A little while ago I was asked by a friend if I ever felt I was the victim of offensive sexism. Let’s try to remember, here, that the first thing that I have to do when asked a question like that is to fight off the swarm of glib quips that spring to mind. That’s no mean feat and possibly the reason that it’s taken me so long to try to come up with some kind of coherent reply. My thoughts have been further complicated by the discussion of Laurie Penny’s open letter (people should stop writing these… oh, wait.) to Rebecca Adlington*.
My balanced response is; “Yes and no.”
Yes, I’ve experienced offence at generalisations about my gender by members of the opposite gender, sometimes to the point where it’s lingered in my mind and affected my mood over a period of time.
No, I’ve never felt scared or intimidated by a group of women. I’ve never felt the pit of the stomach, primal fear that a single woman walking past a group of young men eyeing her up, calling out with obscene suggestions and gestures, must, I think. I’m not in danger. So if I do feel like I’ve been the victim of sexism, I have to place it in the same context as my experiences of pain and deprivation – compared to most, I’m a lucky, lucky boy.
Does institutionalised sexism exist in both directions? Yep. We know about the misogynistic sexism that pervades so much of our society, so let’s take it as read, for the purposes of this discussion, say that I’m not proud of my gender in that respect, and move on.
But let’s pause to look quickly at the more serious effects of the sexism that victimises males. A serious discussion has been initiated about something described as the feminisation of education. A general Grauniad link but you’ve got Google, you can do the background work if you want. Behaviour that is perfectly normal for prepubescent boys has been demonised in primary education to the point where some boys are being turned into recidivists before they’re six. Is it as far reaching and as dire as some of the treatment meted out to women over the years? No? Is it serious and does it have far reaching effects on individuals and their society? Yes. So let’s use this one isolated example as evidence that the process goes both ways, if not equally.
Have I ever felt offended by sexism? Yes, trivially; seriously… not so much.
Not because it’s not real and/or damaging. Because I don’t think that sexism and feminism are polar opposites – or rather, I don’t think that the assimilation of feminism is part of a remedy to sexism. In fact, they’re both symptoms of the same disease. If we were genuinely more open-minded, thoughtful, compassionate people, I don’t think that sexism would persist, there would merely be differences between the genders (or, perhaps I should say across the gender spectrum) that we could all accept and try to understand in order to avoid conflict and feminism would become unnecessary (and if the ultimate goal of feminism isn’t to make feminism redundant, what is Rosie going to Rivet?).
I don’t see this ongoing conflict between feminism and institutionalised sexism, or it’s weaker counterpart , ever achieving a resolution. Rather, they should both be ideologies that we’re seeking to leave behind as relics of a less enlightened society. The problem is that we are selfish, reactionary, blinkered individuals playing political chinese whispers. We can’t carry on playing single issue politics, it’s like trying to finish a game of darts with a board that only has double fourteen**. Only failure and despair await.
Yes, there is prejudice against gender, sexual preference, race, religion, short people and banjo players.*** But there are too many corners to fight for just one. We have to fight prejudice, not a particular prejudice. The infection, not the symptoms.
We have to stop aiming at a tiny target in an unwinnable war and instead, change the game, seek compassion, wisdom and understanding. We have to seek a world where all of those offensive ‘isms’ are simply lessons from our past.
And honestly, if a dickhead like me can see that, what the hell’s stopping the rest of you?
* For the record, I think Laurie Penny’s letter makes some good points, I agree that perhaps the fact that it’s impossible to untangle her professional need to make a living from her support of another woman makes it a tricky issue to comment on constructively and that the debate is none of our business and finally, as a man, I think Ms Adlington has a radiant smile and I’d far sooner see that plastered across a newspaper page than the grimly modified visages of some of the pop-culture icons of supposed beauty.
**For Bullingdon club members, darts is a game of the working classes where projectiles are thrown at a board divided radially in eighteen degree sectors scoring one through twenty, or double and treble multiples thereof, with scores counting down from 501 to zero. A board with only a double fourteen would, therefore, present an impossible obstacle to completion, reducing players to Sisyphean despair.
***If you don’t follow the links in my blogs, you’re missing out.