Sexism and Empathy: Is Moving the Needle Enough?

Picking on Reddit’s general atmosphere of sexism isn’t really sporting anymore; most of the folks outside that particular hive get it and cringe. Despite the well-earned reputation, though, a lot of users inside that community of communities seem to have an earnest desire to do the right thing. They often offer a counterpoint to the stuff that even they recognize is sexist.

This week, an interesting thread posed a question to the Dads of Reddit: How has having a daughter changed your perception of women? On one level, it’s encouraging: lots of guys talking about how it opened their eyes to the difficulties that women face, or that their feelings about objectifying women have changed. This one in particular sums up the general vibe:

I don’t think I can ever go to a strip club again. I just end up thinking that the girl is someone’s daughter: they had fake tea parties, she cuddled with him on the couch and watched TV, he came home from work and she threw her arms around his neck because she missed him while he was away…

I do my best to be a good man, because my daughter needs that. She must know what a good man is, so that in what will feel like a few short years, when boys are falling over themselves to talk to her, she’ll know what is good in a man.

I’m torn.

On the one hand, you’ve got guys talking about defining masculinity in a positive and constructive way rather than a predatory way. That’s great. On the other hand, there’s an undercurrent that runs through many of the answers: I will treat a woman with respect because she is some father’s daughter. While that’s tautologically correct, it still relies on a woman’s relationship to a man, rather than her fundamental humanity, to define her worth.

The troubling part for me isn’t that they’re talking about women having worth and being uncomfortable with exploitation. It’s that the “she’s some father’s daughter” angle is still basically about how valuable she is to another man. That’s a kind of respect that women have always enjoyed, even in societies where they were treated as chattel in all the ways that mattered.

I absolutely think that these guys’ hearts are in the right place, and I’m glad they’re telling other guys about a vision of masculinity beyond T&A game trailers. But the big picture – the long-term solutions for societies plagued by ism’s – requires that we figure out how to empathize with individuals because they’re fellow humans. Is the discussion above a step towards that, or a relational rabbit trail?

Honestly, I don’t know.

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