Is Sexism Men’s Fault?

UnknownIs male dominance natural and normal? Did sex inequality arise as men’s brute strength cowed women into compliance? My students often think so, saying things like, “Men have always ruled,” as though it’s inevitable. Or, “Men are bigger and stronger so they can bully women into submission.”

I guess we’ve made some progress since I don’t also hear the old argument that women are naturally dependent.

Most people don’t know that men haven’t always been in charge.

When Europeans first made contact with America Indians they were amazed – and appalled – at their equality.

Matrilocal, the husband took his place with his wife’s family after marriage. Matrilineal, relatives were traced through the female line. Property passed through women. Killing a woman brought a double penalty.

Europeans were aghast that native men needed to speak with their wives before taking action!

Men and women both had tribal councils. If the men voted to go to war and the women disagreed, the women could refuse to provide corn (their staple) leaving the men backing down.

Other egalitarian cultures include the Arapesh, the !Kung, and Tahitians (before European contact), to name a few. In fact, it appears that parity was not uncommon prior to agriculture.

Inequality seems to have arisen not because men purposely tried to hurt women and help themselves, but via some seemingly innocuous routes, 1) agriculture and 2) desires to avoid inbreeding by trading, selling, and stealing women (who could have more children and make the tribes larger and stronger). I’ll discuss these dynamics in a later post.

But we know that gender inequality is not predestined. And men do not inevitably try to dominate women through brute force.

Today many men work for women’s equality, too.

And I’d like to thank them.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on January 24, 2011, in feminism, gender, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.

  1. I found this posting to be wonderfully informative, thank you. I have wondered what the root cause of the differences between the sexes was, especially because the expression of sexism isn’t universal amongst all cultures. The idea of women being moved from community to community to avoid inbreeding would probably lead to women being at a social disadvantage compared to men who have never left their community. It might also have roots in a misguided concept of protecting women.

    The concept of men violently subjugating women seems like a popular idea but I’m not entirely certain about its implications. Sexism seems to be enforced less violently and more by restricting women’s opportunities to wield societal power. It seems like its also a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy as well because by not ever having women who have wielded power can be considered a kind of “proof” that women just aren’t capable of it.

  2. This article is completely baffling. The definition of sexism is guilt based on gender. To blame sexism on men, is sexist in itself.

  3. Fernando Kose

    I find this article very interesting. In my opinion, being physically stronger and bigger than women don’t relate with sexism at all. Sexism has nothing to do with our physical abilities, and I believe that Sexism happens because of stereotypes and gender inequalities.

  4. >>I don’t understand why men so often think that women’s motive in dressing sexy is to be powerful.

    Because, whether you really want it or not, it does have power over us 🙂
    See, we spend our lifetimes being trained (mostly by our moms and grannies, by the way) for self-control, the “ultimate” mark of real man. Not to show emotions, hide true feelings, always be “cool” and strong, even if only on surface. So, when a pretty woman makes us “twitch”, makes us turn heads, makes us “loose it” even for a little bit, deep down it feels like she’s breached our defenses, like she’s “got us” somehow. It might seem like nothing to you, but it might mean a great deal to many men.

    The second point I was making was about the reasons for the rise of patriarchy, which is the topic of the article. To me it seems that patriarchy is a natural consequence of a certain type of female sexual behavior, namely by female reserving access to her body to only a few select males of high social status and dominant behavior. They do serve as better providers for these females in a short term, however very soon they start to dominate the females simply due to their natural inclinations.

    Thus, the pyramid of the patriarchy is shaped by the female sexual choices, where both the limitation of sexual access access and the target of female choices play their part – the limitation serves to create the competition, and the choice of targets places dominating males on top of it.

    The pattern perpetuates itself because both parties – the females and the dominant males – find it profitable for a variety of reasons, and because the less dominant males and less appealing females try to copycat what they perceive as a successful arrangement, eventually turning it into a social standard.

    • Yes, the women in these cultures see their bodies and their sexuality far differently from Western women. And far more healthfully, I might add.

      Now that you have helped me out by explaining how “women being powerful through their sexuality” is understood by you I can respond to your questions.

      “I have the power to make a man’s head turn.” In terms of power, “Big deal.” In terms of feeling that you are very attractive, with an attendant rise in self-esteem, it can be a big ego boost, though. Status and worth both go up. She also has lots of men to choose from, but that’s a different feeling from feeling powerful. It’s just nice to have your choice of the most attractive men.

      In our culture most women probably don’t feel a strong desire to hold power over men, just for the sake of holding power over them, because women are taught that what is sexy is powerful men. So if you’ve just disempowered them all, who are you going to find attractive? Really, that’s no fun.

      A woman might enjoy making a man fall head over heels in love with her. But that is about love, not power, itself. What’s valued there is the love (the goal), not the power to make him fall in love with you (the means).

      Women are taught to be pretty while men are taught to be powerful. And each is a source of self-esteem, respectively. Men even derive self-esteem by attaching themselves to pretty women while women derive self-esteem through attaching themselves to powerful men.

      When women focus so much on their looks it actually disempowers them because looks are all they care about to the detriment of everything else.

      So your idea that women use their sexuality in order to gain power over men doesn’t make sense for that reason or for some others that you seem to recognize:

      I agree with you that there is a tie between women’s empowerment and their sexuality and the experience of their bodies. It seems that in societies in which women are free to be sexual they are more equal to men and more empowered. In the same societies they are less objectified – their bodies are less sexualized. There is no breast fetish or butt fetish.

      Really, what disempowers women is when that – their sexuality — becomes all they are and all that they are worth.

      For women generally that is a huge problem because there is not much power in their sexuality in the 1st place, and if you look around you’ll see that most women don’t wield a huge amount of sexual power, anyhow. Either they don’t fit the cultural ideals very closely during their entire lives, or they fit the ideal for only a short time.

      So using sexuality as a route to power would be disastrous for most women most of the time, and yield very little power even at its height. At best they might be able to persuade a man to do something for them, but that is far less powerful than being able to do it yourself. There’s a big chance you won’t convince him.

      Also, part of the reason that these tribal women are so free sexually is that they are powerful. They are not dependent on men for their daily living or for property ownership. In places where they are dependent, women are only valued for their sexuality, and they have very little power.

      So the causality seems to go from power to sexual freedom, not the other way around. As women lose power they become more controlled by men who don’t allow them to have sexual freedom, rather than women choosing to stop enjoying the pleasures of sexuality in order to gain power.

      We are seeing a repeat of the movement from power to greater sexual freedom in today’s society. As women have gained power they are less likely to be called sluts and whores. Both names are less fearful when you can make your own money and don’t have to prove your purity in order for a man to marry you and take care of you – when you can’t yourself.

      Why would women want to forgo the wonders of sexual pleasure just to gain the meager powers contained in guarding their sexuality? If you look at the American Indians the switch came after Europeans came and dominated the Indians and converted them to a patriarchal religion and patriarchal social structure.

      It becomes a social standard because women and men are both born into a patriarchal world in which men have, and are valued for, power and women are valued for sexual beauty. It is a world that seems natural and normal to them. Most people simply don’t think to question it.

      Here’s a post with more on that (there’s a second part I haven’t posted yet):

      Why Do Women Fight Against Their Own Interests?

  5. Are you also aware of the fact that the sexual behavior and practices of both sexes in the egalitarian societies that you have mentioned were sometimes radically different from what we have today?

      • Yeah, that’s about it. It appears that in these cultures women see their bodies and their sexuality in a very different way than women in Western culture, don’t you think so? Also, some of those practices would be seen as downright illegal in today’s world.

        I wonder though – is it possible that it is these attitudes of women to their bodies and sexuality that enables egalitarianism and matriarchy, and without this element egalitarianism and matriarchy are impossible? Or, looking from the other side, is it possible that women, long ago, have enabled the patriarchy to arise by starting to treat themselves differently somehow? To me it seems that women’t sexual power lies in the way their sexual choices shape the society around them.

        I have a vague notion that patriarchy revolves around a basic principle that looks a lot like “the one who controls the spice, controls the Universe”. “Spice”, if you have ever read the “Dune” series, is a rare, treasured and highly controlled resource. Perhaps, it arouse when women started to present their bodies as a precious and treasured resource, access to which is allowed only to a select few. Granted, this gives women some immediate advantages, like access to a more and better resources, but it is easy to see how this immediately leads to a competition with the inevitable “big dudes with clubs” coming on top of it, that end up controlling this precious resource. It is after all a basic rule of mob economy – take something that comes naturally, make it scarce, rare and precious, and the next day you will have the “mob” knocking on your door ready to take over. Perhaps, this was an unwanted consequence of women trying to up their position in society, that we are stuck with for the last several thousand years, and it is still with us because it keeps providing many women with the same advantages it used to.

      • I don’t understand why men so often think that women’s motive in dressing sexy is to be powerful. (Surveys, all women I’ve seen talk about this, and my own best guess from personal experience + everything I’ve read — all point to women dressing sexy to increase their self-esteem.) Please give me an example, or examples, of what power women are attaining by revealing cleavage or wearing a short skirt.

        After you help me by explaining more what you’re talking about I will respond to the rest of your post.

  6. It is interesting to hear about cultures that don’t follow the same old ‘male dominated patriachy’ we always here about. It’s interesting to speculate on the historical reasons why some cultures tended to be more matriachal; I mean it’s clearly the exception, one must admit, so I wonder why these societies ended up with women ‘calling the shots.’ Human beings are the only animals to have such a diverse array of behavioural norms, even though all human beings are basically the same, cultural memes can spread irregardless of what is ‘innately biological.’ I don’t believe ANY behaviour is 100% biology, actually.

    I’m thinking of a certain tribe in Africa where young women build huts out of mud and straw, and they choose the young man they want as a husband who then goes to live in the hut with her. Is this not more what happens in nature? The female choosing, rather than the male? I think that’s one area where patriachy has changed the natural order of things.

    What T. Tran says is broadly true: physical strength clearly puts males at an advantage. But that assumes that physical strength is the ONLY advantage. Women certainly have advantages of their own (like as you say endurance, being more immune to certain diseases). While I do find sexism distasteful it’s certainly not one sided: while women were expected to be ‘baby machines’, men had to go off to war (although yes in some cultures women fought too). So I think sexism was just an institutionalized form of oppression that began with biological differences but then overshadowed them.

  7. I enjoyed this entry a great deal since you gave a concrete historical example of a culture that observed gender equality in spite of differing social roles/identities. After having read many of your blogs, I’m convinced that continued work towards a more inclusive, egalitarian culture needs to be done. Since I’m already convinced of the problem, I am especially curious about positive steps you would support, aside from raising awareness of the issues (awareness raising is indeed important, since there must be many well intentioned people who are complicit in discriminatory practices by simply being ignorant).

    Further, I am also curious about to what extent differences between the sexes be acknowledged going forward. Although individual differences will likely exceed average differences between men and women in areas like physical strength and mate selection, I am interested in egalitarian paradigms that accommodate for mean biological differences between the sexes. While phenomena like sexual discrimination in the workplace (or anywhere else for that matter) and the the “glass ceiling” are unacceptable and require efforts at different levels of society, it seems plausible that women will inevitably outnumber men in the helping professions, for example.

    In short, given your interest, experience and insight into gender issues, I’m curious what your paradigm for an egalitarian society looks like–especially in light of the fact it would have to evolve from the flawed culture we already have.

    • Thanks for you comments. I’ll write more in future posts. For now:

      1) I don’t think we should shy away from sex (biological) differences. They simply don’t create inequality, and women and men simply have differing sorts of biological superiorities (men’s physical strenght, women’s endurance, ability to survive, for example).

      2) Awareness is important. Otherwise, we all go on with out taken-for-granted notions that things are just naturally how they are. We must move out of our unconcious automatic thinking, critique what we have believed, and make change

      3) We can look at trajectories from the past, and from other cultures. Sweden is far ahead of us, for example. What have they done? Made the workplace more family-friendly for both women and men; gotten men more involved with their children. That allows women to have more economic and political strength.

      Greater awareness of how we tend to see the world through the eyes of the powerful, and changing that, helps with political power, too.

      4) more vaired portrayals of women in media. Not just sexy/family. We’ve made a lot of gains already. Just need more.

      So, those are just a few ideas.

  8. This is a very interesting article. I believe that sexism has nothing to do with men being physically bigger than women. I don’t know exactly how sexism started but I know that some cultures vary on how men and women are treated. We may be animals by nature but we are extremely intelligent and capable of doing almost anything so I am pretty sure we can learn to control are animal urges. Over time sexism will surely die out.

  9. Here’s a blatant example of sexism in the media:
    A follow-up to my post yesterday! John.

  10. I believe men are naturally supposedly dominant due to the fact of evolution. In animal nature for instance lion packs the male lion is always dominant controlling a pack of lioness, Although not all animal species male play the dominance role, instance the black widow, we as humans have evolved to have a brain and should be able to control our animal urges trying to turn them understanding. But we are still animals to nature.

    • Thanks, but: How do you explain the lack of male dominance in some cultures if it’s a natural trait. Also, the dominant male lions are dominating other males, not the females. (They’re just having sex with them.) And, the female lions are the aggressive hunters – a role we typically place men in in human cultures.

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