The Socialization of Sexism
by Diane Tegarden
(C) July 2008
My argument here is that men and women are socialized, nay, bombarded with daily images of “acceptable” sexism and misogyny in contemporary American culture. My proofs will briefly include examples from the media, the justice system, the institutions of marriage and religion, the way men and women are raised (conditioned), and how we deal differently with male verses female sexuality. This is an opinion piece rather than a study, so the arguments are backed only by observable data rather than strictly statistical research. Links to additional resources will be provided where available.
Sexism in Commercials
Let us look at the way women are portrayed in certain types of commercials; for example, I’ve noticed the large number of lingerie commercials vs. the small number of men shown parading around in their underwear. Women have come to be viewed as sexual objects that exist only for man’s pleasure, and where I am not passing a moral judgment on adult women choosing to wear sexy underwear, I simply wonder where are the equivalent number of commercials showing men in underwear, using provocative poses to supposedly sell men’s underwear? There is a negative character judgment attached to the adult women who wish to be overtly sexual, yet no such scurrilous judgment is made of a man’s character if he is shown partially in the nude.
The other blatant double standard can be found in print advertising, for example, you can find millions of ads showing only parts of a woman; showing a butt cheek, an elbow, and eyeball, a thigh, or a hip, visually reducing women to being “pieces of meat”, rather than seen as a whole person. Rarely are men seen as only body parts, they are usually shown with a head and face, reminding us they are whole people.
Sexism in Television Shows
Examining the lack of quality major starring roles for mature women in television, we find most actresses being offered rather limited types of roles as either: sexualized dolls without brains; matronly mothers in the accepted nurturing role; career women that act like castrating bitches in heat, whose brains are used solely to calculate how best to use other people (and they’re either insatiable nymphomaniacs, or neurotic, sexless lonely workaholics who can’t empathize with other people).
There are very few roles for mature women who are portrayed as being witty, attractive, successful, compassionate, and over 40.
Sexism in the Justice System-Female Offenders vs. Male Offenders
There is a huge inequity in the way the justice system and society at large views of the acceptability of violent men verses violent women.
Women are characterized as being docile, and any woman audacious enough to commit violence (particularly against men) is more severely punished than men who are accused of the same types of crimes against women. Men are accorded violence as part of their human nature; the old “boys will be boys” mentality, but it is considered “unnatural” in women, and something to be feared.
The ability to be incited to violence is equal in men and women; however women do not tend to act out their anger as often, according to the US Dept of Justice Statistics’ Bulletin which reported that the female prison population had reached only 111,403 by midyear 2006, while the male prison population had increased to reach 1,445,115. (2)
More statistical evidence shows that “men are 14 times more likely than women to be incarcerated. Their rate of incarceration was 939 men per 100,000 males, compared to 67 women per 100,000 females.”(3)
Furthermore, “based on self-reports of victims of violence, women account for only 14% of all violent offenders, an annual average of about 2.1 million violent female offenders versus the 86% of violent offenders who are male.(4)
Simply because women are less likely to commit a violent crime doesn’t mean that when they are violent, it is somehow less natural and more grievous than when men are violent.
In addition, women found guilty of violence are swiftly punished, and given longer sentences than are male murderers. A case in point is the current case of Susan Atkins, who was convicted for her role in the Sharon Tate murders which occurred over 40 years ago. She has been imprisoned for 37 years, and is dying of brain cancer. With only months left to live and incapacitated by her disease, she is still seen as a danger to society, and has been denied permission to go home to die amongst her family! (9)
By punishing men and women differently, this infers that it is somehow “more wrong” or “more immoral” for women to be violent than for men to be violent.
Sexism in the Legal System- Women as victims of violent crime are devalued
Men’s lives are valued above women’s lives, as is evidenced by the laws regarding the treatment of cop killers vs. serial rapists. In 1991 only 9 percent of the police force was female; therefore the stringent laws against cop killing were basically written to avenge the death of policemen. 
When the law punishes a violent murderer, what difference should it make in the punishment of that murderer whether their victim is a police officer or a civilian? Why are vast man-hunts conducted when there’s a cop killer loose, yet there have been several infamous serial rapists who abducted, tortured, raped and killed their female victims, and got away with it repeatedly, over a number of years, before they were brought to justice?
If you think I’m wrong, ask yourself one question, have you ever heard of a serial cop killer? No way.
Yet you’ve heard of serial rapists/murderers who lived to kill women again and again, most recently Gary Leon Ridgway, the “Green River Killer” who confessed to the 48 killings which took place from 1982 to 1998. On November 5, 2003 Ridgway plead guilty to murdering 48 women saying that “strangling young women was my career.”(7)
One can only conclude from these examples that when the victims of violent crimes are women, it’s allowed to go on and on for years, whereas if the victims are men, the crimes are stopped much sooner. The message is clear here, “women aren’t as valuable as men.”
Women Being Legally Sold as Sex Objects in the United States of America
In Las Vegas, Nevada you can legally use the services of brothels where women sell themselves to men for their sexual pleasure. Where are the male prostitutes, who sell themselves for women’s sexual pleasure? (I’m not advocating male prostitution; I’m simply pointing out the acceptance of female prostitution as a regrettable but inescapable part of life, yet there’s obviously a lack of male prostitution in our society.)
What message can this possibly convey, except that women are “items to be bought and sold”, but men are not?
Religions institutionalize Sexism
In Utah, a man may legally marry multiple wives (polygamy), yet there’s no such provision for women to marry multiple husbands.
The recent sect of Utah polygamists allowed underage minors to be legally married to men many years their senior, without their legal consent. Many of these young girls then bore children to these husbands who are twice their age. If these men hadn’t been allowed to hide behind their religious beliefs, they’d be in jail for statutory rape and pedophilia. As it stands, the Department of Child Protective Services was forced to return those children of forced marriages back to their mothers and pedophile fathers.
Our Upbringing or Conditioning; the Lessons Women Learn from Childhood
As little girls, women are taught to believe we are only half-people, who should continually be seeking our “other half” or “better half”. We’re taught as little girls that only after we have married a man and have children, are we “complete”, again inferring that we are only part of a person unless we find a mate and become a caregiver to others.
Women (but not men) are told that we need another human being to “complete us” and give our lives meaning. Men are taught to be independent, and they learn to work as part of a team, but continue to think about their career first. They are taught to think of women as conquests, as something to be gained in order to complete their success as men (“get a”…good job, fast car, pretty wife, house, kids and a dog; all are “items” on a list to be acquired.)
Women are socialized from birth to put others before themselves; they are expected to baby-sit for younger siblings and are given housework tasks that brothers are not necessarily made to do, thus relegating them to the roles of caregiver and maid.
Little girls are given dolls to care for; dolls are toys that represent our future roles as mother and caretaker, whereas little boys are given action related toys, indicating their role as an active participant in their own life with the ability to “move”, “change” and be a “decision maker”.
Little boys are taught that it is their actions, not words and feelings that will count for something in their future; whereas little girls are taught “the beauty myth” that will effectively distract them and discourage them from becoming more than just “objects to look at”. It will teach them to devalue themselves in the long run.
It’s no wonder that some women become neurotic; we are constantly inundated with messages teaching us to obsess over each tiny part of our bodies, distracting us from more important work by trite worries about each hair being in place. That “beauty myth” teaches us to fear growing older if we (most naturally) start to look older, to the utter destruction of our mentality, our budget and our ability to take ourselves seriously as adults.
Think about the man in your life- does he obsess over the size of his ankles, his underarm hair, the hair on his legs, how long his eyelashes are, or whether he has an extra 10 or 20 pounds around his middle? Truthfully, men can get away with being bald or hairy, being a sloppy dresser, have grungy facial hair and mismatched three-day-old socks, and no one will think less of him at work.
Men don’t have to worry about every ounce they gain, the wrinkles on their face, or keeping up with the latest fashions. Their clothes are less expensive and made with better quality than ours and they aren’t made to feel that they are less masculine unless they keep up with the latest fashions and accessories which change with the seasons.
Who could concentrate on becoming a serious adult with a prosperous career if they had to think about all that nonsense, plus work full time, keep up a house and raise their kids practically by themselves?
Blatant Sexism in Male/Female Communication
Women are routinely treated as “the less important person in the room”; studies have shown that 96% of the time, women are interrupted while speaking in a group more often than men.
“West and Zimmerman report on two studies of gendered conversations. In the first study they looked at both same-sex and cross-sex conversations among acquaintances in public and private spaces. They found that there were very few interruptions within same-sex conversations; but in cross-sex talk, men with women, the pattern of interruptions “was grossly asymmetrical,” with men initiating 96% of the interruptions. The second study involved college students who were unacquainted and randomly paired. They analyzed only the initial twelve minutes of conversation, feeling that the students would be on their best behavior during the process of getting acquainted. Of the interruptions in those conversations, 75% of them were initiated by men.” (6)
“In mixed-sex conversations men interrupt women more, with the result that women are less able to complete their turns at talk and tend to talk less.” (5)
Sexism in the Institution of Marriage/Divorce
The institution of marriage was developed to clarify the “ownership” of the woman, so there could be no question as to the legitimacy or lineage of her children.
One example that can be found in the English language lies at the root of the explanation for the meaning of the title of “Mrs.”, and how to use it properly.
Mrs. technically means “the wife of (name of the husband)”, that is why when women use the title of Mrs. properly, the woman should omit her first name and write her name as only “Mrs. Donald Sutherland”. You see, it would be improper to write “Mrs. Nancy Sutherland”, because then you are saying that you are “the wife of Nancy Sutherland”, which is not true. The woman subsumes her identity when getting married, giving up her first and last names, abandoning any ties to her old identity.
Therefore the title of Mrs. proclaims the ownership status of the woman, whereas the title of Mr. only signifies respect to a grown man, it doesn’t indicate his marital status.
And again, the title of Miss signifies an unmarried woman, clearly indicating to the world that she is currently available.
Once a woman is married, in some states she must prove that her husband has been unfaithful, or have other proofs against him, in order to get a divorce. Unbelievable as it may seem in the 21st century, some state laws still require “proof of infidelity”, or other justifiable reasons in order to get a divorce. The experts who were interviewed on a recent 60 Minutes segment claimed that “it’s so easy to get out of marriage these days, it encourages divorce.”
If it’s “so easy” to get divorced, why are there only 15 states that have “no fault divorce”, as in California and Wisconsin, while in other states there is a “fault divorce” in which you have to justify why you no longer wish to be married to your spouse? (1)
Some states offer a choice of either fault or no-fault divorce, but if you choose the no-fault divorce, it can take up to two years for the paperwork to be processed. In the meantime, in some states you must reside in the same household as your spouse in order to retain your rights to your property, in others, a legal separation period is required. Having to live with a spouse whom you are divorcing seems like a punishment for having the audacity for wanting to leave your husband. Once they know you’ve filed the divorce paperwork, you have to live with this angry, agitated person (who could easily become vindictive) during the 24 month waiting period.
The Inequity of Sexual Image
Both men and women are naturally sexual, so why should there be a negative moral judgment if a woman is highly sexually active (remember the term “slut” is only applied to women), whereas if a man is sexually active, he is considered more virile?
Why should the same basic human behavior imply a lack of morals in one gender, yet that same behavior is considered a compliment to the identity of the other gender?
It’s hard to believe that it is the 21st century, considering the rampant and socially sanctioned practice of sexism as it is practiced in our country. But given the varied and numerous examples I’ve come up with just off the top of my head, I’d say that the socialization of sexism is, unfortunately, the norm.
I know this is a long article but it demanded serious attention, as it’s a serious problem. I hope it makes you think, I hope it makes you mad, but most of all I hope it makes you act.
The next time someone demeans you because of your gender, you must speak up in order to start the changes in your own life that will eventually be mirrored by society at large.
(1) “No Fault Divorce vs. Fault Divorce FAQ”, FindLaw for the Public, http://public.findlaw.com/divorce, printed out 02/18/08
(2) “Office of Justice Programs Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006”. William J. Sabol, Ph.D., Todd D. Minton, Paige M. Harrison. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin.
June 2007, NCJ 217675. U.S. Department of Justice.
(3) “Office of Justice Programs Prison and Jail Inmates at Midyear 2006”. William J. Sabol, Ph.D., Todd D. Minton, Paige M. Harrison. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin.
June 2007, NCJ 217675. U.S. Department of Justice.
(4) “Violent Felons in Large Urban Counties” By Brian A. Reaves, Ph.D. Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report. July 2006, NCJ 205289. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs Highlights, State Court Processing Statistics, 1990-2002
(5) Language in Use website. Material written by Duncan S. Grey. Citation as follows:
GREY, D S., 2008. Language In Use [online]. Cambridge, UK. Available from: http://www.putlearningfirst.com/language/23sexism/genderlect.html [12/07/08]
(6) “Small Insults and Doing Gender” by Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman.
(7) link to source: http://www.karisable.com/greenriver.htm
(8) “FEMALE POLICE OFFICERS IN THE UNITED STATES”, research paper by Barbara Raffel Price. http://www.ncjrs.org/policing/fem635.htm. Date Accessed 07/14/08.
“In 1970, only two percent of all police were women but, by 1991, nine percent of police were women (personal communication, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1993). At the executive, policy making level of policing, we find very limited representation of women. Less than two percent of police (1.4%) in the very top echelons of the uniformed ranks are women.”
(9) “State recommends against releasing Sharon Tate’s dying killer” By BRIAN ROKOS,
The Press-Enterprise, July 2008.