FAQ: What is “sexism”?

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

Quick jump: Sexism vs Prejudice | Benevolent Sexism | Unintentional Sexism

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.

[Comment by madamjolie (Feminist): Definitions of Sexism.]

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

Quick jump: Sexism vs Prejudice | Benevolent Sexism | Unintentional 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.

Unintentional sexism

Quick jump: Sexism vs Prejudice | Benevolent Sexism | Unintentional Sexism

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.

Related Reading:


  • 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”

Clarifying Concepts:

  • 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.

  • 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.

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]

    Citation: brooklynite (Definitions of Sexism.): comment thread

  • 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?”

    [Comment by sabonasi (Feminist): Definitions of 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.

    [Comment by goodlookinout (Feminist): Sexism.]

52 comments on “FAQ: What is “sexism”?

  1. […] Comments tekanji on FAQ: Why are you concentrating…tigtog on FAQ UpdatesFAQ: What is “… on FAQ: What is male privilege?…tekanji on FAQ: Why are you concentrating…jeffliveshere on FAQ: […]

  2. Updated the entry with some information on “hostile” versus “benevolent” sexism.

  3. […] the subject, for example at the excellent Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog (in particular, the pages on “What is sexism?” and “Isn’t ‘Patriarchy’ just some conspiracy theory?” may be helpful […]

  4. Much though I hate to (this website being mostly consistently excellent), I actually have to dispute this FAQ. It’s *wrong*.

    Reading the original references in Caroline Bird (“Sexism is judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter.”) and the others (from the “origins” link) it seems quite clear that any form of gender-based prejudice with discrimination *was* considered sexism to those writers, as it was to the vast majority of feminist writers; those who claim that “sexism against men is impossible” are presenting a newfangled alternative definition. In fact, what they’re defining is closer to what’s normally called *institutional sexism*, as distinct from ordinary sexism.

    Sexism is exactly parallel to racism, and the newfangled alternative definition is parallel to the “You can’t be racist against white people” concept, which is also a newfangled alternative definition of racism, does not fit with its original usage, and is closer to the meaning of “institutional racism”.

    You can read the references yourself.

    I suggest revision of this article. Because women lack *institutional* power over men, it is impossible for there to be *institutional sexism* against men. However, since individual women can in actual fact have power over men, they can commit individual sexist acts against men; and men can commit sexist acts against men, just as women can commit sexist acts against women. Refusing to call these sexism (even though it’s usually an act in maintenance of the patriarchy, such as forcing ) is neither standard nor traditional among feminist writers.

    Actually, much of this article would go well in a “what is institutional sexism” article, though I’m not quite sure how to split it up.

    Further problems.

    The main way men will experience sexism personally is through being forced to comply to constrictive forced gender roles, as noted at the bottom of the page and elsewhere in this FAQ.

    Bonasi’s analysis uses the wrong words. “not-male” is simply not correct. Men are discriminated against if they act *insufficiently masculine*. Women are discriminated against for being women (ask any women who’s impersonated a man and gotten caught); but then they are discriminated against *extra* if they are *insufficiently feminine*.

    Most feminists, as far as I can tell from my extensive reading, generally consider *all three* of these to be sexist (and incidentally to be features of the patriachy).

    • Thank you, this needed to be said. Obviously women have been historically discriminated against, but that doesn’t mean we can define the entire word “sexism” as only ever applying to women. That makes no sense. The concept of bias based on sex is pretty straight forward. If there is a biased based on sex, that is sexism, regardless of whether its towards men or women. If someone says for example “women are smarter than men” that is sexist. Just as saying “men are smarter than women” is also sexist. It is seriously messed up to try and say the word “sexism” applies to only one sex.

      This definition of sexism is itself sexist.

      Chew on that.

  5. To be more precise about what’s wrong:

    “Thus feminists reject the notion that women can be sexist towards men because women lack the institutional power that men have.”

    This is a viewpoint of some feminists, but it is *far* from consensus, and the first three users of the word “sexism” appear to have disagreed with the writer.

  6. And to clarify yet further, the sentences before that all seem to match consensus definition. Right up to and including “an important, but often overlooked, part of the term is that sexism is prejudice plus power,” it seems pretty standard. It’s just the interpretation of it as prejudice plus *institutional* power only which is disputed.

    Perhaps it would help to note in the “Beneficial vs. Hostile Sexism” section that some sexist things appear to be neither beneficial nor hostile at first glance (such as the assumption that girls should play with dolls and pink things and boys should play with toy trucks and blue things). These are normally considered sexist too (and in fact hurt both many boys and many girls). Sexism doesn’t have to be “against” anyone. It just has to be, as Caroline Bird wrote, “judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter”; all sex stereotyping is in fact sexism in the traditional feminist usage.

    (Of course, the female-stereotyped things get consistently devalued some time after the stereotypes develop (see “the patriarchy”), but even in odd, temporary situations when they’re not yet devalued — it’s still sexism.)

  7. Nathanael, I’ve made an exception to the “three comments per day from new commentors” rule for you as the three comments above are really one extended comment, and your comments on other threads seemed pertinent. But I’ll need you to hang back and let a few other voices enter the discussion before I’ll approve another comment from you, otherwise your voice will be dominating the blog! You make some good points though, and they’re well worth discussing. As this FAQ is tekanji’s work, I’ll wait for her to address your arguments, although others are more than welcome to weigh in.

  8. Sorry. I have a tendency to operate in “bursts”. And I know I have a tendency to dominate discussion when I get onto a topic. Sorry about that too, I’ll continue to try not to, and please do stop me when I go over the line. I’m actually not a completely brand new commentator, I commented on the old blog; I apologize for the multiple comments, and am sorry I didn’t notice the rule until after I commented.

    I’m rather opinionated on this particular point: the sentence I was contesting is clearly a subject of ongoing argument among feminists, so it doesn’t belong as a bald statement in a 101 FAQ; that’s misleading. Came back to check after being reminded of this by running randomly across a version of the inter-feminist argument in another blog about transphobia) today.

  9. Updated the Clarifying Concepts section with a quote about intent.

  10. There’s an excellent thread on the structural sexism that discourages girls from STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Maths) paths in education over at Tiny Cat Pants.

    A word about going back to the first cites of “sexism” and using that as an argument for how it is defined today: that’s not sound as the sole source of defining the term. Past feminist writers are not prophets giving forth holy writ – they were social scientists and philosophers analysing the world around them and summarising their findings. As feminist social analysis has grown as a field, it is hardly surprising that the technical jargon has evolved and been refined – this is what happens in theoretical disciplines. Neither is it surprising that the way that the term is used in general discourse is not necessarily identical to the jargon usage of the word.

    I’ll also note that even in Bird’s phrase “judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter”, an element of power is implied by the word “judge”: prejudices alone don’t affect a subject of prejudice unless the prejudiced person making a judgement has the power to make decisions which affect the subject of prejudice.

    It took later theorists looking at Intersectionality to note that the common feature of social oppressions is the element of power held by one class over another, so that the prejudicial judgements of the power class affect not only the individuals being discriminated against, but also the perceptions of other individuals in that subjugated class of what is considered acceptable and unacceptable behaviours and ambitions.

    I suspect Bird’s response to the refined definition of sexism would be more along the lines of “Exactly! I wish I’d seen that more clearly back then!” than “Hey, that’s not what I meant at all”.

  11. […] basis for the policies are rooted in benevolent sexism (ie. the idea that women are too precious/fragile to […]

  12. […] Short answer: No, what is commonly called “female privilege” is better described as benevolent sexism. Systems like the draft and chivalry often seem advantageous to women at first glance, but when […]

  13. […] Also, look at this post (also by Andrea, but on a different blog), about what sexism is. Pay specific attention to “unintentional sexism”: FAQ: What is sexism? […]

  14. […] the stereotype, the author doesn’t engage the deeper issue of how women benefit from the benevolent sexism of this construct. Instead, she snarkily reinforces women’s entitlement to have men fawn […]

  15. […] is the very essence of sexism.  It’s benevolent sexism, but sexism […]

  16. What do we call it when men are the subject of discrimination based on sex?

    As I read the above discussion, it seems this could not be called sexism now, but it would have been in the past.

    It seems to me there is a class of sexual discrimination that operates both on women and men. The assumption that men should have certain characteristics can be just as damaging as a similar assumption about women, if you are a man who doesn’t have those characteristics. If you are a gentle man who likes children you are subject to exclusionary assumptive discrimination from areas of life that value those attributes; in the same way that women and girls are subject to exclusionary assumptive discrimination when it comes to science and technology.

    The patriarchy doesn’t operate to supremicise men per se but rather it surpremicises the archetypal male. If you don’t fit the mould of the stereotypical male then the patriarchal power structure doesn’t support you – it suppresses you. By claiming the term ‘sexism’ exclusively for acts against women, aren’t we disenfranchising the men who also suffer?

    I think there is a danger in claiming sexist acts can only be perpetrated against women. We are obscuring the distinction between the patriarchy and men. The patriarchy engages in sexism to benefit the patriarchy, to do this it employs both men and women; and it disadvantages both women and men.

  17. About the benevolent sexism, it’s not quite fair to blame this on men, as there are reasons for this. Men are being rewarded for this by women (not all ofcourse, but enough) and that’s the fact that keeps men doing this. Meaning opening the doors, treating like princesses and all that. By not doing that can be seen as rude by women, and as people usually learn some things by other peoples reactions, women are doing their good part in keeping this up.

    So there really is no point criticizing men about some things when at the same time rewarding them for the same thing that they were criticized. That is something that needs to be corrected first among women, before it can really be expected to change in men behaviour.

    Usually men do want to find companions for themselves, and when benevolent sexism helps in doing that, the form of sexism will go on and on and on and on. Other choice is either complain it, leave it be and be alone, or keep trying to find someone who isn’t that picky about it. Not all men want to pass on someone otherwise good companion just because she likes to be treated in a way that can be seen as bad by some.

    Sorry ’bout the bad language, but hope I got the message out right all the same.

  18. I found this article really inspiring and informative. Just have a question concerning the sources. At the very beginning there is a quote from “Kristi” concerning racism. I have tried in various ways but cannot seem to find who is this actually? Would really appreciate an answer!
    Thanks again!

  19. So when a female business owner (and I know plenty) makes repeated unwanted sexual advances on a male employee, and strongly implies that his job security is dependent on submitting to them (e.g. sexual harassment by every single legal measure used to deem it a crime) – she is not being sexist because even though she owns the company… she doesn’t have a institutional power in that situation ?

    Claiming this never happens would be be a perfect example of beneficent sexism – only direct at your own gender.
    “You’re a man, therefore you are powerful and privileged and deserve to be put down” may be feminist but it sure isn’t equalist and it most certainly *is* sexist.

    When a young boy has basically no hope of becoming a preschool teacher because the women who hold the institutional power in that industry work from the assumption that men are just not nurturing enough for it, and the prejudice that the only men who would want to are pedophiles in disguise… is that not sexism ?

    So even by your own definition of sexism – it’s something women can and do, sometimes commit. There is a valid point made above about separating “institutional sexism” out from the discussion- and this should indeed be done – but it must be understood that all institutional sexism is wrong. When whoever holds the power in a given situation acts with prejudice that harms those of another gender, that is institutional sexism.

    My belief is very simple. I judge people on their actions. I give no creedence to anything they didn’t personally choose. That means that gender, sexual preference, race, family, where you were born, nationality – none of these things have anything to do with how I judge you and I refuse to ever even for one second consider them at all.
    [three more paragraphs snipped – please read comments policy regarding length of comments ~ moderator]

    • Sexual harassment is not sexist per se. The culture that trivialised and overlooked sexual harassment for decade after decade when it was men harassing young women in lowly paid jobs in their companies was sexist. So a woman who is sexually harassing a male employee is being predatory, and using institutional power to intimidate as part of it, but that doesn’t mean that she is being sexist.

      Sexual harassment is also not a crime – nobody ever gets arrested for it. It is a civil matter where employees can sue their employers for not addressing it when it occurs because it creates a hostile work environment that affects the employees performance and thus their chances of promotion, and it is increasingly cause for automatic dismissal under the employment contract signed when beginning employment with that employer.

      I’m also confused by your pre-school example – in my experience pre-schools would be only too delighted to have more male teachers. In conversations with other mothers they have only ever expressed the opinion that we need more male teachers at every level of education. The people I hear denigrating education as a career for men are men.

      There is a valid point made above about separating “institutional sexism” out from the discussion- and this should indeed be done – but it must be understood that all institutional sexism is wrong. When whoever holds the power in a given situation acts with prejudice that harms those of another gender, that is institutional sexism.

      You haven’t quite got it. It’s not just whether the person causing the harm is one gender and the person(s) being harmed are another gender. It’s how the culture surrounding the harmful situation reacts to complaints laid by the person(s) harmed in terms of explanations based on stereotypes.

      I know that female on male sexual harassment does tend to be just a butt for humour in a horribly dismissive way (oh, I wouldn’t mind if she sexually harassed me, etc) and that is certainly wrong, but it’s a reaction that is based on existing traditional gender stereotypes about men and women and especially about men having sexual agency/potency, women being sexually passive/acted upon, and no “real man” turning down a sexual opportunity – all tropes that are about the sexual domination of women. The woman boss being predatory here is transgressing the expected passive female sexual role, but that on it’s own doesn’t flip the gender stereotypes.

      • Just in regard to your last paragraph. It seems to me you have described a situation where the man has no power because the patriarchy says that his experience can’t be a problem. I agree that this has come about because of tropes about the sexual domination of women; but the result is that the man in your scenario doesn’t have access to any institutional power as a result, whereas the hypothetical woman is actually using those institutionalised sexual tropes to maintain power over the man.

        What I see in the situation you have described are institutionalised sexist stereotypes being used to exert power over someone in a non-conventional way. Sure the gender stereotypes haven’t been flipped but the situation still seems to meet the definition for sexism given originally.

        The woman in the scenario has individual power as the result of her position, and she is working within the institution of the patriarchy to maintain that power over her male employee (i.e. the gender stereotypes are working for her to make the man’s complaints seem ridiculous), in this way she has actually gained institutionalised power.

  20. discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of the opposite sex = sexism – as in this entire site.

    • [MODERATOR NOTE: You have written 7 comments on this one thread in the space of 24 hours. This is explicitly against the comments policy guidelines, which suggests that you have not read them. Please do so and comply with the guidelines in future. All subsequent comments deleted.]

  21. Every time a guy whines that a little critique is abusive I want to ask him if he wants to walk in my fuckin’ high heels for a while.

    They never take me up on it. I can’t imagine why.

    • @ginmar
      I could ask you to walk on a broken glass, would you take me up on it? Not that I walk on it myself, but that’s just a matter of choice, like walking in high heels too.

  22. Ah, a troll. That’s a second of my life I’ll never get back—and I’m sure that’s a phrase that troll boy hears all the time on his dates.

  23. So sexism doesn’t exist against men… if you define “sexism” in such a way that only a feminist theorist would accept.

    But when you’re Average Jane uses the word “sexism”, they mean something along the lines of:

    “Discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of the opposite sex” [WorldNet]
    “Prejudice or discrimination based on sex” [Merriam-Webster]
    “Discrimination against people on the basis of sex” [YourDictionary.com]
    “Sexism is the belief or attitude that one gender or sex is inferior to, less competent, or less valuable than the other. [Wikipedia]

    While some dictionaries note that sexism is often used in the context of women, no mainstream definition excludes men. By using an obscure and arbitrary definition of the word sexism, all of your writing about sexism is misleading even if it is literally true. (And I’m not saying it is)

    If you wanted to talk about prejudice + power, you can either say “prejudice + power” or stipulate a new word with that definition. But by redefining a commonly used word, you confuse readers and set them up to believe that which you won’t say, but would like them to believe. (Google “redefinist fallacy” to see what I’m talking about)

    Playing definition games is a favorite pastime of dishonest debaters. See JS Mill’s “proof” that pleasure is desirable, or Ayn Rand’s “proof” that selfishness is a virtue.

    • So sexism doesn’t exist against men… if you define “sexism” in such a way that only a feminist theorist would accept.

      Since feminist theorists invented the word, don’t you think defining it the way that they used it is appropriate?

      Why do you think that these dictionaries use definitions of the word which don’t agree with how the originators of the word used it?

      • First, words can change their definition. It’s best to use words in the way they are commonly understood, even if they used to be understood another way. You wouldn’t call a slow runner “retarded” would you?

        Second, the originators of the word “sexism” did not define it the way you do.

        Pauline Leet’s definition of sexism is, roughly:
        “Making decisions and coming to conclusions about someone’s value by referring to [their sex] in cases in which it is irrelevant.”

        Caroline Bird:
        “Judging people by their sex when sex doesn’t matter.”

        Sheldon Vanauken
        “Proclaiming or justifying or assuming the supremacy of one sex over the other.”

        None of these definitions include a “+ power” component. None of these definitions exclude women from being sexist against men, regardless of how much power women have. Caroline Bird even said “Women are sexist as often as men.”

      • Caroline Bird even said “Women are sexist as often as men.”

        And when she said that, she was referring to women being sexist about other women.

      • See, the “prejudice + power” clarification of sexism in feminist theory was necessary because people looked at what Leet and Bird and Vanauken wrote and ignored the context within which it was clearly demonstrated that the phenomenon of sexism requires the power to cause other people disadvantages by making those judgements/decisions/conclusions/justifications/proclamations. Just like you overlooked that context.

        If those value judgements didn’t cause people disadvantage, they’d just be prejudiced opinions that are distasteful on a personal level but don’t cause any systemic inequalities. But those value judgements do cause systemic inequalities. So feminist theorists clarified the term.

        This is the distinction between theoretical jargon and common usage. Technical terms get picked up and misused by laypersons all the time. That doesn’t make the common usage more correct just because more people use it, and it doesn’t mean that you get to come onto a site which is devoted to the basics of feminist theory and have us meet your demand that we should ignore the precise technical jargon of the field just because terms have been adopted more loosely in the vernacular. If you want to argue theory, you have to use the proper theoretical jargon.

      • “[…] clearly demonstrated that the phenomenon of sexism requires the power to cause other people disadvantages by making those judgements/decisions/conclusions/justifications/proclamations.”

        That makes sense. However, in this thread there seems to be a theme that by “power” what is really meant is institutional power, and not personal power or any other kind. Yet, if the key is that someone is disadvantaged by the prejudiced view of another for it to be sexism, then that power need not be institutional.

      • I have seen no evidence that the originators of the word ‘sexism’ used it in a way in which men could never be the victims of it.

        I read your post on the origins of the word ‘sexism’ and there was nothing there to suggest that either.

  24. Gee, I sense a lack of good faith in this particular argument. I mean, let’s ignore the fact that prejudice isn’t like the brakes on a car; one doesn’t simply apply something and have it stop, but all the whiny bigots in the world would have you believe, for example, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 stopped racism and sexism in their tracks. And nor do these bigots contemplate that bigotry works and accumulates advantages for bigots. I guess the most beneficial thing about it is that they can go sailing through life, smugly convinced that their own virtues—and not a perpetually loaded deck—ease their course.

    • And nor do these bigots contemplate that bigotry works and accumulates advantages for bigots.

      Word. Bigotry isn’t just an opinion, bigotry is a system of excluding other people from the higher rungs of the social ladder.

  25. I’d venture to say, it’s even worse. When a man goes to sleep and wakes up in this country, many other people are being worked to death so that he not be troubled by the difficulties they endure on his behalf. A man can wake up in this country, for example, and go apply for jobs and schools and things like that, from which many intelligent people have been excluded, because they are of color, or female. So mediocre white men soon build up an excessively high opinion of themselves. When confronted with an intelligent argument, these dudes are simply gobsmacked—then hostile, like you see here in these trolls. They have not had to answer for one bloody thing in their lives, till they found feminists and started baiting them.

  26. God, I just adore it when sexist men cling to their dictionary definitions and act as if the real world, custom, culture, power, and physical strength do not exist. It’s a sign of desperation.

    You’ve got a live one here.

  27. And when she said that, she was referring to women being sexist about other women.
    From the source:

    “Women are sexists as often as men.
    Women who get good jobs do it by outsexing the sexism. They persuade the boss that a woman’s intuition is needed. Or that women pay more attention to detail. They know isn’t so, but they use the sexist arguments to get around prejudice.”

    So let me get this straight: when Bird said that “women pay more attention to detail” was a sexist argument, what she meant was that it was sexist against women, but not men.

    See, the “prejudice + power” clarification of sexism in feminist theory was necessary because people looked at what Leet and Bird and Vanauken wrote and ignored the context within which it was clearly demonstrated that the phenomenon of sexism requires the power to cause other people disadvantages

    Where does the context say this? Why did feminists have to change an old word, rather than invent a new one to express a new concept?

    If you want to argue theory, you have to use the proper theoretical jargon.

    Not if the jargon is blatantly loaded against the opposition. When I talk to anti-abortionists, I don’t refer to myself as “pro-abortion.” When I talked to Fred Phelp’s gang, I didn’t refer to gay people as “fags.” And when I talk to feminists, I don’t refer to sexism as “just prejudice”

    • “Women are inherently nurturing so they’re built for motherhood and the service industry” is sexist against women.
      “Women are naturally quicker to notice when things are dirty, so they’re more cut out for housework” is sexist against women.
      “Women are nurturing and notice details and dirt so it’s good to keep a woman around to kiss your boo boos and clean up your messes” is sexist against women.

      Some people just don’t phrase the same sentiments in such obvious ways.

      • (I wish I could edit)

        Instead of saying “women are naturally suited to housework” some people (often women even) might say “Men are slobs. If it weren’t for women, they’d wallow in filth.”

        Both statements make the same point. The second one just disguises the sexism by making it sound like a compliment to women and generally insulting men in the process.

        1-“If a woman dresses like a sl*t, she bears at least some responsibility if she gets raped.”
        2-“If a wife lets herself go and doesn’t keep her husband satisfied, it’s her fault if her husband cheats on her.”
        3. “Men are sex-crazed animals and don’t care who they hurt.”

        The three above statements are all saying the same thing. They’re all sexual threats against women. The last one is just more unabashedly insulting to men.

  28. One common theme you’ll find with men, especially, is that they’ll deny that they have institutional power.

  29. The definition of bad faith has to be comparing people who are fighting against injustice to those who perpetuate it. Bravo. If there was any doubt about your sincerity, that ought to have taken care of them.

  30. I was always confused about the whole “prejudice + power” definition of sexism, racism, etc. There seem to be a few problems with this.

    First, what about the treatment one oppressed class gives another. I’m a gay male. If a straight woman comes up to me and hurls anti-gay slurs and I hurl misogynistic slurs back, was I being sexist? Was she being homophobic? It both depends on who holds the power. Let’s assume that she, like me, is white, middle-class, ablebodied, cisgendered, and Anglo. At this point would we just get into the Opression Olympics about whether gay people or women have more power? (I believe it’s the former, but that’s another matter.)

    Second, what about mistreatment within a class? Antisemitism in some white communities is rife. Of course not all Jews are white and the canard that Jews hold secret power is just that, a canard. That being said, some Jews are more powerful than some gentiles. If I call the minority of bankers who are Jewish “k**es” and say that all of them are part of some sceme to rule us goyim, am I being antisemitic? These people are a lot more powerful than I, after all. Are Indonesians that rioted against the rich ethnic Chinese racists? Tutsis were, as a class, richer than the Hutus. Does that mean the genocide wasn’t racist?

    While nothing annoys me more than antifeminists (read: sexists) who think that misandry, despite all the evidence, is just as common and lethal as misogyny, one cannot claim misandry doesn’t exist.

    • As a gay male, you have male privilege, but you lack hetero privilege. So if I call you… do any anti-male slurs even exist? Worst I can think of is dudebro. That’s not even insulting to you, be honest. I call you the f-word and … you know what homophobia sounds like, that dehumanizes you and brings a whole history of marginalization into it. The sentiments behind those slurs affects your safety, your livelihood, your rights as a human being.

      As a heterosexual woman you, gay man, can call me… what can you call me? If you can come up with an anti-hetero slur, you can call me that all the live-long day. There’s no there there. You call me a bunch of misogynist slurs and tell me to get back in the kitchen, that’s a fucking issue.

      Homophobia is real. Heterophobia (and there are google hits for that nonsense, sad to say) is not real.
      Sexism is real. Misandry is not real.

      Shit does not flow uphill.

  31. Sexism is NOT just to discriminate someone because of thier gender. Just as raceism is NOT just to discriminate someone becuase of their race. Sexism\racism is to judge someone on their gender\race, whether good or bad.

  32. […] harms towards men, it’s not cool for them to deny, erase, or minimize those harms (see also Finally Feminism 101 trying to define sexism towards men out of […]

  33. […] harms towards men, it’s not cool for them to deny, erase, or minimize those harms (see also Finally Feminism 101 trying to define sexism towards men out of […]

  34. Can women be sexist?…

    Sexism = prejudice + power  So no, in most situations where a woman is prejudiced against men she does not have the institutional power to back up her bigotry and so it is not sexism. In this way many women may personally discriminate against men, she …

  35. It seems to me that within feminist theory there is much less consensus around definitions than [some] would [like to make it] appear.

    I think to lump many definitions within the definition of “sexism” is a misleading case of what I call “premise-smuggling” to anyone who actually comes here to LEARN about the issues of sexism. For example, the surface of the tidily- and neatly- presented package of this “Feminism 101 FAQ,” when scratched as these comments have done, seems to reveal a MUCH larger argument and various not-universally-held assumptions that are nonetheless taken for granted in the original presentation of the information.

    To me, this seems misleading. If I had no prior knowledge of feminist theory or the contentions that really _abound_ in the rather amorphous field of feminist theory, I would take what has been presented here as established fact rather than a specific argument and one of many hypotheses on the matter of “what sexism is.”

    The point I am trying to make: this is kind of misleading and I feel that it is, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps consciously, less about educating people about sexism and more about furthering a particular socio-political argument. It’s taking this argument out of the larger context of the dialogue of the field and presenting it as objective, kind of like parsing a quote in a debate.

    I’m not saying that this is wrong. I’m just saying that it is only a piece of the pie; the rest is hidden in the back and not spoken of. I think the whole pie should be behind the glass case, so people can see the rest of the pieces, too.

    Or, at the very least, just own that you are presenting a specific argument and lay the points of that argument out, and do that up front, rather them making and presenting something that sounds and comes across deceptively objective. Anyone who knows anything about feminism knows that it is becoming increasingly more and more individualistic and existential as the generations march onwards. Unity is being moved farther and farther away from. Not to mention the possible dovetails it’s finding itself in with post-colonial theory and the accusation that feminism [as a school of ANY unity] is really only an “ism of the first world’s white women.”

    Expounding on these points of contention would surely make your “FAQ” much less unified-seeming, but it would, imho, but much more honest about the lie of the land.

    Thank you all for all the insightful comments.

  36. I support gender equality and feminism. Why? Because I’m sick of being a “man”, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. I’m sick of being the sole breadwinner, I’m sick of opening doors or carrying “heavy” loads for woman who can damn well carry it themselves, I’m sick of being told I have to be a “gentleman” (yes! It’s an imposed gender role). Gender equality for all!

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