How to win every sexist argument: an 11-point guide

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Laura Bates
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Ask a Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. Here, activist and writer, Laura Bates, shows us how to shut down a sexist argument at the pub. Take note.

We’ve all been there: faced with a feminist debate at the pub, when someone says something absurdly offensive, and we’re lost for words. We know they’re entirely wrong, but they argue so forcefully that it makes us stumble, lost for words, almost. Then, as we are walking home, the perfect come-back pops into our mind, and the temptation to run back to the pub and exclaim ‘this is why you’re wrong’ is almost too strong to resist.

Well, no more. Here, Everyday Sexism founder and Stylist contributor, Laura Bates, reveals how to survive a sexist Spanish Inquisition in the pub. 

1. Women are equal now, aren’t they? Surely we no longer need feminism. 

As long as 85,000 women are raped every year and 400,000 sexually assaulted in England and Wales alone, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t a problem. Not to mention the fact that fewer than 1/3 of our MPs are female, that women write only 1/5 front page newspaper articles, that they’re less than 1/10 of engineers and that 54,000 a year lose their jobs as a result of maternity discrimination… to name but a tiny sample of issues. It’s not ‘going too far’ to demand equality, and we’re certainly not there yet.

2. Women are biologically more empathetic, so they should be the primary caregivers.

This is hugely insulting to men, who are just as capable of loving and nurturing their children as women.

Excellent research like that by Cordelia Fine in Delusions of Gender has largely debunked the Victorian notion that men and women have ‘different brains’.

Meanwhile, as girls are given dollies and pushchairs while little boys are frowned upon for picking them up; while men are ‘congratulated’ for occasionally ‘babysitting’ their own children and women are castigated for daring to combine motherhood and career; while baby changing facilities are provided in women’s toilets but rarely in the men’s, is it any wonder we tend to take on the roles society stereotypically pushes on us when it comes to caregiving?

3. If it’s really about equality why is it called ‘feminism’ not ‘equalism’ or ‘humanism’?

First of all, ‘humanism’ is already a thing. Secondly, we have to name a problem to solve a problem.

This isn’t a trick - it’s not secretly about women taking over the world or hating men (just look up the definition of feminism in the dictionary if you don’t believe me). Yes, it really is about achieving equality, but to get there, we have to recognise that while gender stereotypes can have negative impacts on men as well, the vast majority of structural gender inequality: socially, politically, professionally and economically, as well as the overwhelming burden of sexual violence is disproportionately borne by women.

That’s why the ‘fem’ part is in there - because in order to achieve that end goal of equality it is a very gendered oppression primarily affecting women that needs to be tackled.

4. How can you be a feminist and like pink/make-up/high heels?

Because feminism doesn’t mean hating pink, make-up and high heels!

It means believing that everybody should be treated equally regardless of their sex. Which happens to include the right to wear whatever you want, for your own reasons, without being forced or pressured into wearing what’s considered societally required because of your sex.

5. If you don’t want to get raped don’t dress like a slut

Rape is about power and control, not attraction or sex.

The idea that men ‘lose control’ around a woman in a short skirt is insulting to men, completely relieves perpetrators of responsibility, and erases and ignores male victims.

Women of all ages in countries around the world are raped at all different times of day, in different circumstances, wearing all different kinds of clothing (including in countries where the majority of women wear completely covering clothing). The one thing they all have in common? They came into contact with a rapist. So logically by far the most effective way to tackle rape is to focus on rapists - both by prevention and education, and by fully placing the blame and responsibility with perpetrators.

6. But men have problems, too… 

The idea that feminism is a ‘battle of the sexes’ about blaming all men and setting up a ‘gender war’ is a handy, controversial media hook. But it doesn’t reflect reality.

A huge amount of what feminists are fighting for would have major positive impact for men as well as women. Take the male suicide rate, for example. In part, the problem arises from the idea that men are tough and manly, that ‘boys don’t cry’ and it’s embarrassing for them to talk about their feelings. So men are less likely to reach out for help and support with mental health issues. But that gender stereotype, which exists alongside the converse notion that women are over-emotional, ‘hysterical’, or ‘hormonal’, is one feminists are fighting hard to debunk. Meanwhile, if there’s a specific ‘male’ issue you think is really important and overlooked… why not start a campaign about it?

7. How can you argue for quotas when the best person should get the job?

If you think quotas mean the best person not getting the job, you have to believe that the best person always gets the job at the moment. Do you really believe there are more than three times more men named John qualified to lead FTSE 100 companies in the UK than all the women put together? All the 32 MILLION women combined? Just statistically, that doesn’t make sense.

So you have to recognise that there’s already a system of unofficial discrimination in place - just one that we’re not talking about - and this is what positive action seeks to try and correct. Nobody thinks quotas are a great win for women - the win would be removing the discrimination and inequality that creates under-representation in the first place. But in the short term, alongside other measures, they can be an effective way to make progress happen faster.

8. Not all men are sexists, what’s it got to do with me?

Protesting against sexism doesn’t mean saying that all men are actively sexist. But if that’s your first response, you’re probably making the conversation about yourself, which isn’t particularly helpful.

While not all men are sexist, all women face the impact of sexism in some way, so the point is there’s a massive problem to be solved, and you can be a big part of the solution.

That doesn’t just mean not being sexist, it means speaking out, educating other men, objecting when you witness workplace discrimination, stepping in when you see street harassment, supporting women’s campaigns and much more. We can’t create a shift in normalised attitudes and behaviours without everybody on board, so not being sexist isn’t enough - get stuck in and start tackling sexism too.

9. The gender pay gap is a myth propagated by feminists.

It’s true that the gender pay gap is complicated. It’s true that it is very slowly getting smaller. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It would have to be a pretty HUGE conspiracy for every reputable major news outlet to report on it annually if it was a massive feminist lie.

The argument goes that the pay gap only exists because of women’s ‘choices’ of work type, hours, and child related career breaks, effectively making it a myth. But research shows that while those are factors, they don’t account for the whole gap, suggesting that discrimination certainly plays a role as well. What’s more, the fact that traditionally ‘female’ jobs are paid less, that women end up working part-time because they’re societally pressured into caring roles, and that having children has a negative impact on women’s wages but a positive impact on men’s, are all problems that should deeply concern us, not ‘explanations’ that can be happily accepted.

Add in the extra issues that women perform the vast majority of unpaid caring and domestic labour; that women of colour earn significantly less than white women; and that women also bear the hugely disproportionate burden of austerity cuts and you have a very gendered economic problem that is complex, yes, but certainly not imaginary.

10. Why make such a fuss about X when Y is so much more important?

Do you ever ask anyone else this? Do you accuse a pancreatic cancer charity of not dealing with multiple sclerosis? Do you think the police should stop investigating fraud until they’ve solved every murder?

Turns out, this ‘whatabboutery’ is a classic way of silencing women when you don’t like what they’re fighting for. Don’t panic, feminists are quite capable of fighting multiple battles at once! To say ‘how can you make a fuss about street harassment when there’s sexual violence’ sounds suspiciously like saying ‘think yourself lucky if a man follows you shouting about your breasts in the street because at least he isn’t assaulting you.’ In the 21st Century, I’d like to think women have the right to live lives free of both sexual violence and daily harassment, as well as any other form of inequality.

Is that really too much to ask?

11. What’s wrong with catcalling? Can’t you take a compliment?

A compliment makes someone feel good about themselves. A catcall is harassment.

The vast majority of men are perfectly capable of distinguishing between the two. Telling someone you know (regardless of gender) that they are a good friend, or look nice today, or bake a mean lasagne, is quite different from screaming ‘TITS’ at a woman from a moving car. Is this really so hard to understand? If your compliments are making women feel uncomfortable, scared, anxious, annoyed or harassed, you’re probably not doing them right.