Head first towards everything


Male Bias ≠ Sexism

Lately, it’s as if any expression of attraction exhibited by a heterosexual male towards a female is regarded as inherently sexist.

The latest example I’ve come across is Andy Lester’s account of a presentation he attended at OSCON last Tuesday, where Andrew Aksyonoff used examples of a database of people that documented, among other aspects of their person, their sex, age, and a vague thing called hotness. Of course, being a —presumably— heterosexual male, Mr. Aksyonoff presented a use case in which one may want to rank women according to their age or hotness. Mind you, the tables also allowed one to do the same with men.

Well, it turns out that this use case appears to be rooted in nothing less than pure, unadulterated sexism. Because why else would anybody ever want to select or rank people based on their sex, age and hotness if not to put them down, objectify them and treat them like second-class citizens, right?

Here’s the thing about sexism: I think sexism has no place in modern society. I think it’s based on stupidity and ignorance. I also think that the word gets thrown around far too easily. If a woman is made uncomfortable by something a man says or does, regardless of whether his words or actions actually demonstrate “the belief or attitude that there are characteristics implicit to one’s gender that indirectly affect one’s abilities in unrelated areas”: It’s called sexism. If a man expresses interest unwanted by the woman he’s interested in: Sexism and objectification. If a man makes an inappropriate or racy joke, he’s in for a triumvirate of unacceptable behavior: Sexism, othering, and harassment. (Yes! People make use of the word othering in the context of joke making! I know, right?!)

The comments in Mr. Lester’s blog post lean towards the sympathetic, but there’s a solid amount of people —myself included— who, while agreeing that the use case examples were inappropriate, questioned the accuracy of claiming they’re necessarily the product of sexism. Here are some examples (all emphasis mine):

Maybe I’m daft, but I do not see any sexism here. The database schema allowed for both males and females, and it is reasonable to assume that someone who was searching such a database in real life would have a gender preference. Leslie

Had the example used males however, I doubt anybody would have batted an eyelid, which is really the real tragedy, because its demonstrating an inherent sexist bias that is only prevalent when the affected party is female. And that in itself, is a form of sexism. Kent Fredric

I think this slide is like a Rorschach test: you see in it what is already in your mind. If you’re a woman thinking about how you’re valued according to someone else’s system instead of the things you actually care about, that’s what you see in the slide. If you’re secure about your social position and want other people to feel good too, you see the slide as an invitation to lighten up a little. I suppose (maybe) there are some men who like to think of women as toys, and maybe they see this slide as an encouragement to do that. But I wouldn’t immediately assume that Andrew is one of the latter group instead of the second. Sean Palmer

Indeed there are men (and women) who deliberately objectify people of the other *sex*, and understandably this is a cause of concern for many women. Certainly there are some ignorant and sometimes dangerous people who make sexist comments designed to harass, intimidate, or discriminate. We must, however, grow up and learn to divorce these people from those who make normal human expressions of sexuality (whether or not in an inappropriate place, such as Andrew chose). Otherwise we are guilty of ignorance and intolerance in our politics, unwilling to separate the Unabomber from legitimate environmental protestors, or unable to separate the Norway killer from legitimate political protestors. Joe M.

These arguments are, for the most part, predictably met with reactionary comments that make a big point of sounding indignant, but not much else. Other commenters, though, at least made a point of attempting to construct arguments that went beyond mere indignant outrage (again, all emphasis mine):

Is a “hotness algorithm”, as an artifact divorced from its setting, inherently sexist? Probably not. Is a hotness algorithm, presented as an example to a bunch of dudes and very few women at a tech conference sexist? Yeah, I’d say it is. Avdi

See what he did there? He basically turned sexism into something that only happens when women are present and in the minority, which is arbitrary at best. I guess walking on eggshells, then, would be the appropriate behavior for men in the presence of women. How’s that for progressive gender relations?

Another one:

Arguing whether this is sexism or not is kind of missing the point. We live in a world where all too often women are objectified and discriminated against because they are women (or hot, or not hot) in a way that does not happen to men. In addition you are at a conference that has, according to reports, had an issue in the past with sexual harassment of female attendees. ¶ In this context it is fair to apply sexism when a man uses this example. If it had been a women [sic], or if he had use [sic] male as the gender it would have been different, but he did not. Alasdair

The first passage I emphasized illustrates just how clueless Alasdair is. Hey, man, look up the word beefcake. Hell, just deconstruct the word beefcake. Beef. Cake. A young man whose value is that of a cake made of beef.

Then he says this supposed objectification of people is different (acceptable, perhaps?) when it is applied to men, or when it’s a woman objectifying other women. That’s like saying it’s OK for me to call latinos spics because I’m a spic. Which would be pretty damn racist, because it aims to hinder freedom of speech for a certain group of people by limiting what words they’re allowed to use based solely on their ethnic background. It is a profoundly sexist argument used to counter perceived sexism. (It also doubles as the epitome of irony.)

Yet, by far, the majority of the sympathetic comments easily fall within the same category as this sorry excuse for an argument (after which the owner of the blog decided to disable further comments from being posted):

If you’re really arguing against the choice of word, you’re missing the point. If you honestly don’t see that there was a problem (whatever the “right” word is), then you are part of that problem. Rich

Oh, how easy it is to say something clever-sounding yet not really make a point at all, besides something completely self-fulfilling, like Yeah, well, you’re fucking wrong and the fact that you don’t see how wrong you are is evidence of how wrong you are!, which is essentially what the gentleman here is trying to say.

No, Rich: You’re missing the point.

Rich fails, as do most of the commenters who share his point of view, to see that those questioning the use of the word sexism agree with him that the use case examples are out of place, in poor taste, and unbecoming a professional speaking in the setting of an industry gathering. And making a distinction as to whether sexism is evident or not does not diminish that acknowledgement, much less make it irrelevant. In fact, it is very relevant, because sexist is an accusation with a significant negative effect on the reputation of its recipient and those who sympathize with or defend him or her.

On the other hand, it strikes me as self-sabotage to claim that the issue of whether something is sexist is merely a semantic concern. Understand this: When you claim that, whether actually sexist or not, acts that may be considered objectionable by some women should be treated as though they were sexist, you diminish the word’s weight and power. It reduces sexism to a mere expletive you get to throw around whenever you want your outrage to be evident, comparable to son of a bitch or asshole, which rarely (if ever) are used to mean that the object of the expletive is in fact the son of a female dog, or the actual living, breathing, talking, walking hole of an anus.

So, good job, Rich: You just defused the word sexism for men & women out there facing actual sexism. How does it feel to, in fact, be a part of the actual problem?