Something that I often get asked is “aren’t feminists just being reversely sexist?” or “isn’t feminism just reverse sexism?” No, and no. There is no such thing as reverse sexism. First of all, let’s establish a working definition of sexism: Just like how racism = power + prejudice based on skin color, sexism = power + prejudice based on gender. When talking about the various forms of oppression, many people often confuse prejudice with the ism. From Failure to Communicate:
That “+ power” portion of the equation is one of the most important parts. This is not to say that the disenfranchised cannot be prejudiced, because many of them are, but without power, they are not actually working within the systematic framework of advantage created by the majority to privilege themselves.
Therefore, a person who does not exist with the necessary institutionalized power and privilege of belonging to a dominant in-group, cannot be racist, sexist, ableist, etc. Women can certainly be prejudiced or discriminatory against men (which is not acceptable either) but they cannot be sexist or “reverse sexist” simply because they lack the institutional power to systematize their prejudice against men.
Men exist with male privilege, which is unearned privilege and institutional power granted to them just for being men. Since maleness is only one aspect of a man’s identity and other factors such as race, class, sexual orientation, etc. also shape one’s identity, every man experiences his male privilege in a different way. Despite these differences, male privilege is something that all men benefit from. Male privilege is so normalized and embedded in society that it operates stealthily so that many men, and women, may not even be aware of it. Alas has a male privilege checklist that includes things like:
- If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won’t be seen as a black mark against my entire sex’s capabilities.
- The odds of my encountering sexual harassment on the job are so low as to be negligible.
- If I’m a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are so low as to be negligible.
- I am not taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces.
- If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.
- I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see “the person in charge,” I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.
- I can be confident that the ordinary language of day-to-day existence will always include my sex. “All men are created equal,” mailman, chairman, freshman, he.
In response to this some people ask, “well, don’t women have female privilege?” Again, no. One woman anecdotally told me her story about how once she got pulled over for speeding, but when the police officer came over to talk to her, he chatted with her for a bit and then told her that he wouldn’t give her a ticket and wished her a nice day. She said, “see at least I can get away with things like that. I bet a guy wouldn’t be able to get off the hook for that.”
While this may on the surface appear like “female privilege” it is not. Upon further examination, it just reinforces institutionalized sexism that prevents women and men from truly achieving equality. This woman may well be right in saying that a man who was caught speeding by a male police officer would probably get a ticket. However these practices still otherize women as a separate and unequal class, and it feeds into objectification of women where women are valued more for their appearance and their bodies instead of their brains or their achievements.
Also, people sometimes assume that just because there is “male privilege” there must be “female privilege” as well. There is no such thing as “female privilege” because despite the advances made by the women’s movement, the playing field is still not level, and women still lack the institutional and systemic power that men benefit from. Just open your eyes: Who writes most mainstream newspaper bylines? Who are most of our elected officials? Who are the top CEO’s or CFO’s of major corporations? Men continue to occupy the upper echelons of power that still grant them institutional power and privilege as a group. What is called “female privilege” is actually better known as benevolent sexism because sexist attitudes, behaviors and actions disguise themselves in ways that make women, and men, think that they are independent of institutionalized sexism when they really just maintain hegemonic patriarchal power structures.
While feminists do agree that the practices that are commonly ascribed to “female privilege” (such as women being the recipients of chivalric practices) are expressions of inequality, they disagree that such practices should be considered a form of institutionalized privilege. This is because being rewarded for not going against the status quo and being the recipient of institutional privilege are not the same thing. The system of privilege uses that kind of reward system in order to perpetuate itself, but the existence of a reward isn’t proof in of itself of privilege.
Calling “female privilege” “benevolent sexism” is more appropriate and accurate because it makes visible the aspect of sexism that drives it. Saying “female privilege” obscures and makes invisible the fact that it is just another manifestation of sexism.
…When it’s called benevolent sexism it’s recognized to be tied to the system of sexism, and can therefore be fought (successfully) with tools like feminism, whereas when it’s called “female privilege” the solutions called for tend to call for strengthening the status quo, which ends up making it harder to end the offending practices.
People also ask me, “isn’t Women’s Studies sexist towards men?” (Here we go again with the “But what about the men?!!”) Women have been and still are a disenfranchised group in society. Like other marginalized groups (people of color, the queer community, differently-abled people, etc.) we’ve had to fight for inclusion within society’s heterosexual, white, upper class, male-centric, oppressive institutions. And in fighting for inclusion we are vilified as troublemakers and rabble-rousers. How dare we even try to subvert the norm?!
And now that we’ve managed to effectively carve out some safe spaces where we can discuss issues relevant to us, challenge the dominant modes of knowledge production and transmission, share our stories and experiences with each other, organize and build community, we are falsely accused of being reversely sexist? As if such a thing was even possible. Simply by demanding to at least try and level the playing field, and demanding to move towards equality, we were cast as the oppressive bad guys.
Therefore, claiming that feminists, feminism and Women’s Studies are all practicing or embodying “reverse sexism” is a mere silencing technique to further legitimize the status quo and to further normalize patriarchal oppression in society. It is a way to deny marginalized groups access to and membership in hegemonic institutions. It is a way to deny them any contributions to the construction and perpetuation of dominant discourses and ideology in society.