Discussion Night: February 2017-Feminism and Sexuality

The Feminist Club Amsterdam discussion night 22nd of February 2017 @Atria

Sum-up by: Iris Workum

From the moment we are born, we are assigned a gender. If it’s a girl, it’s pink and dolls. If it’s a boy, it’s blue and cars. These gender constructs are made up by society, but nonetheless affect our lives. Men are being congratulated for ‘babysitting’ their own children (Bates, 2016). A centuries-old patriarchal system tells men to be dominating and strong, where there is no place for feelings nor emotions (Hooks, 2014). We live in a society that says it is okay for men to yell at women that they “have a nice ass”, that it is okay to grope women – as too many will be familiar with these forms of sexual harassment (Bates, 2016). These all are examples of sexism, defined as “prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination on the basis of sex” (Oxford Dictionary). In the discussion night Feminism and Sexuality, we discussed how sexism affects our intimate relationships and sexual interactions.

It was wonderful to see that a big, diverse group showed up. Some people were attracted to the same sex, others to the other sex, some to both. A few felt like their gender did not correspond with their biological sex. People had different experiences with sexism because of their upbringing, or cultural influence. To see all these different experiences and perspectives brought together in one room was very interesting and fruitful. Sexism and its effects differ per individual, as sexism is so intertwined with other –isms, such as racism or heterosexism (Grillo & Wildman, 1991).

            We introduced open space technology (OST) to structure the discussion. OST is a process of bringing people together by using the force of self-organization. The most important aspect is that the issues that are important to people are highlighted and that people themselves take agency and are proactive. It works as follows: first, a few people of the group bring up an issue they are interested in, which then are formulated as statements. The number of statements is equal to the number of groups that is needed. Those bringing up a statement become the discussion leader. All the others organize around the statements of their interest, thus forming discussion groups. The moment a participant does not feel able to contribute to the discussion any longer, this person can join another discussion. This stimulates a place where everyone is involved and contributing to the conversation.

The following statements were brought up by group members, and discussed in detail in a total of two rounds of discussions:

–          Normalization of mainstream pornography

–          Peer-pressure to have sex: differences between men and women

–          Influences of gender constructs on sexual development

–          Pride of being gay

–          Stereotyping in the queer community

–          Hetero normative masculinity and feelings

–          Sexism between same-gender

The overall theme of the discussions seemed to be ‘objectification versus connection and interaction’, as one of the members put it beautifully. Women are sexualized in mainstream media and pornography. Men feel a pressure to live up to certain masculine standard, which can even be stronger in certain societies. Bisexuals are often asked to ‘prove’ their bisexuality and feel rejected by the queer community. Transgender people also expressed feelings of non-acceptance by the LGBTQIA community, as they are viewed as ‘mainstream’ heterosexuals.

How do we distance ourselves from social structures, as “people are producers as well as products of social systems?” (Bussey & Bandura, 1999, 683). How do we do this in a way we feel comfortable and safe? Some argued that it is just a matter of personal development and growth, others that it is about standing up for yourself. Even though this sounds like common sense, it is hard to actually do. What if a heterosexual man wants to wear skirts? He feels comfortable with this, despite societal norms of how men should dress. Others might perceive him as homosexual, but this does pose a problem to the man in question. But what if people start threatening him because of the way he dresses? Is it still safe to be yourself?  Several people expressed having been in situations they considered unsafe to express themselves fully. As one member put it, it “is about creating a personal bubble in public space”. This again highlights the constraints of social constructs. A heterosexual man wearing a skirt does no harm to anybody, but likely others will to put him back into the heterosexual man box, into ways he should behave.

Putting people into boxes does not only happen in broader society, it also happens within groups that are supposed to be inclusive. Not being taken seriously for being bisexual in the queer community was a theme in one of the discussions. Things like ‘it is just a phase’, or ‘prove me you’re bisexual when you have a girlfriend’ as a female member mentioned are often heard. It seems people can understand you are either gay or straight, but cannot relate to a fluent sexual preference. It is as if there is an inherent need to label people, which might be harder to do with a person who is bisexual. As an effect, one might start to questions one’s own feelings. Perhaps the most hurting factor expressed was the feeling of not belonging. Several bisexual people heard things as ‘you don’t belong with us’, or ‘you’re not fighting the fight with us’ from gays or lesbians. This leads to a feeling of neither belonging to the heterosexual nor the queer community, a feeling of not being recognized. The feminist community also has received its portion of criticism for not being inclusive. Feminism is still mainly based on the experiences of the white middle-class woman, not taking into consideration the variety of settings in which sexism takes place, and that sexism is not the only oppressing factor for everyone. One example raised in the discussions was the sexual pressure that comes with feminism – as if we all should have sex and masturbate day and night. Of course this is an option, but does not recognize the needs of, for example, asexual people. Also discussed was the tendency of feminism to live up to a masculine standard, as femininity is perceived as weak and vulnerable. This is sad, as it does not strive towards gender equality, but rather keeps a patriarchal system in place by trying to fit in with the dominant group of white males.

Sexual education was brought up as a way to discuss these constructs and its effects. As one of the members stated, the current program puts the responsibility on women – they have to state their sexual boundaries and protect themselves from getting pregnant – and is failing boys. There is no room for boy’s insecurities and feelings. As someone else mentioned, just because a boy is not allowed to show emotions the same way girls do, this does not mean these emotions or feelings are not there. Also the definition of sex is confusing. Still the act of sex is seen as penetration, which is a very heterosexual stance. Several people agreed that this notion of sex is confusing within the queer community.

In sum, the discussion night on Feminism and Sexuality outlined the importance of intersectionality, as sexism affects us in very different ways. The different perspectives within the group revealed several issues that are very important to be taken into account if we want to move forward, move to a society where constructs do not withhold us from being who we are and want to be.

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We would like to thank our host for this evening: Atria, the Institute on gender equality and women’s history. We highly recommend any person in the Amsterdam area to pay Atria a visit and spend some time at the Institute’s library.

Sources

Bates, L. (2016). Everyday sexism. Macmillan.

Bussey, K., & Bandura, A. (1999). Social cognitive theory of gender development and
differentiation. Psychological review, 106(4), 676.

Grillo, T., & Wildman, S. M. (1991). Obscuring the importance of race: The implication of
making comparisons between racism and sexism (or other-isms). Duke Law Journal,
1991(2), 397-412.

Hooks, B. (2004). The will to change: Men, masculinity, and love. Washington Square Pr.