I follow this Facebook group with hundreds of women members, one of whom recently posted about a frustrating experience with a male client. He’d made some dopey sexist remark about her having grown out of her “scared little girl” phase of being a new employee. She laughed off his backhanded compliment but felt awful afterward; her feminist instinct was, “I should have confronted him.”
I couldn’t bear to read the comments on her post because in my experience, fellow frustrated women tend to jump into, “Well you know what I would have said” mode, which is not helpful. In fact, I see that as a very alpha response more reminiscent of patriarchy than feminism. My feeling is that the person posting about that experience did nothing wrong. If she had chosen to chastise or insult the fool, that would have been fine, too. If you, reader, are a woman who enjoys lashing back at sexist men, I sincerely cheer and encourage you to keep up your great work. Guys like that definitely deserve your harsh words. But if you’re a woman who dreads having that confrontation, may I suggest an alternate response that doesn’t require the sexist man’s participation at all – simply write off his existence and ignore him as much as possible.
The thing about telling off a sexist dude is that you’re probably not gonna get anything out of him beyond his temporary embarrassment or anger (both of which can be very hard to take, especially if you must deal with him while making a living). He might stop saying those dumb things out loud in front of you to avoid another confrontation, but he’s unlikely to think real hard on what you taught him and change his attitude for the better. He probably doesn’t care about the lesson you’re trying to teach him, because you are a woman and why would he care? We don’t matter to most of them, beyond our capacity to mother, serve, or satisfy. Once you realize you’re dealing with that sort of man — the kind who doesn’t care about your insides — it is in your best interest to stop caring what he thinks or feels. Let his insides be as invisible to you as yours are to him.
What I’m advocating for is mutual indifference. We cannot entirely avoid dealing with these men, especially at work. But we can choose to end conversations with them as quickly as possible and refuse to mask our boredom when they blather on about themselves or their precious ideas. My sister calls this latter technique “napping bitch face” – for when the mansplainer is so boring that you practically fall asleep. You don’t have to tell the guy to shut the fuck up (unless that’s something you enjoy, in which I case I applaud you). But neither do you need to feign interest. The nice thing about writing off these dullards is that it frees you from wanting to be liked by them. So go ahead, take a nap. Or just let your mind wander to more pleasant thoughts – that’s what they do when you speak about something other than them.
Becoming a mother helped me notice the vast number of selfish men who want nurturing attention from women without giving any of that attention in return. Especially as I’ve found myself aging out of the range of their jerk-off fantasies, I can easily recognize this sort of man. He isn’t talking to me in the hopes of maybe getting laid, but still wants something from me that he has no intention of reciprocating. Maybe he wants me to listen to his problems or tell him his ideas are smart. But if I start discussing my problems or ideas, he either talks over me or gets that faraway look in his eye that indicates he’s having his nap.
If I told off every man who engaged me this way, I’d be lecturing nonstop. That’s not my idea of fun or fulfillment. Instead, a switch flips in my brain and I think, “Ah, one of them.” And I avoid conversation with that man as much as possible. This system works for me.
I also apply this technique to my organizing life. As much as I can, I avoid working with men who exhibit those characteristics. Fortunately, I have many guy comrades and friends who actually like and respect women; I tend to arrange more meetings with them. Sometimes we’ll get together for beers or karaoke and I’ll have multiple conversations with these gents, during which they maintain eye contact and respond to the things I’m saying instead of the thoughts in their own head. It’s honestly a little jarring, because my social expectations are now so low.
Don’t get me wrong, I do not want to underestimate the high level of sexism and misogyny in left organizing circles – it’s a big problem, and in recent days I’ve heard rumblings from a couple socialist organizations about high-level male members getting away with terrible abusive behavior. I can only say that here in my little corner of socialist organizing, my filter definitely works for me. And in the end, while creeps and dullards still abound on the left, I do believe there are a slightly higher-than-usual number of dudes who actually like us.
But even if there weren’t, we’d still have women (and nonbinary folks!). From nurses to teachers to flight attendants to teenage climate change strikers, we’re doing some of the most impressive, impactful organizing right now. As long as we’re good comrades to each other and don’t get bogged down in exhausting fights with silly men, I believe we’ll continue kicking ass on a major level.