Cisgender, Heterosexual Men Tell Us How They Confront Sexism Against Women
“If someone makes a sexist comment at the workplace I keep a serious face; I don’t humor the person. My hope is they get the message through my body language. I don’t know how effective this is.”
When I was sourcing interviewees for this piece and put the word out for cisgender, heterosexual men who call out sexism, two of my acquaintances — women — said, “Who are these unicorns?” and “They shut up or laugh, along with their disgusting bros. If at least eight out of 10 don’t tell you this, they’re lying.” And so goes the perception of these men. By virtue of being men, they aren’t affected by the more egregious forms of sexism that exist in society for womxn and other queer folks. It is the most privileged sexuality and gender, and there have been calls within the feminist movement for the cisgender, heterosexual man to step up and do his part for equality — for how long will the marginalized yell and go unheard in their calls for equal rights, while the group with the most opportunities, rights, and leeway in society sits back and enjoys that privilege, without lending a helping hand?
In my own experience, I have known far too many men who might call themselves feminist, and might wholeheartedly believe they are so, but fall short of this solidarity when it matters most — standing up to known and loved ones for being sexist. Not sexually abusing a woman, or thinking a woman deserves an education and career opportunities are child’s play, so to speak, when thinking of the basics of feminism. You can stand for equality, but not be able to identify how that fight for equality is undermined every single day in easy-to-overlook interactions and insinuations. That’s why so many men were shocked when hundreds of thousands of women stepped up with their own stories of sexual assault and harassment during #MeToo — how were there so many? But if they had been paying attention to all the ways sexism manifests for other genders in daily life, they might have had a more robust, outraged reaction.
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So, how do these men call out sexism against others? Forget those who don’t — what about those who do, or think they do? What does it look like?
Rohit Vaswani, 33, says speaking up depends on the context. “Sexism manifests itself in explicit and implicit ways. For example, I have been in meetings where the opinion of a man is always asked first. I’ve seen women who give their opinions completely ignored, like, looked through like they were invisible. The more explicit type is usually amongst men as a bonding tool or when you’re signaling for an ally,” Vaswani says. “The implicit type — it’s about identifying it and subtly helping whoever is being marginalized to speak up.”
The key is not to pass judgment toward the perpetrator or the victim, Vaswani adds, “because public shaming creates a toxic, unhealthy environment to work in.” But it’s important to identify and recognize instances of sexism, so as to be able to help in more subtle ways, he adds.
Tackling workplace sexism is tricky, Raghuram, 29, says. “If someone makes a sexist comment at the workplace I keep a serious face, I don’t humor the person. My hope is that they get the message through my body language that the comment is not appreciated. I don’t know how effective this is.”
Not being able to speak up in professional settings is “defeating and sad,” Parikshit, 27, says. “I think the power dynamic plays out in determining who I call out. I would be less than enthusiastic about calling out a client or an employer if they flippantly remark something classically problematic.”
For family and friends, however, it’s a whole different ball game. F.P., 25, says it matters who is being sexist and how, in front of whom, and where.
He gives an example — a female friend of his was staying with her friend’s conservative grandfather in F.P.’s city. When she went out with F.P. and didn’t tell the older man when she’d be back, he kicked up a fuss and tried to impose his sexist notions of what a woman should and shouldn’t do outdoors, and with other men no less, F.P. recounted. “I asked her if she needed me to go with her. I told her I won’t do anything rash. All I could do was stand by her in case the older man decided to get mad at her.”
F.P. says we live in a patriarchal world and there are some lines that should never be crossed. Denying women their agency is one — be it to stay out late or drink; it’s a hard line that F.P. condemns as sexist and says he would have no qualms about calling it out. “I can’t change people’s views,” F.P. says. “I live and let live. But if I have a strong opinion, then I don’t care if I’ve known you for 20 years or five minutes; if I know you have an aversion to girls or queer people, I will give [you] a piece of my mind.”
But there are subtler forms of sexism that might slip out of someone, perhaps because of entrenched gender roles or a heteronormative upbringing, that can be let go depending on the situation and person, F.P. adds. “If my friends and I are sitting together and we’re just joking around, that’s a different matter. It matters who is starting the joke and if they mean it; if they believe what they’re saying,” F.P. says, adding 90% of his friends aren’t sexist but might end up offending a woman in their company. In such situations, F.P. says, he defers to the woman and will apologize if need be because she perhaps doesn’t know his friends didn’t mean it.
F.P. believes in intent. “If I accidentally say something sexist as a joke in front of a person who is meeting me for the first time, and they get offended, I’ll tell them to take it as a joke. I’m not a sexist person, so it’ll hurt my pride if they think I am. You’ll be accusing me of something opposite than what I believe in,” he says. “If the person is rational about it, then I may be able to admit it. But if they’re shouting, then I won’t be able to have a conversation. If you explain to me why I was in the wrong, then you have to understand where I’m coming from.”
F.P. adds, “If I believe my joke was fine, but you thought it was sexist, then I’ll apologize for saying it in front of you. I know how I meant it, so I know it’s fine. But since you don’t know me I can apologize. But I won’t apologize for the statement, only for saying it in front of someone who took offense.”
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Contrary to F.P., Raghuram says, “If it’s someone I know well, I argue against it. If these people are acquaintances, I make a mental note to avoid the person as much as people. The thing is most people hide their sexist attitudes, so even if they say the right thing, they don’t actually believe it.”
Raghuram says he has seen pushback in groups of men when someone makes harmful comments about rape, but it’s the more subtle sexism that often gets tolerated or ignored.
“Comments that compare the women to a flower, calling them an ‘item’ in the workplace no less, even after the #MeToo phenomenon and the supposedly punitive sexual harassment codes that are said to be followed in companies, is something that I found disturbing,” he says. “There are comments that women wear clothes and jewelry only to attract men, that they belong in the kitchen, that they are good only for making babies, that they get a job because of their looks even when they have better marks, are often extremely hardworking and are generally smarter than the men.”
Raghuram adds, “If it’s friends and family it’s easier to argue and ask them to change their behavior. This can be done in a gentle, non-condescending manner, nudging the conversation in non-sexist directions, pointing out what’s wrong with their statements and discussing the sexism in movies and TV serials [and] ads is what I try to do. I also take care that my own behavior doesn’t set a bad example to impressionable young people and that I don’t indulge in sexist comments or behavior myself.”
For Parikshit, it was the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape case, and his sister’s ongoing divorce proceedings with an abusive husband at the time, that made him realize he needed to speak up. In college at the time, some of his fellow college students had started an anonymous board on which sexual harassment allegations would be posted. Remembering the reactions of his male peers, Parikshit says, they were livid about it. “But I was still unable to convince my male friends and peers. I am still ashamed of the fact that I did not openly express support for the stories that came to light. There was a very vitriolic reaction to it by boys, who repeatedly denied it and questioned the ‘authenticity of such accounts.”
Since then, Parikshit says he has narrowed his circle a lot — which might be by virtue of his being in his 20s — and makes an effort to carefully choose his friends, especially men. “I try to pay attention to the language and pick it apart,” he says, of the ways in which men around him refer to women. He also gives an example: he had gotten into a debate with his male friends about a work of Premchand, which was preaching that women have an inherent nurturing ability and softness; Parikshit says he tried to explain to his friends that the text was sexist, but his friends were “unable to grasp that it being sexist didn’t mean Premchand was some dastardly evil man who hated women.” It was difficult to convey to them that well-meaning people could also easily uphold sexist norms in a patriarchal society without meaning to, he added.
For his friends now, Parikshit says, “I would kid-glove intervene with my friends who I am grateful to for having stuck by me in hard times and helped me recover from them. Sometimes it depends if I see potential of course-correction in the person or not.”
At the end of the day, cisgender, heterosexual men also struggle with the same patriarchal structures that make it difficult for other genders to call out sexism in public — even if the struggle is not as difficult. Not being targeted by said sexism offers men a choice — unfortunately many opt out of engaging in uncomfortable discourse and take the easy route. For those who do engage with sexist people around them, concerns over losing a job, making family or friends awkward or upset, or realizing the exertion might be pointless in the end, are all valid. All that matters is harboring the concern over how sexism is a detriment to society, feeling a need to engage with it, and trying to do whatever possible to dismantle the patriarchy.
But first, Raghuram says a person needs to realize their own sexism — no amount of argument or discussion can change a prejudiced person’s mind. “People will slip into such behaviors quite unconsciously if they don’t reflect on their lives. They may genuinely agree with you when you point out that they are behaving in a sexist manner, show contrition and be on the defensive. I have never met a person who would defend their sexism vigorously when confronted, but these attitudes are often held under the surface in a not-so-obvious manner among the middle class, upper caste, English-speaking, foreign-traveled and well-educated people I have come across.”
As for the consequences of his stance, Raghuram adds, “It might not affect me, but it’s bad for society as a whole. It’s a price worth paying.”
Rajvi Desai is The Swaddle's Culture Editor. After graduating from NYU as a Journalism and Politics major, she covered breaking news and politics in New York City, and dabbled in design and entertainment journalism. Back in the homeland, she's interested in tackling beauty, sports, politics and human rights in her gender-focused writing, while also co-managing The Swaddle Team's podcast, Respectfully Disagree.