How Sexist Men Change


I read an article sharing an experience with a male internet bully who called the author a “c***” for being liberal. Her sister jumped to her defense, calling out the irony of this man, a recent father of a daughter, calling another woman such a degrading term.

The point of the article was that by using degrading language toward a woman, he is fostering a culture of disrespect that will eventually harm his own daughter. He is, more or less, making it okay for someone to call his daughter a disgusting word.

He didn’t respond after that.

I thought that was brilliant. I’m a big fan of humanizing issues for others who fail to see people as anything more than living representations of evil beliefs.

But then, of course, someone responded with the oft-heard feminist complaint, “I’m frustrated that the author is encouraging the idea that women are only valuable as mothers or wives or sisters. Women are valuable because they’re human beings. Period.”

And sure, I get that. That’s the goal, isn’t it, of all efforts for equality — people are valuable as people, period. It doesn’t matter if they’re related to us or connected to us or connected to anybody else we value or connected to any other kind of person we value. We respect, honor, and protect them as humans. I agree with that. That is ideal.

But I disagree that comparing a woman to a man’s daughter or wife or mother is counterproductive to that end.

Sexism, prejudice, hate, and fear run deep. They’re also hypocritical and blind and lacking in empathy. They’re incapable of viewing people as people.

But love is powerful, even in a sexist, prejudiced, hateful, fearful person.

When we ask a man to think about how his sexism would affect a woman he loves, we are arousing love. We are arousing empathy. We are arousing protectiveness and anger on behalf of someone, even if it’s partially selfish because it’s “his” someone.

And we aren’t just inviting him to put the woman he loves in the place of the woman he just degraded. We’re inviting him to put himself in the shoes of the kind of man he would punch in the teeth on behalf of somebody he loves.

That’s a clarifying, powerful experience — to realize we are what we hate most, to realize we are perpetrating what we hate most, to realize that our actions contradict our deepest held beliefs.

If you haven’t grown up with sexism, you don’t realize how reasonable it sounds. You don’t realize how the world is taught to you, how your femininity or masculinity is explained to you, how sexism makes perfect sense given certain fundamental beliefs.

If you didn’t grow up with sexism, you don’t realize that sexist people, both men and women, really do believe in loving, respecting, and honoring other people as people. That’s a core Christian teaching — loving the other as human, standing up for them no matter what. But here’s where it gets twisted: if you’re taught that liberalism is evil, if you’re taught that God designed men and women to be happiest within distinct, predetermined roles, your “love for others” will look a lot like hate.

This is how we get devoted fathers calling other women “c***s.” This is how we get women lobbying against who they and their fellow women are. This is how we get demonstrably false ideas like men are inherently more capable of leadership than women. This is how loving, decent, God-fearing people perpetrate hate against others — all in the name of love.

This deception runs very, very deep, and only empathy and love can break it. Only by invoking the true love one has for others can someone see that the so-called “love” they have towards people they hate is horrific.

Perfect love really does cast out all fear.

It’s a process, a deconstruction, to recognize that that your “love” and “decency” and “logic” can be hateful, inhumane, and illogical. We’re really good at mixing up those things. All of us. Even those who lay down their lives in the name of equality. All of us do this, to varying degrees.

We must be patient with each other. We must celebrate the small victory of, for instance, a man seeing the horror of his comments to another woman by invoking his love for his daughter.

Later we can demand that he respect women as humans, period. But for now, we must celebrate this small victory of empathy, this small moment of awakening, this small act of love against hate.

That’s the only way a sexist man will change.

11 thoughts on “How Sexist Men Change

  1. Steph E

    This is really true. Michael Kimmel, who is one of the founding gender/masculinity studies people talks about this a lot– how studies show the thing that helps men progress is when they see women in terms of the women they love. I think he mentioned it in his TED talk as well. I think it comes back to– do we actually want real women’s lives to be better, and for real men to progress in their thinking? Or do we just want to be right about stuff?


    • Bethany C

      Oh boy, Michael Kimmel is one of my favorite authors. I’ve read several of his books and discussed his work in a really fascinating class I took called ‘Men and Masculinities’. I appreciated how empathetically he critiqued hyper-masculinity, delved into the gender-based roots of violence like school shootings, and addressed how white men can perceive that ‘the deck is stacked against them’ & take out their frustration on women and minorities. His book ‘Angry White Men’, in particular, is helpful in understanding & dismantling this worldview.

      And Bailey, I definitely hear what you’re saying here. I think it’s important to keep in mind the end-goal of valuing women as people foremost, not merely as wives & daughters. But I’m all about pragmatism: does something work in the short term, without seriously undermining long-term results?

      I think it’s the same reason I’m so glad there are strong, sometimes fairly conservative voices within Christianity who push back against patriarchy. While I am no longer a Christian and thus don’t share some of the motivations for pursuing justice, and I wouldn’t feel honest making a Christian argument against patriarchy, I am so glad that those voices (like yours) exist. As long as people are being helped out of oppression, I’m for it. I know that I was scared to listen to someone like Rachel Held Evans at first, but Karen Campbell and Hillary McFarland seemed ‘safe’ :)


      • Bailey Steger

        Now I DEFINITELY need to check out more of Michael Kimmel!

        I completely feel the same way, Bethany. While I am happily out of the complementarian/patriarchal world and the conservative/”Biblical” mindset that makes it possible, there’s a bittersweet reality that I will no longer be deemed “safe” by many of the women who desperately need OUT. Like you, I’m all for free-thinking complementarian women speaking up against injustice. I try to ally myself with all sorts, if I see them doing real good and making real change. It’s a process. We need all hands on deck.


  2. namelesspublications

    I love the point you make here. I have always thought that there was shame in making a man emphasise with women by comparing them or speaking of them in terms of their loved ones – because why should a man emphasise with a situation just because it could affect his mother or wife or daughter!? Shouldn’t he emphasise because he is human? But you are so right, arousing love does arouse empathy and if it works, then it must be used :)


  3. Karen Wright

    I really appreciate this, Bailey. I often feel like most feminist rhetoric is based off of the assumption that sexist men won’t change, or that under their sexism there is no loving, caring man. It’s false, and as you said, unless you’ve been raised in that patriarchal culture, you can’t understand the dichotomy of sexism AND love exisiting simultaneously.

    And this isn’t completely related, but what you wrote made me think of this great article:

    Sexist men are often products of their culture, not just naturally-born monsters.


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