Sexism: The Male Experience

Let’s talk about the second side of the same coin, take just a brief moment here to sort at least two sides of the often binary debate on sexism. Do men experience sexism?

Yes. This isn’t news. But we don’t experience it in the way we think we do. The truth is many men have no idea what sexism looks like, we just feel it. Think about how men react when the topic of sexualization of women crops up. There’s always that pack of guys who comes in and says “us too!” They use the images of muscled men in games to prove it.

CVS_ZangiefThe thing is, that’s not sexism. That’s not even sexualization. BUT …men do experience sexism! So, uh …what does it actually look like?

Anytime someone has called a boy a “girl” as an insult. Anytime a male has been accused of being feminine. Anytime a man’s sexuality is called into question when he’s emotional. These are some examples of sexism against men. Men and women have very different experiences of sexism, don’t they?

Sexism against men is about calling our masculinity into question and it usually means showing in some way that the man is acting like a woman. These register as insults because of an understanding in our culture that to be a woman is a bad thing. In a way, I think this sexism is also seen when we encourage men by appealing to their masculinity.

There’s this line in Gears of War 3 where one of the men praises Marcus, the main character, saying “Damn it, Marcus! You’ve got some hangers on ya’!” after Marcus does something very daring and bold in a gun fight. The “hangers” are a reference to his balls. When men do manly things, one way we’re given kudos for our show of strength is by being told we’ve got large balls. It works the other way too: men who don’t make shows of strength are told they don’t have any balls and since women literally don’t have any balls, everyone’s shocked when they encounter a strong woman. It really is funny how we’re often blind to these obvious things.

A lot of the time when men experience sexism, we experience it as a loss of masculinity or a challenge to it. While women definitely do this to men, men overwhelmingly do this to ourselves. Just visit any locker room, playground, or barracks. I dare you to find even a joke that’s not about dicks and power.

The language of sexism is funny like that, full of ironies and subtleties that we’re barely aware of. The symbolism of male genitalia in general is quite amazing for it’s sheer variety! My penis can be used to describe anything that’s awesome and powerful. Anything. The vagina is used to describe everything stupid and weak. That’s why “cunt” is such a bad word and why “suck it” is a statement of power. Test these ideas on your vocabulary. Think of the words for powerful and the words for weakness. Go ahead, try it.

Power. It’s not just having control over ourselves, but control over others. Everything is about power and sex, which is where all the talk of genitalia comes from.  Just think of the ways that we make bodies into objects and symbols of power, and how that language pervades our vocabulary.

Attention to the meaning of the central male slang term for sexual intercourse — “fuck” — is instructive. To fuck a woman is to have sex with her. To fuck someone in another context …means to hurt or cheat a person. And then hurled as a simple insult (“fuck you”) the intent is denigration and the remark is often a prelude to violence or the threat of violence. Sex in patriarchy is fucking. That we live in a world in which people continue to use the same word for sex and violence, and then resist the notion that sex is routinely violent and claim to be outraged when sex becomes overtly violent, is testament to the power of patriarchy. – Robert Jensen

When someone says that women are sexualized in games, and men respond that we are also sexualized, this is that twisted construct we’re grappling with right here, perfectly summed up in this quote. All the power fantasies in games are, in the eyes of these men, sexual fantasies for women. And it’s easy enough to see how these men arrive there: this is how men are supposed to dream of being perceived by the opposite sex, and anything dealing with the opposite sex has to be about sex. All portrayals of power fantasies are necessarily sexual fantasies in the eyes of these men. If you’re interested in a more thorough discussion of that, try this.

It starts to feel like our brains are being warped by our use of language. Funny how that works. Men definitely experience sexism, but many of us have no idea what it looks like because we’ve drilled that bad is good and good is bad (that not crying is good, crying is bad, therefore man good, woman bad). We like to think we’re smart enough to sort these differences out, but we’re probably creatures of habit far more than we are creatures of intelligence. It helps to be aware of what’s going on in the words we speak, but we can’t always understand on our own.

Probably some of you are surprised that the experience of sexism for men and women is so different. Definitely for those who believed it would look the same as it does for women. But that’s why it’s important to understand the entire conversation about sexism. That’s why it’s not some objective concept removed from gender constructions and assignments in society. In a culture dominated by men, how these things work for us won’t be the same way they work for women.

Maybe I’ll start a community project to get men to tell their stories about their personal experiences with sexism. Maybe. At the very least, I hope this gives everyone something to think about and consider.

28 thoughts on “Sexism: The Male Experience

  1. I’m not very surprised the difference is huge. For women it can often be lack of control – man takes control, men are the stronger sex, womens word means less then that of a mans. That is how society is built. I can’t feel sorry for a man who has his ego bruised by a word like cunt, which happens to be my genitalia.

    I went to work once, I worked as a cleaner, cleaning offices etc. One day a older gentleman (not a gentleman at all) came at me, his friends were sitting around a table drinking coffee, and he had the brilliant idea of pulling down my pants… Haha very funny right, his friends looked at me and laughed at this like no harm was done, just innocent fun.This is for me sexism and a sever violation. Lack of control, he could have done what the hell he wanted and I would not have had a chance of doing anything. Luckily I had a partner with me who came in at the same time it happened.

    Sexism is for both genders indeed, but I say it is way worse for females then for men, your egos get bruised. While we females get violated in way worse forms then men. Sometimes there are cases where men get sexism from their bosses sure. But if that happens to women we will be called sluts, and sleeping our way to the top. Most likely not believed at that. Sure the man will have a hard time too, “Man got sexually harassed by his female boss” That would be for some men an accomplishment and he would probably just get high 5s from his friends, no matter how he felt about the situation.

    I should not even respond to these kinds of posts cause I am to emotionally involved. But that’s females, getting all emotional.

    The men were the hunters, the provider, the man out in the forest who went out and killed stuff. That’s were all this strong stuff – gotta be a man, well hung, strong etc ideals come from. World is different now, it’s up to you men to change it. Find a new role, then the hunter.

    • I hope I didn’t come off as making the statement that men have it just as bad or worse. I just realized it could have been implied by omission, by not stating that we don’t actually have it worse. Sometimes it doesn’t seem proper to quantify and I don’t always get the timing right on that.

      Thats awful that those guys actually did that to you. That’s stunning. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

      As for where we get the whole tough guy act …I know people like to blame it on the “olden days” but that’s not really why we do it. Yeah it’s a comforting and romantic excuse, I’m sure guys feel great when we give it, but that’s not the reason. If it were the reason, women would behave the same (women hunted as well and in just as many cases, they were the primary hunters). The real reason is: BECAUSE WE CAN. There will be no penalties. Anyone who objects, we can shout them down with our evolutionary excuses for behaving like animals (because men acting like animals is actually acceptable). There can be no excuse in 2014 for doing what humans did in the year 10,000 bc. That some men think so is …entirely the problem.

      • I might have read the post in a whole other tone then how you wrote it 🙂 I should just sit down and think about things before I react on them.

        I think it differs from man to man in why they act and think the way they do 🙂

        You don’t need to go back all the way to 10,000 bc. It was not that far I was thinking. I was more thinking more along the lines of shooting moose and deer in the forest and taking care of the farm, while women took care of the children , making their cloths and milking cows, then cavemen 😛 I had the image in my head with the bearded man and lumberjack outfit ;)” not the caveman “ugha bugha me strong” type of man 😀 Cause tbh, that is not that long ago.

    • Even still, women are still hunting and they dont behave that way. The other conclusion we could draw is that men and women are TAUGHT to behave differently, right? Those are just “manly” ideals, the same way we have womanly ideals.

      Also keep your dirty day dreams of bearded lumberjacks out of this 😉

  2. really enjoyed this article – the power of a patriarchal language is food for thought indeed. I hadn’t actually made the connection between the sexual terms and the resulting strong/weak connotations… (and I call myself educated :P)

    it’s also interesting to note that although male and female bodies are wildly stylised in gaming graphics, men’s appearance tends to be idealized while women’s tend to be objectified… I’m going to stop there because I’m going off on all sorts of tangents 🙂

    • Those are relevant tangents, have at it 🙂

      As to objectified vs. idealized, you have a point. I tend to think of these as gendered terms too. These are interesting because they both still represent sexist concepts, that men are to be revered (idealized) and women packaged into body parts that please men (objectification). But the way this sexism works for men/women is obviously very, very different. So great point.

      Do you think idealization damages men?

      • oof that’s a question alright 😀 OK, the honest answer is I don’t know. The thing with males being idealised is that they are not necessarily idealised on appearance alone, you know the wise old wizard, the gruff ex-soldier, the ‘weedy’ yet super-intelligent scientist etc etc. I guess this extends out of the entertainment media to things like newsreaders – when men go grey they gain gravitas, when women go grey (or age) they get replaced.

        On a more positive note though, the games I play are pretty progressive for both men and women (ESO, DA/DA2, SWTOR / LOTRO / Skyrim) All these games offer quite a wide range on character customisation, have a number of NPCs who buck the normal stereotypes at least to a degree. ESO and Bioware present same sex relationships as just this normal thing you come across every so often. I like giving these companies my money 🙂

        • hehe, I wasn’t trying to put you on the spot 😀 Genuinely curious what others think about male idealization.

          I think it’s harmful in the general sense that its constraining and narrow. It’s true men get a great variety of representations, but on the other hand all of those representations are about one identity: masculinity, and a certain singular masculinity at that. So from that point of view, it’s not varied at all. All men are expected to be strong, leaders, competent, smart and just awesome in every capacity. And we’re not to supposed to have ANY feminine qualities. That’s where I think it’s harmful.

          But at the same time these idealizations aren’t negatives. This isn’t portraying men as anything negative and that’s what makes it an overall positive thing. We give men positive role models about who they are, give them identities that are humanizing. So it’s nowhere near in the same area as the objectification of women. It’s a totally different game, but it’s still sexist. I think guys who believe figures like Kratos and Zangief are sexualized feel that there is sexism against them, but without understanding how it works they aren’t able to really pinpoint why they feel that way. So they use the same language that women use to describe their experience, even though it doesn’t fit.

          Or to give a more clear example of this: suppose a conversation where 3 people are speaking in Spanish. However, one of the people don’t really know Spanish, they just know a few words. But they know that unless they speak Spanish, they won’t be understood. So they continue using those words, even though it’s not really helping them communicate their ideas. The other two listen, but the guy makes no sense to them. They continue on in Spanish, but it’s not much of a conversation. This is how it is when men are trying to respond to sexism, when we try to explain how society is sexist against us. We don’t know the language most of the time, so we aren’t able to describe the sexism.

        • I think idealisation is terribly harmful. All the positive representations that men have are about agency. We are taught that we must act, go out and take what is ours, make something of ourselves, and that being passive and obedient and vulnerable makes us less worthy. Even villains have full agency if they are male. They always seem to be driven by something – lust for power, revenge, destruction.

          In the real world this translates into passive roles being seen as emasculating. Being a stay-at-home partner (not even a father, necessarily) is seen as wrong because it doesn’t fit the idealised picture of a man in our society. The tasks associated with “housewives” are thus tainted by that same brush. Certain emotions are to be avoided or kept private because they are seen as useless in regards to taking action – so emotions like anger and pain are fine because they can motivate, can spur you into doing, whereas emotions that are thought to make you more vulnerable, like sadness, can hinder us from getting our due. Or something like that.

          And of course, what is the surest way to go out and take what is yours? Force. Usually physical force, but somewhere along the line it became fashionable to show the male hero/villain as physically inferior but powerful in other ways. I don’t know if it is a common saying or not, but when I was at uni (the first attempt) one of my circle of friends (he was a very small, skinny guy) loved to mock the, shall we say, less civilised men in society with “Violence is the only language they understand”. I think it is still largely true because male violence is still largely idealised. Even those who don’t practice physical violence can still practice economic or legal violence to assert their dominance.

          I could probably go on but I think that covers my main point.

  3. I have noticed a trend in recent years of using ‘dick’ as a primary insult. I haven’t actually kept track of who was using it, but I suspect that it’s been mostly women using it to describe men. I know I’ve been using it myself that way, because I abhor ‘cunt’ and really dislike ‘pussy’ as insults. I think this trend (is it mostly online? idk) of women using ‘dick’ to insult might be one thing that has many men feeling like they’re being picked on, that there is sexism in action. I wonder if there is some truth to that, but for the moment I am totally fine with it even if it is. In the end, “don’t be a dick” is still less harmful to men than “don’t be a pussy” is to women.

    • Good point about dicks. Dicks, like all genitalia used as insults, are dirty and to be called one isn’t cool. But the word still maintains its status as an object of power, even when used as a dirty insult.

  4. Calling men women or little girls as an insult has always wound me up and I think it’s offensive to everyone. For example, I really like horror games and when I hear people saying stuff like ‘you screamed like a little girl’ in their let’s play videos I feel like it’s suggesting that women are weaker and therefore incapable of sitting through such experiences – which is completely untrue. I think it’s just a harmless saying however and probably just a bit of jokey banter on behalf of the user, but sayings like that are so ingrained into our society and seem to constantly suggest that feminine traits are a negative. Women may not be strong in the same ways that men are, but we still possesses positive qualities that should be celebrated and not shamed.

    There are many things that are offensive to the male gender as well. It also irritates me how often it is suggested that men are inferior in terms of looking after children, cooking, doing housework or being generally responsible – again probably offensive to everyone. I also think it’s hard on some men that do possess feminine qualities or want to enjoy certain female interests, just like some women enjoy more male dominated interests (like comics and video games.) Although, I feel like it’s considered more cool for a girl to be into male dominated interests than it is for a guy to be into female dominated interests. I personally prefer the company of people who are more balanced to people who act up overly masculine or feminine traits.

    Sexism exists in different guises and to be able to discuss it properly we need to stop referring to such occurrences like they are all the same thing or on the same level of severity. In many cases I think many people are also pointing out sexism where there isn’t any because they go looking for it or want to retaliate with something. I think a lot of men also have a tendency to keep quieter about instances of sexism – perhaps because they feel the need to keep that macho façade – while women find it stress relieving to share their grievances. For example, when a women is touched inappropriately we tend approach it differently to when the same thing happens to a man.

    Keep writing these excellent articles, it’s good to shed light on the issue for both genders and refreshing to hear balanced opinions that are not just angry retaliations.

    • In some ways I don’t know why we (men) are so silent when it comes to calling out sexism. Probably because we know we do sexist things and part of that response is that we don’t know what to do about it. I think this is why so many men get upset that it gets pointed out and almost always come back by saying “GIVE US A SOLUTION OR SHUT UP ABOUT IT!”. Men know that sexism is bad, but we don’t know what to do about it or else feel powerless to do anything. But that’s a really complex issue that I don’t know enough about either. I just feel it.

      The really funny thing is that once men do express our grievances, we feel better too. Some of us are just afraid to do it, because we haven’t had to do it all our lives. It can be scary to experiment with emotions for us and it’s not always a very comfortable feeling, because we can be so easily rejected for it. Not everyone is willing to accept a changed man (especially women, who want that traditionally masculine man).

      • It was just a trend that I noticed. Women definitely seem far more outspoken about issues like sexism whereas men seem to mostly respond in retaliation for this, otherwise would they even mention male sexism half as much. I’ve definitely noticed that my male friends don’t often talk about their feelings in the same way that I do. When they do bring up male sexism it tends to be only as a result of a women mentioning something about female sexism first.

        I’ve previously noticed people making criticism that issues of female sexism seem to be addressed and handled more than male sexism; There’s probably a multitude of reasons for this, but I wondered if the fact that women simply seem to be more outspoken than men could be part of it. I’d welcome it if more men could also feel comfortable with sharing their own thoughts and feelings, but I can understand why for some this would be a difficult thing to do. Men seem to have that pressure to be the strong ones all the time.

  5. you definitely hit on the male connotation of sexism there. It’s not the same experience but interesting nonetheless.

    The part for me that’s interesting to muse over is how the male experience is far more constrained by these stereotypes. You have to be the rote masculine figure and insults, like you say, revolve around those going outside of that. While woman had their own movements, and feminism, plus ongoing discussion which men kind of omitted themselves from when they should have gotten involved. It was all about broadening what we can be from those restrained ideals. Men stood firm stopping a certain amount of progress on our behalf but then also completely froze their own image. An attack against feminism that harmed themselves as well.

    Was actually going to do my masters on the male Ego and Image if I ever got around to doing my 4th year

    • That’s one part of the history on this that I still don’t quite understand. There was this wave of change that swept America in the 70s, but then in the 80s you start seeing men locking down our identity with those manhood therapy camps and other movements in which men withdrew from feminism and sort of started defending traditional masculinity. I think some of that started off with good intentions, but it really turned into ways to holdout on transforming our manhood into something more balanced.

      • Have you read the book ‘Guyland’? It’s about the masculine culture in the West, particularly the college drinking / hazing aspects of young men, and I think it clarifies some of that. In my opinion, it was a type of backlash against ‘women encroaching’ into ‘male spaces’. The main thing that illustrates the need for men to take a good hard look at their gender identities, is that there is a universal meaning to the phrase ‘Be a man! Man up!” but there is no equivalent for “Be a woman!”

        Girls are taught from a young age now, because of the feminist progress in the 60s, that a girl can be whatever she wants to be. She isn’t defined by what she is ‘not’, the way little boys are often taught they must shut down parts of themselves that stray into ‘girl’ territory (like emotions or nurturing tendencies). In other words, as feminism gave women the freedom to redefine themselves and their gender understanding, men never had a similar breakout movement. Many are still locked in increasingly irrelevent and unhealthy cultural gender restrictions, and they are subconsciously (or overtly) frustrating and angry over it. Because they are taught to shun female-ness, the expansion of women into all corners of human interests and life is, in their view, taking territory AWAY from those ‘pure manly’ areas that they feel they must have in order to still ‘count’ as masculine, authentic men. Which is a sad reflection on just how dysfunctional our culture’s concept of male quality has become.

        • Spot on, Pai. And yeah I’ve read Guyland, very great and easy read and I highly recommend it to anyone (especially men) here who want to know more about identifying sexism in our own circles. Most books about masculinity tend to be thin on histories, especially chronological ones. But I think your observation about guy culture being one of those “holdouts” was a development that seemed to really gather steam in the 80s. The backlash is stupid at best, because it’s literally men demonstrating everything that feminism says about the destructive nature of traditional masculinity. I had thought of re-writing a very long piece I wrote almost 2 years ago now, which talks at length about the words “man up” as you just put it. I’m sure I’ll get around to it, maybe this week while it’s so relevant to the on-going discussions.

          What other books are you/have you read that you would recommend on this topic? And that question is for anyone who has a recommendation!

        • I’ve actually been on a bit of a gender role kick lately — two books I’ve read that are not specifically about men but shed a lot of light onto our current gender roles setup are ‘Sex and Punishment: 4000 Years of Judging Desire’ and ‘How Love Conquered Marriage’. There is a LOT of historical context in both books, and they really help paint a full understanding of how our culture developed the way it did, and just how old and entrenched a lot of our baked-in assumptions about gender norms, sexuality, and male-female relations are. I highly recommend both books to anyone who is at all curious as to just how our society came up with a lot of these unquestioned assumptions about how men and women are ‘supposed’ to think and how they’re ‘supposed’ to act.

  6. really good points. It is good for the discussion to be widened and to be more inclusive – I think originally it was one of the main aims of feminism – not only to promote equality for women but also to promote equality for men so that neither group are constrained. Its the brand of feminism I adhere to anyway

    so yes, I do agree that idealisation is harmful to males. Being female, it can be hard to relate to how those images would make me feel, especially as I am thinking at least you get to be empowered! But, you’re right, just because something may be comparatively better, doesn’t make it OK.

    I also hate those adverts where men are shown to be clueless at housework – a) because seriously? it’s insulting and b) the flip side – it isn’t ‘women’s work’ – I don’t want ‘Washing Machine Black Belt’ on my gravestone 😀

  7. While women definitely do this to men, men overwhelmingly do this to ourselves.

    I think this is an extremely important point. Sexism against men is not part of the binary debate because it is not a direct reversal; it is not women sexualizing and objectifying men. It is not women victimizing men. In fact, what is being called sexism against men is just an extension of sexism against women. The men who become victims of this have a perpetrator that puts them into a “not man enough” category, and who is “not man enough” but a woman.

    For a different kind of sexism against men that isn’t just an offshoot of sexism against women, think of the common joke about a man thinking only with his little head. That is closer to a reversal, using the stereotyped obsession of the male gender with their dicks and getting sex as an explanation for their behavior, while not bring the other gender into it. (The perpetrators of this seem to be more evenly split across genders, from guys calling someone pussy-whipped and gals saying a guy is totally wrapped around her finger.)

    • I’ve been turning the idea of the two “heads” around in a draft for months now. I’m not sure where I’ll go with it, but your mentioning it really hits on something important in this conversation.

      It would be nice if we (men) talked to other men about sexism. Actually, whenever I think about talking to other guys I can’t help but think of how much we literally try never to mention to one another. It’s kind that feeling that we all know there’s something we should talk about, but part of claiming our manhood means we can’t. We don’t want to risk other men questioning our masculinity. It’s hard to describe this to women who want to understand why men seem to be so blind to sexism. Part of is blindness, but another part of it is we feel trapped. There’s no winning for us — at least in the way that we see it.

      I see men trying, though. I definitely do. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth as they say 🙂 But I have faith that most of us will come around. We just have to be careful not to destroy all the things and people that care about us in the process.

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  9. I think idealisation can be very harmful to men, particularly the notion of what a ‘successful’ man is or a ‘real’ man. Attempting to live up to an ideal can do a lot of harm, in men and women.

    It’s difficult though, because our language is intrinsically linked to these kinds of stereotypes and reinforces underlying sexist thought patterns. ‘Runs like a girl’ is a phrase that is used by both men and women to disparage someone. I saw a video not long ago exploring that idea. Until we change our language, these concepts will never really be dispelled.

    I have 2 kids, a girl and a boy. With our daughter, we put a lot of effort into making sure she wasn’t pigeon holed into pink, princess stuff. We’ve given her exposure to a range of toys and have never held her looks up as the thing she is judged by etc. My son is 6 years younger, he’s only 2, and I’ve realised that the restrictions on boys are far more subtle but just as insidious. Men hold the power but any man who doesn’t want to fit into the ‘masculinity’ mold will pay a price.

    • You’re right, we pay a price. But it’s a price we owe. Non-males pay the price daily for no other reason than they don’t have an XY pair.

      I see the same things you just noted in my children’s world. From the first time we took my son to a birthday party, we came home thinking “there’s nothing we can do to stop the influence of the world on him”. He’ll have concepts and ideas and words reinforced upon him despite anything we teach him. Then came our two daughters and it’s different, but like you said it’s still insidious.

      I think part of the difficulty of changing language is that it’s such a reflexive tool. We don’t think about it. And for language to actually function, we have to be able to just draw words up without too much thinking. But i still think you’re onto something. In a way, when we’re trying to understand sexism or racism or any other kind of bigotry, we’re trying to learn a new language. Some people reject that words can mean anything different from what they’ve though they were.

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