Systemic Bias and the Single Girl

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I sometimes call myself a spinster because it’s my word to use. I’m a grown woman, single by choice. Call me an aromantic. No, really, do so – it’s a word I’ve accepted after exploring the realm of asexuality and aromanticism, which get little attention in dialogue of sexual diversity and can be pathologized by simplified concepts of evolutionary biology. As I get older the prejudice against me as a single woman is only going to increase. What’s wrong with me that I can’t find a man? What traumatizing experience did I have that turned me off relationships? What is lacking in my physiology that hinders my biological drive for mating and partnership?

(The answer is nothing, by the way.)

I’m lucky enough to have a family that at least doesn’t speak openly about its opinions and prejudices against single women. I’m lucky to be able to work at a job that pays well enough to support myself. But those personal benefits aren’t present for everyone, and any disadvantage asexual or aromantic people might face is from systemic bias. It’s not only embedded in our culture, but written in stone in the law and applied to the economy that single people should face consequences for a lifestyle choice, no matter how healthy and natural the orientation away from sex and partnership actually is.

Culturally, it’s not hard for anyone to see how much value is placed on sex, romance, marriage, and offspring. All of those are implied in the word “family” (though small advances have been made towards greater acceptance of childfree couples or unmarried parents). Legally, everything becomes an inconvenient ambiguity when you don’t have a spouse to default as your next of kin. Tax laws are framed around marriage. Economically, most housing is designed for couples and families. Home prices are cashing in on the dual income standard. Newer developments have dual sinks in the bathroom and dual closets in the bedroom, or as many bathrooms as bedrooms assuming that there will be children living with parents. There are heterosexist implications as well, especially where same sex marriage and adoption are legally prohibited, and they tend to stick to the narrow definition of a nuclear family that doesn’t accommodate multi-generation households. The legal definitions of “family” are very subjective to our culture, and yet they’re applied in objective ways. We’re led to believe that it’s the natural way, and recognition or accommodation of any other family structure under the law is seen as unfair.

Sex and romance are ubiquitous in popular culture and the media. It’s what sells, and there’s a lot of money to be made off of not only ignoring but outright stigmatizing asexual and aromantic people. Characters portaryed as such are at best in the background with beta personalities, but they’re frequently the joke. A single person’s life without weekly dates and sexual adventures has no stories to tell, especially for women. Main characters who don’t have romantic interests are portrayed as psychologically broken, or it’s merely a symptom of an overarching mental condition, like the neuroatypical Sherlock, or sociopath Dexter who started out in a relationship that was part of an overall guise. Even those characters are white men.

In feminist critiques, sex and sexuality is ever present. It’s absolutely an important aspect of patriarchal structures and gender inequalities, and this overlaps with the stigma and structural barriers to single, asexual, and aromantic women (or all genders, really). But so much of popular feminist dialogue revolves very specifically and exclusively around heterosexual dynamics that occur within the context of romantic relationships, sexual desire, or sexualized behaviours. Other conversations within feminism are LGBT inclusive, and examine dynamics within same sex relationships, and the broader oppression of LGBT people and lives by the cissexist and heteronormative establishment. Again, this is very important to the overall discussion around the harm patriarchy imposes on individuals and their personhood, but it doesn’t invite asexual and aromantic people.

Even LGBT dialogue can turn their noses up at the voices of asexual and aromantic people. In the elaborated acronym LGBTTQIA, the A is often assumed to mean ally, and it’s specified as such even by some LGBT organizations. It gets very complicated when you include multiple dimensions of asexual and aromantic orientations, because while some people don’t want sex they might still be homoromantic, biromantic, or heteroromantic. Aromantic people might still be sexual to varying degrees – grey-sexual is a common term for someone somewhere between asexual and sexual (or allosexual, as it is often referred to). I’m sometimes sexually interested in men, making me hetero-grey-sexual, and beyond desire to have sex I still do experience aesthetic and physical attraction to men. This saves me from the stigma and persecution of homo- or bi- orientations, whether romantic or sexual. So how much of a place do I or people like me really have in the LGBTTQIA dialogue?

This is skimming the surface of a deep issue that permeates the institution of medicine, workplaces, money, religion, and social rites. It’s like a Freudian Inception – our society is so obsessed with sexual undertones that we base our understanding of existence on sexual undertones, and we see a lack of sex in life to be unhealthy no matter what the individual genuinely desires. Aromantics aren’t cold, emotionless people unable to maintain meaningful social relationships. Asexuals aren’t stunted adults who are missing some kind of hormone fundamental to basic health. It’s also not black and white – I mean, I literally used the word grey to describe my own sexuality – and actions that may or may not include sex or relationships don’t make an asexual or aromantic person a fraud. Sex and relationships are still a means of survival, and asexual and aromantic people are physically and mentally capable of participating as a compromise or in their best interest.

But since I won’t participate in romantic relationships, I face consequences in my everyday life. It’s easier to get by as a single woman here and now than in eras when financial independence and sexual freedoms were aggressively blocked off for my gender, and I’m grateful for that. But all things are not equal, in culture, in the economy, and in law. If I punch someone in the face for saying “Oh, you’ll find someone” too many times, I’ll be charged with assault. What’s the deal, huh?

A Sociological Case Study

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An event that happened at York University in Toronto recently has circulated the news and opinion pages. Most people have been essentially been saying the same things, but for reasons spread throughout a wide spectrum of spot on to hatefully wrong.

The basics of a story: a sociology course at York required group work. A student contacted the professor requesting that he not be placed in a group with women, because his religion forbade him from working in mixed-gender environments. (The sources I’ve read have not specified his religion; it’s largely irrelevant which one it is.)

Now, human rights legislation throughout Canada requires that people be accommodated in areas like housing, employment, services, and education if required by the basis of one of their protected statuses. This requirement to accommodate is a means of enforcing anti-discrimination, and protected statuses do include religion – but they also include sex or gender, which puts this situation as a balance between two protected groups. It’s very important to note that accommodation is only necessary up to the point of undue hardship, and the damages from discriminating against what would very likely be more than half the class, given gender distribution in higher education in general and the social sciences specifically, is a pretty undue hardship. This accommodation also has to be a genuine requirement for the person requesting it, and the person requesting it has to do their part in mitigating the need for accommodation through their own initiatives.

These are things a sociology professor would likely be familiar with, or other colleagues in the sociology department would have deeper knowledge to understand, evaluate, and explain the reasons this student’s request couldn’t be granted. The professor had a well-thought-out and thorough explanation examining the reasons this request was turned down and the rest of the department stood behind him. Consensus of sociologists is a pretty good sign that something is reasonable. The York University administration thought differently.

By this point the student already complied and worked with women, without much fuss after the professor discussed with him the reasons for this conclusion. But the administration decided that yes, students like this man must be accommodated in a gender-segregated work group. The professor in question speaks out about this, as do many colleagues and public commentators and many individual people who have read about this case.

The burden is on the student, as well, to demonstrate just how strictly according to his religion mixed gender education is forbidden. There are orthodox denominations of certain religions that still segregate genders in religious services and ceremonies, but whether this is extended to a work or school environment is up for debate. Complete segregation wouldn’t last, naturally, since procreation is fundamental to the survival of any society or culture. In no workplace would a rule stand that a man would be completely separated from women in carrying out his duties; even if physically separated by working at home or in a corner of the office out of sight of the nearest female colleague, he would still very likely encounter women through office communication or client interaction. There is just no practical way around this in the working world.

In the educational world, there are still gender-specific schools, or at least primary and secondary schools. I don’t know of any universities in Canada that still restrict student enrollment to one particular gender (and if there are, they would be coming across their own human rights issues with people of genders that don’t fit the outdated binary model), but if there were an all-male institution, a student should enroll there if he requires it. This institution would probably be religious anyway, and those who follow such a strict set of customs and beliefs would find many more problems with secular institutions anyway.

The student in this case understood all of this. He was smart and open minded enough to go to York University to begin with. York University administration is trying too hard to be open minded to fall into the void of senseless policy akin to that of Greendale Community College, and they’re damaging their reputation by not being very smart. This is a good test of the extent to which freedom and accommodation to practice freedoms can be granted. There are limitations to how society operates, to say nothing of the dehumanization that these restrictions imply. We have an economy that requires workers of all genders, and that requires education for all workers. In any private scenario – home life, choices in where to spend one’s time – a person can leave out whomever he or she wants on whatever basis. But in public life, please cooperate.

On the other end of things there is impending doom on human rights in Quebec, but that’s for another post…perhaps the next one.

Back-Breaking Work

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I learned in an absolutely THRILLING ergonomics presentation at a work seminar recently that office chairs are designed for six foot tall men. This was particularly hilarious for the ergonomist giving the presentation – he himself was 5’11” and so not that far off, but through his work he was well aware that the typical person using an office chair is a 5’4″ woman. Dimensions and proportions are very different throughout the human population, and perhaps most different among roughly 5’4″ women (or, say, women in the 5’2″ to 5’8″ range).

I get to be assessed by this ergonomist to determine the ideal seating arrangement at my new desk. While I’m slightly above average in height, on the five-foot-seven side of five-foot-six, I have stubby legs and a long body with a high waist. This makes no chair fit me whatsoever.

People get amazed when they have to sit in my chair to clean up some sort of problem I created at how low it is. A lot of people don’t follow the wisdom that yes, the height of your chair should be set so your feet touch the ground. I’m also misleadingly average in height because I have a very long body, meaning the backing to the chair needs to be raised as high as it can be. Even still, since most chairs aren’t designed with a woman in mind, the groove built into desk chair backings doesn’t meet the small of my back as I’m also high-waisted. I would love to sit with the feet at the end of my short legs touching the ground, and a two-finger width of space between the edge of the seat and inside of my knee. I like my elbows bent at almost a right angle when typing on my keyboard, with arm rests spaced at their narrowest, most close to the seat. These are all things I’m doing right according to the ergonomist’s presentation. When I’m getting assessed perhaps I should hide my tendency to change positions in monkey-like ways. (Perhaps I’ll get credit for always moving around, which helps alleviate my doomed future as a hunchback.)

Another interesting part of this presentation was the ergonomist describing the right way to pick things up – the way a newly walking toddler does. The toddler’s head is too heavy and back too weak to bend over in the sexualized fashion, and so the toddler intuitively squats with the knees to pick up toys. The ergonomist described this as the way our bodies were “designed” to work, neglecting to acknowledge that nobody “designed” human bodies and rather we evolved with our large heads and a certain kind of spine to support our bipedal posture that together just happen to work best with bending knees. Nobody chose to give us these features, but I digress. Having been taught through 1980s PSA commercials to lift things up with my legs, I’ve gotten in the habit of doing this already and find it far more comfortable – AND FUN!

So to all the commentary spat out about my generation turning back into unerect apes because of the hours we spend in front of a computer – fuck you. There’s been enough advancement in understanding human posture for me to have been taught these things while habits could still freshly form. Typewriters, telephones, and television predate what I was raised on and were just as major contributors to sedentary lifestyles a couple generations before mine. Computers have at least enabled an acceleration in research and awareness pertaining to ergonomics – and older generations are just as bad at sitting in a chair for eight hours as us young’ns. Look in the mirror and call yourself an ape too.

The Goldilocks Look

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There’s sexism, objectification, and misogyny that’s ubiquitous but laced ever so subtly to go unnoticed by the majority of people. Even the things that are obvious are accepted as just a part of “human nature” – one of my least favourite phrases for its meaningless, lazy resort as an answer for anything that people (typically white heterosexual men) want to justify.

Women face certain types of discrimination on a spectrum. One of those types of discrimination is different treatment on the basis of looks. This is why restaurant servers are disproportionately young and attractive – while the youthful element can be partly explained by the physical demands of the job, the attractiveness is the money maker. Restaurants will be more likely to hire young attractive women as servers because they bring in more repeat customers, and attractive women are more inclined to work in restaurants because they get higher tips – or so goes the logic in a sociological thought experiment, and I would imagine there has been scholarly inquiry that provides quantitative analysis in this area.

But because their repeat customers come for the ogling, they’re likely to face customers who range from benignly flirtatious to outright pigs. Very attractive women in other professions can be deemed, consciously or subconsciously, as either a distraction to heterosexual men or an envied threat to other women in the workplace. While they reap so many benefits of higher earning potential in some fields, and more options in selecting a mate (god, I sound like the kind of person who uses “human nature” as the panacea), there are barriers attractive women can face because of their appearance. (The same does not apply in the same magnitude, if at all, to attractive men.)

Women who range from “plain” looking to an outright unfortunate mix of features won’t get the same tips in the hospitality sector as the pretty ones. They may not be taken seriously enough for the more educated or prestigious professions, and likely have grown up with unfortunately stunted confidence that impeded their ambitions anyway. (I know this to an extent from personal experience, although as I will explain shortly I’m lucky to have escaped these circumstances.) The women you will see in occupations of lower prestige, if you take the time to look as they are largely invisible because of these factors, may be less attractive in a variety of ways – size, facial features, some skin differences like scars or birthmarks that are unfortunately placed, or any other conceivable trait that removes the objectifying appeal of that person. As a woman, without any attractiveness, standard patriarchal objectifications do not apply and these women are often ignored.

There’s a range in the middle, whether one is blonde or not, with a Goldilocks advantage. Women who look feminine enough to be accepted as women, yet not so attractive to throw out all rational evaluation of character, are going to be treated with more dignity in career and other sectors of life in this state of society. The strides towards equality benefit women who maintain a polished appearance but can maintain eye contact instead of being ignored or subjected to the wandering gaze away from the face that represents their personhood. While I have let myself be taken down by the dehumanization of less attractive features in the past, I have overcome that with the overall “normalness” of my appearance and I now fall in this category. It saved me from getting suffocated by the wooing of men, or from a lasting impression being made at a formative age that my looks define me. It’s allowed me to confidently pursue things because I can look people in the eye without fear of the consequences for being looked back at.

But beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so is ugliness, so subjective judgements keep me mildly vulnerable to the consequences faced by either side. More importantly, it doesn’t matter which of these problems I’m safe from – which of these problems “aren’t mine”. They’re “ours”, the burden of all of women and men who believe other women should be taken seriously and acknowledge our collective best interests of realizing the potential of every person. Men who experience similar discrimination – which will be less often and less severe, but real nonetheless – are suffering from the same problem of patriarchy that treats integrated gender interactions as sexualized battles for glory and prize.

Most women fall somewhere in between, but rather than dodging these disadvantages entirely there is a risk of encountering either at any time. Any interaction with a new person creates a new subjective interpretation of appearance, and reaction thereto. There is, despite the Goldilocks nature of this middle ground, no “juuuuust right”. There never is when the imbalance of power remains so great.

Masculism < Masculinity

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Late last week and over the weekend I was having giggles over a trending hashtag on Twitter: #INeedMasculismBecause. “Masculism” in this case means an opposite to feminism – a new brand for men’s rights activism, which has been acronymed as MRA. Men feel discriminated against and want to call out on these inequalities.

This hashtag got hijacked by, well, people – whether self-identified feminists or just “hey, why can’t we all be equals” types who don’t see “feminism” and “women calling out systemic bullshit” as a threat to men. I read a number of joke tweets using that hashtag, and I made a couple myself (“#INeedMasculismBecause I’m not allowed to tell a woman she’s PMSing, but she’s allowed to say she’s PMSing!”). It could easily be used as a mask for misogyny – and, as so many MRA-type arguments have been, primarily about restricted access to a woman’s sexuality. It’s about person-to-person conflict, mostly, and it’s an us versus them mentality.

Feminism has been accused of that from the get-go – if you want equality, don’t single your gender out. The abundance of complexly laced issues in that mentality is too much to address in any single piece of writing. The primary criticism is that under the law men and women are considered equal – we can all vote, own property, practise freedom of expression, et cetera. Now that it’s written down, equality has been reached. The establishment has upheld its end of the bargain and now it’s the individual’s job to reach heights someone of her gender may not have reached before.

But that’s not the case. There is still antiquated sexism in legislation that hurts everybody. Cultures around the world still consider women the “other”, the Eve created after Adam, the caregiver (i.e. family servant), and overall second place to men. It’s embedded in so many places that we can’t give up feminism because there’s so much more to uncover, and to tackle, and everybody can take part in this process.

As far as the serious uses of this hashtag are concerned, I read a few genuine comments from “masculists” who think gendered expectations of men are wrongs that need to be changed. Expecting the man to pay for dinner on a date – yes, I encourage men who don’t wish to do this to assert their opinion. If their character is judged based on that then their date is unlikely a suitable partner in the mean time let alone the long lifespan ahead of them. That isn’t something that feminists have pitted against men. That expectation is part of the patriarchal culture that existed before the moves of feminism came, and feminists have asserted the same rights of men. The root of the problem from the perspective of “masculists”, though, is that they are at risk of not having sex if they don’t pay for dinner. You can see how the reversed direction of this logic exposes that when men pay they expect women to have sex with them afterwards. Since everybody owns their own body and sexuality it’s a fairer starting point to not assume anything about sexual intercourse until it is brought up. Paying the bill at a restaurant has nothing to do with sex.

Women shouldn’t expect men to pay the bill on a date unless it’s been arranged beforehand; it’s a fairer starting point to not assume somebody is going to treat you. I’m incredibly stubborn and argue to drunken shouting matches (it’s true; I have a number of references) about paying for my food if not also yours. I do this because I want to assert my own independence, my individual responsibility, and I want to respect the equality of others. So as a feminist, I certainly agree – it’s not fair for men to always be expected to pay for dinner on a date.

Other honest complaints about gender inequality towards men were two sides of the same coin – imbalance granting of child custody to the mother, and on the other side expecting a man to support a child the woman chose to have even with the option of terminating the pregnancy. These are again based on long-standing assumptions about family responsibility that have not worked to either gender’s overall advantage. While on the whole it’s women who get criticized the most and harshest for their family planning choices (after all, women are told to keep their legs shut before a man is told to keep it in his pants) the paternal role and expectations also need to be looked at under scrutiny. But this is not in conflict with feminism – it’s a part of the dialogue that seeks to dissect these prejudices and stigmas because the outcomes aren’t equal.

What these complaints about male disadvantages have in common is that they’re about the heterosexual dynamics of male-female intimate relations. Such seems to almost entirely comprise “masculism” and the MRA movement. A man shouldn’t be expected to hold open doors or pick up something a woman has dropped beyond common courtesy that should be extended to everyone. A man shouldn’t expect that by holding open doors or picking up something a woman has dropped that a woman will consider him a more desirable sexual partner. Not everything between men and women is about wooing – heteronormacy aside – because there is more to life than that. We have jobs, we have friends, we have hobbies, we have our health, we have public discourse, and we should all be able to cooperate equally in those realms without sexual politics interfering. That’s where women still face the barriers we need to fight. It’s in men’s interests to join that fight, and “masculism” doesn’t do that. “Masculism” seems to be complaining about getting turned down for sex, complaining about individual interpersonal interactions that don’t end happily. Feminism is about institutional barriers, and shouldn’t be directed at or taken personally by individual men. If you’re personally a misogynist, I don’t even need the f-word to justify my disgust at your character.

(Note: I can’t even begin to get into the parallels and intersections and just overall intertwined bundle of sexism and other systemic discrimination that ignores the inequality of other “others” or expects there to be a White History Month. I only have 17 days left in February and I don’t know if I can even tackle that specific issue in that short period of time. We may need a This is Why There Shouldn’t Be a White History Month Month.)