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Subtle sexism is a threat

Recently in the media and during this election, several derogatory comments about women have surfaced. These comments, however often they are dismissed as out of context or irrelevant, seriously damage attitudes towards women in society.

I’ve noticed that some have disapproved of these statements by asking others to imagine the women affected as their mother, daughter, sister or wife. The idea behind this is that personalizing these comments will elicit a more impassioned response. Someone who does not otherwise take offense to these comments may do so if they can imagine the target to be someone they value personally.

While this strategy is part of a sincere effort to denounce sexist behavior or attitudes, it implies that women deserve respect primarily because of their relationships, specifically with men. Any deserved respect independent of these relationships becomes secondary to an equally damaging paternalistic attitude toward women. It additionally forces women into traditional gender roles like mother, wife, daughter, etc., and derives their worth solely from the roles they occupy in society, however antiquated or inaccurate.

Taking such a misguided approach to addressing injustices contributes to the prominence in society of benevolent sexism, the attitude that women, as the “weaker sex,” require men to take up the role as provider and protector. While different from hostile sexism, which accounts for more outright aggression toward or resentment of women, benevolent sexism can equally damage women by undermining their value independent of their relationships with men.

The two attitudes are also not mutually exclusive. In fact, there is a positive correlation between prevalence of benevolent and hostile sexism in many societies. And so while benevolent sexism does not pose as obvious a threat, it presents problems of its own and is often accompanied by hostile sexism.

Because of this, it is not necessarily helpful to ask for condemnation of derogatory, objectifying or dehumanizing comments because they may easily target one’s mother, daughter, sister or wife. This strategy may succeed in eliciting the desired reaction — that is, condemnation or disapproval — but for the wrong reasons. Moreover, it does not address the real problem: that there are people who do not respect women as people with worth wholly independent of their relationships with men and independent of traditional gender roles in society.

Instead, we ought to demand respect for women not as mothers, daughters, sisters or wives, but as hu

Coral Ciupak, a Viewpoints Editor for the Voice, can be reached for comment at

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