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The Damaging Effects of Mild, Persistent Sexism and Why it’s so Hard to Talk About

Emma Brass talks about her experience of sexism at Oxford.

Cw: Sexual Assault/Sexual harassment 

I’m in my last few months of four years at Oxford.  I have much to fondly remember, but in this piece, I’m going to comment on one of the less pleasant aspects of my time here.  I am going to tell you about my own experience of insidious, persistent, mild sexism, and the damaging effect that it has had on me and some of my female friends. I want to discuss why I think this issue does not always receive the attention it deserves.

In bringing light to this mild and persistent form of sexism, my intention is not to downplay the experience of those who have been the victim of more extreme incidents of sexual abuse or harassment. I understand that as a white, cis, able-bodied, educated woman, I have many privileges not afforded to people who identify otherwise.  The experiences of these other groups remain at the forefront of feminism.  To them I simply want to add my voice, to share the effects of the kind of sexism that I and my friends have experienced.

In a kitchen setting, a female friend dropped her knife as she was preparing her lunch.  A man remarked that she will make a bad housewife.

Another time, one man sat with his girlfriend.  He and another man began to discuss how good she was at cleaning up his room for him – whilst the girlfriend sat right there.  The other man goes on to ask where he can “get one like that.”  The boyfriend jokingly replied, “oh they’re pretty cheap.”

One friend told me about a time that she was wearing a skirt, and a male friend commented on its short length.  She now sometimes feels insecure about her appearance – “I find myself wondering if my jeans are too tight, or if my top is too revealing.  I then often end up changing into something looser, baggier, less revealing.”

In a discussion about our sex lives, the women who had slept with multiple men were described as “hoes,” whilst the man who used this term confidently explained that, even though he has slept with multiple women, derogatory terms cannot be applied to him: “it doesn’t count because I’m a guy.”  This warped logic is common.

A rape scene came up when a group of us were watching a movie together.  My female friend and I were sombre, hit by the emotional distress and trauma embedded in the scene. However, the men began to laugh.  We called them out on this, and they replied with a half-hearted excuse about how the man’s face looked funny as he raped the girl.  We were appalled by their mismatched emotional response to the scene.

I have witnessed some men joking around by making moaning sounds to one another, artificially raising the pitch of their voice to imitate how some woman sound when having sex.  While on the surface this seems reasonably innocent, their imitations mock and belittle the sexual experience of women, turning female pleasure into a cheap joke.

I have a reason for describing incidents that are very personal, rather than making broad remarks about sexism in society.  Most of us know that gender inequality is an issue.  We know that the gender pay gap exists, and that women as a whole experience sexism.  However, I have come to believe that it is very hard, as a woman, to admit when oneself is personally experiencing, and being affected by, sexism.  I myself have found it hard to admit.

For me, the moment of realisation came after a week of unusually frequent sexist comments.  I went to the library to get some work done, and instead ended up crying in the library bathroom.  My distress was due to a feeling of deeply unsettling disdain for my own womanhood; I remember sitting there and thinking, “I wish I wasn’t a woman.”  I was internalising sexist attitudes towards my gender, doubting my own worth and feeling less than human.  It was horrible, and it was only at this moment that I was forced to confront these feelings.  My tears almost came as a surprise to me; it took the appearance of this physical manifestation of my distress to make me realise that the distress existed at all.

If a woman is not lucky enough to have a crisis like I did, sexist remarks can go on affecting her without her being cognisant of it.  The subtle psychological consequences that sexism can impart on a woman’s identity can be explored though the concept of the “looking-glass self,” which was introduced by the American sociologist Charles Cooley in 1902.  This term describes the tendency for an individual to understand themselves through the perceptions that they believe others to have of them.  An individual’s identity, actions, and behaviours can be strongly influenced by how they think others perceive them.

Sexist remarks often demonstrate, implicitly or explicitly, that men think of women as less capable, less deserving, and unworthy of respect or consideration.  Women internalise this, and this can affect their self-worth and their confidence in their own abilities.

Since becoming keenly aware of this in the library bathroom, I now actively take steps to acknowledge how I think these men see me, and attempt to stop myself internalising those perceptions.  It seems that the effect of the looking-glass self is strongest when you are not aware of it.  Being aware of the effect, one can filter things out.  But this is not easy, and even being aware of it is not a guarantee of success.  Life is busy, and most of us don’t have the time or energy to constantly second-guess how we perceive others to view us.

Though I eventually felt grateful to have had my library bathroom crisis, the question remained as to why I had not previously noticed the effect of mild sexism on my mental state.  In the quest to understand why, I found valuable insight in a 1984 paper by social psychologist Faye Crosby titled “The Denial of Personal Discrimination.”

Crosby asked participants three questions; “Do you currently receive the benefits from your job that you deserve to receive?”, “Are you at present the victim of sex discrimination?”, and “Are women discriminated against?”  Her results were fascinating – the women who took the survey overwhelmingly responded by saying they did receive the benefits from their job that they deserved, and that they were not a victim of sex discrimination.   However, they agreed that women on the whole are discriminated against.  The collective logic is flawed – if no individual is discriminated against, how can women as a whole be disadvantaged?

Crosby is looking at women’s attitudes to workplace discrimination, which manifests, for example, in the form of a gender pay gap and women being passed over for promotion.  I believe the same phenomenon exists in the way many women view mild sexist incidents and the psychological effects of these.  A woman knows that that sexism occurs, out there, to other women, and it affects them.  But it doesn’t affect her.  I can identify four reasons for this personal denial of the effects of sexism on oneself.

With mild and persistent sexism, it does seem, at first glance, hard to justify a strong reaction.  More extreme incidents of sexual abuse are intensely negative experiences that occur in a short space of time, and so a proportionate reaction of intense outrage is warranted.  When the sexist behaviours are mild but occur over a long period of time, the effect can also be damaging and yet an intense angry reaction is easily dismissed as an over-reaction.  It may look disproportionate when compared to one individual mild sexist incident, but when you consider the build-up over many months and years, a strong response is entirely reasonable.

Mildly sexist attitudes can also perpetuate rape culture and normalise more serious incidents of sexual abuse.  One of my friends was sexually assaulted, and she told some male friends about her experience.  Their immediate response was to joke about it and tell her that she had been “asking for it.” This deeply affected the way she viewed the incident, and it was not until much later that she realised what happened to her was not acceptable.  She had internalized what those men said, to the point that she felt it probably wasn’t “a big deal.”  She says, “after talking to other people about it now, I feel sick to think that I blamed what happened on myself – and even sicker to think that some of my friends do not think that what my assaulter did was in any way serious.”

The second reason that mild, persistent sexism is hard to discuss is highlighted in Crosby’s work.  She states, “Elementary politeness makes it difficult to portray one’s own suffering, while group loyalty demands a sensitivity to the plight of one’s group.  Our society ill tolerates complaints, especially if one appears unready to change or leave the offending situation.”

This chimes with my experience when talking to others about the issue.  Others will agree that these experiences are awful, but then the advice tends to imply that the responsibility to ‘fix’ the situation falls to us women.  Generally, we are told to move away and spend less time with the men in question.

Certainly, it would be much easier for women to avoid men who make these comments.  But this simply does not address the problem.  The men I have heard sexist remarks from are intelligent Oxford students, who will go on to take up important roles at influential companies.  They will carry their sexist attitudes with them into their career, perpetuating gender inequality.  They will make the women they work with feel less capable, make them question their abilities, and make them believe that they don’t really deserve that next promotion.  By avoiding confrontations, we are simply kicking the can down the road, leaving the problem for other women to deal with.  And the women who are with them at work, as their colleagues, employers, and employees, will not have the option of simply avoiding them.

Blame aversion is a third reason that may be behind women’s avoidance of acknowledging sexism.  It is uncomfortable to call out individuals.  This is again drawn from Crosby’s work; she states, “people experience discomfort in confronting their own victimization, because individual cases of suffering seem to call, psychologically, for individual villains.”  There is a need to lay blame on one person.  In cases of outright sexual abuse, this is easy.  In the case of insidious, persistent, long-term sexism, one woman may have faced sexist remarks from a wide range of people. The perpetrators may even be regarded as friends, people who are perfectly reasonable and decent most of the time.  It is uncomfortable to state they are guilty of bad behaviour.

Lastly, many men do not make throw-away sexist comments maliciously and are often unaware of the damaging effects.  Other people, and the men themselves, can easily dismiss the behaviour as ‘immaturity,’ especially when the remarks come from men in their early 20s.  This term is deeply misleading, as it acts as a veil over the true harm caused by their behaviour.  Dismissing these actions as “immature” implies a lesser seriousness and also less responsibility on their part – “it’s just because they are young men, don’t worry, they will grow out of it.”  This approach entirely belittles the fact that their actions are deeply problematic; being sexist and objectifying woman is not a ‘natural’ part of being a young man.

Clearly, we can see there are many barriers that obstruct open discussion about the effect of casual sexist remarks on the individual.  It feels difficult to justify anger in comparison to incidents of extreme sexual abuse, it would be easier to just avoid the men making these comments, women do not want to place blame on the men in their lives, and it is all easily dismissed as immaturity.  I have fallen into all four of these traps in the past.  But if no one calls out their behaviour, men will never understand the true extent of the damage caused.

In the past, a female friend and I have attempted to directly talk to male friends about how their sexist remarks affect us.  We hoped that a frank, face-to-face discussion would make them understand why we were upset and would make them want to change.  I was sorely disappointed by the response; it was along the lines of, “we will try to stop talking like this in front of you, but we are still going to talk like this when you are not around, because it’s just our style of humour.”  They regretted upsetting us, and they wanted to avoid that in future, but there was a lack of understanding of the underlying issue. There was a lack of willingness to try to understand.  I was left feeling that if only I could explain myself better, and present a more full-bodied argument, then maybe they would understand.  These are intelligent Oxford students, after all.  This piece is the manifestation of ‘explaining myself better.’

This brings us to the question of what to do next.  There is a perfect storm of factors at play here.  Mild, persistent sexism is harmful and damaging, as women internalise these remarks and it affects the way they view themselves.  But women are often reluctant to disclose how sexism affects them personally, or are oblivious to it entirely.  The men themselves are unaware of the harm they are causing, or are unwilling to confront the issue.

When women do speak up, as I am doing here, it can be easy to fall into the trap of intense, unproductive anger.  Indeed, I first wrote this piece in a flurry of anger when the scale of the injustice first became apparent to me.  The first draft was a far more scathing attack on those that I know to exhibit this type of sexism.  But unrestrained anger does not always lead to productive solutions.

It feels somehow irresponsible to identify problems without offering concrete solutions, but I will be upfront and state that I do not know the answer.  Looking to others for inspiration, I stumbled upon the Everyday Sexism Project set up in 2012 by Laura Bates.  This consists of a blog where women can anonymously post stories of sexist incidents.  More recently, the Everyone’s Invited Project, following a similar blog format, has highlighted the prevalence of the issue specifically at schools.  These efforts feel like a step in the right direction.  They normalise the reporting of mild incidents of sexism and do not ask the woman to lay blame on a specific individual.

However, as the feminist writer Germaine Greer bluntly states, “simply coughing up outrage into a blog will get us nowhere.”  These blogs may be preaching to the choir; the people reading them will overwhelmingly already sympathise with the movement.   I highly doubt you will find a sexist man scrolling through the Everyday Sexism blog in his leisure time, having a sudden epiphany and vowing to reform himself.

Maybe I too am guilty of the same charge.  Will any sexist man pay attention to this piece of writing?  Perhaps not.

At a local and personal level however, the beginnings of one solution can be found in the university community we live in.  Out in the big, wide world, structures aren’t necessarily in place to collectively think about the issue of mild and insidious sexism.  Within the university, however, we already have a framework for informing new students of the values that they are expected to uphold.  In Freshers’ week, at my college, we attend workshops on sexual consent.  Perhaps these could be extended to discuss insidious forms of sexism.  Additionally, repeating these workshops for students as they progress through their university careers would be a straightforward way of ensuring these conversations are ongoing.  Freshers’ week was a long time ago for many of us.

For men reading this, think of the structures you exist in and pause to consider the effect of sexist behaviour that you are witness to. Ask the women in your life how they feel about the issue. For women reading this, ask yourself if you have properly acknowledged how sexism affects you. Listen to that quiet voice deep down that knows what is wrong, and don’t be afraid to let it get louder.

Image Credit: Tejvan Pettinger/CC BY 2.0

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