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.