Saturday, 25 July 2015

How feminism is damaged by crude gender stereotyping and the use of sexist language

I'd like to begin this article with a declaration that I am a male feminist.

I strongly oppose injustice and discrimination and I strongly believe in the empowerment of women. In fact I support the empowerment of all people because I believe that the more politically and economically empowered people there are in a society, the freer and fairer that society is.

In this article I'm going to raise some criticisms of a piece of feminist literature, not because I oppose feminism, but because I think that blatantly sexist material that is dressed up as feminism does an awful lot of damage to the general concept of feminism, and provides opponents of feminism devastating ammunition with which to attack the whole concept of female empowerment.

What is sexism?

Before I get to the image that exemplifies the kind of sexist approach that has infected some kinds of feminist literature, it's worthwhile to briefly explain what I mean by sexism.

It isn't sexist to point out that there are differences between men and women. It isn't sexist to acknowledge that on average men are taller, stronger and faster than women. It isn't sexist to note that on average girls do better than boys at school. It isn't sexist to think that perhaps people with the capacity to actually grow another human being inside themselves and then nurture them from their own breast might have a slightly different understanding of life to those of us who don't.

What is sexist is gender stereotyping. It is sexist to assume that just because a person has a penis, that they're a potential rapist. It is sexist to assume that just because a person has the capacity for childbirth, that somehow they're automatically more caring than someone who hasn't. It is sexist to assume that just because someone has a specific gender, they're ill suited to particular professions. In essence, sexism is judging people by their gender, not by their attributes as a person.

The sexist male abuse wheel image

Sexist and narrow-minded language like this is severely damaging to
feminism. Not only is it possible for women to do all of the things
in the segments to men, at least half of the stuff around the edge is
enjoyed between many millions of consenting adults, meaning
that defining it as "abuse" without a single word about the
importance of consent is alienating to people who like BDSM.
The widely shared* image that really wound me up (on the right) actually contains quite a bit of useful information about abusive relationships. What bothers me so much about it is the way that it assumes that the abuser is male and that the victim is female. 

The English language has a gender neutral third person pronoun ("they") so I really can't understand why the designers of this image felt it necessary to paint the abuser as always being male by using the gender specific "her" to describe the victim, and labelling what is clearly a description of controlling behaviour as being "male privilege" (as if being bossy and controlling is an inherently male thing).

The stated defence of this image is that the majority of abuse that goes on in relationships is perpetrated by males against females. I don't disagree with this assertion at all. Domestic abuse perpetrated by females against their male partners is certainly much rarer than abuse inflicted by males on their female partners. The problem with this assertion isn't that it's inaccurate, it's that it's an absolutely crap defence of the use of sexist language. Just because the majority of abuse is inflicted by men, that doesn't mean that it's not sexist to gender stereotype males as abusers and females as victims.

To give an example of how rubbish this defence is, let's think about another kind of advice wheel style infographic, but this time about how to be a good parent. It's undeniably true that in our society females on average still do far more of the family care work than males, therefore, using the same "logic" as the abuse wheel, it would obviously be "fair" to gender stereotype the parent as a female wouldn't it? Therefore we'd end up with sentences like "she should ensure that her children eat a balanced diet", "she should take care to arrange regular medical checkups for her children", "she should be careful to build a stable emotional environment for the family", "she should ensure that her children's educational needs are met"  ...

I'm pretty sure that any such thing would rightly infuriate a lot of feminists, and also rather a lot of modern men (who take a great deal more responsibility for family issues than the men of their fathers' or grandfathers' generations), but such an image would be backed up by an identical pseudo-logical defence as the one posited by defenders of the blatantly sexist abuse wheel image. 

Anyone who would find offence in an infographic that gender stereotypes the female as the primary carer because it's more often the case, must surely also find offence in an infographic that gender stereotypes the male as the abuser and the female as the victim because it's more often the case. To take offence at one and not the other would clearly be hypocrisy.

Male victims of domestic abuse

It is easy to see how the gender roles could easily be reversed in every single segment of the abuse wheel. It's also easy to understand that there are large numbers of men out there who may have suffered one or many of the types of abuse detailed.

Is it the job of feminists to stand up against all forms of physical and psychological abuse regardless of the gender of the perpetrator, or is the the role of feminism
 to raise awareness of physical and psychological abuse only when the victim is female, and to use sexist gender stereotyping to sweep the existence of male victims under the carpet?

I don't think it takes a great deal of empathy to understand how a male who has suffered physical or emotional abuse might feel when confronted by an image that defines him as the aggressor and his abuser as the victim. Given the extremely negative emotional response this kind of sexist gender stereotyping might trigger, it's obviously possible that an instinctive reaction might be to angrily dismiss the concept of feminism as a load of inaccurate sexist rubbish.

How prudishness alienates people

The crude gender stereotyping in the abuse wheel infographic isn't the only really poor thing about it. If we read the list of words around the edge, it clearly defines a lot of things as "Physical and Sexual Abuse". I'm pretty sure that few people would contest the assertion that things like kicking and punching are abuse, but some of the other stuff is clearly dependent upon the incredibly important concept of consent.

There are many millions of people out there who like a bit of rough and tumble when it comes to sex. Tastes range from hardcore BDSM stuff all the way down to a bit of gentle biting, bottom slapping or hair pulling. The idea that all of this stuff is 
"Physical and Sexual Abuse" is so incredibly prudish it would be laughable if it wasn't giving the concept of feminism such a bad name.

The idea that stuff like biting, slapping, hair pulling, shoving (against a wall), throwing down (onto a bed), grabbing and even choking are automatically 
"Physical and Sexual Abuse" without a single word about the importance of consent is appallingly ill-judged, and frankly offensive to anyone who likes anything even a little bit more kinky than standard vanilla sex.

Damaging gender narratives

In my opinion the worst thing about this image isn't the fact that it could be upsetting or alienating to men who have suffered relationship abuse, or to people of any gender who enjoy a bit of kink with their sex, it's that it creates really damaging gender narratives.

It's my opinion that spreading the gender narrative that it is the female role in society to be the victim is every bit as bad as spreading the gender narrative that it is the male role to be the abuser.

When confronting relationship abuse, a much stronger, and less sexist starting point would surely be to condemn all forms of relationship abuse, instead of defining relationship abuse as something that is only ever inflicted by men on women, as if it's some kind of social norm that males abuse their female partners, rather than abuse being something that can happen both ways, even in a single relationship.

To give an example of what I mean by abuse happening both ways even in a single relationship: It's entirely possible that within a dysfunctional relationship where trust and respect have broken down, that one partner may use their economic advantage to impose their will on the other, while the other partner fights back with abusive language and threats to take the children away. The gender narrative that the male is always the perpetrator and the female is always the victim is not only a damaging thing to accept as a social norm, it's also blatantly inaccurate in a great number of cases.

Perhaps it might be better for feminists to begin by defining what constitutes a good relationship (one built upon a foundation of love, trust, respect, honesty, affection, emotional support ...) and saying that this is the kind of stuff everyone has the right to expect from their partner, no matter what their gender, rather than just picking a load of horrible stuff and building a blatantly sexist gender narrative over the top of it?

Damaging feminism

The use of sexist language, Victorian style prudishness and the propagation of damaging gender narratives are all incredibly harmful to the concept of feminism because for every person who is capable of understanding that one sexist and narrow-minded infographic isn't representative of the whole concept of feminism, there are probably many who wouldn't be.

The feminism I believe in promotes equality and eschews sexism and crude gender stereotyping. A great number of people have less knowledge about the subject of feminism than I do (and I hardly claim to be an expert), and have the warped idea that feminism is a form of female supremacism which has the aim of repressing and subjugating men (the tabloid definition of what feminism is).

In my view the widely shared sexist abuse wheel infographic is only ever going to convince such people that feminism is indeed some kind of sexist vendetta against men, which is incredibly damaging to legitimate feminist philosophy because it inevitably ends up gets tarred with the same brush.

If feminism is to have more success, feminists really need to be careful in their use of language. They have to understand that alienating men through the use of sexist language, alienating people with non-vanilla sexual preferences with unbelievable prudishness and building harmful gender narratives on top of serious issues are all things that do the concept of feminism far more harm than good.

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*Several people have tried to excuse the sexist language in the abuse wheel image that has been widely shared on Facebook by saying it was originally from a women's support group in the USA. My issues are that it's now been shared all over social media with no such context meaning that the vast majority of the millions of people to have seen it have no idea where it came from, and that the origins of the infographic don't even alter the fact that it promotes damaging gender narratives.

Don't read this article
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Richard Dawkins and the far-right extremists
Why I don't speak on behalf of the collective left
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