Guest Post: Does Sexism Exist for Everyone?

By Becca Lee Ogden

Serious and not-so-serious questions for all you working women (and men?) out there. (So all the people? Sure, Becca. Yes.)

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As a writing teacher, I used to teach stasis theory. This was a good way to help my students figure out what, exactly, they needed to sharpen their pencils for. It helped them see where to start arguing, and where not to start.

Stasis theory goes like this:

1. Fact: Is there a problem?
2. Definition: What is the nature of the problem?
3. Quality: How serious is the problem?
4. Policy: What do we do about the problem?

I find myself thinking about stasis theory when I catch my son doing something wrong.

Me: Did you wash your hands?
Leo: You mean right now?
Me: Yes, right now. After you went to the bathroom. Like a civilized human.
Leo: I did.
Me: Did you really?
Leo: I might’ve forgot.
Me:
Leo: I’ll just do it again, just to be safe.

In this case, we were on Fact: Did you wash your hands, yes or no? (No, in this case, which is sadly typical.. and super gross).

But sometimes I find myself jumping ahead.

Me: You didn’t wash your hands, did you? I’m going to take away a Pokemon card.
Leo: What? No! NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO.
Me: Well, did you wash your hands?
Leo: Yes! They’re still wet you can feel them! Feel them feel them!
Me: Ok, stop touching me. Good, you did wash them. Good job. You can keep your Pokemon card.

In this case I launched way past Fact: Is there a problem? all the way to Policy: What do we do about the problem?

You can see how difficult it is to argue when we’re both at different points in the argument. It’s hard to have real understanding, and it’s even more difficult to come up with good solutions.

Protest to Demand Domestic Violence Legislation, Joelle Hatem

Protest to Demand Domestic Violence Legislation, Joelle Hatem

I’ve been thinking a lot today about stasis theory and how it relates to the issue of sexism.

Most of the women in my life are at stage 4. What do we do about sexism when we encounter it? What are strategies we have to overcome it? How can we teach our children not to be sexist?

Many men (and women, admittedly) seem to be stuck at 1, debating whether the problem even exists.

This seems to be true of other social ills as well (racism comes to mind, as does homophobia).

The question I have is, how can we progress as a society when we’re arguing from different sets of assumptions? How can we talk solutions when some of us are still stuck on the bare facts of whether a problem exists?

Also, unrelated, how does somebody get a 6yo to remember to wash his hands?

 

Becca Lee Ogden graduated from BYU with an MA in English literature and an MFA in creative writing. She lives in Provo with her husband, two sons, and one ornery cat named Draco Meowfoy.

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22 Responses

  1. Kalliope says:

    Thank you for your post, Becca! In my own life, and even in my own family, I have faced this issue: how can I have a productive conversation about X thing when my conversation partner sees the same thing fundamentally differently than I do? Inputting my queer perspective: How can I have a level-headed conversation with someone when what, to me, is a fundamental right (marriage) is viewed by others as a privilege?

    I don’t have an answer. Generally, I can’t bring myself to engage because it’s too close, too raw.

    And also, this struck me during our election, when our president-elect made outrageous statements about grabbing women, etc. So many defended him, the statements, not seeing a problem there. Or at least not seeing enough of a problem.

    Where’s the common ground when the space between us is this vast???

    • Olea says:

      Kalliope, yes, it’s so exhausting to go back and help someone get through the first few stages, before we can even address Policy. But, without those steps, we’re stuck.

      It gives me so much sympathy, too, for those at the bulwark of intersectional feminism, when I’m cluelessly stuck at Fact, keeping them from my help in Policy. But I can’t skip ahead, either.

      It’s slow, messy work, from both sides – and that’s assuming we want to agree. When there’s an incentive for one side to not move on from Fact, it can feel very desperate.

  2. Michelle says:

    Fact: The problem. Increasing numbers of single, never married women.
    Nature of the problem: Single, never married men cohabitating with/hanging out with these women instead of marrying them.
    How serious is the problem? Depopulation crisis, increasing assault, rape, murder and general acceptance of misogyny.
    What do we do about the problem? Create a movement encouraging men to return to traditional dating and courtship while encouraging women to hang signs on their doors: “Will open for individual dates” and not settle for anything less until he puts a ring on it. If enough women do this, men will have no choice but to work harder for the opportunity to satisfy their lust.

    • Andrew R. says:

      This completely overlooks the fact that women have lustful feelings too. In a society that has all but done away with marriage as the only desired medium for producing the next generation I fear your solution can not work.

  3. Andrew R. says:

    “Many men (and women, admittedly) seem to be stuck at 1, debating whether the problem even exists.”

    Whilst I believe this is apparently true, I do not think it is as simple as stated.

    In my country, in my work, in my stake/ward and in my family I do not see a major sexism problem. I do not consider myself to be sexist, and I do not believe many would call me such. I also don’t think there is much I can do to change what sexism may exist in my society.

    So, it’s not a case of my not believing there is a problem. It is a case of my being in a position to see, or rectify, the problem.

    The same would be true for racism and homophobia.

    • nrc42 says:

      1) Sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice are spectrums, not categories. We all fall along the spectrum somewhere and we all have room for improvement. If, for example, we only categorize people as “racist” or “not racist,” and we associate the “racist” category with raging racists of the KKK variety, cognitive dissonance will prevent us from recognizing any racist thoughts, actions, or subconscious beliefs in ourselves. We need to think of it as a spectrum, because no one is immune and everyone has work to do.

      2) As a man, it is unlikely that you will notice the sexism women experience, in all its varied forms and degrees, because it is not directed at you. This is true of most men. My husband, for example, is continuously surprised when I tell him of experiences I had or discomfort in certain situations because such things had genuinely never occurred to him. Men are not and cannot be authorities on whether an environment has an issue with sexism, because they are not experiencing it themselves and will not pick up on everything. Additionally, environments, like people, fall on a scale of sexism. I don’t doubt that in England it is not as overt as in, say, the American South. That doesn’t mean there isn’t still work to be done.

      3) The self-categorization into the nonexistent “not prejudiced” category, in addition to the rationalization that there’s nothing one person can do, is exactly how systems of oppression are perpetuated.

      • Andrew R. says:

        1. Of course it’s a spectrum. As is liking people. The fact is I mix with those I feel comfortable with. I am prejudiced. And some of those prejudices come from who I am.

        I am not racist. I genuinely couldn’t care less where someone comes from, the colour of their skin, or much else to do with them. If they are a contributor to society, work hard for a living, and treat others well, I am fine with them. Do I have any black friends? No. But in reality I don’t have many actual friends at all. People, in the world, who are not family, that I would call actual proper friends that I could rely on I number under 10. That they are all white is not because of any other reason than the vast majority of people that I have had associations with (ie 95% to 98%), where friendships could have been built, have been white.

        Of the small percentage that have not been white one is my HPGL. He is a black man from Sierra Leone. He is a great man. I respect him very much. When our bishop was changing in June I very much hoped it might be him.

        2. That old chestnut. Yes, men can never understand sexism because it happens to women. You do understand that such a statement is a direct attack on men, by a woman. The very idea that men can not empathise with women is a sexist notion. As is that idea that all sexism is perpetuated by men, against women.

        Men do experience sexism – though clearly not as bad, or in such a momentous way as women do.

        But more importantly, we do see it. I know that these thing exist, and I know of some of the devastating effects they can have on people. And if you believe there is something I can do to change them, please let me know.

        Telling me I can’t understand it properly because I am a man is not really a great way to get me to help.

        3. Debates rage about how to change sexism. But they will continue to rage until the end of time. Why? Because there will always be those who want to impose their will on others. All we can do is not be those people.

      • nrc42 says:

        You can’t acknowledge that racism is a spectrum and then turn around and say you are somehow not on it. We are all racist to some degree because no of us are immune from the effects of society. Myself, I do have friends of many races. I am actively involved in combatting racism. But I would never label myself “not racist” because that’s just a way to pat one’s back and not do any self-reflection. I know very well that I am not perfect and that I have room for improvement here. Everyone does.

        I am not saying men can’t empathize, I am saying men can’t understand to the same degree. You may notice the big things. You probably won’t notice the tiny things unless they are pointed out to you. You can empathize, but that is not the same as experiencing it. You can understand, but probably not without first hearing an explanation.

        I also specified “the sexism women experience.” This sexism towards women comes primarily from men but does also come from women – internalised misogyny is a thing. Who it’s coming from is less relevant to my point than who it is directed to. Someone who has actually experienced a thing will always be more of an authority on that thing than someone who has not experienced it. I really don’t understand how this concept is offensive or why you are percieiving it as an attack.

      • Becca says:

        “That old chestnut. Yes, men can never understand sexism because it happens to women. You do understand that such a statement is a direct attack on men, by a woman. The very idea that men can not empathise with women is a sexist notion.”

        I think it’s important for all of us to acknowledge the limits of our understanding. I don’t fully understand the ways in which sexism affects men, or the ways in which racism affects people of color, or the ways in which ableism affects people who are differently-abled. I appreciate when people try to understand me, of course, but I also appreciate when people are open about the limits of their own empathy. There’s a humility in that sentiment, a vulnerability, a willingness to be wrong that makes a situation less hostile.

        “Debates rage about how to change sexism. But they will continue to rage until the end of time. Why? Because there will always be those who want to impose their will on others. All we can do is not be those people.”

        After reading this, I’m curious what inspired you to participate in this thread? I hope that doesn’t sound hostile, but maybe there is something you are trying to articulate that hasn’t been conveyed yet. From this comment, it seems like you believe that our attempts to eradicate sexism are futile (which is maybe why I’m puzzled that you joined in the debate). I don’t believe they are futile. At the very least, these conversations help me to articulate things that I didn’t know I believed, or things that I didn’t know that I felt/thought (good and bad), That sort of clarity helps me to be more sensitive to the suffering and mistreatment of others.

        From the responses that I’ve received here and elsewhere, it seems many men feel threatened by conversations about sexism, because some solutions seem to be poorly thought-out, or act as almost a revenge on men (who are also victims of a sexist society, not just when people are sexist against them, but when people are sexist against women). I’m not interested in replacing men, or in giving men the short end of the stick out of some sense of displaced justice. But I am interested in seeing women rise and mature out of centuries of mistreatment and misrepresentation, and that’s why I’m interested in these conversations.

      • Andrew R. says:

        Becca, my point was simply that I do not believe sexism (or any ism) can be eradicated wholesale. I believe that the best we can do is to remove it from our lives, the lives of our families and friends. Hopefully in our institutions (be that Church, work, etc). But the idea that we can change the hearts and minds of all is, to say the least, sadly futile.

    • Becca says:

      If I’m understanding your comment correctly, it seems like you are at stage 2 or 3? Stage 2 is definition, which is understanding the nature of the problem. Here are some questions that help with definition:

      What is the nature of the problem/issue?
      What exactly is the problem/issue?
      What kind of a problem/issue is it?
      To what larger class of things or events does it belong?
      What are its parts, and how are they related?
      Who/what is influencing our definition of this problem/issue?
      How/why are these sources/beliefs influencing our definition?

      If you find you can already offer answers to those questions, I’d move on to stage 3:

      Quality (also called Degree in some cases)

      Is it a good thing or a bad thing?
      How serious is the problem/issue?
      Whom might it affect (stakeholders)?
      What happens if we don’t do anything?
      What are the costs of solving the problem/issue?
      Who/what is influencing our determination of the seriousness of this problem/issue?
      How/why are these sources/beliefs influencing our determination?

      If you struggle to answer these questions, I’d reach out to people in marginalized groups around you and have meaningful conversations about the mistreatment they experience. They should be able to give you a good idea of the nature and degree of the problem. If you don’t have anyone in your immediate circle who feels mistreated, I’d widen that circle to include the stories of people you might not know personally (for example: I don’t have many non-white friends, but I read articles, books, fiction, etc by people of color to learn more about problems that face these populations). These stories can be powerful indicators of systemic problems, especially problems that we might not personally experience.

      I also agree with @nrc42, and that these categories are better defined when we think about them on a spectrum. I also don’t consider myself sexist, yet I still find that I think/say/do things that contribute to socially-accepted forms of sexism. To me, labels are less useful when they’re aimed at a person, versus at a specific behavior or attitude. I can see ways in which I’m part of society’s mistreatment of women (or other groups), so does that make me sexist? Yes and no. It’s much more constructive to identify specific actions/attitudes as sexist, rather than label myself as a person.

      • Andrew R. says:

        “marginalized groups”

        I’m in a marginalised group myself. I am a 50+ white, straight, male with a university degree. I have the time to be a Justice of the Peace (Magistrate). I enquired with my local council and the returning information basically dissuaded me. Why? Because preference would be given to women and those of ethnic backgrounds.

        Some political parties in the UK have selection lists that are forced 50:50 split. If only 30:70 female:male want to be a councillor or MP then by the law of averages we will be dropping some of the best candidates in favour of less favourable ones simply because they are female.

        These are not solutions. Encouraging strong women to come forward is what is needed, not making it easier for the wannabes.

      • Becca says:

        I’d like some clarity here, in what ways do you feel marginalized? White, straight, male is not typically considered an at-risk population for discrimination. While we can all describe moments when we feel unjustly used (due to our sex/appearance/religion/background,etc) typically white, straight, males perform well under most societal measures (income, incarceration rates, unemployment, education, etc). This seems to suggest that there is little evidence that institutionalized discrimination toward people of your demographic. Am I missing something in your response? I don’t want to seem insensitive.

      • Andrew R. says:

        Becca, I gave you two examples. I believe that positive discrimination, no matter how helpful it may seem to those being given the lift, is wrong. At the very least it can discriminate against the most capable.

        I do not believe that men are better than women, or that whites are better than blacks. But I do believe that for any job, political office, etc. there is the best person for the job. That person could be an Asian woman, if could be a while man.

        But, what if it genuinely if the white man? But someone decided they could not afford to look sexist or racist, or worse they had to fill a quota? As the while man I would be discriminated against. And if I was the Asian lady, how might I feel?

  4. nrc42 says:

    It’s a major problem for just about every issue, and I have no idea what to do about it. It’s incredibly frustrating that valuable time and resources have to be spent convincing others that a problem exists – time and resources that could be spent addressing the problem itself.

    • Becca says:

      Maybe we need to tag-team? 😉 Sometimes I’ll step up and combat ignorance, sometimes you will, sometimes our other allies will. And maybe we need a shorthand for when we need someone else to step in and take over the fight – so some of us can “tap out” when we’ve reached our emotional limit.

      Thankfully, even though it seems so many issues are still stuck at fact, arguments do tend to evolve with younger generations. We’re having conversations now that my mother never would have had, and that my grandmother wouldn’t have even thought about. But I still want more people would be open to stories about sexism… when we don’t trust women to evaluate their life situations enough to believe them when they say they’re being mistreated (or when we don’t trust other marginalized populations) then the work becomes that much harder.

  5. Ziff says:

    I hope this is too cynical an interpretation, but my impression is that sometimes when people want to defend the status quo, they find it easier to just argue that problems don’t exist than to argue about what solutions might be. Sexism in the Church is a great example, where it’s plain that it’s there, but lots of people will deny it, perhaps to avoid having to deal with the uncomfortable implications of changes that might need to be made.

    • Becca says:

      I think this is definitely true, and especially true in the church. When we suggest that sexism exists in the church, it not only threatens the status quo, for some people it also threatens their belief narrative (and Mormonism has such a consuming belief narrative – it’s all-or-nothing by most measures). It’s easier to tune out that cognitive dissonance by choosing not to acknowledge the way women are mistreated and underrepresented.

  6. Patty says:

    Interesting. I can really see the value of stasis theory. This is a little bird-walky: I got very bogged down on FB arguing about the MoTabs and the inauguration. I am sure that those of us involved were in different stages. And some people just seemed like ostriches (back at step 1)! Oh!! No problem here. We just all need to play nice! Not the best venue for working through stages, I am afraid.

    • Andrew R. says:

      And there you have it Patty. The theory doesn’t work if there isn’t an identifiable problem that all can agree on.
      It is probably a fairly held belief ( in the general society of normal human beings ) that no one should be considered less than anyone else simply because of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. That such things do occur is a fact. So, there is a problem.

      Does MoTab singing at the inauguration constitute a problem? Yes, No, Yes, No
      You can never get past this question, there will not be consensus. Sure, you can cozy down in a very tight knit group of individuals who already decided it is and continue the discussion. However, you will still have the battle of not being able to convince anyone.

      Some battles are not worth fighting.

      • nrc42 says:

        Andrew, your argument boils down to “no battles are worth fighting.”

        Question: do you support the Church’s missionary program? One could apply your exact same argument. Most people aren’t going to be convinced by missionary work. A few might be, but overall most probably won’t so why bother? Other religions aren’t going anywhere; there will never be religious consensus in the world. Why waste the time and resources?

        For that matter, why do you think it’s worth your time to come here and tell feminists why they’re wrong? According to your own statements, it shouldn’t be worth it.

      • Patty says:

        Well, you don’t think it’s worth fighting and I do!! We’re back at step one. I think it’s a problem and you don’t. I feel that I more clearly understand my position after all the discussion, though, and also the arguments against my position. Conversion seems quantitatively different to me than a political argument. It’s not winning the argument that converts anyone. I think it’s a deeper recognition of how the gospel explanation of the purpose of life squares with one’s own deepest instincts about being mortal. It’s a spiritual thing.

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