Our culture perpetuates norms and beliefs that glorify men’s violence against women, genderqueer and nonbinary individuals. Feminism is the counter-movement, trying to end inequity, gendered violence, and sexism by valuing womxn, and their contributions to society, as much as men and their contributions. It can be difficult to know when to speak out against sexism in our daily lives, as sexism is extremely common and doing so sometimes elicits negative reactions, such as belittling, defensiveness, or implying that we are “too serious” or “no fun.” However, starting constructive conversation about sexist language can be extremely important and impactful. For example, when people refer to rape as “sex”, it frames sexual assault as something consensual and minimizes the violence of the act. Reorienting the conversation to center around the violent/coercive act can help to shift the culture away from victim-blaming and towards accountability. Additionally, it is crucial to recognize that sexism encompasses discrimination and oppression against transgender, genderqueer, and nonbinary individuals. It is hard to know where to start in combatting the monster of sexism and misogyny, so here is a step by step guide for putting feminism in action.
Step 1 – Acknowledging the Connection; Recognizing Sexism
There is a continuum of sexism, that ranges all the way from “harmless” jokes to systemic oppression and violence.
It is important to recognize that although jokes and comments may seem trivial, they are actually part of the spectrum of violence. Using phrases such as “that test raped me,” “he’s a pussy/bitch/fag” and “you’re such a whore” reflect and contribute to a culture that trivializes rape, aligns words associated with womxn and femininity as insults, and make individual’s sexual choices seem shameful and immoral. Another way to look at the problem is through David Lisak’s diagram of rape culture. He illustrates how an individual rapist or abuser is part of a larger system of people who facilitate and ignore/refuse to stop rape and abuse and a culture of sexism, hyper masculinity, denigration of womxn, calloused sexual attitudes, etc. All of these things are connected and contribute to rape and abuse, so speaking up when we witness something ranging from actual abuse/rape to sexist language is combatting rape culture and helping to end gender violence.
Step 2 – Check-In: How Do I Deal With Sexism?
When confronted with sexism, do you challenge it?
- At what level of seriousness do you challenge sexism?
- In that moment, why do you challenge sexism?
- In that moment, why don’t you challenge sexism?
We can all think back to a time when we were confronted with sexism and didn’t know how to respond or didn’t feel comfortable responding. As you read through the rest of these steps, think about that particular moment. It is up to us to make feminism the norm and sexism the extreme.
Neither man had understood how lonely it could be. Once she’d realized how deviant, how irregular her thoughts were, she rarely shared them with others.
Sharon Kay Penman
Falls the Shadow, a historical novel about 13th century Wales
Step 3 – Trusting Our Power; Knowing Ourselves
A big barrier to confronting sexism includes the self-doubt that seeps in before reacting and the negative reactions we’ve experienced in the past. How many of you have been told: “you can’t take a joke…” “that’s just our little feminist!” “chill out, I didn’t really mean it…” Ask yourself this question now and keep the answer with you: “Why do I believe what I believe? Why is it important?”
We can use our answer to this question as the source of our power and motivation when combatting sexism in our everyday lives. The reality is, fighting sexism is on the right side of justice. We can feel empowered by the knowledge that we are furthering justice through changing the minds of the people around us, one conversation at a time.
I’m not free when any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.
Step 4 – Speak Out
When you choose to speak out against a sexist comment, joke, etc. keep a few things in mind:
Our motivation – What drives us to speak out?
How we respond – Do we say something jokingly or seriously? What words do we use to get our point across?
When do we respond? – Do we say something immediately or would it be more effective to wait and say something to the person later and in private? Are we in an appropriate setting to confront the person? Will we even be able to influence this person or should we save our energy?
What is the goal of the interaction? – Want to stop a behavior in the moment? Permanently? Around us? Around everyone? Is it to send a message? To protect someone? To defend ourselves?
Who is our audience?
Answering these questions will help you determine if you can make an impact and how to craft your response appropriately.
When we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard or welcomed. But when we are silent, we are still afraid. So it is better to speak.
Step 5 – Striking a Balance; Socializing and Activism
In the end, addressing every instance of sexism is unsustainable and frustrating, so it is necessary to find a balance between standing up for issues we believe in and being able to relax and enjoy ourselves. The important things to keep in mind are:
Being true to ourselves – We need to remember our motivation and act according to our consciences.
Choosing battles – if it is clear that a person will not be swayed, sometimes it is better to save our energy for a time when we can actually make an impact.
Stretching ourselves – We can all think of a time that we should have said something, and didn’t. Sometimes it is beneficial to go outside of our comfort zone to say something that needs to be said. Try it!
Protecting ourselves – Sometimes, it is not safe to speak up. It is important to assess the situation and always guard our own safety (physical and emotional) and sanity.
There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but s/he must take it because conscious tell him[her] it is right.
Martin Luther King Jr.
An Example – Changing the World One Boyfriend at a Time
This is a conversation that the executive director had with an ex-boyfriend, who was confused as to why she was upset about the naked female silhouettes on his mud flaps. He thought it was a simple question…