Thursday, 24 May 2007

Explaining feminism to people who don't 'get it'

Equality is not when a female Einstein gets promoted to assistant professor; equality is when a female schlemiel moves ahead as fast as a male schlemiel.
-- Ewald Nyquist

One of the ongoing problems I've encountered in being feminist is explaining feminism to people who don't understand. This became particularly noticeable when I took over as coordinator of Linuxchix.

This particular article was inspired by one too many men coming into Linuxchix (a place made by women, with a focus on women's needs), and wanting to help, but ending up derailing a lot of conversations and making a lot of women uncomfortable. The situations mentioned below have all happened many times, and my responses have been refined over time.

(I shouldn't need to say this, but I have found that I do. This is a document aimed at helping people who want to teach men to improve the results of their interactions with women, especially women who have been raised in a European or European-derived culture. There are many resources available for women who want to improve the results of their interactions with men. That is out of scope for this particular document.)

Over time, I've noticed that there are certain problems which crop up repeatedly. So it's worth noting what those problems are, and how I've overcome them (or failed to).

It's news to me

This is the category of people who, for whatever reason, haven't encountered the problems that feminism is trying to overcome. Women who've not yet personally been discriminated against or harassed, women who assume the harassment they have encountered is individual and personal, men who've never been harassed or denied jobs, or who've never wanted to go into traditionally feminine fields, men who've never had women tell them about their experiences, and people who've never seen the statistics of gender bias.

Watch for these people when you're writing 'how you can help' posts, or posts about one potential solution, or one aspect of the gender bias problem. They'll be falling all over themselves saying the usual things: 'I've never seen this problem', 'I wonder if (other solution) can help', 'is (whatever you're discussing) caused by (any of the reasons you're not addressing)'.

Take a deep breath. Resist the urge to scream 'are you blind?'. Inform these people that you're sorry, but this is not news. And send them to some place like Finally Feminism 101 for a primer. Or to a particularly patient friend who knows what's going on.

Be specific. You'll come across as dismissive if you do nothing other than send them there randomly - find a particular section that addresses their specific question, and make yourself (or your friend) available for informed questions. If you are patient, and they're genuinely new to the whole idea, you can develop an ally.

Communication Breakdown

These are the men (it's almost always men) who, when someone (we'll say Diana) complains about them 'always talking about wanting dates' respond with 'but I never asked Diana to go on a date with me'. Or when someone else (Lisa) complains about them never getting the hint to shut up about sex talk when she tries to give such hints, responds with 'noone ever asked me to shut up'.

The sad thing is that in a sense, they're both right. But only in a sense. The man never did ask Diana to go on a date with him - he just talked about wanting a date in front of her, to the point where she felt harassed and pressured. He also never stopped when she hinted or even directly asked him to. Lisa did ask him to shut up - but not in language which he understood.

Unfortunately, this type of man (usually it's men) is used to much more direct language than most women are used to. I've found that the best solution in this case is to have examples of the situation that's being complained about, and to actually demonstrate to the man what he's doing that upsets women, and what women actually say to indicate they're upset. This, naturally, works best in IRC or mailing lists or some other way in which the communication is stored.

If you can't do that, and even if you can, you need to explain that males and females are socialised differently, and trained to use different forms of communication. You need to explain that the strongest 'shut up' a female-socialised person is likely to give is 'would you shut up already!' - and that you understand that he's used to seeing that as a weak signal, but if he wants to associate with women, he's going to have to retrain himself.

(I have had men tell me that 'that's not a serious "no"'. When I asked what was, they tell me that the "no" message should have included a threat. It took a great deal of explanation to inform them that women, in general, don't see a threat as necessary to a "no" message. Just "no" will do.)

If you want the man in question to change their behaviour, you're going to have to let him give himself excuses for his behaviour, and for his not having seen on his own that he's being an ass. Noone likes to see themselves in a bad light. It's very satisfying to yell at someone that he's behaving horribly, but it's not going to get them to change. They have to see benefit for themselves in changing.

You are inevitably going to be asked "Why should I change? Why can't women change?" The answer is obvious, but try to lead him to figure it out for himself. Try to get him to realise that he's asking three billion women - or perhaps only the few thousand he'll associate with in his lifetime - to all change for the benefit of someone they barely know.

This will frequently get the response 'but you're asking me to change'. Remind him that he is the one who wants a different result from his interactions with women. He wants a different reaction from other women - and neither you nor he have the power to change other people. The only two people the two of you can change are him and you - and you're not going to be there every time he talks to other women.

The other thing - and this is going to be difficult for him to understand - is that his behaviour is making people feel uncomfortable, discriminated against, hassled, harassed or even unsafe. This is especially so in cases where someone is talking about dating or his sexual needs and desires, and not taking a hint to stop.

This leads us neatly to the next problem:

Different Perceptions

People like to feel good about themselves. They like to have self-images in which they're the good guy, the nice person. It really upsets them if they're told that they're making people feel scared. Every single one I've spoken to about this has said 'but I wasn't going to hurt anyone!'

The problem is that the people they're talking to don't know that.

Piaget's theory of child development states that young children are egocentric, that is that they think of things from only their point of view. They grow out of it somewhere around pre-adolescence, but can revert in adolescence for a time.

Sometimes I think that the people who say 'but I wasn't going to hurt anyone!' have reverted to egocentrism. It can be very, very difficult for them to understand that the people they're talking to aren't telepathic, and don't somehow magically know what they intend.

You need to try to get that through to them, before you can get to the next stage. I find that it's very effective to say something like 'unfortunately, good guys don't wear halos, and bad guys don't wear horns'. Make a joke of it, let them laugh.

The next stage is to show them that they, personally and individually, are scary. Especially if they've been ignoring women trying to get them to stop talking about sex (or dates, or whatever). Explain to them that women who've used their strongest 'stop' and failed to get them to change their behaviour in conversation are going to be justly afraid that their strongest 'stop' won't work in person, either.

And this, I am very afraid, may be one of the ways in which date rape occurs. Women say 'stop' in a way that men don't take seriously. And the women in question don't have a stronger 'stop' to use short of actually fighting. Yet if the man isn't physically forcing her, just ignoring her 'stop', she doesn't feel that she has a right to physically fight him.

Unfortunately, if you actually tell the man that last paragraph, he'll probably try to say you're calling him a rapist, and will shut down and stop listening to you. Again, it comes down to people wanting to think well of themselves. So just teach them that they have to listen to weaker 'stop' messages than they get in all-male interactions, and to take the weaker 'stop' messages seriously.

I'd be flattered

This is another egocentric argument. The speaker says that they'd be flattered if they were hit on, their breasts (or crotch) were stared at, or they were incessantly hassled for dates or sex.

You can sometimes partially change their behaviour with a simple "yeah, well I'm not you", or "yeah, well some people like haggis, too. You know, sheep stomach filled with offal?". (Feel free to replace haggis with something you know to disgust the person. Especially if they're Scottish.) Unfortunately, this sort of argument doesn't really improve their understanding, though it may put a crack in their egocentrism.

The only way I can think of to get through to these people is analogy, which means you'll have to find an analogy that works with the particular target.

Much as I hate to do it, appealing to homophobia works with many men - asking if they'd feel comfortable in a gay bar, having their butt groped and their crotch stared at, being approached for sex several times an hour. That can backfire, unfortunately - they'll assume that 'being hassled by the wrong gender' is the problem, rather than 'being hassled at all'. Which, of course, leads to the 'you're all a bunch of lessos, REAL women enjoy it' assumption.

Another type of analogy is the interruption one - ask them to imagine themselves trying to concentrate on something difficult and important to them (or if you're in person, get them to try to concentrate on something). Then get them to imagine being poked in the arm every few seconds (or poke them in the arm). Ask them how they feel about being poke in the arm.
Or if you think they'll just say 'but noone wants a poke in the arm', bring them something good. Demand acknowledgement every time. 'Hi, I've brought you a cake. Tell me how wonderful I am.' They'll soon get sick of it.

Of course, they then might decide it's only the attractive women who don't enjoy it.

Another approach is to try to explain that it doesn't matter why a particular person doesn't enjoy the attention, it only matters that they don't. Which goes right back to the analogy about the haggis.

In case it helps, though, here are some reasons women don't enjoy inappropriate sexual attention:
1. It distracts the woman from the matter at hand.

2. It distracts other people in the area from the matter at hand.

3. It is evidence that the person giving the attention isn't paying attention to the matter at hand. (And if he/she says he/she is, rephrase to 'it makes it seem to everyone else as if the person giving the attention...')

4. In situations where women are a minority, it reinforces that the woman is 'other', an outsider to the group, by demonstrating that it's appropriate to act towards the woman in a way different from how the group interacts on their own.

5. In cultures which have a madonna/whore dichotomy (also known as virgin/whore dichotomy), sexual attention directed at her can make a woman be perceived as on the 'whore' side of the dichotomy, regardless of her own actions. And in such societies, a 'whore' is treated very, very differently from a 'decent woman' (aka a madonna).
Note that modern western society has a lingering madonna/whore complex, despite over a century of feminists trying to break that.

6. In societies with the sexual double standard, young girls are taught that it's their responsibility to control the urges of the men around them. In Paradise by the Dashboard Light, Meatloaf expresses the roles male and female are expected to play, according to the double standard. The male is free to express his urges and desires, and the female is required to take responsibility to control them - or at least, to obtain the male's commitment to her for life. Otherwise, she'll be 'ruined' and placed on the 'whore' side of the madonna/whore dichotomy. (In some cultures, failure to control a man can make her the subject of an honour killing.)
Quite frankly, controlling the urges of all the men around a woman gets extremely tiring. Explain to your target that he needs to be careful if he's in any culture with the double standard (for example, any culture where promiscuous men are studs and promiscuous women are sluts or hos). Expressing his sexual attention to a woman is placing yet another burden on her - he just become yet another man who expects her to be the one who controls the situation.

Respectfully asking a woman out in a business setting

A suggestion: if the person you're talking with is a man in that culture, and he wants to be attractive to a woman, tell him to express his attraction in a way which demonstrates that he chooses to be in control of his own urges.

1. Choose a place and time which is as appropriate as possible, then offer her his business card and a polite 'I find you attractive, but this isn't the place or time. I would be honoured if we could go out for coffee sometime." And leave it at that.
Note the choice of coffee - a short, non-threatening meeting in a public place, and at a time when she can legitimately cut it short if she chooses without having to make an excuse. (Going out for drinks is completely out. It's in the evening, so excuses are fewer. And it's in the presence of a noted disinhibitor - alcohol.)

2. If she doesn't react positively, or accepts the business card but doesn't contact him, or even gets annoyed, he needs to be content to leave it. For all he knows, she may have just come out of a frustrating session where someone has just been trying to flirt with her while she was trying to give a serious presentation, and wouldn't stop when asked.
He may follow up once or twice, after a suitable period - preferably a week or so - but needs to be prepared to drop the subject and look elsewhere. She might not be interested in him, she might not be interested at all this point in her life, she just might be the wrong woman for him.
I have also had some women point out to me that even this approach is more than they want - that they're at a business event for business, and don't want the distraction of being asked for social contact. Please point out to the man you're speaking with that even this low-key approach is a compromise, and is the best balance I can make between the many, many men I know who say 'but I want to ask her out!' and the many, many women I know who say 'but not at a conference!'

3. He needs to try to find the balance point between expressing interest and being pushy. It varies from person to person, of course. This should be done at the coffee shop - he shouldn't be expressing any interest (other than the business card) in a business setting or at a conference.

4. He needs to be very sensitive to indicators of displeasure or disinterest, especially if he has a problem akin to the ones in Communication Breakdown or Different Perceptions.

5. He must demonstrate clearly that she doesn't need to fear him - that he is one of the men who can actually hear a 'no' (unlike the men in communication breakdown). He should do this in speech and mannerisms, and not wait until he's actually got his hands on her - if she's smart, she won't let him get his hands on her until she is comfortable that he listens to her.

6. Once he has his hands on her, he still needs to listen. He'll need to listen for his whole life - and she'll need to listen to him, too. It's that 'respect' thing. Comes in one flavour: mutual.

The man needs to understand that women have learned that men come in two broad categories: safe and unsafe. We've also learned that men aren't branded with a label saying which category a particular man is in. Men who want to be with smart women have to demonstrate, to the woman's satisfaction, which category they're in.

The 'get a thicker skin' joker

This is perhaps the most egregious, insulting and nasty type of person to explain things to. I saw a sig line once which I loved: "I was going to be offended, but since you said 'no offence meant', I guess it's alright now."

A lot of people seem to think that 'it was just a joke' is a "get out of jail free" card for social interactions. It isn't. Offensive behaviour remains offensive behaviour, regardless of what other behaviours are tacked on beside them. Saying 'it was just a joke' is like putting seatbelts on the Titanic - it's going to go down anyway.

Women (and blacks, and jews, and disabled people, and even Rich White Males) are tired of explaining why they get offended by certain jokes. Its not how the joker perceives it, rather how the target feels that counts; and that varies across individuals for various reasons.

However, if the person you're speaking to refuses to stop making the jokes without hearing reasons, you can point to the reasons (above) why harassment is unwelcome - most of the reasons also apply to jokes.

I find 'can't you take a joke' or 'get a thicker skin' just compounds the insult. There's the insult itself, then there's the implication that I'm somehow inferior to the joker because I happen to have the social sensitivity to understand that belittling another person is offensive - no matter how it's framed.

Of course, an awful lot of humour is, consciously or subconsciously, intended to divide the world into us (who get the joke) and them (who don't). When someone with the potential to be a them is added to the group (for example, a woman to a group which has traditionally been male), they are tested with the group's jokes: most especially the jokes which target and belittle the type of person the newcomer is. If the newcomer doesn't enjoy being targetted and belittled, they fail the test - they're clearly part of their 'type' and not one of us at all.

And then those groups say, in bewilderment, 'why don't women join our group?'


Anyway, most people who seriously believe 'can't you take a joke' is a reasonable response are very difficult to turn around. The best I've managed is for them to decide that, if they think someone might perhaps be offended, they shouldn't say the joke.

I've never managed to get any of them to understand why. If anyone has a method, please include it in the comments!

But you say 'just treat us like one of the boys' and now you want to be treated differently

When I got hit with this one, for many years I was confused and couldn't figure out how to respond. Recently, I've figured out what is going on.

Women ask to be treated 'like one of the boys' because many men treat women differently. Some think the only way to talk to a woman is to flirt. Some think the only way to talk to a woman is to dominate and command. Some think the only way to talk to a woman is to treat her as a lover, or a mother.

Women, of course, want to be treated as equals and as individuals. Just like men treat other men as equals and individuals. And that's what's meant by 'treat us the same as men': don't flirt with us, don't think of us as a different species that all want the same thing, don't treat us as subhuman, superhuman, or in family roles.

Try to explain what it is we don't mean, as well: we don't mean that we want to participate in locker-room jokes. For the most part, we're not impressed by farts, belches, or how high you can pee.

Explain that we definitely don't want to be the butt of jokes - practical or otherwise. Yes, men sometimes do those to each other. But when I asked a group of men to think about how frequently any particular male in their work environment was the butt of humour, then how frequently the women were, they were shocked. Typically, they would report that there were one or two men who repeatedly made the women their preferred target; and that even if everyone else joshed the women no more than they did the men, the women had a much larger burden to carry.

Ask the man you're explaining this to how to think about their own work environments, then lead them to realise how the women in their environment probably feel. See if you can get them to understand that because they, themselves tolerate this overload of targetted humour, the women who are the butt of the jokes probably feels unsafe or unwilling to complain to them.

See if you can get them to volunteer to try to ease the burden somewhat. Suggest that even something as simple as 'ease off, Joe. It's time you picked on someone else for a while, she's had enough' is going to help. Get them to try to make the 'butt of the joke' load more even.

The wastes of time

I have been reminded of other categories:
1. People who are saying 'I don't get it' or 'I don't understand' specifically to waste the time of the person explaining.
2. People who are acting like a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, and are trying to say 'oops, did I do something wrong?'.
3. People who are fine about feminism, as long as they don't ever have to change their own comfortable lives.
4. Outright anti-feminists (who usually have completely incorrect views of feminism), misogynists, and the like.

None of these groups have any intention of changing their behaviour, nor do they care to understand. For these, I can only recommend a strategy a friend explained to me: don't speak to them, speak to the audience.

That strategy is only helpful in public, of course. It works best when they address you in a way which has the potential to look unreasonable - you simply take a deep breath, and respond to them, publically, in as calm, reasonable and moderate a way as possible. Keep yourself firmly grounded in reality and calmness, make sure everything you say is reasonable, and looks like the 'moderate' or 'middle ground' view, and let the other person take the extremist viewpoint.

You're never going to change the extremist, the fanatic, or the person who thinks they're absolutely right. But if you act calmly and look reasonable and rational and like a good person, you might change the minds of some of the people watching the conversation. That's your goal.


anonymous jones said...

So I'm not nuts after all! Thank you for your intelligent and insightful comments. I have had some pretty bad experiences trying to deal with these kinds of men that you describe. But the worst thing of all is the multitude of women who will side with the unjust actions and opinions of these men. That really upsets me, and I just don't get it! Maybe it is an Australian thing, I don't know.

Biby Cletus said...

Cool blog, i just randomly surfed in, but it sure was worth my time, will be back

Deep Regards from the other side of the Moon

Biby Cletus

Anonymous said...

you are a sexist. you do not like men. its sick to know people like you live in this world.

The Scribe said...


Of course I don't like men.

That's the only possible reason I could have for patiently explaining feminist thinking and the reasons for feminism to hundreds of non-feminists (male or female) over the years.

Because I don't like men.

Why else would I put the results of my experience on the net, publically available to all?


I have modified this document several times in response to criticisms: mostly expanding on sections or clarifying its purpose.

If you have specific criticism of the document, please feel free to make it. I will happily improve the document in light of the criticism.

If, however, you wish to continue psychoanalysing a perfect stranger on the basis of a single article, please keep it to yourself.

Anonymous said...

This is a very badly written article with a multitude of faulty argument employing fallacious reasoning.

Undermining this criticism by a "you are a man and cannot understand and therefore you need to change", as implied throughout, is not only childish but also very counterproductive towards reaching a true resolution.

I will now point out some (and only some) of the more obvious shortcomings.

In the first section, "It's news to me", there is a clearly fallacious reasoning being employed when the author undermines the following possible response to a perceived problem: " 'I wonder if (other solution) can help', 'is (whatever you're discussing) caused by (any of the reasons you're not addressing)'." There is absolutely no justified reason for the author to dismiss this as a somehow a priori incorrect perception of the "problem" at hand: if there were other reasons not being addressed then it's very plausible that these were the real reasons, or, at least, that they also have a part to play.

Furthermore, any premise to be learnt in Feminism 101 (which by the way was a very patronizing suggestion: we men don't accept this, and if you're going to address a male audience you should change your ways - obligatory and meaningful wink here) is not sacrosant divine dogma. They can be challenged and they have been challenged (and by very wise "men").

Anonymous said...

Second section: Communication breakdown. Once again, the author here proposes a "solution" which basically employs a one-sided approach to the problem. To make matters worse, it seems the author actually believes that she is justified in adopting this approach and that the (very valid) counter being proposed has been adequately refuted.

It hasn't. The response "Why I should change? Why can't women change?" consequently followed by the retort "but you're asking me to change", are very valid objections.

The answer is not as obvious as the author likes to think; indeed it is an obviously wrong answer for it applies an implied double-standard. "Try to get him to realise that he's asking three billion women - or perhaps only the few thousand he'll associate with in his lifetime - to all change for the benefit of someone they barely know." The thing is that both the man and the woman are guilty of this, for the woman is asking three billion men - or perhaps only the few thousand he'll associate with in her lifetime - to all change for the benefit of someone they barely know. To retort that "not all men are like that" would equally invite the retort that not women are like that either.

The section about asking a woman out reveals another double-standard predominant in feminist circles, I'm afraid. The man is expected to ask (and repeatedly too: "He may follow up once or twice, after a suitable period - preferably a week or so") while the woman's role is to dictate what is appropriate and when. The man must follow a strict script and rules of procedure. Given this state of affairs (which thankfully many women do not propagate) the only genuinely helpful advice to a man is: stop asking altogheter. It's completely self-disrespectful to "try again" with a person who was annoyed simply for being asked out. To note also the employment of yet another double standard and contradiction: whereas earlier in the article the author explicitly states that men find it difficult to understand that "the people they're talking to aren't telepathic, and don't somehow magically know what they intend", and yet here the man must somehow telepathically know that the women came "out of a frustrating session where someone has just been trying to flirt with her while she was trying to give a serious presentation, and wouldn't stop when asked."

There are others, but I hope these are enough to point out that the article needs more thought put into it, and definitely more objectivity.