Short answer: Neither feminists as a group, nor feminist theory, engages in sexism or “reverse sexism” against men. Often times the feminist focus on women’s issues, as well as their recognition and continued efforts to correct the imbalance of power (see male privilege), are seen as looking to privilege women over men, but in fact are simply attempts to level the playing field between men as a class and women as a class.
Debunking claims of “reverse sexism”
No matter what definition of sexism” you’re starting with, “reverse sexism” is an invalid claim to make. If you go strictly by the dictionary definition, then a woman being prejudiced against a man is simply “sexism”, no “reverse” needed. If you go by the feminist definition, sexism is predicated on having institutional power over a group, and since women do not have that power, they cannot be sexists, reverse or otherwise.
In terms of claims that feminists are “reverse sexists” because they are trying to get women “special rights”, consider the following:
In the same way, women do not have the power to institutionalize their prejudices against men, so there is no such thing as “reverse sexism.” How do we know this? We simply have to take a look at the representation of women and people of color in our institutions. Take, for example, the U.S. Congress. What percentage of its members are people of color or women? [...] We see the same lack of representation in financial institutions, in the leadership of churches and synagogues, in the military. [...]
If women and people of color were not in business (because of the social and cultural restrictions on them) when the first male business organizations were formed, then they now have to fight for inclusion. The curious thing about lack of prior claim is that it is simply the circumstances of the moment that put the original people there in every case, yet when those who were initially excluded begin asking for or demanding inclusion, they are seen as disruptive people, as trouble-makers, as no doubt anti-American. We still recall the verbal and physical violence against women who participated in the Suffrage Movement and the black men and women who formed the Civil Rights Movement. For simply asking for one’s due, one was vilified and abused. This is an effective technique, making those struggling for their rights the ones in the wrong. Popular movements are invalidated and minimized, their participants cast as enemies of the people, and social change is obstructed by those holding power who cast themselves as defenders of tradition and order.
In addition to the continued lack of equal representation of women in positions of political, economic, and social power, it is also worth noting that inequality has been so normalized by society that when we do achieve equality, it is actually seen as privileging women (see the Isn’t feminism nowadays just going too far? FAQ entry).
Women focusing on women’s issues is not sexist
One of the reasons why feminists are said to be sexist towards men is because we focus on, and privilege, the female point of view. The problem with this assertion is twofold:
- It assumes that focusing on women’s issues means not looking at men’s issues at all
- It assumes a level playing field, one which doesn’t actually exist yet
[Read More: What is male privilege?]
No one is saying that discussions on men and masculinities shouldn’t go on. It is absolutely important to have dialogue on men’s issues, including discussions on violence done towards men. But, the thing is, men, not women, need to be the ones creating the spaces to discuss men’s issues.
Women get so few chances in which to share our stories with each other, to find out that we aren’t alone in our experiences, and to have venues in which to publicly tell our stories. The fact that women are beginning to organize and bring these things to their communities is nothing short of amazing.
If women can do this in the face of all the pressure from institutionalized sexism, then what’s stopping men from doing the same? Why is it women’s responsibility to make sure that men feel included by a presentation that, by its very name, is supposed to be about women reaching out to women?
For more related discussion on this topic, please refer to the Related Reading section below.
- FAQ: What is “sexism”?
- FAQ: Don’t women have “female privilege”?
- FAQ: What’s wrong with saying that things happen to men, too?
- FAQ: What roles should men play in feminism?
- FAQ: Isn’t “the Patriarchy” just some conspiracy theory that blames all men, even decent men, for women’s woes?
- FAQ: Why do you feminists hate men?
- FAQ: Why “feminism” and not just “humanism”? Or “equalism”? Isn’t saying you’re a feminist exclusionary?
- FAQ: Can men be feminists?
- Catherine Redfern (The F-Word) Feminists are Sexist
- Jessica (Feministing) Most pointless article ever (specifically the responses to Ivy)
- Masculine Stereotypes: Terrance (Republic of T): Masculinity 2.0 Beta
- Summarizing why feminists aren’t sexist towards men:
Well, to cut a long story short:
- I believe that feminism benefits men, and patriarchy hurts men too…
- …but – and this is the KEY point – even if this weren’t the case, feminism would still be valuable because it improves the lives of women, and this on it’s own has value, because – duh! – women’s lives have value. Gees, don’t you get it yet?
- Part of being a feminist is accepting that people should not assume they can speak on behalf of other people. For example, a white feminist should not assume she can speak on behalf of black feminists’ experiences, a heterosexual woman shouldn’t assume she can speak on behalf of lesbians, and so on. With this in mind, why should I, as a woman, be expected to think, speak, and act, on behalf of men? Wouldn’t that be rather arrogant of me? Yet this is exactly what these men are demanding female feminists do. Well frankly, if it’s that important to these men, then they should take action themselves instead of wasting their time attacking those of us who are bothering to take action on gender issues.
- At the end of the day, there are feminists who concentrate on men’s issues, some who do work on both genders, and some who concentrate solely on improving the world for women. All are useful aspects of feminism. All have validity, and none of them should have to apologise for their focus.
- Ignoring the contribution that feminists do make to men’s issues:
The most infuriating thing about this is that – as regular readers will know – I do think that feminism is important for men as well as women and I encourage both men and women to critique mainstream masculinity as well as femininity. But that doesn’t mean that I think that every single instance of feminist activism has to be prefaced with a disclaimer about how this also benefits men. Frankly, I’m getting a little bored of it. I believe it strongly, but there’s only so many times I am forced to repeat it before it gets a little wearing and I start to wonder why I have to keep doing it in the first place.
- The use of the claim as a silencing tactic:
I wanted to talk about it here to highlight the unrelenting anti-feminist sentiment behind these accusations of sexism against feminism. Have no doubt about it – this kind of accusation is simply an attempt to stop feminist action and thought in its tracks, hidden behind a superficial pretence of “fairness”. The emails I received are also represent a more extreme version of why some people fear identifying as feminists.
- More on the “feminists are sexists” claim being hypocritical:
The thing is, I’m getting really, really tired of having to justify feminism by explaining how it also benefits men. And that, believe it or not, is the point of this article. What I’m angry about is not the genuine male enquirers who honestly wonder why ‘nobody complains about the stereotyping of men’ (and they do exist, I replied to several of them), it’s the anti-feminist men who attack us for daring to get involved in a movement which aims to improve the lives of women.
What this is really about is men accusing feminists of sexism and hypocrisy unless they can prove that they spend exactly half of their time, energy, and resources on campaigning on behalf of men. What this is really about is that if feminism only improves the lives of women, it has no value or importance. What this is really about is that feminism only has value if it works on behalf of men and improves the lives of men. What this is really about is anti-feminist men being threatened by women working for women. What they’re really saying is that to talk about women, to focus on women, to point out that something affects women badly; all of this is of no importance or value. It’s classic, really – because men are not always the focus of attention of feminism, these anti-feminists can’t stand it.
What this is about is that some men can’t stand not being the centre of attention.
- Oppression versus discrimination:
Something else that is important to understand is that oppression is not discrimination. Oppression is about systems and relations of power, and exists in social structures and institutions. Oppression is wide-spread subjugation of one group while simultaneously privileging another group. This means that those groups who are subjected to oppression are not in a social position to oppress people belonging to the dominant group. There is no such thing as “reverse” sexism, racism, homophobia, (dis)ableism, classism, etc.