The Secret Toll of Sexism

2min read

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported on a troubling study. The study, conducted by the University of Colorado, was looking to examine the longer-term impact of #MeToo, the campaign to expose sexual harassment, abuse, and predation which has overwhelmingly focused on harm by men towards women. While finding that women reported an overall decline in workplace sexual harassment, it also found that there was a growing uptick in plain old sexism.

You know, "women can't drive" sorts of things.

I'm not naive enough to believe that sexism was something we'd closed the door on; it's something every woman lives with, the frustrating background radiation of our lives. The belief that femininity is weak and superficial while masculinity is strong and deep has implications that play out every day; I cannot tell you how many times a service clerk has called me "sweetie" while calling my husband "sir," or how often I was presumed to be my business partner's secretary or assistant. While it's true that sexism can play out as overt as the assertion that women are fundamentally less capable than men, in most cases, it's far more subtle: the devaluing of women, our experiences, our abilities, and our insights purely on the grounds of who and what we are.

There is actually quite a great deal of overlap between harassment and sexism on the misogyny Venn diagram, because both of them are ultimately about power over women. It boils down to strategies of dominance, and the dots that the University of Colorado study are connecting lead to the conclusion that the degree to which men feel less free to sexually objectify women correlates to finding other ways to do the same work of maintaining a feeling of superiority and control: keeping the womenfolk in line.

I'm not going to assert that this is deliberate; sexism is so often a sort of passive reality, the ocean in which we all swim. But I also want to remind everyone that sexism is far from harmless; it does much the same work as harassment, preventing women from ever forgetting that we exist in public life at the pleasure of the men around us. I think about every time I was expected to perform secretarial work when I was a junior trader (which, you may have observed, is not how you spell "secretary") by men with less experience than me. I think about a young woman I know who ended up walking away from a once-in-a-lifetime job due to the incessant dismissal of her abilities and input. I think about women being cut out of decision-making processes, denied promotions because "this is really more of a man's thing." I think about how motherhood reduces women's lifetime earnings potential while fatherhood raises it.

Women, as a class, get a real bum deal.

That shouldn't be controversial. It's not a secret. And yet I see this sort of thing is dismissed as harmless time and time again, as though it all doesn't add up to the slow demolition of as many women as it can. A while back, I spoke with Goldman Sachs about its new diversity plan, and what struck me about it was just how many factors it had identified that restrict the number of women who are able to advance in their careers there, as well as how frequently women just… leave. It's a vicious cycle, to be sure, but it's one driven by the fundamental assumption that women are less capable than men and that, all things being equal, it'd be better to promote a man.

Let's not ignore for a moment the stark emotional damage hearing "you're just a girl" or even "you're really smart for a girl" for an entire lifetime can (and demonstrably does) wreak, preventing scores of women from even entertaining the notion of pursuing careers in business, science, or medicine. Hostile workplaces create conditions where employees simply can't perform; anxiety, stress, fear, and self-doubt all get between a hard worker and a job well done. When we are told what we cannot do, told who we cannot be, are dismissed, belittled, denigrated, it has the knock-on effect of what's called in the social sciences "stereotype threat." Essentially, the anxiety surrounding fulfilling a stereotype makes it self-fulfilling.

We've seen it play out in laboratory settings; in one study, women who were reminded of sexist assumptions that women are bad at math performed meaningfully worse at a math test than those who weren't. Sexist environments, in other words, create what they promise: a world where women don't measure up. But that's something imposed on us from the outside, and it's the reason why the women who manage to overcome the crushing weight of these assumptions are so lauded: because they've done something remarkable, something that very few men ever have to do.

The threat to women doesn't go away with Harvey Weinstein or Louis CK, and sexist remarks aren't harmless jokes. They are a stumbling block placed, deliberately or not, in the way of every single woman who sets out to make her own way in the world. It's harder to fight, and harder to see, but just as invidious.

It's something I believe we can beat. The last few years have foisted women's issues and feminism to the forefront of public conversation, educating millions about problems like these and the ways individuals contribute to them. That's a groundswell that has the potential of creating lasting change. But not if we don't keep it going. I believe we're stronger than sexism, that millions of voices can't be ignored, and that lasting change is possible.

We just have to keep trying.

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4min read

What I Learned About Marriage as a Survivor of Abuse

Marriage can be a tightrope act: when everything is in balance, it is bliss and you feel safe, but once things get shaky, you are unsure about next steps. Add outside forces into the equation like kids, work, finances or a personal crisis and now there's a strong chance that you'll need extra support to keep you from falling.

My husband and I are no strangers to misunderstandings, which are expected in any relationship, but after 7 years of marriage, we were really being tested on how strong our bond was and it had nothing to do with the "7-year itch"--it was when I was diagnosed with PTSD. As a survivor of child sexual abuse who is a perfectionist, I felt guilty about not being the "perfect partner" in our relationship; frustrated that I might be triggered while being intimate; and worried about being seen as broken or weak because of panic attacks. My defense mechanism is to not need anyone, yet my biggest fear is often abandonment.

I am not a trained therapist or relationship expert, but since 2016, I have learned a lot about managing survivorship and PTSD triggers while being in a heterosexual marriage, so I am now sharing some of my practical relationship advice to the partners of survivors to support my fellow female survivors who may be struggling to have a stronger voice in their relationship. Partners of survivors have needs too during this process, but before those needs can be met, they need to understand how to support their survivor partner, and it isn't always an easy path to navigate.

To my fellow survivor sisters in romantic relationships, I write these tips from the perspective of giving advice to your partner, so schedule some quality time to talk with your boo and read these tips together.

I challenge you both to discuss if my advice resonates with you or not! Ultimately, it will help both of you develop an open line of communication about needs, boundaries, triggers and loving one another long-term.

1. To Be or Not to Be Sexy: Your survivor partner probably wants to feel sexy, but is ambivalent about sex. She was a sexual object to someone else and that can wreak havoc on her self-esteem and intimate relationships. She may want you to find her sexy and yet not want to actually be intimate with you. Talk to her about her needs in the bedroom, what will make her feel safe, what will make her feel sexy but not objectified, and remind her that you are attracted to her for a multitude or reasons--not just because of her physical appearance.

2. Safe Words = Safer Sex: Believe it or not, your partner's mind is probably wondering while you are intimate (yep, she isn't just thinking about how amazing you are, ha!). Negative thoughts can flash through her mind depending on her body position, things you say, how she feels, etc. Have a word that you agree on that she can say if she needs a break. It could be as simple as "pause," but it needs to be respected and not questioned so that she knows when it is used, you won't assume that you can sweet talk her into continuing. This doesn't have to be a bedroom only rule. Daytime physical touch or actions could warrant the safe word, as well.

3. Let Her Reconnect: Both partners need attention in a relationship, but sometimes a survivor is distracted. Maybe she was triggered that day, feels sad or her defense mechanisms are up because you did something to upset her and you didn't even know it (and she doesn't know how to explain what happened). If she is distant, ask her if she needs some time alone. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn't, but acknowledging that you can sense some internal conflict will go a long way. Sometimes giving her the space to reconnect with herself before expecting her to be able to focus on you/your needs is just what she needs to be reminded that she is safe and loved in this relationship.

4. Take the 5 Love Languages(r) Test: If you haven't read this book yet or taken the test, please at the very least take the free quiz to learn your individual love language. My top love language was Touch and Words of Affirmation before remembering my abuse and thereafter it became Acts of Service and Words of Affirmation. Knowing how your survivor partner prefers to be shown love goes a long way and it will in turn help your needs be met, as they might be different.

5. Be Patient: I know it might be frustrating at times and you can't possibly totally understand what your survivor partner is going through, but patience goes a long way. If your survivor partner is going through the early stages of PTSD, she feels like a lot of her emotional well-being is out of her control. Panic attacks are scary and there are triggers everywhere in society. For example, studies have shown that sexual references are made anywhere from 8 to 10 times during one hour of prime time television (source: Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media). My husband is now on high alert when we watch TV and film. He quickly paused a Game of Thrones episode when we started season 2 because he realized a potentially violent sexual scene was coming up, and ultimately we turned it off and never watched the series again. He didn't make a big deal about it and I was relieved.

6. Courage to Heal, Together: The Courage to Heal book has been around for many years and it supported me well during the onset of my first flashbacks of my abuse. At the back of the book is a partners section for couples to read together. I highly recommend it so that you can try to understand from a psychological, physical and emotional stand point what your survivor partner is grappling with and how the two of you can support one another on the path of healing and enjoying life together.