This last weekend provided some very powerful examples of sexism. I, as a man, had the luxury to not fully appreciate the ubiquity of these before. The first was glaring and galling. The second was subtle and pernicious. Both are worthy of some serious soul-searching reflection.
But before we get to this weekend, some context.
A few years ago, when I heard about Kamila Shamsie’s challenge to make 2018 The Year of Publishing Women, I shared the idea with my wife and co-publisher, Paige, and we jumped at it. Shamsie has since admitted that she proposed the idea as a provocation rather than a realistic suggestion, but it was perfect for us. Our publishing company, Not a Pipe Publishing, was just starting out. Announcing our acceptance of the challenge was a way to attract the attention of some amazing authors. We’d already signed a few, and the men were just as excited about the idea as the women. It wasn’t a completely self-serving business decision; Paige and are both ardent feminists, and we wanted to participate in taking some action to move the publishing industry closer to equality. I believed, at the time, that sexism in publishing was the consequence of unconscious bias and a systemic inclination toward a kind of conservatism that is not ideological but rooted in inertia. Companies publish books based on what is similar to what has sold in the past. Reviewers review books based on which books have been the most discussed in the past. Awards committees give out prizes to books that are getting lots of reviews and which are like those that have won in the past. Bookstores shelves books that are similar to those which have received lots of reviews and won lots of awards in the past. And because women were locked out of publishing for centuries, even though women write more books, buy more books, and read more books than men, all these institutional forces push the industry towards the books that have been more successful going back to Homer and Plato and Aeschylus. Lots of the people involved in this chain of decision-making were probably unaware of the bias or felt incapable of changing it, I thought. If we could just bring attention to it, it would be diminished, at least somewhat.
That’s what I thought.
I was wrong.
In the years since we accepted the challenge, I’ve had my eyes opened to systemic sexism that is far more conscious. I heard a very successful literary agent explain to a group of people that women are more likely to write bad books because they are staying at home and living off their husbands, while the men who write are more serious about their craft because they are risking their role as breadwinners to be writers. I spoke with other agents about the responses they get to rejection letters; women tend to accept rejection, while men sometimes write horrifying replies about how the female agents are stupid bitches who don’t recognize their genius. I don’t get those replies, but I have seen that when I say we’re not accepting submissions, women politely take my card and note when we will be open, then submit when we ask for their manuscripts. Men ignore me and pitch anyway.
Not all men. I know. But always men. Only men.
Over the last few years, I’ve also kept up on the stories of blatant, conscious, vile sexual harassment stunting women’s careers. Harvey Weinstein gets outsized attention for being the most famous and the most disgusting pig, but I’ve watched as some of my literary heroes have been revealed to be piglets to his county fair prize winner. I don’t know if all the stories are true, of course, but I know that it’s vanishingly rare for women to make up stories of abuse. It’s appropriate that our courts maintain the principle of innocent until proven guilty when deciding criminal culpability, but we all get to use our own judgement when deciding who to look up to, and choosing to believe or disbelieve an accuser violates the principle of innocent until proven guilty either way. If we decide he’s innocent until proven guilty, then she’s guilty of being a liar until the case is adjudicated. So if we’re going to convict the accuser of being a liar or convict the accused of being a creep in the court of our own hearts, we can and should use a lower standard of evidence, and we should check ourselves when our admiration of the accused’s work is clouding our judgement. Talented people do horrible things, too, and most victims of sexual assault and harassment never tell anyone. When they do, our skepticism silences more victims. Until we live in a society where victims are so confident they will be believed that fake-victims regularly abuse our trust, we should believe victims. I know that’s scary for men. We worry about being falsely accused. But our fear should not outweigh our concern for victims any more than our admiration of an abusers’ novels or comedy or movies should outweigh the damage they have done to their victims. I believe the accusers, and as more of them have come forward, it’s eroded my ability to believe the bias in publishing is simply unconscious.
I’ve also had to acknowledge my part. I teach high school English. A teaching coach came into my classroom a few years ago and took notes about who I called on while I taught my students. Sure enough, I was calling on the boys the most, and I was never calling on the girls who didn’t raise their hands. Confronted with this information, I got defensive. It wasn’t my fault some of the girls weren’t raising their hands, right? Only, it is. Before that little girl ever started school, she was already getting the message that her opinion wasn’t as valuable. And before that little boy was in school, he was being taught that his opinion was authoritative. And all of us reinforce those beliefs when we keep calling on the boys and not calling on the girls. One by one, the boys look around and learn that they should be raising their hands because that’s what boys do. And even my girls who are raising their hands are looking around and seeing that their female peers are doing so less and less, and they are getting the message they should stop. That’s on me. Part of my job is to break that trend, to call on all the students at times even when they don’t raise their hands, to affirmatively say, “What do you think? I want to know your opinion,” and to implicitly say, ...because your opinion matters to me. Because there’s at least one man in your life who cares about your opinion just as much as he cares about the opinion of the boy next to you. I had to learn to do that, and I’m still working to get more consistent at it. It is just as important or more important a lesson to teach my students, female and male, as any of my language arts curriculum.
And it would be disingenuous for me pretend that my own sexism is limited to neglecting affirmative steps. When I look back at things I’ve done and said in my life, I have to acknowledge harm I’ve caused. I remember, when I was sixteen, I once yelled a gross catcall at a woman just to impress the guys in the car with me. In that moment, I’m sure I scared her, degraded her, and ruined her day, and I didn’t care about her opinion at all. All I cared about was the opinion of the boys in the car with me. And the woman was pushing a stroller! Even if the child in that stroller was too young to understand what I said to her/his mother, I was already laying the foundation that this was something men did to women and something which her/his mother had to endure simply because she was female. And I can never take that back.
Nor can I take back the times when, as a single man, I treated women as objects to be acquired. Nor the way I treated my former girlfriends as though intimacy was something I had to persuade them to relinquish. I have a lot of guilt in this area, and none of it will be expunged by publishing women’s novels or retweeting women’s tweets or encouraging any of my current students, because those actions don’t redress any injury I caused to the individuals I harmed.
But I can listen to my wife and take her advice. She says the best thing we can do is to raise a son who will be better, and she’s right.
So I offer the stories of this weekend to any of you raising boys. Keep these in mind when choosing how to teach them about how they should behave.
I was signing novels at a bookstore on Friday along with some other authors. Most of us were inside the store, but one of my colleagues, a friend and a fellow author published by Not a Pipe Publishing, chose to set her table up just outside the store to encourage passersby to come in and visit the rest of us. I was too far away to hear all of her interaction with a particular guy who came up to her table, but he caught my attention because he was loudly offering to buy one of her books.
Hey, she made a sale, I thought. Good!
No. Not good at all.
He wasn’t offering to buy her books because he was interested in reading them. As I eavesdropped, I realized he was trying to bribe her to leave the signing early and come with him to a concert at a bar down the street. She politely explained that she couldn’t leave early, that she’d already told some young readers to come by and get books, and she was waiting for them. He offered to buy two of her books. Then three. Then he asked how many it would take to get her to leave with him immediately.
And here’s where my privilege really kicked in: Instead of acknowledging what he was doing, I immediately assumed that he must have been a friend of hers who was making some tacky joke. Because nobody could be that crass, right? I was doing mental gymnastics to try to justify his behavior. Why? Because she didn’t sound upset. She kept politely refusing, laughing off his increasing offers and increasingly strident requests that she come with him. Later she told me that she went out of her way to mention her husband, not in a confrontational way, but just as a hint. He said her husband didn’t need to know! He was trying to buy a date (and who knows what else) for the cost of three paperbacks.
And she just took it in stride. She is not only a talented novelist, but an accomplished teacher, a recognized educational leader, and the co-owner of a small business. She had clearly said, “No,” about a dozen times. But he refused to hear her. By the time I was realizing he was not a friend of hers and I should stand up and at least go out there, she’d convinced him to leave by enduring his insulting proposition. She didn’t confront the underlying premise that her romantic attention and probably her body could be purchased for the cost of three paperbacks, not because she accepts that as true, but because it would have extended the interaction, escalated the confrontation, and perhaps become physically unsafe. How many times can anyone calmly endure that without starting to let it seep into their self concept? Even without accepting that she was worth about 45 bucks, she had at least accepted that a man could treat her as though she was worth 45 bucks without jumping out of her chair and kicking him in the balls. How many more of those interactions would it take to lead her, or someone who was younger, had less of a strong support structure, less of a defined self-concept than this woman has, to start to believe that this kind of interaction is acceptable?
The same day I was contemplating that question, I had the following interaction with an editor our company is hiring to clean up some of our novels. Like our author, this editor is a successful, experienced, and accomplished professional. She worked for a small press before going to work for a university press, and now she has gone freelance. She was telling me about the transition from the small press to the university press where she edited the work of PhDs. “It took a while for a couple of them to actually trust their work to me. This past December, I edited a piece for publication in a magazine; it needed significant cutting. I took out a lot of wordiness, really tightened it up. The prof thanked me, seemed impressed. ‘I'm good at this,’ I told him.
“I realized after I said it that I had not ever said anything like that before. And I wondered if it was a gendered statement. Women are not expected to go around telling men that they are good at particular tasks.”
I think about this in the context of what the author faced at the signing. She couldn’t say, “Look, I know you want to take me out on a date because I’m good looking, and I might take that as a compliment if you also recognized that I’m an author at a signing, that I have other obligations than your interests, and that my interests outweigh yours right now because I’m good at what I do! Now piss off.” There is an indirect but significant relationship between all the messages women receive that inhibit their ability to articulate their own worth and the way that they are conditioned to endure diminishing treatment from men.
On the same weekend I was confronted with both these examples (at the same freakin’ time!) one of my former students posted a question to her page on Facebook. “Do you think women or men are more oppressed? It’d be nice if you’d elaborate too!”
I hopped in: “Well, women get paid less for doing the same work, have to work harder to be taken seriously, and when they do achieve the same levels of authority as men, they are disparaged for it. Men are oppressed by sexist ideas of what men are supposed to be, but not nearly the same way women are oppressed by ideas about what women are supposed to be. And when it comes to romance, Margaret Atwood summed it up well: Men fear that women will reject them. Women fear that men will kill them.”
A woman replied: “I believe white men are blamed for everything that's bad, so they may be more oppressed. Women have more choices available to them and generally have more control in relationships and family life.”
This is so demonstrably wrong that it’s absurd, and I wanted to scream. It proves what Nobel Peace Prize Winner Shirin Ebadi wrote: “Women are the victims of this patriarchal culture, but they are also its carriers. Let us keep in mind that every oppressive man was raised in the confines of his mother's home.” And yet, while it may or may not be helpful for a man to ask men to notice the patriarchy, I don’t think it would be that useful for me to try to mansplain the concept of the patriarchy to a woman, so I refrained.
One of those white men she thought was blamed for everything, another former student of mine, did reply, and he seemed comfortable with that notion, though he may have just been trying to be polite. He wrote about how both men and women are oppressed in different ways. That was more politeness than I could bear.
“You're right,” I told my peace-making white male former student, “it's not the same. But we should also watch out for false equivalence. The two kinds of oppression are different. Toxic masculinity twists men into all kinds of pretzels we don't want to be in in attempts to be ‘manly,’ sometimes with very serious consequences. There's no way to measure, but my guess is that men are pressured, culturally, into riskier behaviors than they would choose otherwise on an order that leads to lots of unnecessary deaths. Heck, I once watched a guy trying to impress some girls dive head first into some shallow water. He ended up scratching a lot of his face and chest off, but it could have been a lot worse. And why? Because he thought they would be impressed. And when you look at the mass shooting in Norway a few years ago and the one at Virginia Tech, both shooters were responding to rejection by women and the feeling that they, as men, weren't being as respected as they felt they deserved from women. That's toxic masculinity at its most poisonous. But even then, we need to acknowledge that it's a lot worse for women. Imagine if you were sitting in a college classroom and every single person in there was saying, ‘White men are all evil, and we hate you for being one of them!’ And it hurt your feelings and you got up and left. That would be a bad experience, it would be wrong, it would be unfair, and it certainly qualifies as oppression of a kind. And at the same time that you could be going through that, 100 times as many (a thousand, 10 thousand?) women are being beaten and raped by their partners, while the number of men being beaten and raped by female partners is vanishingly small. Both oppressed? Sure. But every time a white man complains about how hard it is to be blamed for things other white men have done, I cringe. They don't sound like they are pointing out a real injustice. By creating a false equivalence, they reinforce the idea that they don't get it. It's like meeting someone who just became a paraplegic and saying you feel like you've both suffered because you stubbed your toe once. Yeah, stubbing your toe hurts. But to all my fellow white guys out there, c'mon, dudes! Read the room!”
But that’s wrong, too, not in substance but in approach. It doesn’t help to tell butthurt cis straight white men of means to stop whining about the fact that people are finally waking up to centuries of white male oppression and it makes them uncomfortable to hear about it. No one likes to be told that the thing that hurts them isn’t a big deal. That’s why I want to offer these examples, not because I’ve figured out their full implications, but because I think the only way people, men especially, are going to look beyond their own fear of the loss of cultural dominance is to provide very concrete examples of mistreatment of others that we can avoid. Maybe we can start with refraining from treating an author like she can be bought and eventually move all the way to recognizing that an editor is a lot more talented and qualified than she feels capable of admitting.
And if you, like me, have a son, have this conversation very directly. Tell him that women put up with a lot of stuff that we don’t have to. Tell him it’s not fair. Tell him that putting up with mistreatment for long enough leads anyone to start to think it’s normal and they deserve it. Tell your son to recognize that and challenge it. Tell your son that he can’t just stop at fair but needs to push on through to equal, and a lot of times that means working for a degree of equality a woman doesn’t feel comfortable demanding. And that goes for a Person of Color, and LGBTQIA person, a person from a minority religion, an immigrant, a differently-abled person, a person who grew up in poverty or an abusive household, or anyone else who has been taught they they don’t deserve equality.
And you might want to mention to your son that you’re still learning. My son is well aware that I don’t have it all figured out (he knows I don’t have much of anything figured out). I hope that makes him feel more comfortable growing up to be a man who doesn’t think he has all the answers, either.