In light of the great discussion you all have been having on the second post on Chapter 1 of The Gender Knot, I thought it would be a good time to direct you to this most excellent Feminism 101 post at Shakesville, “Sexism Is A Matter Of Opinion“. The whole thing is pure gold but I’d like to point out in particular this section on intentionality.
Whether something is sexist (be it a word, a consumable item, a practice, or anything else) is neither dependent on how it is intended nor how it is received, but on whether it serves to convey sexism, which itself is determined by its alignment with existent patterns. When 2+2 has equaled 4 since time began, anyone claiming 2+2 suddenly equals 5 would be regarded, quite rightly, with suspicion. It is vanishingly unusual for someone to say/do something that fits perfectly with an ancient pattern of sexism yet is somehow not an expression of sexism.
Let me quickly stipulate and clarify that one can unintentionally express sexism. That innocent intent, or ignorance of the history of how women have been marginalized, does not, however, in any way change the quality of what was being expressed. Something can still be expressed sexism even if the speaker’s intent was not to oppress women. And particularly if it does fit neatly into a historical pattern, it necessarily conjures that pattern of sexism, intentionally or not.
So: Toss out the idea that intent determines sexism. And the idea that any of us, or any of the things we say or do, can exist in a void.
What we’re then left with is the idea that if something fits into a historical pattern of sexism, unavoidably invokes such a pattern, and/or can be overtly quantified as marginalizing women, it is an expression of sexism.
All of these things can be objectively evaluated by anyone who learns the patterns of the patriarchy and the history of women’s oppression.
That notion of conveying sexism, whether it was one’s intention or not, is key here. When you are a leaf on the tree of patriarchy, you cannot pretend like your actions take place in isolation and without consequence for or connection to or meaning for any of the other leaves on the tree. You may not be thinking “oppress the bitchez!” when you are ogling tits, but most assuredly your actions fit into a system where tit-ogling is but one of many means whereby women are routinely oppressed. Your behavior conveys sexism to the ogled – and to those around you who observe your ogling – whether or not it was ever your intention.
Similarly, those of you who observe behaviors like tit-ogling, and who might be in a position to do or say something about it, but don’t, are conveying sexism by your lack of words and action. That is, you are conveying your tacit approval of a system in which women may be treated in a disrespectful manner that underlines their subordinate position in the workplace and world at large.
Something to think about.