Sexism

Will I Accidentally Teach My Sons to Devalue Women???

So often, I’m inspired and intrigued by the writing of another mom out there on the web. It’s wonderful to read another woman’s words and think, yeah, I totally get where she’s coming from, and I am so glad she wrote that!

Today, I’m having this feeling about Kasey Edwards‘ piece over at Role Reboot, entitled, “When Your Mother Says She’s Fat .” Her letter to her mom is a bit of a truth bomb, especially as she describes when, at age seven, she first heard her mother called herself “fat, ugly, and horrible”:

“In the days that followed I had some painful revelations that have shaped my whole life. I learned that:

1. You must be fat because mothers don’t lie.
2. Fat is ugly and horrible.
3. When I grow up I’ll look like you and therefore I will be fat, ugly, and horrible too.

Years later, I looked back on this conversation and the hundreds that followed and cursed you for feeling so unattractive, insecure, and unworthy. Because, as my first and most influential role model, you taught me to believe the same thing about myself.”

That first idea, that “you must be fat because mothers don’t lie,” really strikes me. It goes along with the notion that “The way we speak to our children becomes their inner voice” (most often attributed to author Peggy O’Mara). But what Edwards implies is that not only does the way we speak to our children become their inner voice, but the way we speak to and about ourselves in front of them contributes to their inner voice as well. I think for many parents, myself included, we place a lot of emphasis on the way we speak to our kids about them, but not quite so much on how we speak about ourselves in front of them. Perhaps, though, this is just as important.

Edwards goes on to talk about the responsibility she feels toward her own daughter: to end the passing chain of self-degradation around ideas of beauty and worth. Her piece makes me think about my role as a mother, too – only I have sons, not daughters. Continue reading

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Raising Boys When Trump Can Be President

Issues of sexism and patriarchy have never been the focus of this blog, but they’ve come up a few times. We wrote just over a year ago about Teaching Our Boys About Sex, Consent, and Respect in light of a seemingly endless train of sexual assaults prominent in the media. Well, now Donald Trump is President-Elect of the United States, and women everywhere (and we don’t think we’re being hyperbolic when we say everywhere) are frankly, scared. We certainly are here in Canada. The day after the election, our experience of greeting other women was that we asked each other, with a sombre, knowing tone… “How are you?” None of us had to say why we were asking.

Simply put: the recent election showed us that a man can have double digit sexual assault accusers – and be shown on video, bragging about how he assaults women – and still be elected president. This is the part that’s hurting the most post-US-election, that a man can say terrible, terrible things about women and minorities, on tape, for years – he can even make that kind of divisive, hateful rhetoric the basis of his campaign – and that’s still apparently not a disqualifier for being elected president.

There are so many small, seemingly-innocent ways in which rape culture is perpetuated in our society – from the “boys will be boys” excuse we so often hear when male children engage in violent or aggressive behaviour that we would never accept from female children – to the many, many, MANY examples of pop culture ‘love’ stories where a woman resists a scoundrel-type hero who initially forces a kiss on her only to have her (of course!) fall in love with him in the end.

And while there is a big jump from watching a blockbuster to assaulting someone, there is no doubt that the message is sent, over and over again, that male aggression and dominance is not only acceptable but to be admired. No one starts out as a rapist or even remotely sexist, but these repeated messages, both subtle and not so subtle, are steps along that path.

Electing someone to his country’s highest office who has been open about his disrespect for women as objects worthy of either a) sexual assault, (if attractive enough, in his opinion), b) dismissal as a nuisance to employers (if pregnant/mothering), or c) dismissal as a “nasty woman” (if daring to disagree/state facts/aspire to a position for which she is actually qualified), is, yes, TERRIFYING.

It’s basically the cherry on top of a sundae for rapists, assaulters, abusers and garden variety misogynists to reassure them that, regardless of how they treat women, no pansy-ass-liberal-PC-police can stop them from achieving their ambitions in the world, because hey, it’s still a MAN’S WORLD. It says that, not only is this behaviour acceptable, it’s acceptable in a person with enormous influence as a leader and a role  model.

We thought it was going to be hard enough to teach our sons that women are equal to men as it is. We thought it was going to be hard enough to teach them that traits commonly associated with women (cooperation, openness, nurturing, and emotional intelligence) are just as valuable, and necessary for a vibrant life, as those commonly associated with men (independence, strength, assertiveness, and reason).

How are we going to explain this to them? How do we explain to them that the country where their grandfather and aunts live has a President who thinks Mommy shouldn’t have the right to make her own choices about her reproductive health, even though Daddy should? A President who thinks that  if one of their aunties gets pregnant, she should have to forego employment security, because she apparently ‘deserves’ what she gets for being knocked up, even though the father of that baby would not be similarly disadvantaged for becoming a parent? A President who, if he was in the same room with Mommy, or one of their aunties, or any woman they know, would feel entitled to size her up, decide if he felt like ‘grabbing her by the pussy,’ and believe that because he’s famous she would ‘like’ such treatment?

How do we explain that, while this man became President when people knew that these were his beliefs and voted for him anyway, that this standard is NOT OK for them?

We are feminists. Our husbands are feminists. We hope to raise feminist children, who will grow into feminist men, men who respect women – and all people – as equal human beings.

Donald Trump’s election has not, as we’re sure some of his supporters might hope, cowed us into some sort of bizarre acceptance that it’s a “man’s world” out there. All it has done is made us more sure in our principles, bolstered our confidence that the work of feminism is far from over, and made us even more determined that our sons will know, each and every day, by our words and actions, that misogyny is not okay. Even misogyny by quiet bystanding. Even misogyny in its subtler forms. Even misogyny masked as “locker room talk” or excused as “boys being boys.”

And yes, this might sometimes result in us being moms who are “no fun,” who can’t “take a joke” or “let it go.” But we’re okay with that. Because the alternative – quietly laughing along because we want to be liked by our boys, or just being quiet, or simply eye-rolling at the sexist behaviours they will encounter in order to avoid uncomfortable conversations – is too horrible. We’re seeing the results now of what happens when people turn a blind eye to sexist, racist, and homophobic behaviour.

We love our boys, and we want them to be free to be complex, multi-faceted human beings. We do not want them to feel defined by what is between their legs, as Donald Trump seems to define women by what’s between ours. We want them to care so much about other people of all backgrounds, and to empathize with them so strongly, that should someone espouse the values and opinions that Donald Trump has displayed, they will call them out. They will stand up to the injustice – not “like men,” but just like decent human beings.

 

Hey, Dads-to-Be: Patriarchy Might be Causing Some Shit at Your House

If you’re a dad-to-be, I know you’re likely getting a lot of information right now on why your pregnant partner isn’t… well, herself. You might hear about incessant nausea, joint and muscle pain, bloating, extreme fatigue, trouble sleeping, swelling of limbs, constipation… and that’s just the physical side of things. From the emotional/psychological angle, your partner might show inexplicable weepiness, sudden bursts of anger, emotional confusion, frequent changes of mind, or overwhelming worries that she can’t seem to make you understand… thanks, hormones. Hopefully, it’s understandable why these things might make the person you thought you knew so well behave at times like someone you don’t even recognize. But there might just be another, sneakier, underlying contributor to your partner’s frustration, sadness, anger, or anxiety… especially if you happen to be in love with a feminist.

Chances are, if your partner is a feminist, patriarchy might well be fucking up her day (or week, or month) right now. Think about it: your partner’s likely proud of her ability to achieve things, happy in her self-sufficiency, and values her place in ‘the world.’ So if this sounds like her, consider these six new realities she may be facing:

#1. She simply can’t do things she’s used to being quite good at. 

“Girl power.” “Empowerment.” “Be the change.” These are catchphrases of modern approaches to raising girls into strong women. She grew up on these, perhaps internalized them, and is, hopefully, damn proud of the things she has achieved – athletically, professionally, creatively, organizationally, you name it. Now she might not be able to get out of the car without assistance, carry bags, reach things on high shelves, shovel snow, or, you know, walk at a normal pace. Nothing to make you feel like a child again like not being able to walk properly.

#2. Her own brain and body seem to be working against her. 

Patriarchy is bolstered by assumptions that female bodies and brains are simply inferior to male ones – that women’s brains are simply less “rational” than men’s, that their bodies aren’t as “strong,” etc. – and such beliefs have been used to justify women’s oppression for centuries. Now your partner’s dealing with “baby brain” (where she forgets things or has trouble articulating ideas), and she can’t lift heavy things. It might be frustrating her to feel that she’s perpetuating stereotypes that have been used to discredit women for eons, even if it’s only temporary, and even if the whole reason for her temporary lack of rationality/strength is that her body’s busy working on an incredible feat of strength: you know, growing a whole other damn human being, brain, muscles, organs, and all.

#3. She knows she’s about to be thrown into a shit-storm. 

Despite how far feminism has come, the label mom still comes with a lot of baggage. Check out Google Images’ top hits for “moms”:

Screen Shot 2016-02-18 at 08.06.55

 Superhero. Handling everything. Blissful. Clean. Beautiful. (With one little tiny freakout in there, but it’s the ugly outlier.) Our culture still assumes motherhood is a ‘natural’ state your partner will just easily, gracefully fit into. (If this was true, we wouldn’t have postpartum depression, but we sure as hell do: about 10-15% of Canadian mothers are affected, with similar rates in the US.) It’s also culturally assumed that a woman will necessarily – and don’t forget, happily! – set aside large portions, if not all, of her adult identity to devote herself to being a mother… though she’s also expected to retain enough appeal (sexually, intellectually, socially) to maintain her relationship with you, and all other adults. Then there are the “mommy wars” and contradictory parenting philosophy camps on all sides to contend with, plus pressure to choose one of these camps so you start things off on the ‘right’ foot.

Even the strongest and freest woman might reasonably dread her inevitable entry into this fray, because even if she tries to avoid the whole thing, she doesn’t live in a bubble, and she’s smart enough to know this. She will, at some point, be thrown into the mix by others.

#4. Her world has shrunk to the bubble of your relationship. 

Reading stacks of literature on pregnancy and baby care. Being too fatigued to do anything after work other than get home, eat dinner with you, and then go to bed. Giving up physical activities she used to do regularly. Having to reduce hours at work or go off early entirely in order to be on bedrest. If your partner faces these sorts of limitations, it can feel like her world has become entirely enclosed in this pregnancy – which, since the baby isn’t here as a separate person yet, might really feel like her whole world has become enclosed in your relationship. And if she values interactions with the world outside of her partnership, this can be incredibly frustrating or lonely.

#5. She is sometimes literally barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. 

There will come a moment when your partner will be shoeless, with a uncomfortably large belly, and happen to be making herself a sandwich. The cultural relevance of this will hit her, and she will either react with exceptional good-humour defensive skills, or fall somewhere on the irritated/grumpy/sad/angry/outraged spectrum. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, see here; it’s a fairly upsetting history.

#6. She has to watch you continue to live with none of this. 

You won the biology and patriarchy lotteries. While your life might have changed since the positive pregnancy test, it’s no contest with the changes put upon your partner. You’re not responsible for prenatal vitamins; eating with the growth of another human in mind; doing 9-months worth (and probably longer) of designated-driver duty; getting up multiple times during the night to keep hydrated and use the bathroom; having an altered libido (and often, contrary to popular lore, not in an awesome way); preparing for a necessary and possibly lengthy absence from work; and learning how you’re going to push a baby out of your genitals. So from her viewpoint, you get to maintain all your physical abilities, keep staying up late if that’s what you choose, keep eating what you like, keep drinking with friends, and just generally carry on with life.

Of course, this isn’t patriarchy, it’s biology, but it’s so wrapped up in patriarchy and socialization that it can be a psychological gong-show for your partner. And it’s not your fault that this is the way it is – it’s the biology lottery. It’s not your fault that you won, but it’s not her fault that she lost either, so the least you can do is be a gracious winner, empathize with her over the inequality, and understand where she’s coming from.

There are good parts of pregnancy, too, no question. There are women who love being pregnant and have minimal discomforts. There are women whose chosen lifestyles already fit well with the demands of pregnancy. There are non-feminist women and women who don’t see their feminism as contradictory with the roles of wife and mother. But this isn’t for the partners of those women.

This is for the partners of women who might feel some patriarchally-fuelled upset about their pregnancy, motherhood, and the tangled interactions of biology and culture. If any of these things seem like they might resonate with your partner, being open to talking about them with her might help you get through what can be a conflicted, confusing, and stressful time. Who knows? Sometimes a simple, empathetic, “Fucking patriarchy, eh?” is all she might need.

 

 

With Love & Respect, “Get That Shit Out of My Way,” She Said

This morning a dear friend shared this article by Scary Mommy with me, called “Why I’m Done Asking My Husband To Help Me Out.” As I read it, internal bells ringing Yeah! and Exactly! went off more than a few times. This is something I’ve discussed with my mom, my sister, my husband and I’m pretty sure more than one girlfriend, but Scary Mommy sums it up well, with excellent reasons why specifically not to ask your partner to “help you out” or “do you a favour” when what you’re really looking is for some good-new-fashioned partnership participation. She explains that by taking the asking-a-favour route, a woman a) diminishes her partner’s value, b) puts undue responsibility on herself, c) sets an unwanted example for her kids, and d) diminishes the partnership itself. If you’re like me (female in a hetero relationship), I’d wager there’s a fairly good chance it might resonate with you, too – so give it a read!

equal housework
Should she have needed to ask for ‘help’ to make this happen? (Source: healthland.time.com)

(I should note first that there is a time when I think the asking for ‘help’ approach is apt – namely, when my partner and I have clearly determined that x job is mine or his, and we want help with that particular job. So in our house, if he asks for help with gathering garbage for collection day, or if I ask for help with folding laundry, for example.)

I’m always interested in the “why do we do this?” part of any social question, so naturally, my brain went to, “Why the hell am I still doing this?” I’ve thought about this for years. I often correct myself in the moment when speaking to my husband – “Can you do me a – actually, no, wait, not a favour, can you just do this?” Yet I still find myself phrasing requests for him to do his share as requests for ‘help,’ I think for two main reasons:

1. I’ve internalized the overwhelming fear of being a ‘nag.’ 

Among the things our culture encourages women to stress about in their domestic life, fear of being a ‘nag’ is pretty high on that list. So no wonder we ask for ‘help’ instead of reminding our partner that they didn’t clean up their own coat/socks/papers/plate again. Asking for ‘help’ lets me seem more sweet, feminine, and likable – definitely the opposite of a nag – and increases the likelihood of a positive response, because my partner gets to feel like he’s doing something great and gets a gold star for going above and beyond, so everybody’s happy… right? Except… not. Because I’m still left holding the bag of responsibility for all things domestic, and I never really get to respect myself as a feminist who asserts her desire for equality in household management. I end up catering to fear and shame instead of self-respect, when I really dig down to the heart of it. Which brings me to reason #2:

2. On some level, I’ve internalized the idea that domestic work really is my responsibility as the woman in the partnership.

As much as I try to deny it, I think this nugget is still there. Sure, I’ve attempted to justify and couch it in enlightened, post-feminism rhetoric about how my partner and I simply have different personalities, and I simply care more about cleanliness/organization, so it’s not a sexist thing, it makes sense that I’m inclined to do more, and yadda yadda yadda. And there may be some truth to that – some. But it’s also very likely that we’ve each been, at least to some extent, socialized to have these personalities and tendencies to care more or less about domestic tasks/management. So am I happy to just accept that the socialization has happened and live out my life that way? Not really. Do I want to contribute to socializing my kids according to this status quo? Not if I can help it. These are not glamorous labours, nor ones that society really places a lot of value on, and I think if I was a man, I certainly wouldn’t be motivated to learn to take more initiative on these things. But at the end of the day, clothes need picked up because we each eventually need clean clothes to wear, so whose job should it be to make sure each item of clothing ends up in the laundry bin? Probably the person who was wearing that item of clothing. At the end of the day, dinner needs cleaned up because eventually we’ll need clean dishes to use, and we want to avoid bug infestations or health hazards of rotting food all over house, so whose job should it be to make sure that dishes get picked up and leftover food goes in the garbage or back in the fridge? Probably anyone who ever needs dishes or dislikes bug infestations. Again, asking for ‘help’ with these tasks reinforces a socialization I don’t like, instead of presenting myself as an equal partner in my home.

I want to act out of love and respect for the equal partnership my beloved and I have been building for fourteen years. So if love and respect means creating an environment where it’s sometimes okay to say, to borrow Scary Mommy’s words, “Get your shit out of my way,” well then, I guess that’s what we’ll do.

 

Teaching Our Boys About Sex, Consent, and Respect

I seem to see a LOT in the media these days about sex and consent – specifically, about teaching boys about consent as a way to reduce/prevent instances of sexual assault and rape. I work in a university, and there’s a LOT of news in our field about various institutions constantly upgrading and re-visioning their approaches to sexual assault – everything from peer education programs and helplines to better processes for reporting assaults and supporting survivors.

More attention to sexual assault and efforts to prevent it are GOOD. There’s no doubt about it. And as a mom with a son (even though he doesn’t understand such topics yet), I’m grateful that this push is happening.

At the same time, I can’t ever escape the feeling that no matter how many articles are published about the importance of teaching boys consent, no matter how many clever cartoons or YouTube videos go viral for explaining why the issue of consent should be a no-brainer, no matter how many universities, school boards, and public health organizations ramp up their efforts to address this issue… we still have a rampant rate of sexual assault and rape in our society. And that’s just CANADA. NORTH AMERICA. Places that are (supposedly) ‘advanced’ and ‘civilized,’ with ‘equal rights’ for men and women, where the work of feminism has already brought us to ‘the good life.’

Unfortunately, I don’t think all of these efforts are tackling the real root of the problem. Because the real root of the problem is not that many men think they are entitled to women’s bodies. The real root of the problem is not that women have been shamed for centuries anytime we express sexuality outside of a very narrow (yet precarious and shifting) set of boundaries that we are always in danger of transgressing. The real root of the problem is that our culture as a whole has never really been willing to address or challenge the core belief that ‘men are better than women‘. That masculinity is superior to femininity. That the traits commonly associated with men – rationality, physical strength, self-assertion, and self-preservation – are somehow inherently more valuable than those assumed to be their opposites (and therefore associated with women) – emotionality, physical nurturing, cooperation, and vulnerability. And worst of all, that this value system actually does mean, even to people who don’t want to admit it, that those who possess the former have more ‘right’ than those who possess the latter. (Sure, there’s a lot of talk around increasing the value of typically feminine traits, but I feel this is usually framed with an attitude that feminine traits are a nice, politically-correct side dish to the main course of masculinity, which just needs a little tweaking, rather than a full overhaul.)

So we need to address this problem, at its root. As a mother, this means teaching my son that cooperation is just as valuable as self-assertion – and that a balance is the best route to leadership. Teaching him that emotional understanding is just as valuable as rational thought – and that a balance will allow him to make sense of his experiences in a fulfilling way. Teaching him that vulnerability is just as valuable as self-preservation – and that a balance is necessary for successful relationships.

In a more tangible sense, it means never reinforcing for him (even indirectly) that it’s reasonable to write women’s feelings or perspectives off as ‘crazy.’ Never modeling for him that it’s ‘funny’ (even by remaining silent) to demean a male by calling him a female. Always encouraging him to see the value in other people’s perspectives – especially those that tend toward the feminine (after all, he’s going to get reinforcement of the value of masculinity from everywhere else). I will also have to talk to him about consent, sexual assault, and feminism. But those talks will make a lot more sense to him if he doesn’t have the subconscious belief that really, he is better than his female peers (for all the reasons above).

Only when we actually don’t believe in this binary hierarchy of values anymore – deep down in our collective, human, subconscious, most secret don’t-want-to-admit-it heart-of-hearts – will we be able to make a meaningful impact on issues like sexual violence, consent, and respect.

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