Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Penny’s Handy Guide to NOT Making Sexist Comments

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and my guest authors and I are approaching the topic from a variety of angles. C. Hope Clark wrote about "Championing the Abused in Mystery Fiction," and Maggie Toussaint followed with thoughts about writing "Mystery with a Social Issue." 

But the sexist attitudes that allow and sometimes encourage domestic violence have deep cultural roots, and they don't always show themselves physically. Sexism is pervasive in our own and many other societies, even in the literary and academic worlds where we would hope to hold people to a higher standard. I'm delighted to welcome Penny Guisinger, my fellow Stonecoast alumna, friend, and brilliant writer, here today with her thoughtful essay on how not to make sexist comments, even (or especially) by accident. ~ Sheila

Penny’s Handy Guide to NOT Making Sexist Comments

by Penny Guisinger

Someday I will learn to stay away from comments sections. Read the piece, and move on, that’s the best thing to do. Comments sections are a lawless land best encountered only in times of late-night, drunken surfing when you won’t remember the horrors you saw or what you wrote in response.  I try not to respond. I try to just keep trip-trapping over the bridge, pretending not to notice the trolls.

Recently, on the blog of a prestigious literary magazine, a poet posted a piece about her experience delivering a reading in a bar. After her reading, she had to fend off one of the worst, most insulting attempts at a pick-up from a guy – ever. I won’t repeat it here, but suffice to say that his was a line dripping with the kind of condescending creepiness that would make any of us instinctively wish for a can of pepper spray.

One of the first comments in response to the blog post was from a man. Let’s call him “Tom.” (I’m calling him “Tom” because that’s the name he used, and even though this isn’t about that one guy, I’m a believer in naming names, you know?) In just a couple of short comments, Tom managed to include many of sexism’s greatest hits. It’s an impressive achievement.

Should we care about the sexist commentary the Toms of the world leave sprinkled across the cyberscape like rabbit scat on snow? Yes we should. And here’s why. Because another thing we care about is this: it’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The fact that any of you Toms believe it’s ok to discount the stories of women (and, worse yet, replace them with your own) is the same “nothing to see here” bullshit that lets abusers and rapists off the hook every day.  Because, actually, sexism’s greatest hits are much more serious than anything some guy can cram into an uninformed comment on a blog. (Also known as “What we see in the newspaper every day and what women have to think about all the time.”)

I’m a reasonable person, and I’m willing to believe that nobody, not even the Toms of the world, actually wants to be a sexist jerk. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Before I go to bed tonight, I hope to publicly flex my privilege.” I’m going to give the Toms out there the benefit of the doubt and assume that these missteps are made accidentally. I’m particularly willing to make this concession because the poet’s blog and the offending comment that started all this was found on the website of a literary magazine – and I do drift through those pages assuming a readership with higher-ordered thinking. I am frequently let down. But there’s hope.

I’m here to help. 

Penny’s Handy Guide to NOT Making Sexist Comments

Toms! Listen up. Before you hit “send” or open your mouth, ask yourself if your comment commits any of the following acts of male privilege. 
  • Are you sharing any aspect of your experience as a man and assuming it’s the same thing when the tables are turned? Does your comment contain any shade of “what’s the big deal?” If so, you may be engaging in a classic case of “talking instead of listening.” (Also known as “I can’t hear what you’re saying because I’m too busy defensively inserting my own experience which obviously negates yours.”)
  • Are you granting yourself any kind of special powers that allow you to have a penetrating insight into the female experience? An indicator of this is when you find yourself explaining to a woman what she actually experienced and how this differs from what she thinks happened. 
  • Are you sharing something purporting to be advice, but which is really just condescension? Could any part of your comment be paraphrased as “Lighten up” or “Stop being such an uptight bitch”?
  • Are you resorting to generalizations about what women really want? Do you assume on any level that what a woman needs is to be laid by a hunky guy?
  • Do you stand up for other oppressed groups to justify your own missteps? For example, do you accuse a woman of “reverse sexism” or try to call her out on being ageist, classist, ableist, speciesist, etc? This is also known as, “Oh, yeah? Oh, YEAH? I know you are, but what am I?” Such a skilled spin on that old playground standard, “I’m rubber, you’re glue.”

Here’s the other thing I care about: literature. It should be a place for compassion, learning, and dialogue, and those are the same things that can (maybe someday) eradicate the epidemic of violence against women. (Maybe even the uber-subtle forms of literary violence revealed every year by the VIDA count?) Those who read literature as a means of understanding anything about the broadness of the human experience should use more question marks than exclamation points, more “help me understand”s and fewer “what’s the big deal”s.

Photo courtesy of Helen Peppe.
Penny Guisinger lives and writes on the easternmost tip of the United States. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, Solstice Literary Magazine, and About Place Journal, and her reviews appear regularly in The Quoddy Tides and The Review Review. Her essay "Coming Out" was named as a finalist in the 2013 Fourth Genre essay contest, and one called “Provincetown” was awarded an editor’s choice award from Solstice. She  is the founding organizer of Iota: The Conference of Short Prose. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

Penny is also a musician and a photographer. She shares her home with her wife and the two most beautiful, talented children in the world. To learn more or to contact Penny, visit her website.


I hope you'll come back next week. In the meantime, 
please explore some of the older posts on my blog, 
and feel free to look around my website. ~ Sheila

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