It is quite redundant to think about the problem with sexism, considering that sexism itself is a problem, and a seriously fucked up one at that. But I am going to humor myself for a moment and delve a little deeper into my thoughts on it, because I have come to believe that there is a problem with sexism, and that problem is love (and to a lesser extent, sex). See, love makes us act in crazy ways, or at least that is what we have been told, and when it comes to sexism, love can foster denial of self and what we may know is right, and that is downright crazy. Sexism is unique as a form of oppression in the sense that unlike other oppressions, there exists between the “oppressed” (women) and the “oppressors” (men) a common incentive, and that is the desire to engage with one another. A more evo-psych perspective would argue that we are biologically “wired” to be drawn to one another for sake of procreation. At the very base of it this is true, although I shy away from thinking too much about biology and evolutionary impulses when thinking about the dynamics of inequality. Females and males will forever have the desire to interact as long as we are human, which is not true in the same way for say racism or heterosexism. There are plenty of conversations to be had about the nature of and desire for interaction among dominant and subordinate groups within all systems of oppression, but the reality is that only between males and females is there the “biological” urge to engage, whereas a black person and a white person do not necessarily have this, nor a poor person and a rich.
So for lack of a less evo-psych way of putting it, we as women and men are “biologically” drawn to one another, and there is nothing we can do about it. (Disclaimer: I am aware of the fact that there are many gender and sexual differences among individuals that are not in alignment with my statements, and speak only in general terms for sake of argument). This inevitable attraction that we have for one another is the problem with sexism; love, and sex, make it so that sexism remains one of the major cornerstones of oppression, and insidious to the point where it is extremely difficult to see.
I first thought about this while overhearing conversations of women whom I worked among in strip clubs. A strip-club dressing room is the feminine equivalent of a male athletic locker room in the sense that the interactions that occur within it are very gendered and harbor more “in-group honesty” because there is only the one gender participating. So as a glimpse into a locker room for male athletes may give a clue into the private world of masculinity, the conversations that occur in a strip club dressing room tell of the daily concerns of these women’s lives. What is unique about this setting and what leads me to believe that love and sex are problems of sexism, more specifically problems to overcoming sexism, is the nature of the work that is being done outside of the dressing room, which is situated explicitly within the context of patriarchy.
It is arguable that similarly to how professional sports (especially in the United States) represent an apex of masculine expression, the strip club does so as well: although it is women who are the primary actors within a strip club, the space is wholly dedicated to masculinity. Strippers represent the ultimate patriarchal fantasy, which is why there are always less women who attend strip clubs (regardless of their sexual preference) and always less male strippers. Stripping is about masculinity, making a man feel like a man, and is much less so about celebration of women’s sexuality. Given this and given the overall context within which these spaces exist, the strip club offers us women who work there a rare window into patriarchal masculinity – it is like being able to secretly hear how men talk about us as women when we are not around. As strippers we encounter men’s attitudes about women in a very different and intimate way than perhaps we would had we not been strippers, in the sense that because we are already posited as sexual objects who solely serve the purposes of men, men do not necessarily feel the need to act among us as if we are real people. We are merely strippers, so while a man may put on a façade of interest to a woman at a bar, he does not have to do so in a strip club. What I mean to say is that as strippers we get to see what men really think of us as women. And yes, there are many caveats to my previous statement, such as the fact that men who have gone and go to strip clubs are in the minority, or that the environment lends itself to especially lewd behavior. However as some have said that we can judge a country’s values by looking at its prisons, I do believe that we can judge a patriarchy’s values by looking at its strip clubs.
So this brings me to the real point of my musings, which is that that there exists a disparity between what we see and experience from men as women working in this environment and what we express about them in the dressing rooms of this environment, and I believe that love is what creates this disparity. To put it simply, men in strip clubs are pigs who treat us like shit. The level of disrespect and disregard for our humanity is so low that I can do without political correctness: fuck men and all the horses that they rode in on. It is important that I point out that I am not making a statement about all men ever, rather the nature of their perception of us as women when we are situated in the awkward position of being at once extremely desirable and extremely disposable. There is much to be said about strip club dynamics, but the focus here is the fact that although this treatment is more or less a reality for us, we still speak about men, the men in our lives that we love and care for, in ways which are cognitively dissonant from this experience. (The fact that we women in general even spend so much time speaking about men really boggles the mind anyway, but I suppose it makes sense in the context of oppression.) Even as women who see the what the “true” nature of men can be in regards to how they perceive us, we still manage to devote a large amount of our time and energy thinking and musing about the men in our lives, and I believe that the love we have for these men acts as a barrier to our making the final leap into accepting the fact that we are seriously, seriously oppressed as a gender.
I remember a woman in the dressing room once who was being consoled by two others, upset about a man, expressing feelings of self-insecurity and doubt. It is quite interesting to think that only by walking out into the club could she be regarded as highly desirable by men, yet within her own life still feel insecure about a particular man. It is just as interesting to think that she could walk out into the club and simultaneously be treated inferior, yet within her own life desire and crave the love of a particular man. So many of us women who work in the club are “over” the behavior of men, yet it is love that is blocking us from contextualizing our own lives within the same structure that creates the space of the strip club. How is it that men can both worship me in the club and treat me as less than, and still in my own life I can both feel unworthy, and also expect that men will see me as equal? How is it that I, we, can believe that men can truly love us as women?
As long as we are taught and internalize the idea that a man’s love and attention is what validates our lives as women, there will exist a great hurdle to the recognition that we are oppressed as fuck as a class of human beings. Oppression relies on separation to maintain itself, and we will never be in solidarity with one another as women if we are still held back by the desire and need that is constructed upon us to be loved by a man, to be claimed and have our lives be validated by them. As bell hooks argues, “as females in a patriarchal culture, we [are] not slaves to love, most of us are slaves of longing – yearning for a master who will set us free and claim us because we cannot claim ourselves (hooks, Communion xvi).” Of course this is highly theoretical and I am not speaking here of the lives of individual women, but pointing to the fact that both our biological drive to interact with men and constructed need for their attention and validation work together to create a matrix within which it is even more difficult to move – and that this is a serious hurdle to women coming together in solidarity and essentially saying, fuck men and sexist oppression. Solidarity creates resistance, but putting into question our relationships with the men in our lives that we love and care for to really stand against sexist oppression is a monumental challenge. What the question comes down to is: Is it possible to truly love within the context of domination? Perhaps we do not want to know the answer.