All too often when a woman suffers sexist treatment, people will imply that she was in some way at fault with a ‘Yes, but’. It’s time to debunk those buts and hold our sexist society accountable.
When you’re a woman who spends a lot of time talking about sexism, you start to notice that about one in 10 of all the comments you receive begins with the same two words: “Yes, but …”
Whether you’ve just outlined economic disadvantage or structural oppression, described workplace discrimination or discussed harassment at school, there will always be somebody who tries to argue that, in fact, it’s women themselves who are to blame for the problem.
This “Yes, but” phenomenon happens so frequently that you start to recognise the same arguments being trotted out again and again; so often, in fact, that you start to wonder if it would be useful to have the responses to them all in one convenient place …
‘Yes, but girls just aren’t that interested in science’
Take a baby, bring it up in a world that screams at it from every angle that it should be interested in certain subjects and not in others. Then, at the age of 15 or so, ask it what subjects it would like to study, and shriek excitedly that society was right all along – girls just aren’t that into maths or science! QED.
‘Yes, but if a girl’s wearing a short skirt, she’s asking for it’
The first flaw in this argument is that it implies the parallel assumption that every man is an animal with such uncontrollable urges that he’s unable to prevent himself assaulting a woman who is wearing a particular piece of clothing. The second is that it’s not backed up by facts. Most victims are already known to their rapists, debunking the theory that it’s a random act provoked by a piece of clothing. Support charity Rape Crisis explains: “People, and especially women and girls, of all ages, classes, culture, ability, sexuality, race and faith are raped. The perceived ‘attractiveness’ of a victim has very little to do with sexual violence. Rape is an act of violence, not sex.” Oh, and the third flaw? Women should have the right to wear whatever the hell they want without fearing assault. That’s setting the bar pretty low.
‘Yes, but women go off and have babies – why should companies pay the price?’
It’s amazing that this still needs addressing in 2014, but some people still see pregnancy as some sort of selfish little jaunt at an employer’s expense. The argument goes that small businesses in particular can’t be expected to suffer the financial consequences if a woman wilfully flounces off to procreate, leaving them in the lurch. The glaring omission in the argument, however, is that – contrary to popular belief – there tend to be men involved somewhere in the process as well. Women aren’t gleefully knocking themselves up for a nine month “holiday” – they are continuing the human race. As such, it isn’t unreasonable to expect society, including businesses and other workplaces, to share the financial cost.
‘Yes, but it’s women who buy and write the women’s magazines you criticise’
This is a classic chicken-and-egg situation. We bring girls into a world so image-obsessed that, by the age of five, they are already worrying about their bodies and, by age seven, one quarter have tried to lose weight. We raise them in a society that bombards them with images of thin, blonde, long-legged, smooth-skinned, tanned, large-breasted women, and implies at every turn that a woman’s value lies primarily in her looks. Then we deride them for buying magazines that promise to teach them how to lose weight, smooth their skin and perfect their looks. If we changed the culture – the way we treat women, and the expectations they grow up with – we might find that media supply and demand would change, too.
‘Yes, but women make different life choices’
Usually used to counter evidence of gender imbalance in top business positions, the problem with this argument is that it stops there. The point shouldn’t be that women “choose” family over career, but that we still live in a society that forces them, in so many cases, to make that choice at all – while men are able to enjoy high-flying jobs and have children without sacrificing either. Yes, women may choose to have children, but they don’t choose the structural setup of a society in which few options (shared parental leave, flexible working hours, childcare) are widely available enough to allow them to do so without compromising their careers.
‘Yes, but women objectify men, too’
Two wrongs don’t make a right. And there’s a reason why the people who voice this argument nearly always cite the Diet Coke advert … because there are far fewer memorable examples of male objectification to choose from. Yes, men are objectified, too, but not to such an extent, so frequently, or to the exclusion of their other attributes – as is the case for women. So it doesn’t have the same wide-ranging negative impact on society’s view and treatment of them.
‘Yes, but women are their own worst enemies’
This argument seems to hold that, because some women are mean to other women, we shouldn’t have the audacity to tackle structural oppression until we’ve sorted out our own individual differences. But saying we should all be treated equally regardless of sex is very different from saying everybody should be nice to each other. This is a classic attempt to deflect attention from ingrained inequality and instead on to women themselves, and leans heavily on the sexist stereotype of catty, “pbitchy” women.
‘Yes, but women are bad role models’
Blah blah blah Rihanna, blah blah, Miley Cyrus … It’s not a coincidence that so many female singers perform extremely sexualised routines or wear very little clothing. They’re women operating in a world that lets their male peers sing fully clothed and tells them they’ll only sell records if they flash the flesh. It’s another example of focusing on the symptom and ignoring the cause.
‘Yes, but women just don’t make good bosses’
This one always makes me laugh. It’s invariably based on the speaker’s own experience of three or four female colleagues, from whose individual failings they extrapolate the unfitness of the 3.5 billion or so other women on the planet. We’ve all had bad bosses, but we’d never look at a disorganised male colleague and assume that every other man in the world would have the same managerial style. Why do the same for women?
‘Yes, but why didn’t she leave?’
Probably the most pernicious of all, this argument is usually directed at victims of domestic violence. It’s a variation on a theme, which also includes such gems as “Why does she always go for bad boys?”, “Why did she provoke him?” and “Why didn’t she see it coming?” It shows a deep lack of understanding of the psychological components of domestic abuse and the control an abuser can exert, but, most of all, it betrays a stubborn refusal to focus on the perpetrator instead of the victim. The best answer is the simplest: “Yes, but why did he do it?”