This post is a continuation of this conversation.
Some definitions of sexism:
- Discrimination based on sex, especially discrimination against women.
- Attitudes, conditions, or behaviors that promote stereotyping of social roles based on sex.
- The belief that people of one sex are inherently superior to people of the other sex.
- Disadvantage or unequal opportunity arising from the cultural dominance of one sex over the other.
- Promotion or expectation or assumption of people to behave in accordance with a gender role.
There is a long history of discrimination against women as a result of our lower status in patriarchy; this has been documented and fought against by feminists for more than a hundred years. Men have invented reasons to discriminate against women based on our reproductive sex. Because we are the sex that can give birth to children, men have traditionally believed that women are necessarily and universally nurturing and emotional and must be kept in the home as wives and mothers. They have believed that because of our nature as women, we are not fit to do things like vote, own property, drive, make household decisions, work outside the home, play sports, get an education, work in the professions, and self-direct our own lives.
In some locations, sexism as noted in the above examples still exists; in other locations, women can at least vote, own property, drive, and earn our own money, thanks to the feminist movement, although we still don’t earn quite as much money as men—there is still a wage gap. Women are still expected to perform the socially constructed social role of femininity whether it personally suits us or not, and it often doesn’t. We are expected to look “pretty”, be “nice,” do a lot of unpaid care work, and accommodate men’s needs in every area. It is still socially acceptable for men to sexually harass, sexually abuse, and rape women, since the men who do these things are rarely ever punished by law or even by social disapproval. In fact, an extremely sexist man can still be elected President of the United States even in this day and age.
I was asked why I consider some things sexism and not others. For example, why is it sexist when women are denied job opportunities but not when women are denied the right to use the men’s washroom? Why is it sexist to say that “blue is for boys” but not sexist to say that “he/him pronouns are for boys”?
There are two parts to my answer. The first part is that discrimination against a person on the basis of her sex occurs when something that a person reasonably needs or should have access to is withheld for no reason other than subjective and unfounded bias against people of her sex. The second part is that it’s sexism to withhold something with the intention or effect of enforcing sex stereotypes. However, it’s not sexism when someone reasonably withholds something that a person doesn’t need or can’t reasonable have.
Let’s look at some examples using children’s toys, since the “blue balloon” example has already come up. When you tell a girl child that she cannot have a blue balloon because blue is “for boys”, that is sexism because it’s reinforcing sex stereotypes. Obviously she can live without a balloon, but this is teaching her that certain things are “for boys” and other things are “for girls,” which is a harmful message. This sex-stereotyping is rooted in the social roles that are enforced on girls and boys, femininity and masculinity, and these social roles are coming from a system of discrimination against women. The reason certain toys, games, activities, mannerisms, speech patterns, behaviours, and appearances are “for girls” is because they work together to enforce the fact that girls are supposed to be quiet, pleasant, nice, nurturing, soft, emotional, and frivolous, and the reason patriarchy wants us this way is because it keeps us subservient to men. Teaching kids that only boys are good at certain things/can be interested in certain things and only girls are good at certain things/are interested in certain things is intended to lead to them becoming adults who discriminate on the basis of sex. On a systemic level, that sex discrimination favors men and disadvantages women.
However, if a girl wants 100 new toys for her birthday, and a parent says no, that’s not sexism, because it’s not related to sex stereotypes or discrimination in any way, it’s just setting a reasonable limit. The parent would presumably do the same thing for a child of either sex. If a boy says he wants to jump off a cliff to see if he can fly, and a parent says no, that’s not sexism, because it’s not related to sex stereotypes or sex discrimination, it’s just setting a reasonable limit that would be necessary for any child.
Sexism isn’t just any instance of telling a person “no” for any reason, sexism is when someone is being unreasonably limited in their life opportunities because of their sex or when an arbitrary rule is set just to enforce harmful sex stereotypes on people in order to enforce sex inequality.
I have been asked “isn’t it sexism to tell girls/women they cannot use he/him pronouns just because they’re women?”
For heaven’s sake, no! In order to prove that it’s sexist to tell women they can’t call themselves he/him, you’d have to first prove that calling oneself he/him is a life opportunity that women should reasonably have, or that calling a woman she/her enforces sex stereotypes on women. Neither of these premises is true. The reason girls/women are referred to by female pronouns is not to enforce standards of femininity on women and limit their role in society, it’s to communicate clearly. The use of grammatically correct, coherent language when speaking is not an issue of sex stereotyping or sex discrimination. There is no harm to anyone in clear communication. Girls and women do not need an opportunity to describe themselves inaccurately; this is not some sort of life experience we are being denied. Girls and women are called girls and women because that’s what we are, and we don’t need opportunities to call ourselves boys or men any more than we need opportunities to call ourselves giraffes or toasters.
I can already hear the question being asked, “But what about dysphoria? Don’t you think people should be able to manage their dysphoria the way they think is best?” The simple answer is yes, people can do whatever the hell they want. This is where I have to bring up again the difference between neoliberal politics and radical politics. Neoliberals believe in the agency and free choice of the individual, and their analysis basically stops there. Radicals believe in class analysis and material changes to benefit large groups of oppressed people. While there may be some women who feel they benefit from pretending to be men, that’s not a “right” that women as a class need access to, it’s just a coping mechanism that a few people engage in. Radical feminists are not a cheerleading section to validate every choice every woman makes, we are a group of women dedicated to liberating the entire female sex class from oppression, and we consider what is best for women as a group, not for specific individuals in specific situations. There are plenty of coping mechanisms women engage in that they probably feel are helpful to them that I would not support. I wouldn’t support an anorexic woman’s choice to starve herself, or a traumatized woman’s choice to cut herself, or a small-breasted woman’s choice to get breast implants. I reserve the right to disagree with individual people’s choices if they appear unhealthy to me, and that includes cutting off healthy body parts, injecting artificial hormones for a lifetime, and incorrectly calling herself a man. I am not going to stop anyone from getting cosmetic surgery and calling themselves anything they want, because I am not about policing people’s choices, but I have a right to disagree and to state the reasons for my disagreement. I also have a point to make about the way it affects women as a class when gender nonconforming women call themselves something other than women. This reinforces the harmful construct of femininity on women because it implies that women who aren’t feminine aren’t women. This harms women as a class, even if a few individuals may find it to be a helpful coping mechanism.
Then there’s the issue of sex segregation in certain spaces, such as washrooms, locker rooms, and Girl Scouts/Boy Scouts. Is it sex discrimination to deny a person access to a facility meant for one sex?
In order to decide whether it’s discrimination, you have to look at what the facility is for and why the sexes are being segregated. Traditionally women have been denied entry to institutions such as colleges, sports teams, and certain fields of employment, by men who hold discriminatory ideas about women, and we still face some discrimination such as this in some places. Men’s rights activists like to complain about the rare women-only institutions that exist and that this is unfair to them, because they deliberately ignore the fact that these spaces were set up to correct an imbalance due to the historical discrimination against women by men. When women are denied entry to entire professions such as law or medicine on the basis that men believe women are “unfit” for roles other than mother/housewife, that is sex discrimination.
However, sex-segregated washrooms are there in order to allow women’s participation in public life, not to prevent it. In order to use public facilities such as gyms for example, women need a space where there are no men in order to change, shower and pee. This is because we do not feel safe or comfortable undressing in the presence of men, who have a tendency to see us as sexual prey and to harass and assault us.
Similarly, if kids are going to a sleep-away camp or staying in cabins or bunks, sex-segregated facilities are required for activities that involve undressing. Girls Scouts and Boy Scouts could do lots of the same camp activities, and could intermingle in many situations, but they require separate sleeping and bathing facilities for safety and privacy.
I don’t believe that men and boys are particularly keen on having women and girls in their washrooms or locker rooms either. Although they generally aren’t in physical danger from women, they may not feel comfortable undressing in front of them, and that’s okay, they don’t have to. Men and boys also have the right to privacy when undressing.
The reason there are separate facilities for men and women for activities that involve undressing is to allow both sexes to comfortably and safely use facilities, therefore this is the opposite of sex discrimination.
People who are masculine women or feminine men may fear public washrooms due to people’s negative, discriminatory, or violent behavior toward them; this is a legitimate problem that should be taken seriously. One remedy is to increase the use of gender neutral facilities alongside men’s and women’s facilities, or to construct singer-user, fully-enclosed unisex toilets. It would also be helpful to eliminate sex stereotypes and homophobia, because usually when someone is harassed in a washroom it’s because they are perceived as not looking the way a man or woman “should” look or because they appear to be homosexual. It is not acceptable, however, to completely desegregate shared facilities so that there is no safety and privacy for women anywhere; this is in fact discrimination against women, because it effectively prevents us from accessing facilities. I would support trans activists in the fight for gender neutral facilities if they were going about their activism in a way that recognizes women’s needs as well as their own, but sadly, they don’t give a shit about women.
If I were in charge, I’d create municipal laws saying that any new public building being built and any existing public building doing renovations must ensure there are three separate washroom/changeroom facilities for both men, women, and gender neutral, so that we can move toward accommodating everyone. This three-washroom setup is designed so that only biological women may use the women’s facility and men who identify as women must use the gender neutral facility. This allows everyone safety and privacy in the washroom. Transwomen need to understand that, while they have the right to access public facilities, they do not have the right to impose upon biological women in women-only spaces or have their identities validated by same.
Getting back to what I said above, it’s not sexism when someone reasonably withholds something that a person doesn’t need or can’t reasonably have. Men don’t need access to women’s washrooms, nor do women need access to men’s washrooms. As long as both sexes are provided with washrooms, neither sex is being deprived of anything. Neither men nor women need opportunities to lie about themselves and pretend they are the opposite sex either. This is something people do because they have an illness,(or in some cases a sexual fetish or a desire to be special), and I disagree that denying reality and depriving women of safety and privacy is the correct way to deal with an illness or indulge in a fetish.
Since transgenderists reinforce traditional sex stereotypes about women and men, (liking pink and sparkly things makes you a girl!) and attempt to deprive women of participation in public life by eliminating our safe use of facilities, they are in fact sexist. Although I am in favor of reasonable, reality-based accommodations for people with gender dysphoria, I am going to push back against the sexism that is being directed at women by the trans community, because as a feminist, I primarily care about women.