Playing the Culture Card: Benevolent Sexism

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“Hostile sexism and benevolent sexism go hand-in-hand. It’s the carrot and the stick. Hostile sexism is the stick. If you get out of line, the hammer comes down. But if you stay in line, we’ll take care of you.”
~ Peter Glick, Psychologist

“Because they weren’t calling her incompetent or unworthy, none of them were willing to recognize it as sexism, even when explicitly told that that’s what it was — even though, based on research, we know that this sort of behavior has actual, meaningful consequences for society and for gender equality. That right there? That’s the real problem with benevolent sexism.”
~ Melanie Tannenbaum, Scientific American

The topic of  has been on my mind for weeks now and I’ve just got to vent talk about it.

We have been trying for a couple of months now to get our master bathroom plumbing moved around by our contractor neighbor who volunteered to help us out for a discounted rate, and even let Dan assist him with the project so we could save money. “Great!”, we thought. We like him, he’s a contractor, he’s next door, and Dan has been wanting to improve his DIY skills in that area. Cool.

Right?

So we had him over and showed him what we wanted to do. He said that moving the toilet would be pretty difficult (so we decided that we’re going to go with something we’ve always wanted – a composting toilet) and other than that it shouldn’t be a big deal to move the sink plumbing a few feet over and the shower plumbing about 6 feet over how I described it when we walked through the room (it’s only about a 85 s.f. bathroom). We let him know as soon as we removed the flooring we’d be in touch to talk further and did our best to strip the whole room – removed everything but the actual plumbing sticking out of the original subfloor, even the particleboard underlay beneath the linoleum. So with that, we were ready! I sent him a text letting him know and asked him if he could put together a bid for us, and emailed him a follow up with a 3D mockup I’d done on a design site so he could see what we were planning to do. And…he was vague in his response. No acknowledgement of the design, and refused to put together a bid, only saying what his hourly would be and that he “wouldn’t know til he started working on it how much it might cost”, but did say he’d be available in mid-to-late February to do the work. Letting him know we were on a budget, he seemed to get that but didn’t provide me with any real response as to what to expect, nothing. At the time, I trusted that it wouldn’t be hugely expensive, since it’d just be him and my husband working on this…even though I’ve done much bigger bathroom remodels with contractors in the past and always, always had estimates from both GC and plumber. Hmm.

Mid-February comes around and no word from him. He stops by to show Dan something related to our planned window install, and when he was there, I mentioned to him that I work from home so if he’s super busy with other projects, we could talk about ways to break it up into smaller bits since he’s right next door. No comment. Doesn’t really even look me in the eye.

Late February and I text him again asking if we could get on his schedule for this. Let him know that April is going to be very busy for us and so we’d really like to get this project done in March. He says he’ll get back to me at the end of the following week. No word from him again. I notice that he mentions being out of town or busy but then see him working in the yard. I walk the dog and he barely nods at me while he’s talking to a guy on the street.

But I’m thinking positively, like, okay maybe this guy overextended himself promising to help us when he shouldn’t have, and so I asked my husband to follow up with him and see if he is serious. Dan and I frequently take turns in this stuff so neither of us is (usually) the only one involved. Whereas it took hours if not days for the neighbor to respond to me, Dan received a text back not only within minutes, but with “sure, how’s Thursday?” – like literally 3 days away, with no mention or apology for not getting back to me. He then asks Dan if he’s got everything purchased for him to get started, and we’re like, um you have to tell us what to buy if that’s the case, you’re the guy doing the project, how would we know what to buy? So Dan said hey, we were expecting you to tell us what you need, and if there’s a list, by all means let us know so we have everything by Thursday when you come by to do this. He then asks Dan what we want to do in the bathroom. Are-you-fucking-kidding-me, I say to my husband. The guy has full-on plans that I sent him, every detail, plus I walked him through where we wanted everything when he was at our house with us. So I text him and say, I’m going to email you with the documents again that I’d sent a while back with the bathroom plans, AND a photo of the existing bathroom so he could see the piping again – I even put little arrows and text boxes reminding of where things would be going. Hell, our floor even has a tape outline of the shower and toilet! No acknowledgement of this. Because he was expressing a lot of confusion to Dan about what we were doing, I asked Dan to please see if he could stop by for 5-10 minutes before Thursday so he could remind himself of what we’re doing and then we could put together a shopping list. He says he can come by on Wednesday. Dan says okay cool, but that he’s not off work til 4pm so if he can’t come by in the afternoon to please reach out to me as I’ll be home and can show him the room. No response.

So this is where the fun really starts. He then texts me a list of about $200 worth of things that I should go pick up at Home Depot. Then emails another list to me as well. I respond back first asking if these lists were the same and all he says is “there might be differences” or something to that effect, which would basically force me to compare two lists of like 25 things to buy and figure out where the differences are. Fine, whatever. But Dan and I agree, it doesn’t make sense how he can tell us what to buy when he’s made it clear that he’s not sure how he’s going to do all of these things until he looks at the piping in the floor, and hasn’t stopped by yet to look at things like we discussed. He also then tells me that I need to pick out my fixtures, and I’m like, no, we’re just having you literally relocate the plumbing – we’re not turning anything on yet, just need to move the pipes so that we can then repair the subfloor and install the new underlayment…then tackle the fun stuff like building the walk-in shower (which by the way we’d told him multiple times). He then says it has to be purchased in order for him to test it (um, how you going to test the shower when there’s no fucking shower in place?), and also says that there’s going to be a hole in our roof from moving the vent. So I text back for clarity, “so you’re saying that unless we have the shower fixtures as well as a roof repair person ready to come in Thursday to patch up the hole in the roof, we can’t expect to do this, is that right?” and also (since he was, on his own, communicating to me in two forms, email and text) emailed this to him, along with requests for clarification on: estimated cost of the project, how long it would take, and if/how this would affect the rest of our plumbing (obviously we turn the water off in the house when he does this, but of course we need to know if this will be done in a day, and if not, when we can use the facilities since we have extra bathrooms but weren’t sure if they’d be accessible or not. Reasonable stuff to ask.). I also asked if he’d be coming by on Wednesday to take a look at everything as he’d proposed to Dan.

His response to the last part? “I’m not available Wednesday”. Huh? He’d JUST told Dan he’d be able to come over on Wednesday. And instead of answering any of my questions about the project, he said the part that sent me over the edge…

“Let’s wait until Dan gets home to talk about this.”

Ex-fucking-cuse me? We are now 2 days before the supposed plumbing project day and he’s not only said he’s not coming by in advance (yet miraculously knows what we need to buy without looking at anything), but that he won’t be coming by in advance and expects us I guess to lose half a day in shopping, with no estimate provided and no idea of how long things will take, beyond his mention that we’ll have to “tear out the subfloor to see what things look like” yet not tell me about when we can actually use our other loo, wash dishes, etc. Y’all, the vibe I was getting from this collection of interactions was getting worse as we went along, but I’d been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt. Until he again deferred to my husband. It was no longer excusable – this guy was clearly avoiding me while buddy-buddying up to my husband. Not cool.

I expressed my concerns to Dan that there was something sexist going on and he started to see where I was coming from, and was pretty pissed that our neighbor was claiming to be available to him, but not to me, not to mention buddying up to him while barely acknowledging me, to the point of dismissing what I had to say and then of course that last comment acting like my husband was the important one for him to talk to. Um HELL no was that going to fly.

Then I decided (something I usually do much, much earlier, but for some reason I’d trusted neighbors who’d worked with him without doing my own checking) to check the CCB website.

He hasn’t had a fucking contractor’s license for eight fucking years.

No license, no liability, nothing. So he wants to tear up our household plumbing upstairs and open up the floor – with no estimate, no guarantee, etc. that basically puts US on the hook if he fucks up (or as bad, gets in an accident as I’ve heard one too many stories of contractors slipping and falling through ceilings during these kinds of jobs, etc.) – and never disclosed this to us. So with that? I told Dan enough is enough, along with this guy being a sexist, he’s not even licensed. But rather than simply say “we’re going with a plumber for this” and leaving it at that, one of the things that I told Dan is that while I’m not going to burn bridges because he is after all within visual of our upstairs (already had one awkward neighbor relationship in PDX with ones who started out as friends then viciously turned on us), and I’m not interested in more angst, I still think it is incredibly important to be transparent about this type of behavior and that it will not fly with us. As Dan said to me, this neighbor’s behavior is not only sexist but it literally makes his whole gender look bad, because we’re partners and he needs to show respect to both of us. Period.

This literally had me up til 3AM with anxiety on how to handle this. Already pissed that we lost two months on this project wading though this shit, now I have to deal with someone who is treating me like “the little woman”. I even sat down with my dear neighbor who’s becoming a bit like a great auntie to me and confided in her and asked for her suggestion on how to approach it, and we agreed on the “you may not realize how you’re coming across…/I’m sure you don’t intend to…” thing. She said that he’d helped them in the past but noticed that he pretty much only interacted with her husband, but also said the she knows for a fact that he helped the former owner and her roommate (both women)

So, we agree that on Wednesday when Dan gets home from work that he’d call the neighbor (not text!) and a) tell him that we’re going with a licensed plumber, and b) that we want to chat with him face to face about our experience and provide him some feedback. We’d stop by but of course, neighbor had said he was not available so calling was the next best thing, right? Neighbor asks no questions about Part A, doesn’t even apologize for not having one. As for Part B, he asks what it’s about and Dan just says hey, just want to talk in person about everything. So during the call, Wednesday at 5:00PM,  the neighbor then says,

“I’m available – how about I come over now?”

Dan’s volume is up fairly high on his phone so I heard that and steam started going out my ears as you can imagine since it was confirmation that he’d lied to me. We’d actually guessed that he’d “suddenly” be available if Dan called him so already knew we would be telling him no, we’re going to dinner, and he could come by in the morning to chat.

So he shows up and of course acts practically overjoyed to see Dan and starts asking about our hearth and other stuff, and when the chit-chat is done, I tell him hey, I’m sure you don’t mean to come across this way, but you’re definitely treating me different than you are my husband. “How so?” he asks, and I tell him, hey, you’re saying you’re available to him but then not to me (and gave the specific Wednesday example), and are frequently deferring to Dan as well as most recently saying that you wanted to wait until he got home to talk about the project, all things that are not cool and are quite offensive and demeaning to me as a woman.

While I was saying it I could tell – as I can read people pretty well in these situations – that he was scrambling mentally for something to defend himself with. And he said the following:

“I never go into a house to do work when a woman is alone or her husband is not home. It’s my culture. And if you came to my house and my wife was not there, I would not let you in.”

Ironically, I’d made the joke to Dan the night before that maybe he has some kind of creepy Mike Pence thing going on about not ever talking to another woman “unsupervised”, but couldn’t believe that would be an actual response from this guy.

Knowing this was our neighbor and nothing I could say would change his views about something like that, I just said oh, okay. Dan took it a bit further and was more understanding, not realizing the monstrous discrimination that was taking place right before our eyes. He basically used his being a Latino man as a reason he was discriminating against me in his business.

You want to be a fucking chauvinistic pig in your own time, I can’t do anything about that. But you want to say you refuse to do business with me based on my gender and/or marital status, or both? Then say it’s because of your “culture” as if I’m going to suddenly make it all okay that you are choosing to lie to me and treat me like a second class citizen because of your own fucking insecurities around being around women? You are fucking barking up the wrong tree, buddy. By saying what you said, mister, you’re saying one of two things: that either YOU cannot be trusted without your wife around, or that you don’t think *I* can be. Plain and simple.

I recommended Dan show him the windows we’d installed as an easy out so I could take  a few breaths. Unfortunately, this was still a learning experience for my husband and he could not initially see what I was getting out of it, and as a man who’s never experienced gender discrimination, only seen it through the eyes of myself and other women he’s known, it didn’t initially register. When they came back downstairs the neighbor said “are we good?” and flashes the peace sign, and I said sure, we’re good, but don’t ever tell me one thing and my husband something else. I truly don’t think he realized that he was fucking with the wrong person, but as I told my husband that day?? It’s against MY culture to allow that kind of behavior in my life and he most certainly will not be setting foot in my house ever again.

So with that (if anyone is still with me on this saga…) today I’ve been thinking a lot about it and how the world gives so many people a Pass if they justify their sexism, homophobia, racism, or any other form of bias/bigotry by throwing out their religion and/or culture.  As I told my husband on Wednesday after he left, sexism like this is blown off in so many ways in our world. Whereas if our neighbor in question had said “I never go into the house of a black person” or “I would never let a gay person into my home”, people would raise hell in response. But if it’s about denigrating women? Somehow the world thinks it’s a private matter that we have to respect.

Like fuck…

Men who say they don’t think it’s appropriate to be “unsupervised” around a woman who is not their wife are also the kind of men who think that women are not to be trusted, and with that try to pretend they are putting women up on some type of bullshit pedestal to justify their actions. They’re the kind of throwbacks to the 1950s when women had to get their husband’s permission to get a loan or a credit card, or in today’s world where in many countries they need permission to drive a car or go out in public alone. And I thought, with all of these crazy insecure men, the guise of honoring women is the biggest load of garbage being peddled.

I thought of Mexico, and I thought of Saudi Arabia, and I wondered if anyone else had compared the toxic cultures coming out of Latin American and Middle Eastern countries (the US – duhh, I’m not forgetting our ridiculousness – we’re on the top 10 list this year with Nigeria and India!).

So I got to reading, and sure enough, Struggling with sexism in Latin America was a hot topic on NPR a few years ago. The author of the article, Katy Watson, who lived in both areas of the world, talked about the similarities she began to notice when she arrived in the Middle East, comparing how women were treated there to the toxic machismo she witnessed in Latin America:

“At first, it felt like the polar opposite of Latin America. A region where men and women do not always interact and where the cliched image of a woman veiled from head-to-toe in black could not be further removed from the equally cliched image of women in bikinis during the Rio Carnival. But look beyond the obvious, and the two regions have much in common when it comes to the role of women. Protecting women’s honour is a fundamental part of Middle Eastern culture, and it is often used as an excuse for preventing women from having equal rights as men. You need a man to drive you places in Saudi Arabia, and you need the permission of a male guardian to travel. One by one, rules limit the way women can live freely…Whether it is honour or so-called machismo, the end result is the same. Women become second-class citizens.”

She also brought up how Mexico City is one of the top three most dangerous places in the world for women on public transport and how one woman is raped every 4 minutes in Mexico, and I read more on toxic machismo, including this article where men opened up and talked about what they’ve experienced with some of the more woke ones sharing their views on it:

  • Salvador Perez:The ‘toxic machos’ wear their prejudices proudly. They’re the guys who, despite worshiping their mothers, can’t stand the sight of a woman in a position of power.”
  • Bocafloja: “The social construction of masculinity is deeply connected to patriarchy. As men of color we have normalized toxic misogynistic practices in order to gain subjective power.”
  • Julio Salgado: “Toxic machismo is when you use misogyny, transphobia, and homophobia to probe how much of a man you are. There’s nothing uglier than someone trying to test their masculinity by how they can put down others.

And along with that, I looked at how religion comes into play in conservative cultures, including our own, with sexist pricks like Mike Pence out there constantly trying to destroy the rights of women while pretending all the while to honor them. As the LA Times discussed, much of this is rooted in the church – particularly Christianity – and go on to talk about how this relates to workplace inequities:

  • “Removing temptation (in the form of women) from men is a staple of many patriarchal faiths.”
  • “Women want to be treated as workplace equals, and they don’t want to be sexually harassed. If you are a man and this strikes you as unfair, ambiguous or damning, perhaps you don’t belong in the workplace at all.”

With the neighbor going the creepy Billy-Graham-rule route, I had to also share more about the VP’s statement about never dining alone with a woman not his wife as it was too similar to this ethos that my neighbor claims to be “his culture” (and therefore throws all Mexican-American men under the bus when it’s just a fact that there are plenty  of men who are not weird or unprofessional about doing business – or simply being around – women without being accompanied by their spouse).

As the New Yorker said, “In framing extramarital interaction with women as categorically dangerous, Pence has something in common with fundamentalist Muslims and Orthodox Jews… it’s one thing to avoid a particular situation involving a particular woman who makes you feel a certain way; it’s another entirely to avoid all women as a group and as a rule because of the abstract possibility of sexual temptation. It’s telling, and extremely disheartening, that many people can’t tell the difference—that knowing the best thing to do for your partnership and subscribing wholesale to an idea about gender that calcifies woman as secondary could plausibly seem like the same thing.”

Some may read what he said to me about his sexism being ‘his culture’ and say “oh but he’s just trying to protect you as a woman or make sure no one can suspect him of impropriety, and then usually say something about how it means he just ‘respects women so much’ which again, is crap. The term benevolent sexism(AKA ambivalent sexism) finally sums up what that kind of treatment is like – you know, the whole “I worship women” complex that claims to put us on a pedestal or use stereotypes like females being more sensitive (or compassionate, or beautiful, or intuitive, or whatever) to passive aggressively discriminate or make excuses for bad behavior. And while it can come from women, it often comes from the same men who, if a woman were to call it out, would say “men can’t say anything anymore without getting into trouble” and all that whine. Oy.

As Rikki Rogers said so well in The Muse:

“So, while we might feel like a hostile sexism is fading as we become a more equal society, the effects of hostile sexism are being carried on by ambivalent sexism. And one could argue, as Tannenbaum does, that ambivalent sexism is replacing hostile sexism with the same results: “Because it hides under the guise of compliments, it’s easy to use benevolent sexism to demotivate people against collective action or convince people that there is no longer a need to fight for equality.”

Don’t be fooled: Ambivalent sexism isn’t acceptable, and it can lead to a workplace culture that characterizes women as delicate flowers and men as macho meatheads. Its effects are negative for people of all gender identities. So, when you encounter benevolent sexism, don’t just shrug it off. Call it what it is, and respond accordingly.”

So there you go. When you have that niggling feeling that someone is being sexist but can’t quite articulate it, or many in the world tell you you should “take it as a compliment” or “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by it”? Call it out. It’s real. And it’s incredibly dangerous.

Remember Serena Joy? The oh-so-slippery slope of benevolent sexism and where it leads when women don’t want to recognize and men continue to suppress…it’s a reality that we’re seeing every day. It’s when we’re told by businesses that they won’t serve us without our husbands present. It’s when we’re introduced with an adjective about how we look before our name while the man is introduced by a descriptor of his talent. It’s when we’re told to smile. It’s when those around us say “don’t make a big deal out of it, just play along” to avoid calling out the truth and insisting on being treated with respect. It’s when our friends and partners and family members say “that’s just their generation’s way of treating women/minorities/gays/etc.” and people just laugh it off.

It’s not cool. It’s not okay. Enough is enough.

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“We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” ~ The Handmaid’s Tale

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