First, a caveat: absolutely no one is going to use the words consistently the way I’ll be using them here; the concepts are fairly well agreed upon, but how people choose to apply our extremely fuzzy language to them varies from person to person.
With that out of the way, let me say right out that we’re all guilty of sexism, because sexism is a structural thing (sexism = prejudice + power), and since our whole society is still sexist, we contribute to sexism simply by being part of it. We do this primarily in two ways: for one, because the structure itself perpetuates sexism, and few people function outside that structure (meaning, we all pay the price for dry-cleaning assigned to our clothes’ gender(!); we all, to some degree, submit to social definitions of what is “feminine” and what is “masculine”; etc.); two, growing up in a sexist culture means we learn how to act, what to consider normal, how to interact with people, how to assess them, etc. in ways that are in some way or another sexist; hence the studies that show lower levels of respect for women, from both men and women. So in that sense, every person who hasn’t been raised by (egalitarian) wolves and/or is far enough on the Autism spectrum to be immune to social clues is a sexist. That’s however not how people generally use the word “sexist”. When people use that word, they generally mean someone who is prejudiced against women; I would say though that that prejudice should be called “misogyny*”. The reason for that is that, as I said, sexism is structural. If no power accompanies the prejudice, you can’t really have sexism. As such, “misandry” is a real thing, but it isn’t sexism since there’s no real power to enforce anti-men prejudice**.
Now, the problem is that most people who are aware of the effects of being stuck in a sexist culture also don’t usually refer to everyone as sexist. so we get the distinction between “being a sexist” and “doing sexist things”; which, if we for a moment ignore my last paragraph and use “sexism” in the casual sense of meaning prejudice, is also a sensible distinction: being a person who is prejudiced, and inadvertently doing something, usually out of ignorance, that originates in prejudice are two different things. The distinction also might make sense in the context of the previous paragraph in the sense of there being a difference between being sexist, being a sexist, and doing sexist things: the first is the default for people in a sexist society; the second is someone who actively promotes, approves of, and willfully engages in sexism (i.e. what people usually think of when they hear the word); the third one is simply an isolated act that is borne out of the first, but doesn’t (yet) imply that one is the second: it does imply that the behavior is correctable and that a single sexist act does not yet condemn a person to being a sexist.
Anyway, this vagueness of language and the difficulty of accurately and consistently describing the concepts is what causes at least half the drama whenever sexist or misogynist behavior*** is pointed out: people feel like they’ve just been accused of being hateful, prejudiced assholes, when all that actually happened was that they did something that our sexist culture taught them to do; something they now have been given the opportunity to un-learn, and thus divest themselves of one more piece of inadvertent misogynist acculturation. Something similar happens with accusations of being “tools of the Patriarchy”: that’s not an accusation of outright hatred of women; it’s a rather blunt way of pointing out that an action/behavior/state of affairs that one is defending is patriarchal in nature, and as such, the defense serves to bolster patriarchy. Most people who act as “tools of the Patriarchy” do it not out of malice (though those exist too, of course) but out of sheer ignorance of how the thing they’re defending fits into the systemic structure of sexism. But of course, due to the charged nature of the insult as well as due to the Dunning-Kruger effect, people so labeled aren’t going to respond smartly to it. Especially when they’re very young, because as previously mentioned, most people under 25**** are fucking idiots who know a little bit of everything, and think that means they know everything.
I have absolutely no solution to this clusterfuck; if I were emperor of the world, I’d make everyone use these words in exactly the way I used them here, plus invent a new word for inadvertently promoting sexism, but without being prejudiced. Short of that, people will continue to (choose to) misunderstand and get pissy about being called on acting sexist or defending the patriarchy (and no, not calling them out is not an option)
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*it seems people use “misogynist” as a stronger version of “sexist”: someone who’s sexist is merely prejudiced, someone who’s misogynist is someone who actually hates women. On occasion, I also see “misogynist” simply being a subset of “sexist”, in the same way that “polygyny” is a subset of “polygamy”. Personally, I think the word is really more useful as the word for the specific prejudice that fuels sexism, in the same way that homophobia is the prejudice that fuels heterosexism. In fact, I wish there were such a distinction for racism, too, but there the systematic discriminatory outcomes and the prejudice are conflated and labeled with the same word, leading to all sorts of stupid drama. Like I said, language is incredibly, inconveniently messy.
**there is such a thing as sexism against guys: it’s that “Patriarchy Hurts Men, Too” thing: prejudice about how men are supposed to be and behave, and the social power to enforce this. homophobia is a huge example of this. This, however, is sexism against men borne out of prejudice against women (misogyny), not prejudice against men (misandry)
***since I earlier mentioned that sexism is structural, sometimes our sexist acts don’t even include any subconscious prejudice, but are merely ignorance or lack of knowledge of how to get something done without perpetuating the sexism of it; the best example was an article I read recently about a women consciously resisting from complementing a little girl on her looks, and instead asking about her interests. The woman clearly isn’t prejudiced, but does occasionally catch herself promoting sexism with small things like squee-ing at a baby-girl in a cute outfit; because it’s almost automatic, and socially expected. So, one can perform a sexist action, or one can perform a misogynist action (which would be one that did include prejudice, even if maybe only subconscious and/or unexamined prejudice). I wish there were a word for perpetuating sexism without being prejudiced, to avoid confusion *sigh*
****oh, the stupid shit I’ve said and done in defense of d00dz, for the goal of being seen as one of the “cool” girls… *groan* … and worst of all, I actually thought I was right! I wish at least I could say I was being cynical and manipulative and making the patriarchy work for me, but no: I was just stupid.