Everyday anti-sexism

SEXISM is all around us, and sometimes we try to do something about it. Sometimes this doesn't work, sometimes it does.

CASE: It's the middle of the city, Saturday night. David walks around the corner. There's a man and woman, he's pushing her, slapping her crying face. It's fast, scary, violent.

David calls out ,"Is everything alright?" "Fuck off!" the man shouts. Again, but to the woman, "Are you okay, do you need a taxi?" David stands there, heart pounding, sweating. The man and woman are quiet now, they walk off. In David's mind, "Will he take her home and bash her some more, should I get the police?"

Make some attempt to intervene when you come across men directly oppressing women. Call out, ask what's going on, just be there. This can slow down what's happening. Make the man feel noticed, and offer practical assistance to the woman. If she's being bashed, get the police.

CASE: Andre is visiting a good friend, John. They're catching up over morning coffee, chatting away. John's talking. "Yeah, work is going really well, but my boss is being a real cunt, he keeps giving me the boring jobs." Andre notices the word, is a little uncomfortable, but nothing is said.

Later that day, John again, "My old Fiat has broken down again, it's a cunt of a car!"

Andre responds, in a tone of amazement and curiosity, "Hang on, your car was being a 'cunt'? What, all soft and hairy like a vagina?!" They both laugh.

Andre goes on, "It's weird using the word 'cunt' like that, it's like it's putting down women's bodies. I reckon it's a bit offensive." John listens pretty well, "Yeah, it is weird. I just picked it up, I think it's a bit off too".

Break down sexist language like using the word 'cunt' in this negative way, by being 'curious' about the meaning of the words and the connections being made; by using humour; and by stating that you reckon it's putting down women and it's offensive.

CASE: Grahame is listening to the news with a friend, Steve. A woman has been raped, Steve comments "She asked for it".

Grahame explodes, "That's fucked! You can't say women 'ask' to be raped, that's sexist!" Steve - "Look, she was out drinking with those guys, probably flirting away. She wouldn't have minded." Grahame, now louder, angrier, "No way! You've been sucked in by all the myths mate, what a load of shit".

There's a tense silence, Steve starts talking about something else.

When people say things like this it can really 'push our buttons'. We explode, leap down their throats with morality and accusation. It's hard to resist this habit, this temptation. But this sort of response to our friends' sexisms rarely works. Grahame could have responded in some other ways;

"That's my sister you're talking about". By this, Grahame could imply that this woman is just like my sister, a real person, or this person could be Steve's or his sister, ie. making the rape and the woman much more real to Steve.

Grahame could have said "A good friend of mine was raped, it's a terrible experience, no woman ever deserves to be raped or wants to be raped." He could have asked "How can someone ask to be raped?".

When your friends or colleagues are trivialising things like rape, or gay-bashing, or AIDS;

i) Make the oppression more real. Personalise it, describe the experiences of people you know or people you've read about and could know.

ii) Ask them what they mean, listen really well, and calmly. Even start off by agreeing with them or sympathising with them. Try to understand why they may be saying the things they are.

iii) Provide the person with information about the oppression, expose the facts and undermine the myths.

iv) Show emotion and passion. Show that you're deeply affected by what was said or done, it makes you sad, angry, etc.

Challenging sexism is taking risks. We're being brave, questioning the norm, speaking out, going public with our beliefs and emotions. It's scary stuff. We risk being seen as weird, attacked as gay or ostracised. And we fear being bashed.

There are times when it's more dangerous or difficult to interrupt another man's sexism. When he's a stranger, he's drunk, he's in a pub being loud, when there are lots of them. The danger of course is that you'll be bashed.

There are times when it's easier or more useful to do the challenging later. When I'm in conversation with a guy about something and he makes a sexist comment unrelated to the conversation, I might let it pass and deal with it later - "Just by the way, a little while ago you said something really weird -".

Challenging our male friends' sexism is always worth it, as ultimately it builds closeness and trust. If you continue to bite your lip when he's making AIDS or rape jokes, you're distant and tense, your friendship is blocked and awkward. And, if you do try to deal with the jokes or whatever in a fair and caring way and he won't listen, is he worth being your good friend anyway?

Some sorts of responses to sexism never work. Accusatory and full-on moralistic responses don't work. Angry name-calling and heavy guilt-tripping will hardly allow the other person to thoughtfully consider your thoughts. They make him 'shut down', stop listening and turn away. I confess, when it comes to anti-sexism, sometimes I've behaved like Fred Nile on speed, but I'm getting better.

Sexism is all around us, and every day we make efforts at shifting it, undermining it. This is courageous work. Challenging sexism is a project we must affirm, explore and refine.

Non-sexism and anti-sexism

I/we do not have to be non-sexist in order to be anti-sexist. Men can not wait for that never-never day when we'll be blameless enough to speak.

To say to ourselves that we each must first become 'non-sexist' is to confuse trying to appear non-sexist with actively working to eliminate sexism. Trying to appear not sexist makes us deny our sexism, and therefore exclude the possibility of change.

(Thankyou to Elly Bulkin for these insights, originally applied to anti-racism. She is quoted by Terry Wolverton in "Unlearning Complicity, Remembering Resistance: White Women's Anti-Racism Education", in a book whose title I can't remember.)

Practical work on everyday anti-sexism

Men are whittling away at the patriarchy all the time. I didn't really know this until a workshop at the 1990 Men's Festival; I heard seven others tell stories from work and play, about the daily little things they do. We were warmed, happy, proud of these struggles and victories. I realised that many men have skills and strategies that we use every day, vital experiences of what works and what doesn't. But these are hidden.

In the 'men's movement' there is almost no discussion of the 'how' of undermining sexism. Why don't we apply our practical and productive male minds and hearts to the task? This absence is also evident in the masculinity literature - even in a book called Beyond patriarchy (although it's a good book!). It's only in the early works such as For men against sexism (1977) that there's exploration of the practicalities of challenging sexism and patriarchy.

It's easy to feel isolated - that I'm the only man trying the stop the sexism, no one else cares. This is also a sort of arrogance and cynicism - "men are all bastards" etc. But it's clearer to me now that at least some men are doing something.

Workshop plan

1. Introduce the workshop, do some sort of names exercise

2. Give a brief and simple definition of 'sexism' and/or of 'homophobia', eg. "behaviours and beliefs that put down women, or gays & lesbians".

3. When was there a time that I stood up against sexism/homophobia?

The facilitator gives several examples of his own, and then invites everyone else to share their stories. After this general sharing (eg. for 45 minutes or so), the facilitator introduces some ideas about what seems to work or not, and about what sorts of issues exist. Have general discussion of these, eg. of different sorts of strategies, and of issues such as taking risks. The facilitator should affirm that challenging sexism/homophobia is hard and scary.

The workshop could end with this discussion, or you could include other exercises such as the following;

* When was there a time that I colluded in sexism/homophobia?

Have a general sharing of stories. Why did we collude, what stopped us from speaking up or resisting?

These stories could be retold as fantasies the way they should have happened.

* Do a role-play of interrupting sexism.

For example, role-play a conversation in which one man begins making anti-gay or rape jokes, the other man must try to respond. Discuss what's hard about challenging what's going on. Which responses are useful and productive?

At the end of the workshop, the facilitator can make the point that we don't have to be non-sexist in order to be anti-sexist (or non-homophobic to act against homophobia). And the facilitator can affirm the daily struggles we engage in.

Reprinted with permission from the magazine XY: men, sex, politics. PO Box 26, AINSLIE, ACT, 2602, AUSTRALIA. ©Copyright 1995