Short definition: Sexism is both discrimination based on gender and the attitudes, stereotypes, and the cultural elements that promote this discrimination. Given the historical and continued imbalance of power, where men as a class are privileged over women as a class (see male privilege), an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power. Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.
Sexism versus gender-based prejudice
If you’re here, chances are you’re familiar with the feminist definition of sexism = prejudice + power and chances are you think that, in itself, is sexist.
Let’s start off by looking at an explanation of why the “power” is in there (Kristi is discussing racism, but the same argument applies to sexism):
That ‘+ power’ portion of the equation is one of the most important parts. This is not to say that the disenfranchised cannot be prejudiced, because many of them are, but without power, they are not actually working within the systematic framework of advantage created by the majority to privilege themselves. Thus it is only “racism” if the person is capable of using that framework; otherwise, it is prejudice.
Now, before I say anything else, the obligatory disclaimer: When feminists say that women can’t be sexist towards men, they aren’t saying that women being prejudiced against men is a good thing, or something that should be accepted. Prejudice is bad and should not be accepted.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s look at why feminists make a distinction between sexism and gender-based prejudice when the dictionary does not. A running theme in a lot of feminist theory is that of institutional power: men as a class have it, women as a class don’t. Obviously the power dynamics do shift around depending on the culture and the time period (not to mention the individual, the other privileges that the person does/does not have, etc etc), but ultimately the scales remain tipped in favor of men in general (if you disagree with that statement, please go read the Why do we still need feminism? FAQ entry first before proceeding).
What this imbalance of power translates to on an individual level is a difference in the impact of a man being prejudiced towards a woman and a woman being prejudiced towards a man. While both parties are human, and therefore have the same capacity to be hurt by the prejudice, whether they like it or not, the men have a whole system of history, traditions, assumptions, and in some cases legal systems and “scientific” evidence giving their words a weight that the women don’t have access to.
Consider this analogy:
Personally, I mean in the little picture, this [assertion that men can be victims] is absolutely true. As in the example below, a woman can absolutely fire a man because she does not like men… this is where we use the term “prejudice.” This is mainly because she doesn’t have anything institutional to back her up.
In the big picture, we are talking about grand narratives that say XYZ about women, or where certain behaviors are enacted disproportionately against women. And it has something institutional behind it. For instance, the overarching trend of not wanting to hire women between the ages of 25 and 35 because it’s assumed that either a) she wants a family or b) she has a family and will the primary caretaker of the family so she will make a bad employee. This, for purposes here, it’s what called “sexism”. It’s just used to describe the big picture and not the small picture.
Men are undoubtedly affected by sexism, but because of their privilege they don’t experience it the same way that women do; this difference in experience is acknowledged through the distinction of sexism versus gender-based prejudice. For more discussion on this topic, please refer to the links under A deeper look at how sexism affects men.
Hostile versus benevolent sexism
Typically when people think of sexism, images of cartoon-like villains proclaiming, “Men are stronger and more intelligent than women!” or “A woman’s place is in the home, barefoot and pregnant!” come to mind. Other concepts that might be evoked are workplace and educational discrimination or the wage gap. These adversarial approaches to gender relations are generally termed “hostile sexism”. For the most part, people get why hostile sexism falls under the heading of “sexism”. What’s harder for people to understand as sexist practices, however, are ones that — on the surface — seem to be putting women in a positive light. These beliefs are called “benevolent sexism”.
In other words:
Although benevolent sexism may sound oxymoronic, this term recognizes that some forms of sexism are, for the perpetrator, subjectively benevolent, characterizing women as pure creatures who ought to be protected, supported, and adored and whose love is necessary to make a man complete. This idealization of women simultaneously implies that they are weak and best suited for conventional gender roles; being put on a pedestal is confining, yet the man who places a woman there is likely to interpret this as cherishing, rather than restricting, her (and many women may agree). Despite the greater social acceptability of benevolent sexism, our research suggests that it serves as a crucial complement to hostile sexism that helps to pacify women’s resistance to societal gender inequality.[Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”.]
In some ways, benevolent sexism is more virulent than hostile sexism. This is mainly because hostile sexism is often (though not always) recognized as such, and at least a certain amount of lip service is paid to minimizing it. With benevolent sexism, it is not seen as sexism at all but rather a “natural” expression of being male or female (see the But men and women are born different! Isn’t that obvious? FAQ entry for an example of this). Add this to the fact that many of the beliefs and practices of benevolent sexism do work out positively for those women whose values and desires are in line with the traits ascribed to women and men and it becomes easy to see why the traditions that make up benevolent sexism have been subject to so little mainstream critique.
While there are many instances of intentional sexism — when the speaker is acting out of a conscious feeling that women are inferior and should be treated that way — the facts are that most sexism today are unintentional on the speaker’s part. You’d be hard pressed to find people who would say that they do, in fact, believe that women aren’t as good as men. But those same people who profess that they believe in equality will go on to say or do things that marginalize and otherwise trivialize the experiences of women.
The tendency to use intent, rather than result, to measure whether something was offensive and inappropriate (and therefore sexist) is tied into male privilege and the way that it enables sexist practices to be seen as normal.
Put in slightly different terms:
A lot of bigotry probably comes from a place of ignorance about The Other. There’s a tendency to assume that our experiences are similar to the experiences of Other People.
The sexism that Roy is referring to is one born out of ignorance, not malice. People tend to filter the world through their own experiences, but this can lead to sexism because there is still a lot of subtle (and not so subtle) sexism in our social environments.
Let’s take an example of a male professor who likes and respects his female colleagues, but has noticed that there are much fewer of them than there are of his male colleagues. It would be very easy for him to come to the conclusion that — since they obviously have the capabilities to succeed — women must have less drive to be in academia than men do. That conclusion is sexist, but his intent wasn’t. The problem is that he has never experienced the discrimination first hand, so the natural approach, using himself and his experiences/thoughts as a frame of reference, won’t work because he has no basis for understanding what it takes for a woman to succeed in the academic track.
While intent isn’t wholly unimportant, it also shouldn’t be used an excuse not to examine one’s own behaviors. Continuing with the above example, let’s say that the male professor muses to his female colleagues about the lack of women and how he thinks that most women are just not competitive enough to remain interested in pursuing a career in academia. The women point out that his statement is sexist. If he responds defensively that he wasn’t intending to be sexist and therefore he couldn’t be sexist, he loses the opportunity to revisit and reevaluate his beliefs while simultaneously communicating to the women that he feels that his opinion, as a man, on an issue that affects women is more valuable than theirs as women (ie. people who are part of the group that’s actually being discussed).
The best way that the male professor in this case could show his good intent would be to make the assumption that the women, who are the targets of sexism, are probably seeing something that he was not. This also applies in cases when male allies, who spend their time studying subjects such as sexism, call out other men on sexist behavior. From there it’s a matter of the person who was called out trying to see what the feminists see and understand why they’re seeing it.
In the end, though, the important thing to remember is that sexism is defined by the result, not the intent so when people are called out for having said something sexist, it’s not a comment on their intent or character, but rather on the message that was conveyed.
- Feminism Friday: The origins of the word “sexism”
- FAQ: What is “internalized sexism”?
- FAQ: Aren’t feminists just sexists towards men?
- Amanda Marcotte (Blogging Feminism): Blogging While Female In A Male-Dominated Blogosphere
- Flora Davis (University of Illinois Press, 1999): Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America Since 1960
- Lorraine Code (Cornell University Press, 1991): What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge.
- Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”
- Defining sexism through a woman-centered lens:
The Feminist Dictionary insists on the primary reference to women’s experience, defining ‘sexism’ as “a social relationship in which males have authority over females” (citing Linda Phelps)… The contrast [between common definitions and the above one] demonstrates the term’s political force in naming experiences “central to women’s lives, which [were] wordless for many years.” Introducing the term into common parlance made it easier to recognize (=know) and conceptualize the experiences for purposes of constructing strategies of opposition and resistance.[Code, Lorraine (Cornell University Press, 1991): What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge, p. 64.]
- Problems with the dictionary definitions of sexism:
The Feminist’s Dictonary‘s discussion of ‘sexism’ is a case in point. The authors cite the Macquarrie Dictionary definition of ‘sexism’ as “the upholding or propagation of sexist attitudes,” and its definition of a ‘sexist attitude’ as one that “stereotypes a person according to gender or sexual preference, etc”: definitions in which the word’s specifically feminist origins and purposes are invisible.[Code, Lorraine (Cornell University Press, 1991): What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge, p. 64.]
- On apologism enabling sexism:
This sort of attitude is interesting- it’s essentially saying “Because I didn’t know that I was being offensive, I can’t have been offensive.” Interestingly, I’d guess that people engaging in this form of apologism don’t mean to engage in apologism, either. This kind of apologism ignores the ways that positions of relative power or authority can lead to bigotry, or how easy it can be to be ignorant about the experiences of other people when one is in a position of power. It’s easy not to notice how many people go hungry when you’re feasting on steak every night.
- Another explanation of the difference between the -isms and prejudice:
Racism and Sexism are different from race-based or gender-based prejudice. I don’t have to have any particular power to hate a white person. I don’t have to be in any particular position in society to say nasty things to one on the street or give them dirty looks. That’s prejudice. Based on race. However, if I do any of these things, it doesn’t really matter. It might hurt a white person’s feelings if I did that. It might cause them momentary discomfort. But that’s about it.
That’s not to minimize how you feel when these things happen to you, but it is to put those things in perspective. Making you uncomfortable does not rise to the level of racism. Racism is not merely a bad attitude toward people of another race. Harassment is definitely wrong, and I’m sorry you experience it. Still, that’s all it is.[the angry black woman (The Angry Black Woman): International Blog Against Racism Week – Ask the ABW.]
- Ambivalent sexism:
Ambivalent sexism is an ideology composed of both a “hostile” and “benevolent” prejudice toward women. Hostile sexism is an antagonistic attitude toward women, who are often viewed as trying to control men through feminist ideology or sexual seduction. Benevolent sexism is a chivalrous attitude toward women that feels favorable but is actually sexist because it casts women as weak creatures in need of men’s protection.
- Types of hostile and ambivalent sexism:
Hostile and benevolent sexism consistently emerge as separate but positively correlated factors. Furthermore, three benevolent sexism subfactors typically appear: protective paternalism (e.g., women ought to be rescued first in emergencies), complementary gender differentiation (e.g., women are purer than men), and heterosexual intimacy (e.g., every man ought to have a woman whom he adores). Hostile sexism items also address power relations (e.g., women seek to gain power by getting control over men), gender differentiation (e.g., women are easily offended), and sexuality (e.g., many women get a kick out of teasing men by seeming sexually available and then refusing male advances), even though the factor structure of the Hostile Sexism scale has proved to be unidimensional in both the United States and elsewhere (Glick & Fiske, 1996; Glick et al., 2000).[Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”.]
- Hostile and ambivalent sexism working together:
These results suggest that hostile and benevolent sexism can be simultaneously endorsed because they are directed at different female subtypes. The complementarity of these ideologies (and their sexist tone) stems from how women are split into “good” and “bad” types; women who fulfill conventional gender roles that serve men are placed on a pedestal and rewarded with benevolent solicitude, whereas women who reject conventional gender roles or attempt to usurp male power are rejected and punished with hostile sexism.[Peter Glick and Susan Fiske (American Psychologist Volume 56(2), February 2001, p 109–118): “An Ambivalent Alliance: Hostile and Benevolent Sexism as Complementary Justifications for Gender Inequality”.]
- On intent:
I find all the talk about ‘intent’ interesting, and for a couple of reasons. First, it assumes that *everything* we do, we *intend* to do. Nothing just kinda… happens. And second, it assumes that if we didn’t intend whatever terrible consequence, we can’t be held responsible for it. Which… bizarre. And third, and this is particularly important in this case, it assumes that the only possible way for something to be sexist is for someone to *intend* it to be so. And that *their* perception of the situation *counts* for more: it is the ‘reality’. The fact of the matter is, lots and lots and lots of sexism and racism and homophobia and ageism and ableism and so on happens without people being conscious of it, and often without ‘intent’. Why this should mean that those things don’t exist is bizarre.[Comment by WildlyParenthetical (Feminist Gamers): “I do not think it means what you think it means.”.]
A deeper look at how sexism affects men:
- Discussion on the usefulness of distinguishing sexism vs prejudice:
But why say that a man who has been discriminated against on the basis of his gender by a male supremacist power structure hasn’t experienced sexism? What does that distinction get us?[Comment by brooklynite ]
Because he isn’t being discriminated against for being male. He’s being discriminated against for being not-male. The assumption inherant is that female is bad. This assumption is sexist because it is harmful to women.[Comment by sabonasi]
- Sexism and compulsory gender roles:
And while a man can’t experience sexism, he can be limited by gender roles. And gender roles are often sexist against women even if the limitation is being directed against a man. i.e. The OP in previous post was told that he needed to cut his hair to look more manly. This implies that one needed to be a man to do the job, and this is sexist against women.
One way I look at it is to ask, “Does the idea being presented have a backing in institutionalized sexism?”
- Gender-based prejudice and the concept that “the patriarchy hurts men, too”:
I agree that he didn’t experience “sexism”, but I think this is a perfect example of how “phmt” – and also yet another manifestation of patriarchy and misogyny, as the idea that he has to cut his hair to “be a man” is implying that long hair = woman and woman = bad/something not to be or look like.