Tag Archives: sexism

Systemic Oppression

Anyone from any demographic can be horrible to anyone from any demographic. However, it is easy to not realise that you are contributing to a problem that involves systematic oppression. What systematic oppression means is that there are social norms, legal structures, institutionalised ways of dealing with things that massively disadvantage a group of people. The most visible example of this at the moment is the Black Lives Matter/All Lives Matter issue. Systemic oppression puts Black lives in danger.  It’s not about disinterest in white lives and safety, it’s about exposing and changing the norms, structures and behaviours that put Black lives at risk. Individual unpleasantness does not function in the same way as unpleasantness reinforced by wider society.

I’m going to hammer out some examples in the hopes that this will prove useful. If we can’t see how the system oppresses a specific group of people, we can end up adding to that. We should not be adding to existing oppression, we need to figure out how to dismantle it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully catches an array of ways in which this all happens.

Fat shaming and skinny shaming are not the same. Yes, skinny shaming is horrible, but a thin person will not have a medical condition ignored while they are told to gain weight. A thin person will usually be able to find clothes that fit them, is unlikely to be removed from an aeroplane. Thin people will never find they can’t get into a toilet cubicle because it’s too big for them. There are lots of things that make life hazardous and hard if you are fat, and there are no real comparisons for thin people. Thus if you get into a size conversation and try to present skinny shaming as the same as fat shaming, you’re adding to the burden in fat people.

Sexism against women exists in a context where there is a real pay gap between genders. Your chances of having pain taken seriously are lower if you present as female. The odds of being raped, assaulted, harassed or suffering sexual abuse are much higher if you are female. Your odds of securing a job with real power are lower – just look at who sits in government.  So yes, while women can be massively prejudiced against men, sexism against women is backed up by society in all kinds of ways, including religion, and cultural gender-norms.

We treat straight sexual identities as normal and anything else as deviant. What this leads to is people suggesting that it is wrong to talk to children about queerness, as though being queer is something you get into by choice, and not intrinsic to who you are. The failure to recognise difference and the equal validity of different experiences is one of the ways on which systemic oppression manifests, and not just for LGBTQ people. We treat neuro-divergent folk in much the same way, trying to ‘normalise’ them towards what the rest of us do rather than creating more supportive environments.

One of the places to start doing the work on this, is to look at our own responses. If you want to say ‘but white people experience racism too’ or ‘but men can also be abuse victims’ or ‘being a pretty girl is just as hard as growing up ugly’ or whatever else you have, take some time to sit with it. Think about why you need to respond to someone else’s distress by demonstrating that you, as the person who seems to have the easier deal, are a victim too. Does is reduce your feelings of responsibility? Do you feel you need more attention? Have you thought about how much equivalence there is between these experiences? Have you thought about your relationship with your culture and how other people’s experiences of it may be very different?

We are products of our cultures. Systemic oppression exists because people are taught to think of it as normal, natural and inevitable. Challenging that is hard. Scrutinising it is uncomfortable. We can however dismantle oppressive systems. First we have to see them, then we have to deal with our own involvement, then we have to stop participating, then we have to actively challenge those systems. It’s good work and well worth whatever time you can give it.

Favourite things – Steampunk Women

I’ve never heard a story about a woman being harassed, assaulted or otherwise abused at a Steampunk event. No doubt it happens from time to time, but compared to the treatment women can expect in many places, Steampunk is friendly. Women at events dress as they please – from the most outrageous of burlesque-style costumes, through to a full-on emulation of Victorian prudery, and all places in between. It’s all fine. With corsets worn on the outside of clothing, cut off crinolines, knickerbockers, and all kinds of padding, a person can emphasise and de-emphasise as the fancy takes them, and play with ideas of sexuality in clothing.

As artists and authors, clothes creators, models and musicians, poets and peacocks (really, literally as a peacock), as organisers and facilitators and innovators, women are active participants at all levels. On one hand I feel bloody stupid writing this, because it should be obvious, and how the world is, and not worthy of comment, but there are still a great many places where this just isn’t true.

A community is what you make it – it is nothing more than the sum and total of the people involved. One of the few rules of the Steampunk community is good manners. It’s amazing how quickly the various forms of sexism generally manifest in the world can be wiped out by this one simple thing. It’s rude to make negative comments about other people’s clothes and appearance. It’s rude to treat another human being as an object for sexual entertainment. It’s rude to assume another person is obliged to pay you attention. Any assumption of entitlement, is basically rude.

Steampunk women tend to have rejected the narrow, mainstream version of what it means to be female. Often in mainstream spaces, women are the ones who will pull other women down for not fitting in. The female author who complained that the first female bishop wasn’t wearing lipstick, is a case in point. Amongst Steampunk women I have found a more supportive culture. We are, collectively, more interested in lifting each other up than putting each other down.

The paying of compliments is a normal part of a Steampunk gathering. Out there in the rest of the world, compliments can be used as a veil for harassment – highly suggestive and sexualised compliments, statements designed to reduce and disempower the target. And if the target objects, she’s no fun, has no sense of humour, can’t take a compliment. She will be told she should be pleased that she’s getting this attention. Many women have learned to fear compliments. A Steampunk compliment is more likely to go ‘nice squid, did you make it yourself?’ It’s more likely to be about the wit and genius of your costume – things you as a person had a choice over. It means there is no gender aspect to who pays compliments to whom, no aspect of body shape or size.

At Steampunk gatherings I see women of all ages and shapes, and women from groups often considered to be marginalised. I see other women getting to enjoy how they look, getting to play with appearance and identity, and enjoy other people doing the same. As a middle aged women uncomfortable in their own skin, not always very easy with the whole ‘woman’ thing either, I feel safe in this space. No one is going to tell me that I’m fat or funny looking, or too old for what I’m wearing, or not sexy enough, or too sexual, or any of the other things I can and have fallen foul of in other places. People are nice to me. Usually it’s my hat that gets all the attention, and this is fine.

If we start from the premise that we owe each other courtesy, so many other things are better. We live in a culture that makes entertainment out of sneering at people on the telly, and that goes in for celebrity appearance shaming in magazines, relentlessly sells us sexualised images of women while at the same time condemning women for being sexualised. It would be easy to fix, we just have to stop thinking assholes are funny, and that ridicule is funny, and start being polite.

Dear women…

When we co-operate, we’re awesome, but there are things we do to ourselves, each other and to the guys that I’d really like to talk about. I’d also like to talk about them calmly, with the understanding that airing this stuff is not an act of breaking rank. All of these are some women, sometimes, so add that caveat a each round.

We shame each other over body shape and size, and aspects of appearance. Any statement that has the term ‘real women’ in it is poisonous because it implies there are some people who seem female but don’t really qualify. When that’s about body shape, reproduction or some other thing where you might or might not, it really sucks.

The people who taught me that being attractive to men, getting male attention, was more important than anything else I was, were women. The people who told me guys don’t find smart girls attractive and that I ought to wear makeup, were other girls. I was about ten when that started. If we only write each other romance stories and define happily ever after purely in terms of a man… we’re putting ourselves in a really problematic position, and we need to stop doing that stuff.

We need to stop apologising for and making excuses for the bastards. We defend the guys who hit us ‘it was only… he didn’t really mean…’ we defend the rapists if we agree that yes, it was a short skirt. We support the idea that men can’t help abusing us every time we teach our daughters how to avoid being raped rather than teaching our sons some self respect and self control. Men are able to choose and we need to be totally intolerant of the ones who think they can’t help it.

We have to stop saying ‘all men are…’ where we’re being negative. If our only story is that all men are potential abusers, we leave no space for a guy to choose differently (they can choose). If we refuse to accept that a guy might totally agree with us that women should be respected, we alienate our allies. If what you want to do is beat up on all men, that’s not feminism, that’s hate, and we don’t want hate, we’re trying to unpick hate against women and we don’t sort that by making guys into hate-objects. Some men are total bastards. Traditional rape is thing men do to women, and in that context, all perpetrators are men. However, not all men are perpetrators and we need to respect the difference if we want things to change. If we say all men are rapists, we’re actually letting the rapists off the hook – we’re telling them they are perfectly normal and there’s nothing they can do about it.

If we respond to sexism and patriarchy by being just as rude and unpleasant, we won’t get  culture of respect and decency. Thank you.

Dear Men…

Two scenarios. Contains uncomfortable stuff, maybe triggery.

We’re talking and the subject of the abuse, rape, and intimidation of women by men comes up. You are affronted by this, because it is an awful thing. It grieves you that such things happen. We talk about the cultural contexts. There is empathy and a feeling of comradeship and I feel profoundly grateful that you are in my life, and glad of the reminder that the vast majority of guys in my life are awesome. We can work together to improve gender relations, to raise future generations who honour and respect each other, to undo ancestral wounding and historical failures. These are people issues and it will take people of all genders, to heal this and change things for the better.

We’re talking and the subject of the abuse, rape, and intimidation of women by men comes up. You are affronted by this, because you hate the idea that someone might tar you with the same brush. Also you don’t want to believe it happens, and you start telling me about female violence against men, which you are confident is really at least as bad, and men’s rights, and maybe you get round to telling me how white, middle class men are the most disadvantaged group there is. (yes, I’ve had these conversations). I’m attacking you by talking about rape, and I’m making you uncomfortable and that’s me abusing you. I’m a horrible person, because I’ve hurt your feelings. I should shut up about this, because your being uncomfortable is what matters here. Your hurt feelings matter more than my physical safety, more than any woman’s physical safety. I do not feel safe. I feel like I should shut up and go away.

It is easy to silence people by taking offence at the subject matter. It is especially easy to (perhaps unintentionally) intimidate women into shutting up about abuse. The person who has been abused is easily persuaded that they are not in a safe situation and that it is better to be quiet and back off. If your main aim is to improve your own comfort by making the awkward stuff go away, this may be fine as an outcome. It is an awful thing to hear that your wife, lover, sister, mother, daughter, friend, teacher, neighbour… has been raped. It is an awful thing to have to consider that there may be men of your acquaintance who have raped people. Most do not get prosecuted, they are amongst us.

It is ghastly to imagine a woman might look at you and think you would, or could do something like that. I’m sure it’s unpleasant to hear women getting angry about sexism, abuse and rape. These are horrible topics, and there are some truly hideous things out there. If your discomfort in face of this is the biggest issue for you, please pause and have a little think about that. Also imagine how that might impact on someone for whom this is not a hypothetical issue, whose actual emotional and physical suffering at the hands of an abuser is less of an issue for you than the comparatively modest disquiet you are experiencing.  You probably don’t know the history of the person you are talking to.

Imagine what it might be like to go through this life knowing that not everyone would respect your right to say no, and that for some people, your body is in and of itself a invitation to violation. Pick the right thing to be affronted by. Thank you.

Comedy fail

Here’s a thing I see all too often: An image of a person is posted online, sometimes with a demeaning caption. People pile in to ridicule. My experience is that frequently when the image is of a women, there will be male commentators who remark on how gross they imagine sexual contact with this woman would be. All too frequently when this happens, they go unchallenged. If you do challenge, you can expect (if you are female) to be told that you are fat, ugly and sexually unattractive, and people of any gender who complain will be told the problem is they have no sense of humour.

It’s really not funny.

If we don’t challenge this, we are tacitly supporting it and the people who do it will continue to assume that what they do is ok, funny and that you and everyone else likes it and approves. More often than not this is about men commenting on women, but it is supported by women and we do it to the guys as well, so while there’s a definite gender bias, it’s not a one way street. Regardless of gender, if you keep silent, you are complicit and if you speak up you will probably (but not always) get some verbal abuse.

Here are some points to help you tackle this when you encounter it.

1)      The odds are that the person in the photo is not aware of the picture or that it is circulating. This is a real person with real feelings. They probably aren’t responsible for any demeaning captions.

2)      In judging a stranger purely on how they look in the moment of a bad photograph, we reduce them. We say ‘only this facet of them matters’. Appearance is not something we have total control over. How a person behaves and what they choose to do is more important than how they look, and what a person appears to be doing in a solitary photo is not fair evidence of who they are.

3)      When we publically speculate about how gross it would be to have sex with someone, we are implying that we are either entitled or able to have that level of contact with them. This tends to be something guys do over women and it reinforces the idea of women as passive sex objects who aren’t entitled to choose. Reinforcing the idea that women aren’t entitled to choose quietly perpetrates rape culture.

4)      Reducing a person (usually a woman) to their sexual desirability is dehumanising, it is treating the person as a piece of available meat. Again, this is a rape culture issue.

5)      All of this behaviour is rude and demeaning. It is unnecessary, and the odds are the people doing it would not appreciate being treated on the same terms. The object of ridicule has been dehumanised and depersonalised for them in a way that makes it seem ok. Try asking how they would feel if someone talked about their mother, sister or daughter in these terms.

6)      It isn’t funny, but you don’t have to go very far back in time to find racists using the ‘comedy’ excuse to justify racism. Be absolutely clear that ‘sexist humour’ isn’t funny, it is sexism and offensive. Guys, if you uphold this one it has particular power, sexist guys being found unfunny by other men are more likely to realise they are out of order.

7)      If you get the feedback that you are ugly and not sexually attractive to the perpetrator, treat it as an enormous joke – how very funny it is that they imagine you would give them an option on getting anywhere near you! Point out that sexism isn’t innately attractive. Random abuse from strangers can painful and threatening, be prepared for it and do not take it seriously. If you are directly threatened, do take it seriously, that’s a matter for the police.

If you catch people doing this, try to call them out without being abusive in turn. It is enough to say ‘this isn’t funny, or kind or needed and you wouldn’t like it or find it amusing if we did it to you.’

A question of manners

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which sexism are justified and its lead me to some interesting places. There’s been a lot of it online in the last week, around treatment of Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli. Horrible comments about her appearance, strength and determination have been explained by the simple assertion ‘I am entitled to my opinion’. If we’d say the same sorts of things about a guy in the same context, apparently that makes it ok. It certainly makes it tricky to challenge.

When we debate online, the right to express an opinion is readily trolled out as an excuse for bashing and offending others. “If you can’t take a bit of grownup debate, go somewhere else where you can hang out with the other fluffy bunnies” is a frequent retort. Being able to dish it out and get it back is macho, strong, clever… Pagans are as guilty of upholding that as any other social grouping.

What happens when we’re rude, and cause offence? Does the other person capitulate? Apologise? Do they become wiser? Are they better people for having endured a put down from us? Or do they come back with bile, angry, hurting and resentful. Then we have to defend ourselves. It’s justified. And so we continue, escalate, and generally add to the total of misery in the world.
There is a history of manners that went alongside a fairly oppressive culture. We had something not unlike a caste system, manners were all about knowing who your betters were, and how to grovel appropriately before them. We created a whole system of etiquette, which expressed and enforced social divides. The manners of fairly recent history reinforced the idea of women as weak and useless (like we couldn’t open doors for ourselves). It gave status to money, and it also gave the adept a lot of ways of causing deep offence whilst remaining socially acceptable.

When we gave all of that up in search of a more egalitarian society, what we replaced it with was the simple idea that it’s fine to be rude. Our politicians are rude, publically. Our media is full of ill-mannered people talking disrespectfully to each other. We get online and pedal it ourselves and if you threaten our right to be mean, offensive, inconsiderate and tactless, you’re an interfering nazi oppressing free speech, or a man-hating feminist, or a spoil sport with no sense of humour. The last line of defence for gits is invariably comedy. That no one actually laughs doesn’t seem to come into it. Call your cruelty a joke, and anyone who doesn’t ‘get it’ is a kill joy, an idiot, or both. Two rounds of rudeness for the price of one.

It is possible to call someone out without being rude to them. It is possible to argue and debate without attacking people. It is also possible to have good manners without reverting to some kind of Victorianesque bowing and scraping model. A little bit of respect goes a long way. Self respect in fact, as much as anything else. The person who doesn’t want to make an ass of themselves in public thinks about the words they type or voice. The person who respects themselves does not want to put forth words that are nothing more than irritating noise.

We do not currently cite good manners as a Pagan virtue, but that is what respect means, when you enact it. If we treated each other respectfully we’d get a lot more done. If we tried to engage meaningfully where we disagree, rather than bullying into submission, things would be much better for us. Sure, if our media and politicians gave up the screaming toddler model of human behaviour and acquired some dignity, that would speed things along, but the short comings of others are not an excuse to sit idly by.