Why sexism hurts women and men

I can’t possibly cover every way that sexist rhetoric hurts both genders, so I’m narrowing it down to one sliver of the issue: holding one gender to a higher standard of behavior than the other. To narrow it down even further: women judging other women more harshly than men.  

Several years ago, while my family was still at our old church, someone in our Sunday school class mentioned that our age group had experienced “a lot of divorces” recently. I knew of two couples who had divorced, but I was worried that there were others. So after class, I asked the speaker about it. She rattled off three couples (including the two I already knew about), paused for breath, and then leaned closer.

“And in each case, it was the woman who wanted the divorce.”

Her tone was incredulous, shocked. Clearly, for this woman, it was somehow worse that the wife had left the husband and children than if her husband had done the same.

That unspoken message bothered me. Why was infidelity considered worse if committed by a woman? Was it somehow less wrong for a man to leave? If the woman had cheated with a man, then other people should be coming down equally hard on both the woman and the man, right? Was it somehow “unnatural” for a woman to want to leave her husband and kids, and somehow more “natural” for the man to leave? What was natural about staying (or not) married anyway?

All these questions, of course, are ridiculous. Infidelity is wrong, period, no matter the gender of the unfaithful person. I can say that wrong is wrong, but I can also express grace toward the wrongdoers; depending on my relationship to the person, I may be able to confront and correct, but I’m not in a position to condemn. And the entire question of what is natural and unnatural gender behavior is absurd, except if one is discussing biological differences in male/female bodies.

But it was that attitude of outrage against the straying wife that stayed with me.

I’ve noticed a striking double standard: when a woman accidentally leaves her infant in a hot car or when a woman abandons her family or when a woman cheats or when a woman deliberately kills a child, then outsiders (a.k.a., neighbors, friends, family members, Internet trolls, random people who hear what happened) judge her harshly. What kind of mother forgets her own child? Nasty slut—she cheated on her husband! Etc.

When it’s a man, he’s judged, too, but the reaction is more muted.

Well, he was only the dad, so maybe it’s understandable that he forgot the baby in the backseat.

Or, well, yeah, he left his family but . . .

Or, well, but guys have really high sex drives so when the wife (lets herself go/is too tired for sex/looks dog ugly/ won’t wear thongs because they’re uncomfortable), then he’s got to get his needs met somewhere, right?

Or, well, he’s a man and men are visual and of course he’s going to look at porn, he just can’t help it.

It’s not just the big news stories, either. I see it in churches, particularly with sexual issues. It’s somehow perceived as worse for a female to be sexually active outside marriage, look at porn, do sexting, or seek out sexually inappropriate materials (as do all the women reading or viewing Fifty Shades of Grey, as Michele Phoenix points out).

This rhetoric is damaging to women and men.

It holds the women to a higher standard of behavior than men.

It lowers expectations for men’s behavior.

It sees the gender of the actor as more important than the actual action.

This is not to say that women should be “let off the hook” for wrongdoing or that men should be damned for every tiny infraction.

But it is to say that the gender matters far less than that person’s ability to accept responsibility for their own actions. Those looking at the wrongdoing need to be slow to judge the situation and not assume that one gender should be held in higher regard than the other. True gender equality demands this.

But it’s incredibly easy to fall into this trap. Many times, I find that I judge other women more harshly than I judge men. Other people may blame the opposite gender more than their own. Even being aware of the problem, though a decent start, isn’t enough to eradicate it. So what is?

I’m not sure. (I hate admitting that I don’t know something. It’s pride-wounding, which means it’s also good for me.)

I’ll leave you with these two questions:

1) Have you noticed yourself holding one gender to a higher standard of behavior than the other?

2) What can you (I, we) do to stop this type of gender inequality? Share your ideas in the comments.

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24 thoughts on “Why sexism hurts women and men

  1. I definitely find myself judging women worse than men. I have an inherent distrust and disdain for men, so when a woman behaves badly I think she’s ‘letting the side down’. I do try not to judge people, though, because Christ accepted everyone, and I do also know that my distrust and disdain is a result of my past, so I am able to rationalise it and push past it… mostly. I don’t trust men or women, but more so with men. And I do not understand *at all* women (because it does not happen in the same way with men) who allow themselves to be objectified. The very idea of that is abhorrent. But I suppose we’re all a mix of contradictions, at heart, and that’s where grace comes in, thank God!

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    1. Thanks for sharing this, Sandy. And I don’t understand women allowing themselves to be objectified, either, although perhaps they don’t see it as being objectified and so justify it in their minds. Perhaps they’re not aware of it as objectification, just like I didn’t realize for years that I didn’t have a voice because I had been stifled so much. Or maybe they just like the attention! I’m not sure. Any way, I don’t have a right to judge them or the men who are doing the viewing. Like you said, grace!!

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  2. That double standard was at play in the Bible when the men brought the woman caught in adultery to Jesus for judgment. Where was the man? If they had proof of her adultery then they knew who he was too, I should think. These scenes are still played out among religious people today, Laura, and it’s sad.

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    1. Exactly, Tim. I wasn’t thinking of that story from the Bible when I wrote this, but it does work here. Very odd that the leaders would be willing to stone one adulterous person and not the other–unjust, to say the least–and definitely betrays a sexual double standard that continues to this day. (I’d love to know what Jesus wrote in the dirt that made the would-be stone-throwers leave.) The question for me, then, is if I encounter this double standard, how do I address it?

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  3. There are so many things that I think contribute to this problem. Attitudes towards what is modest and what isn’t is a big one in my opinion. I am afraid that many popular leaders’ wives have a tendency to use their positions to promote their own personal preferences. My experience has led me to believe that many from the complimentarian camp suffer from a very narrow view point because of their own upper middle class lifestyle. It is easy to promote a certain type of “modest” dress when you can afford to buy stylish clothing and have your outfits tailored. On the one hand they want you to look attractive for your husband so he doesn’t stray, but not too attractive because you might cause a weaker brother to stumble with your attractiveness. The mental gymnastics it requires to live according to this mentality is exhausting.
    I had first hand experience with this way of thinking. There was a time that most of my clothes were given to me and I had limited financial resources which prevented me from spending a lot of money on a wardrobe. My tailoring was done with safety pins. I remember changing my clothes three and four times before church and feeling sick because I couldn’t find anything that fit properly in my eyes. The popular “modesty” teaching at the time focused on not having your bra straps show which meant no tank tops or sleeveless shirts and not having visible panty lines because your pants were too tight. Baggy clothing was a problem also, because your butt or breasts might show if you bend over. I kid you not, this was really taught using that exact terminology. I spent more time worrying about whether or not my panty lines were showing than about worshiping God. Ugh! It would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
    I know that modesty teaching isn’t the only contributing factor, but I do think it plays a big part in making the woman a scapegoat in lust, adultery and divorce.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great thoughts, Denise. It is definitely easier to promote “modest” dress when you’ve got the financial means to buy whatever is considered modest; as your situation illustrates, it’s much harder to meet this false standard of modesty when you don’t have the money. It divides people into the haves and have-nots, unfairly discriminating against the have-nots, which the book of James tells us is wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I had to cut my thoughts off a little abruptly; my mom called. Anyway, I was going to point out that the “modesty” teaching often focuses exclusively on women; men, apparently, can wear whatever they like and no one thinks they’re immodest. But some women are very visual–I know I am, to an extent–and an immodestly dressed man can be an issue for us; plus, there are men who are attracted to other men. If Christian women are to dress “modestly” to avoid being a stumbling block for a brother-in-Christ, our brothers also have a responsibility to be considerate of females who might lust after their bodies or other males who have same sex desires. I’ve rarely heard THAT pointed out during a modesty lecture!

      Second, some Christians (okay, people in general) want to major on the minors. Why focus on other people’s attire and make it a huge issue when there are so many other big, consequential issues on hand? I have to wonder if it’s a way evil has of distracting us from bigger things with eternal consequences.

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      1. My computer is driving me crazy! It just deleted what I wrote. Anyway, I agree with both of your points. I have been in the church since the early ’80s and I have never heard a message that addresses men dressing modestly. I am beginning to think it’s all about what sells and draws people into church. Topics that contribute to a better life bring people in by the droves so that is the focus. Unfortunately men dressing modestly is not a “hot topic,” so there it sits on the shelf, along with loving one’s neighbor sacrificially.

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      2. I read a her.menuetics post on male modesty a long time ago, but that’s the only time I’ve ever seen it addressed. Hmm, if this topic ever comes up at church, I know what can of worms to throw into the conversation. 🙂

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  4. Really interesting post & comments, Laura. Recently have become more aware (because my husband points them out!) of media that treat men in a way we probably wouldn’t accept if it were women. For example, there’s a FB site called “Hot guys reading books,” which features pictures of guys reading on buses, subways, etc. I wouldn’t even have known about it if two different female bloggers I know hadn’t tweeted a link to it this week. Yet I wonder what we would think of a site called “Hot girls reading books,” in which women were photographed anonymously, maybe without their consent? Yikes!

    My husband also called my attention to a TV ad in which a woman is watching her shirtless male neighbour wash his car, and her scruffy husband comes up and says something about how “we shouldn’t have to settle” (in reference to internet service I think!) — and the wife, who is very obviously wondering if she’s made the wrong choice of spouse, says “Uh, yeah, right, honey.” If the roles were reversed, implying that a handsome guy had “settled” for a frumpy wife, it would seem so insulting and icky!

    In a general sense I don’t buy into the reverse-sexism idea but there is definitely a certain double standard out there at times. In the above cases I think if a few moments were taken to consider “How would I feel if that were ME?” the advertisers/FBers might have made a different choice.

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    1. Those two examples you gave are scary to me; if it’s not okay to objectify female bodies, then it’s not okay to objectify ANY bodies, either. But somehow we don’t see it until the roles are reversed.

      I don’t know if you remember the commercials that had men asking questions about their bodies (“does this make me look fat?”) that normally women ask. It makes us see the rhetoric for what it truly is: stupid, icky, and trivial, not just “women being women” or “men being men.”

      Asking “what if that were me?” is a great way of putting myself in another’s place and seeing why something is wrong. Thanks for commenting, Jeannie.

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  5. I have definitely noticed a double standard for male/female behavior but it always benefits women. For example, I have heard this reasoning many times:
    “Did you hear Dave left his wife and kids to meet up with a women?”
    “I did hear that, what a horrible man”.

    “Did you hear that Elizabeth left her husband and kids to meet up with a man?”
    “Yeah, but she was unhappy. Dave wasn’t making her feel special anymore.”

    I feel like our culture has turned female happiness into an idol and that women are cognizant they can cite unhappiness as a rationale for immoral/criminal behavior and receive sympathy. This attitude has trickled into our churches as well. Sometimes I get the impression Christians belive that “happy wife, happy life” is a biblical commandment. I cringe when I hear pastors hold husbands accountable for their wive’s “unhappiness” when I’m not sure that’s part of a husbands biblical responsibility.* To be clear, husband’s should care if their wives are unhappy but ultimately happiness is a personal responsiblilty.

    I think we need to acknowledge that misandry is real and it is present. It is in our culture, our media, and our churches. Sandyfaithking casually admits to being a misandrist in a comment and no one said anything. I don’t know her past but we wouldn’t condone racism because of that “one time a black guy bullied me in high school”, right?

    *Correct me if I’m wrong.

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    1. Jacob, I’ve never heard a person hold the two points you suggest regarding how they view a man leaving his wife versus a woman leaving her husband. Not the same person holding those disparate views, anyhow.

      As for Sandy casually admitting to misandry, she didn’t. She said she tends to distrust and disdain men. If you knew her background you’d also know this is a product of her experiences and not a mere philosophical position. Misandry exists In some places, but not with her.

      Cheers,
      Tim

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Hi, Jacob, thanks for commenting.

      I had to go back and reread my own post to remember what I wrote, and what you’re saying.

      I’ll second Tim’s reply on Sandy’s comment. She’s had a rough past regarding men, so her comment that she tends to distrust and disdain men is understandable to me rather than reflecting a misandrist philosophy. (I’ve met a few women who do embrace misandrist views, and I find that as awful as misogyny.) I also know that she tries very hard to push past that instinctive distrust, and does have loving, healthy relationships with some trustworthy men in her life. I’ve met men who feel similarly toward females because of abuse and hurt from women in their past; they may learn to trust particular women as they get to know them, but that instinct toward self-protection is still there. I wouldn’t consider their attitudes misogynistic, particularly if they are working through the issues. I hope that distinction makes sense.

      I know there are people who exalt female happiness. I’m, not certain if I’ve heard both attitudes you mentioned displayed by the same person. Either they justify both situations or they condemn both. (In my circles, they’d condemn both, but usually judge the woman more harshly for leaving. In other spheres, I’ve heard both justified.) Out of curiosity, what type of people do you know who are doing this? Churched or unchurched?

      (Interestingly enough, I read a short story submission yesterday in which the older male protagonist bemoans his writer ex-wife’s post-divorce novels. Every one of them ends with the oppressed, unhappy wife gaining the courage to divorce or take a lover or take off and explore the world of possibilities outside her oppressive marriage. And the husband is a horrible ogre, a cardboard antagonist. Need I say that this reflects their former marriage? The story is a satire. But it does reflect a current trend in literary world where the female is empowered and gains happiness by abandoning her marriage. It’s sad. I don’t know if this trend reflects the broader culture or is influencing the culture, though. Perhaps both.)

      As for the issue of personal happiness: I don’t believe that the Bible commands husbands and wives to make each other “happy”, at least not as 21st century Americans view “happiness.” I do think that our culture’s attitudes toward personal happiness are creeping into our church, particularly with the positive thinking type of philosophy that many Christians embrace without realizing that it’s unbiblical. (If you want a great book on that subject, read L.L Martin’s Positively Powerless.)

      I have heard pastors try to hold husbands accountable for their wives’ happiness, and it’s dismaying. (So if I’m unhappy because I’m depressed, that’s my husband’s fault?! No way.) I’ll also say that while I’ve heard that idea preached openly from the pulpit, the “keep the husband happy” idea is preached, too, but it’s usually preached during women’s Bible studies and conferences from female leaders for a female-only audience. And in both cases, the teaching is wrong.

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  6. I have read the stories of dozens of men who have been completely blindsided by divorce and/or adultery and when they seek answers from their wives the ubiquitous response is “I’m unhappy”. That phrase has achieved trope status for men looking for community on the internet.

    I stand by my belief our society privileges female unhappiness as an excuse for improper behavior in a way we never do for men. I think most women realize this on a subconscious level and apply it advantageously.

    That synopsis you referenced saddens me.

    There is a growing trend of millennial men, divorced and never married, who are completely writing off the idea of marriage. These men seem to be mostly atheist but I think some may be Christians. I don’t think they are acting irrationally; marriage carries a lot of risk for men. An estimated seventy percent of divorces are initiated by women and divorce courts have historically been disastrous for husbands.

    Some sociologists have expressed concern over the consistently declining marriage rate. (And can I say that Christian Mingle may be contributing to this problem, the idea of a soul mate or “the one” isn’t in the Bible.)

    I know that in the first half of the twentieth century divorce was rare and even scandalise. Did our grandparents have some secret that they forgot to share or was that generation emotionally tougher and more equipped to handle unhappy seasons of life?

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    1. Jacob, you’ve raised some great questions and made some great points, which I’d like to discuss further. Unfortunately, at this point, I’m really pressed for time! I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.

      Could I talk about some of your points in a future blog post? I need to do some research about the declining marriage rate, as well as ponder your points. BTW, I totally agree with your point about “soul mates” and Christian Mingle-type sites contributing to this idea.

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  7. Update: On Monday, June 6th the Huffington Post published a blog post by Kristian Henderson, described as a millennial lifestyle expert, speaker, blogger and health enthusiast, under their Huffpost Divorce section entitled “My Husband Didn’t Make Me Happy”

    Ms. Henderson: “The first thing I had to accept was that no one could ever make me happy. Like ever. And not just because I’m hard to please, but because my happiness is my responsibility.”

    I’ve never done this before in my life but here goes…..amen sister!

    P.S. Yes, the Huffington Post really does have an entire section on their website dedicated to divorce (sigh).

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    1. Sometimes I read the posts on the divorce section of Huff. Post so I can figure out what other people have done wrong and avoid those pitfalls in my own marriage! Sometimes, the blunt and crass honesty of the writers and contributors there addresses things that Christian sites don’t. Hmm.

      I’m still thinking about this post and your comments, but my life has been upside down lately, so I’m having a hard time writing at all. I will figure out what to say, I promise! I’ll just say that what Ms. Henderson found out was news to me during my newlywed years; I had to find out that my husband wasn’t responsible for my happiness (and vice versa, which was VERY important for me personally) through a book called Boundaries in Marriage, by Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend. I don’t know what no one had mentioned this fact before . . .

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      1. Laura, I read Boundaries years ago and spent half my time thinking “I already knew that” and the other half thinking “I never knew that!”

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