“Sexism is wrong, but feminists go too far the other way”, “men and women are just as sexist as each other in today’s society”, “you can say anything about men, but imagine if you made that joke about a woman” – if you’ve spent a certain amount of time reading about gender on the internet, you’ve probably come across these sorts of attitudes. One blog I recently came across took the trouble to map out eight possible positions, from “misogyny and sexist against women” to “the kind of feminist who says men have dominated for centuries and now it’s women’s turn”, and invited readers to position themselves along the spectrum. Most predictably put themselves in the middle, equidistant from the unpleasant misogynists and the extreme feminists, seeing themselves as balanced and judicious. But I think there’s a problem with this attitude, and particularly with the notion that sexist statements made about men and about women balance each other out.
The issue is that these statements aren’t made in a vacuum. They’re part of an ongoing discussion about gender which stretches back for hundreds of years. The tropes which are deployed against women – shrill, or frigid, or hysterical, or strident, or vapid, or over-emotional – are part of centuries of sexism. What do we say when we want to say that a man is so overtaken by his reproductive system that we can ignore what he’s saying? We don’t have a term for it. In women, that’d be “hysterical”, but we literally don’t have a term like “testicular” or “spermoidal”, with which we can dismiss a man’s opinion because, you know, “males get a bit like that sometimes”. Language is not a neutral description of reality, since it reflects, and is shaped by, the uses to which it has been put. Our shared symbolic system is curiously unsuited for degrading men. If a woman is called a mare or a cow, we understand that to be offensive. But if she retaliated by calling a man a stallion or a bull, it’s unlikely to have the desired impact. Try insulting a man by suggesting he has lots of sex in various different ways with a number of partners. That takes some doing in our language. The idea that “both sides are as bad” runs into a problem here: the same statements said by either “side” actually sounds very different, since they carry different implications.
They’re also not spoken in a social vacuum. Statements about gender, particularly those which focus on their alleged differences or relative qualities, are made in the context of social situations. More specifically, a situation in which women are more likely to be disadvantaged, insulted or even attacked because they are women. Or at least in ways which somehow don’t happen to men. Say men are incapable of the kind of rational decision-making which is necessary to take part in politics and your declaration will be heard in the context of a political system where men dominate, and have done so for years. It will appear immediately inane. However much we might disagree with the current state of politics, men are clearly capable of engaging in it. Say the same thing about women, and you join a chorus of criticisms of female politicians, which range from the Prime Minister telling an elected representative to “calm down, dear” in the House of Commons, through newspapers focusing on wardrobe choices and supposed “cat-fights” instead of policy, to the continual under-representation of women in public life. One statement is much more likely to be accepted as reasonable, or even proven, given the social context.
The social context includes more than surrounding culture and other speakers, of course. It includes the life experiences of people involved. To use a rather simple example, I enjoy reading in pubs. When I was younger and better looking and having a go at some T.S. Eliot on a Friday night in my local Wetherspoon’s down in Exeter, this used to attract attention now and then from other patrons. I got a certain amount of teasing, the odd bit of hostility and, at times, some ribaldry from young women out for a big night on the town. That could be flattering, or irritating, or amusing, depending on the person involved and my mood, but I never found it worrying. I never, for example, worried that one of those women might follow me outside when I left. It didn’t occur to me that if I should plan my route home to go past the best-lighted parts of those streets, or consider calling a taxi. Or that if they got abusive their friends wouldn’t stop them, instead of demanding to know what I was doing sitting on my own in a pub anyway. Or that I might be in physical danger if I didn’t smile and play along, but that if I didn’t immediately make it clear I wanted to be left alone I’d be blamed if it turned nasty later. Getting unwanted attention, as far as I was concerned, was only that. I mention those things which never occurred to me, of course, because those are things female friends have talked about when getting unwanted attention from men in similar situations. The same words can have very different sounds when they’re backed up by social attitudes and assumptions.
So I can’t accept that “they’re as bad as each other”. I don’t advocate for insulting men, or suggesting that something about their essential nature makes them incompetent or worthless. But I don’t think that if women say these things, it’s the equivalent of them being said by men about women. They’re not backed up by an epidemic of domestic violence committed by women against men, or an employment market which literally values women’s time at a higher rate, or centuries of poems, plays and laws which devalue men. Language is enmeshed with the social contexts in which we speak, and particularly with the relationships of power which pervade those contexts. I think it’s dangerously complacent to decide that both sides have their extremists, and so the best course is to pick the middle and congratulate oneself on being so rational. Social injustice is not a see-saw.