Some combination of personality flaw/disorder, power high, and celebrity allowed Harvey Weinstein (and Donald Trump and Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly…) to allegedly sexually harass and assault many women for many years with impunity and without remorse. But there’s another factor at work in these cases — one that’s insidious, pervasive and widely permissible: casual sexism.
Yes, it’s gotten a hell of a lot better over the past few decades — watch any episode of “Mad Men” or “The Deuce” for proof that blatant misogyny has taken a big hit. But casual sexism still remains one the last few socially acceptable prejudices — one that won’t automatically get you fired from a job or prevent you from becoming president of the United States. Read the Google memo. Watch the clip of Ben Affleck grabbing Hilarie Burton’s breast on live television. Read the texts between Representative Tim Murphy and his mistress about him encouraging her to get an abortion while he promoted harsh, anti-choice legislation. And you’ll know that women’s minds and bodies are still, in the 21st century, constantly judged, belittled and controlled.
But even these examples are more obvious than the millions of little messages we as a society are bombarded with every day which suggest, in almost a whisper, that women are less than men: less competent, less qualified, less emotionally stable, less funny, less entitled to sexual pleasure, less human. They’re in the little digs which roll of the tongue effortlessly and then roll off the backs of women who’ve learned to be accommodating and uncritical for reasons of self-preservation. They’re in all the times parents and teachers segregate the sexes, creating cootie-fueled animosity between them, which gets exploited by the ones who grow up with more power: the boys. They’re in every instance of Bill Maher still thinking it’s okay to use the sexually judgmental word “bimbo” to criticize a female politician for bad policy.
Let me unpack another specific example of this kind of casual sexism that’s so easy to miss, but so cumulatively toxic. I was flipping through the latest Rolling Stone the other day and stumbled upon an interview with Marilyn Manson, the goth cult icon who impressively eschewed machismo and embraced gender fluidity with his heavy makeup and nipple-free breast “implants.” Some of his less impressive stunts — for example, women led around on leashes during his stage shows — should have prepared me for the possibility of an unenlightened off-the-cuff remark, but the following lines still stopped me in my tracks:
. . . I lost my virginity [in Canton, Ohio], and got crabs at the same time. . . . Who in 10th grade has crabs? I guess that unfortunate, slutty cheerleader in Canton, Ohio.
There is so much subtext in his use of the word “slutty.” Those six little letters do a lot of work. The term suggests all of the following:
- a 10th grade girl who has sex is a slut (“slut” being defined here as a shamefully promiscuous, dirty loser)
- a 10th grade boy who has sex is not a slut
- girls who have an STD are unfortunate sluts
- boys who get an STD are victims
- cheerleaders are, historically, sluts
- guys who have sex with cheerleaders are not sluts
- having sex as few as two times (once to get crabs and once to deflower Marilyn Manson) is enough to qualify a girl as a slut
- as a man, losing one’s virginity to a young woman is not an experience that should be treated with respect and reverence, whether in the moment or in the memory of it
- sex is not a mutual exchange of pleasure between people who respect each other, but rather a farcical transaction whereby the man gets/takes something (in this case, experience and an STD) from the woman whom he may not respect or even particularly like
Some, I’m sure, would argue that I’m reading too much into this, putting words into Manson’s mouth which he didn’t actually say. Hey, perhaps he would call himself a slut, too! But the combination of him choosing that word in the first place and the editors then choosing to present his quote without further explanation or elaboration (along with the eight other double standards I read/watched/witnessed that day) make it impossible not to hear all those interpretations. The only difference is whether you receive them consciously or subconsciously.
If you subscribe to the radical notion that women should be treated equally and fairly, then you’ll get those messages loud and clear — and you’ll be annoyed by them (and by the sheer, exhausting number of them). But if you think uppity women need to relax, and female killjoys like me need to get a sense of humor, and wives like Melania (and Michelle…and Hillary…) should be seen and not heard, then you’re still getting those messages, only subconsciously. And rather than annoying you, they’re giving you sweeping societal permission, like a devil on your shoulder, to demean, dehumanize and, in extreme cases, even abuse women. It starts with a little “harmless” slut-shaming and ends with 17 million American women getting raped over the past 20 years.
The people who take in these messages of casual sexism and then regurgitate them without realizing their impact are the same people who ignored the crimes going on in those hotel rooms, the people who aided and abetted them, and the people who committed them.