us.

This leaves us feeling small and vulnerable – but we can’t talk about it because we’d be attacked for being ‘weak’.  We end up lonely and very scared – and ‘hidden’ (that is, we don’t show what’s in our minds).

At the same time then we are offered the idea that at least we are better than girls, and we cling on to that as some kind of compensation for how small and alone we feel.  But along with being better than girls comes the idea that we can’t play with them or like them, which leaves us even more lonely.

To make things worse, at a certain point the threat of being called Gay appears, so that any sign that we might simply like our male friends is attacked as being ‘Gay’. We end up even more lonely and even more scared, and find it hard to relate to people and be close.  Both boys and girls are off-limits to us now.

And, in the midst of having lost our ability to relate to people and be close, we get to hear that we might find something a bit like closeness in sex. And so we can get very desperate about sex.

The mistreatment we receive as boys (mostly from other boys and men) sets us up to later mistreat girls and women. Going back to what I was saying earlier, when we mistreat someone else, we are generally unaware that we are doing it, or we feel like we are the victim. This explains a lot about men’s behaviour around women.

There’s also another important element, that I don’t want to spend much time on in this talk, but is important to understanding the whole mechanism. That is, that boys and men have also been the primary source of mistreatment of younger or more vulnerable boys and men, which keeps the whole cycle going.

‘Being an oppressor makes you stupid’

If you occupy an oppressor role*, then your viewpoint is allowed to define ‘reality’, even if it is wrong. Other people will tend to move to keep you feeling comfortable by adjusting themselves. The appearance of reality is distorted for your convenience. The big problem with that is you don’t learn what is real. In particular, men don’t understand how hard sexism has been on girls and women. We don’t understand how hard we have been on you. We find it very hard to listen to how hard it’s been, because we’d have to face our part in it, and that’s not easy – and anyway, you’ve been conditioned not to tell us. It looks like we don’t want to know, and that we blame the victims. But, underneath all our confusion, we do want to stop being the problem and to help.

[* It doesn’t matter which oppressor role – it could equally be white people, or adults, or any other.]

So how can men be allies to women here?

Again, there is far more that could be said about this than I have time to say here.

I think there are some relatively simple things we can do, for example:

  • Learn about the history of the oppression of women.
  • Listen to the women in our lives about how sexism affects them personally in the present.
  • Ask women to explain to us how our sexism affects them.

These things are simple, but that doesn’t mean that they will be easy. When we try to listen and learn about the reality of women’s lives and history, we may be pulled to deny it, because facing it is too painful. It is hard to listen and learn about what we men have done to women if we don’t understand what happened to us that made us act like that. It’s much easier for us men to listen when we understand the impact of what happened to us as boys, and how it has affected us. We start to see it’s not who we are that is the problem, but what has happened to us. So to help us get better at listening to women we can talk about how we got hurt as boys, which was often, though not exclusively, at the hands of other males. We can begin healing from the emotional hurts that make us vulnerable to dominating females, and other males. This process is best done with other men, at first.

Men can reach for pride here

I think there is a real pride in being a man that is different to the false pride we’ve been offered that is based on being ‘better than women’. It is a pride based on having the courage to finally correct something that has needed correction for thousands of years.

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