As an older sister, one of my biggest concerns over the past 14 years has been protecting my younger sister. Since this past semester was my first away from home, and her first in high school, the fact that I would not be around to help walk her through the incredible societal pressures of her teenage years put a lot of stress on me. I had struggled a lot in high school, especially as a freshman, and my nightmares were of her suffering the same cycle of abuse and depression.
While walking with her and a friend of hers this summer, I overheard their discussion of a girl in their grade (eighth) who had apparently been involved with a lot of guys. The word “slut,” paired with a tone of judgment and disgust, made many appearances. Knowing my sister would probably have thrown me off the sidewalk if I had launched into a tirade about slut-shaming in front of her friend, I limited myself to a patient comment about how maybe we shouldn’t use the world slut to describe women who express themselves sexually or interact with many guys. Their response? “But she is!” I cautioned them, but could quickly see how far over their heads my comments went.
I began to realize how second nature this way of looking at the world was for my sister. Despite our family being very conscious and my mother placing a lot of emphasis on our empowerment as women as we were growing up, my sister had spent much of her time in school, surrounded by the tendrils of suggestions about women who act certain ways, or don’t. These tendrils have been subtly infiltrating her mind and the minds of her friends, both male and female, since they were born. They are the tendrils that grow into barbs that create double standards for women about sexuality and values, piercing barbs that ultimately fuel rape culture and apologists and misogyny and the disempowerment of women as people. They are tendrils that have become so ingrained into our society that many of us no longer blink when faced with them. And they are tendrils that are dangerously irreversible if we let them be the only education of younger generations.
And so I present to you the beginnings of a guide to educating a younger generation of women. A guide to begin to stop the mad circling drains of patriarchy and misogyny and privilege. Please keep in mind this guide focuses on how to educate female siblings, whose education comes from a different place than the education of male siblings who are viewing the world through their male privilege. It does not address every issue of feminism or privilege that affects our society.
Step 1: Remind your audience that being a woman is a fabulous thing. Sometimes as women, I think we feel crushed by the overwhelming weight of what it means to be a woman in this society. Some of us hate our periods, others our breasts or bodies or hair because of the discomfort they cause us or because of the type of attention they garner from men. Even to those of us who specifically do not subscribe to misogyny, being a woman carries the weight of billions of silenced voices in the historical pattern of oppression. As poet Andrea Gibson begs, “Bury me in a blue blanket so God doesn’t know I’m a girl/ Cut off my curls/ I want peace when I’m dead.”
This is a step that we often skip. We jump straight into attacking the patriarchy or rape culture and defending women and so often forget what we are fighting for. We are fighting for the right to be women, to be proud of being a woman no matter what that means to us, no matter what kind of external expression that entails. Whether we were born with female sexual organs or not, whether we subscribe to traditional gender roles or not, whether we are white or not, straight or not, we are fighting for the right to be a woman as we define it. Before we begin educating about how to battle for feminism, let us first educate about why it is important to battle for feminism: because being a woman is just as great as being a man. Once our younger generations understand that, bringing them into the conversation will not be like fighting hundreds of years of systemic oppression and misogyny. It will be the simple, natural, next step.
Step 2: Teach how subtle and insidious sexism can be. For the emerging generation, comments or jokes about women belonging in the kitchen or being incapable of certain tasks—driving, navigating, spatial recognition etc—have begun to emerge as the new “Yo mama” jokes. And news flash: They aren’t funny. Especially to emerging generations of women who are trying to assert themselves as people who are capable of anything they set their minds to. A phenomena with a new name, mansplaining, that in itself is not new at all, occurs when men express the assumption that they inevitably know more about something than women do, simply because they are men and regardless of the competence of an individual in a specific field. These comments are such a natural part of our interactions that is not surprising to hear that many men actually believe them to be true of women or how many women, who have only been surrounded by these comments, assume them to be true of themselves.
These are not jokes or comments that should be taken lightly, even if you risk being told that you’re overreacting if you criticize them. The more education that occurs about how sexism can seem “funny” at first and that stresses the ridiculousness of these assumptions, the more comfortable our siblings will feel being vocal against this undertone of sexism, no matter the comments of their male peers.
Step 3: Explain that there is nothing wrong with sex! We live in an odd society that simultaneously demands sex from women and condemns them for it. The over-sexualization of women, and increasingly of young girls, is paired with shock when women appear to pursue sex out of their own volition. When you hear the words “slut” or “whore” being used to describe young girls, try to bring up the discussion of why eighth graders and younger are increasingly feeling as if their self-worth is determined by their sexual interactions rather than just the knee-jerk reaction of scolding as if they were using swear words. When those words are used to describe grown women, bring up the discussion of why people treat sex as if it is bad. This is a particularly important discussion with girls of an adolescent age, especially before they are sexually active, because it allows them to begin to develop healthy sexual relationships without pressure from their future partners.
Express that there is nothing wrong with having sex, saving it, having it with one person or different people or a person of the same gender, or never having it. There is only one time sex is wrong. That is when it isn’t consensual and that is never, ever, ever right.
This is only the beginning, but to my sister: You have many privileges. You come from a reasonably well-off family, you are able-bodied. I do not yet know if you are straight. You are Hispanic and Jewish but to most people you probably pass as white. As far as I know, you have never experienced sexual assault or abuse. You watch a lot of Gossip Girl and sometimes I am worried about what it is doing to your perception of the world. But I know you’re going to be okay. You are an incredibly smart individual and I know you are capable of understanding the potential for damage and the necessity for education. I just hope that you will listen to me, even though I’m your annoying older sister.
Written by Ariela Schnyer