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Practical Exercises To Overcome Sexism


My friend Laura came up with a great idea which I am proud to be stealing for this post.

She suggested that we should make a list of things which (cis) men can do to overcome sexism.

After all, no matter how much you read, and how much you think, it can be hard to really understand an oppression you don’t have any direct experience with. The antidote, perhaps, is to get out of your head and start experiencing things in the real world.

Note that sexism, heterosexism (the oppression of non-straight people), and cissexism (the oppression of trans and gender non-conforming people), are all interlinked. Sexism relies on certain sexual dynamics, and certain rigid gender roles, which homosexuality, bisexuality and transsexuality challenge. Simply put, through enforced heterosexuality and gender conformity, men are made unable to put themselves in the place of women, unable to see them as anything but the “other”. Overcoming sexism has a lot to do with breaking down this barrier and being able to put yourself in a woman’s shoes, so to speak.

About The Exercises

So here is a list of practical exercises you can do, in rough order of difficulty, to break down sexism. Some of them are intended for straight men only, and they are all generally intended for cis men (e.g. men who are not transsexual). If you’re a trans man, you’re probably already experienced in living in a woman’s shoes (voluntarily or not). Perhaps doing these things might help as a refresher course, though.

With each of these exercises, if you find them uncomfortable, I recommend repeating them until you are completely comfortable with them. You may already do some of these things and are already comfortable with them. If so, move onto the next exercise.

With most of these exercises, you might be challenged by other people regarding your heterosexuality or manliness. Try not to insist that you are straight or manly. Instead, point out that you have the freedom to express yourself as you like, and that it wouldn’t be a problem if you were gay or womanlike.

If someone decides that you are gay, expecting you to argue with them, say, “OK, I am gay.” If rumours start to fly and other people think you are gay, it’s okay to correct them, but try to do it only when you are asked or if it’s otherwise genuinely relevant. Otherwise, just let people think you are gay. Try to get comfortable with people thinking that. I mean, it’s not true, but it’s not a problem anyway, and only people’s bigotry makes it a big deal.

Now, there is the small chance that after going through these exercises you might discover that you actually are gay, bisexual, transsexual, or gender variant. That’s great! Congratulations on your self discovery. As you’re starting out with these exercises, consider this possibility, and try to get comfortable with it. Even if you do turn out to be queer, it’s okay.

On that note you might want to consider that bisexuality isn’t always 50-50. I, for example, am attracted to about ten women for every one man I’m attracted to.

I think it’s actually pretty common for people to be slightly bisexual. If you do discover some small attraction to men as you go through these exercises, it may be just that – a small attraction. And that’s okay. You’re allowed to have that. You don’t have to resist it or cover it up.

You could also discover you’re more like 50-50 bisexual or even e.g. 80-20 in favour of men. It’s all valid, and all okay.

Finally, note that there is some risk of being abused or losing friends, or worse things happening, if you do some of these exercises. However, if same-sex attracted and gender-variant men and trans women can deal with it, I would suggest that you can too. Consider this an act of solidarity with them, and let the hurtful responses teach you about the reality they experience every day. Remember, you can stop doing these things, but they can’t.


The Exercises

1. Offer a guy a hug in an appropriate context (could just be greeting a friend or comforting someone who is sad). And make it a real hug, not a rough, momentary “bro hug”. Refrain from doing anything to reassure the other person that you are straight.

2. Offer a guy a massage. Everyone loves massages.

3. Learn a recipe and cook a meal for someone.

4. Make a serious evaluation about whether you do a balanced amount of housework in your living space. If you don’t, try to improve that. If you are unsure, ask any women you live with whether they feel you are doing your fair share.

5. Try some female-associated activity you would be interested in if you didn’t have this urge to defend your image of manliness. If you don’t know what you’d be interested in if you didn’t have that urge, make a guess. If you really don’t think you are avoiding anything because you feel the urge to defend your image of manliness, try female associated things anyway; being in a social environment where you are surrounded by women can be enlightening in itself. Suggestions: yoga, pilates, dance classes, certain sorts of self-help groups, cooking classes, flower arranging classes, fashion shows, watching “chick flicks” with friends.

6. Compliment another man on his appearance. Refrain from brospeak such as “no homo” or “but that doesn’t make me gay or anything”. If the other man tries to relieve the tension by making a homophobic joke, state that this wasn’t intended as a romantic gesture, but that there wouldn’t be a problem if you were gay.

7. Mention to someone that you think another man is attractive. Again, if homosexuality is brought up, you can correct that interpretation while reminding them that being gay is not a problem. If you are unable to even see whether a man is attractive or not, google “attractive men” and look at them until you find one who seems pleasing. Admit that to yourself, and try not to have a crisis about whether you are gay or not. (You probably aren’t, but even if you were, it wouldn’t be a problem).

8. Hold a baby. If you find this delightful, express how you feel.

9. Wear a pink shirt. If anyone remarks on it point out that colour doesn’t say anything about sexual orientation and it wouldn’t be a problem if you were gay.

10. Tell someone (in an appropriate context) that your feelings are hurt, or you’re feeling sensitive about something. (Try also getting in touch with your feelings in general – this is a process, though).

11. Go have a drink at a gay/queer bar. You’re allowed to go with friends (bonus points if you actually have some queer friends you can accompany). If you’re propositioned by a man turn him down POLITELY. Don’t tell him you’re straight unless he really needs an explanation, there is no need to defend your heterosexual identity. In general, avoid mentioning you are straight unless it’s absolutely relevant. It’s okay for people to assume you are gay, because being gay is not a bad thing.

12. Paint your nails. Avoid explaining yourself or defending yourself if people remark on it. You can point out, if you like, that it’s not shameful to do womanly things, because it’s not shameful to be a woman.

13. Let yourself cry in front of others where you would otherwise repress it. If someone tells you to “man up” point out that you don’t have to “man up” because being like a woman is not a bad thing.+

14. Dance with a guy.

15. Wear a flower clip or a bow in your hair for a while. If someone mentions it, avoid explaining, just smile or acknowledge that yeah, you DO indeed have a flower in your hair. If someone insists on an explanation, tell them that you don’t have to defend your right to wear whatever you want to.

16. Wear makeup. You don’t have to go overboard – don’t try to defend your masculine identity by being ironic or crude about it. Try subtle to start with, and try making it look good. Mascara, for instance, looks great on a surprising number of guys. Get a lady to help you if necessary.

You can try more obvious and more feminine makeup as you become comfortable with the subtler expressions.

17. If this doesn’t seem too ridiculous to bear, wear a menstruation pad. If you are uncomfortable with this exercise, that’s a perfect sign that you should do it. Get comfortable with doing things women do, because being a woman is not a shameful thing. (Going to the shop and buying menstruation pads might be a useful exercise in itself. Try not to explain yourself. The cashier almost certainly won’t expect an explanation, anyway).

18. Tell someone that you are gay or bisexual. Pay attention to their reaction and what it’s like to interact with someone who thinks you are queer. You can tell them you were lying later, if you want.

19. Dress as a woman. Do it privately if you’re not yet comfortable going out. Then try going out with a friend, then alone. Observe people’s reactions to you.

This may be really hard, but try not to explain why you’re doing this; just remind people that it’s okay for you to dress however you want. If you’re interrogated, give minimal answers, coming back always to the fact that you can wear what you want and you don’t need to give explanations.

If people think you are a woman, even better! This is an excellent way of experiencing sexism first hand. Try walking around in public until you experience your first street harrassment for being perceived as a woman. This will change your perspective forever, trust me.

20. Find a male friend who is down for this – perhaps someone you met at that gay bar – and walk down the street holding hands with him. Observe reactions.

21. Kiss a guy. You can try a peck on the lips first, and go for deeper kissing as you get more comfortable. Obviously, you’ll want to find an understanding guy for this exercise.

You don’t have to be actually attracted to men to do this. Think how many straight girls have kissed girls. The only reason this seems harder for you than it does for them, is because of the interlinked oppressions of sexism and homophobia.

If your kissing partner is gay or bisexual, you might want to let him know you are straight so that you don’t break his heart.

22. Try passive anal sex with a woman. Click that link for more info.

BONUS ROUND – optional (for the exceptionally dedicated)

23. If you’re really dedicated, try living as a woman for a while. You’re allowed to tell people it’s not a permanent thing, but do insist that they get your female name and pronouns correct. Be ready to have your sense of reality broken down and reconstructed.

24. Also if you’re really dedicated, try sex with a man. If you can get over homophobia, it will probably feel less unpleasant than you’d expect. Again, women are allowed to have their lesbian experimentation phase, so why aren’t you? And again, you should probably be upfront about your sexual orientation in order to avoid to breaking anyone’s heart.

25. If you’re really really dedicated, you can try taking female hormones for a while. No better way of getting into a woman’s skin than that, right? From what I hear, you should stop at the three month mark to avoid permanent physical changes. I suggest capping it at one and a half months to be sure.


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