Recently, my (strongly feminist) boyfriend was catcalled by three middle-aged women in the street. On the train two weeks prior, a woman positioned herself next to him and put her hand on his knee. It doesn’t take Judith Butler, a prominent gender theorist, to see that in these scenarios, the women – more often than not the victims of sexist encounters – are performing acts of objectification that, if the shoe were on the other foot, feminist bloggers would be raving about on Twitter, Facebook and WordPress with steam coming out of their ears. And quite rightly so: objectification is a by-product of sexism. Feminism, at its base, is opposition to sexism. Sexism is wrong because it operates on the belief that the respect people deserve is determined by their sex, which is a) not true, b) harmful, and c) let’s be honest, a bit stupid.
Sexism is oppression – for men and women alike. If the Bible has taught me anything (okay, it’s taught me lots of things), it’s that the Lord is with those who are oppressed, and is firmly against oppression in any of its toxic forms. We’re taught that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’. Well, what about this?
‘You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.’ (Exodus 23:9).
God is consistently reminding Israel throughout the Biblical narrative that He knows they’re oppressed – it’s not okay and He’s working on it; but also that, once they’re in their land of milk and honey, they mustn’t get drunk on their new freedom (or all that milk and honey… we’ve all been there). They must stay rooted in the knowledge that it is by the grace of God they are not oppressed any more. They were not made free to become oppressors.
This is challenging, because it’s apparently part of human nature to over-exert our power if we have been feeling powerless up until that point. You only need to look at the playground – that microcosm of all human experience – to see this in action: it’s little wonder why children who are bullied when they are younger become bullies later in life. Nevertheless, the Bible’s also pretty clear on exhorting us to exceed our basic instincts, and to act in the knowledge of the grace we have received, over and above our desire to assert ourselves over others.
Sexism is oppression. Sexism hurts us all. It hurts women by oppressing them and reducing them to inferior agents/objects in a world designed for the flourishing of men. One in three women around the world has experienced violence and in the UK two women a week are killed by a current or former male partner. This deep-rooted oppression against women must be fought. But sexism also hurts men, not only because women might bite back (thereby securing lack of respect as precedent), but because this devalues men as human beings, just like it devalues women. It reduces them to the enemy, a bundle of predictable hormones, an embodiment of that infernal patriarchy we’re all trying to fight. Sexism does not see the person. And once you depersonalise someone (or a group of people), oppression gets a whole lot easier.