What Not to Say

There’s plenty more to say about things you can say in response to sexism. Let’s talk a little, though, about what not to say. The basic pitfalls here are being sexist yourself, or contributing to the oppression of other groups. Here are a few examples (all except the last example are only relevant for talking to guys, though).

1. Would you say that to your sister/mother?

This type of response, the “No way to speak to a lady!” reaction, appeals to benevolent sexism, to the idea that women need to be protected. It also touches on the idea that women only have meaning from their relationships to men, not as independent human beings. (This idea is explained eloquently in this blog post: I Am Not Your Wife, Sister or Daughter. I Am A Person – well worth a read, with a lot of interesting discussion in the comments. Warning, some strong language.)

Plus, what if he says, “Of course I would”?

2. If you act like that/say things like that, women won’t want to date you/sleep with you.

It’s not helpful or feminist to suggest that men will be rewarded for good behavior by sexual favors from women. It perpetuates the idea that there’s a sex-based struggle between men and women, where women use sex to manipulate men, and men have to put up with women and their annoying demands to get sex. That’s a major component of hostile sexism. Plus, the guy might not even be interested in women.

3. A real man wouldn’t say something like that.

This implies that being sexist is un-masculine. Being un-masculine is held up as something bad to be avoided. You’re basically trying to shame the guy into good behavior by threatening him with being un-masculine. But the opposite of masculine is feminine. Feminine is not bad, it’s not sexist, and it’s not rude. It’s not something to shame with. I realize that the words masculine and feminine have a lot of rules for gender behavior associated with them, which are problematic in and of themselves. But that’s the stuff you’re appealing to when you play the ‘real man’ card, and it promotes the idea of being female as bad.

This comeback also draws on that benevolent sexist idea mentioned in #1, that men should protect women. You could rephrase this response as, “A good person wouldn’t say something like that, because it’s sexist.” (“And it perpetuates thus and such negative experiences for women,” if you’re feeling eloquent.) It’s not about masculinity or femininity, it’s about just plain violating the rules of how you should treat your fellow human beings.

4. Turning the tables: “Would you like it if we hung pictures of half-naked men up in the break room?” “How would you like it if you couldn’t leave the house without women yelling at you and talking about your body?”

This can seem like a good strategy. Get the man to put himself in your shoes, and maybe he’ll realize what’s wrong with what he’s doing or saying. Empathy, right? There are two things wrong with this approach.

First, if your scenario gets the reaction you wanted, and the guy doesn’t like what you’re suggesting, it’s probably based on homophobia. In the first example, you are counting on (even if unconsciously) your audience being homophobic. Ew, pictures of naked men! That’s not a point of view that needs to be reinforced. Contributing to discrimination against someone else is not a good way to take a stand against discrimination against yourself.

Second, you are comparing apples and oranges. A man might not like the scenario you present, but it’s not going to be for the same reason you were offended or upset. Sexism against women is widespread, institutionalized, a part of everyone’s daily life. In the first example with the naked pictures, men might feel uncomfortable seeing naked men at work, but they would be missing the element of threat that women feel seeing naked pictures of women in their workplace. That threat ranges from the struggle of women to be taken seriously and to have the same opportunities at work as men, to being expected to flirt or give sexual favors to succeed, all the way to the threat of violence. Naked women say sex, and sexual attention from men is, for many women, often unwanted and sometimes violent and frightening.

This carries over to the second example about the catcalling, which would probably be ineffective – it’s easy to imagine a guy just laughing and saying, I’d love that! What women feel when they’re subjected to men’s sexual attention is threat and fear (‘subjected’ meaning the attention is unwanted and forced on you – obviously not all sexual attention from men is threatening and unwanted). You just can’t compare the two things, and in attempting to do so you’ll fail to make your point and contribute to more misunderstanding of what that point is.

5. Wishing rape or violence on someone.

In response to a rape joke, an enraging comment about domestic violence, or a denial of women’s right to autonomy over their own bodies, it can be tempting to respond in kind. “I wish you would [experience that awful thing you just said]!” or “You should be raped/beaten/etc. for saying that!” are not good responses. Two wrongs don’t make a right, right? And there can be no chance of a positive outcome, no seed of a different point of view planted, no future productive discussion. The other person will just feel more justified and confirmed in their sexist point of view, and you will both be angry and upset. If you’re furious and can’t think of anything else to say, walk away, because stooping to their level is a losing strategy for you.

I got some of these ideas from Bad sexism comebacks on the Geek Feminism Wiki. You should definitely read the page for even more bad responses, with explanations and examples.

What do you think about these examples? Are there other bad responses you can think of?


In Search of a Silver Bullet

What do you say to someone who’s being sexist? That’s my big question here, and it’s not an easy one. When you want to speak up, when you think it will be well received, or you need to protect yourself from encroaching assumptions, or you just can’t stand to be silent, what do you say?

I have not found a lot of information about this. I have read a lot of stories about sexual harassment and sexist interactions, but those stories don’t include saying anything back. I don’t know if that’s because people don’t typically say something, or if they’re just not mentioning it. I wish I could find more examples because I don’t know what to say, myself. I will share my thoughts with you, though, and maybe you will have some opinions and some experiences to share as well.

Part of what makes the question of what to say so difficult is its complexity. There are so many variables. Let’s see… places where you could encounter sexism? At work, home, out running errands, school, at a party, at a family gathering, the doctor’s office or on the bus. People who might be sexist to you? Your parents, friends, coworkers, boss, strangers, a teacher, a kid you know… the list could go on and on. Basically anyone you interact with could be sexist to you. So how do you decide how to react, with so many different situations and so many different relationships? Continue reading “In Search of a Silver Bullet”