Sexism can be understood as the systematic devaluation of women and femininity. Sexism comes in many forms, including hostile sexism (i.e., the overt belief in feminine inferiority), benevolent sexism (i.e., the implicit acceptance of feminine inferiority, often in the form of acquiescence with traditional gender norms), heterosexism (i.e., the normalization and privileging of heterosexual identities at the expense of queer identities), among many others. Sexism means that masculinity is always already positioned as more valid, real, and important than femininity, which is positioned as invalid, inferior, and meaningless.
Sexism manifests in many different ways. Treating women like property and not taking what women have to say seriously are two common ways sexism manifests, as are sexual, emotional, and physical abuse toward feminine people.
Secular hatred of homosexuality is another instance of sexism because the problem with homosexuality to a secularly heterosexist bigot is that gay men are perceived to be effeminate. There are, after all, no polite ways to describe a feminine boy, whereas masculine girls can be described as tom boys without insult or injury.
It is not common for men to explicitly claim that they hate women for the same reason that it is not common for white people to explicitly claim that they hate Black people — sexism, racism, and all the other -isms are structural ways of talking about collectivized individual prejudices, and it is no longer socially acceptable in America to overtly display bigotry thanks to the Civil Rights Era.
One of the most insidious manifestations of sexism regards the systematic devaluation of emotionality in deference to objectified rationality. Human subjectivity has been thoroughly defiled by sexism through the masculinization and subsequent privileging of objectivity over subjectivity, which is feminized. The fact that human subjects are not objects means that we are subjective creatures whose core is continually negated by appeals to objective truths that masculinity constructs for its own benefit.
The social function of premenstrual syndrome (PMS) is a prime example of how sexism influences perceptions of emotionality and truth, for PMS always-already exists as an excuse to invalidate anything a passionate woman might claim or do (e.g., “Don’t take her seriously, she’s just overly emotional and probably PMSing,” and “I’m sorry, don’t take me seriously, I’m just overly emotional because it’s that time of the month.”)
Subjective truths are closer to who we are than objective facts, which means emotions in their unmeasured authenticity tell us more about ourselves than social scientists could hope to discover with the scientific method. Freud recognized this when he realized his scientific medical training could not help ease the suffering of his neurotic patients, and that what instead helped was stepping deep into their subjectivities by listening to and understanding their stories. Psychoanalysis is systematically devalued and disregarded among the social sciences not just because Freud was sexist, but also because Freud found that subjectivity trumps objectivity when trying to understand human behaviors. Donald Trump and his flying monkeys are further testament to how objectivity is not sufficient in being able to explain human behaviors, and how objectivity can be weaponized to privilege some subjectivities over others.
Considering the Origins of Sexism
Sexism, like every other -ism, is learned; no one is born hating women or thinking femininity is inferior to masculinity… so who (or, what) teaches us sexism? How are we socialized into sexism without knowing or admitting it? There are many ways to approach this problem, and in this essay I would like to offer one such suggestion about the origins of sexism by examining the impact of emotional tensions that are built into normative family structures.
The motherfucking problem regards the fact that all fathers are motherfuckers. This is necessarily and literally true, for being a father means having fucked and impregnated a woman who then became a mother. Motherfucker is also an insult that is weilded at those who bring about severe upset. The fact that motherfucker is both a literal description of fatherhood and severe insult points toward structural ambivalence that is felt but not expressed toward fathers. This site of ambivalence is where I locate the origin of sexism, but before I can explain this I must first provide some background about what leads up to the motherfucking problem.
The child’s discovery of a sexual relation between mother and father is a devastating realization that forces a reconceptualization of the mother-child bond and relationships in general. If the child is consistently taken care of by mother during the early years of life (perhaps due to her benevolently sexist view that caretaking is her natural duty), then the child will feel that there is a monogamous and intimate relationship between themselves and mother. The child perceives for the first few years of life that they are the sole object of mother’s attention to whom she is passionately devoted. This perception is shattered when the child learns of the mother-father sexual relation, thus leading to numerous upsets that may or may not be resolved.
Those familiar with psychoanalysis might be aware that I have more or less just described the events that lead to the Oedipus complex, Freud’s magnum opus (or, at least, what he believed to be his most important discovery). Freud’s story about the Oedipus complex is that children will unconsciously desire to marry their mothers and kill their fathers, and must go through great lengths to reconcile this paternal hostility and maternal love. Upon realizing that the mother lacks a penis, the child in Freud’s Oedipal story (who was, by default, a boy) will believe that this is because father stole her penis as a form of punishment (i.e., he castrated her), which will then terrify the boy to appease his father out of fear that he will also be castrated if he does not behave. The child then begins to identify with the father, becoming like him with the hope that he too will someday have a mother-figure of his own.
Freud’s Oedipal story has a lot of problems that in my view say more about the trauma of his circumcision than anything else (for he was Jewish and therefore circumcised as part of a religious ritual). He was justifiably criticized for focusing on boys in his analysis, and had to come up with some ridiculous concepts to include girls and women in his framework. This is where the problematic concept of penis envy comes from, for Freud believed that all girls and women secretly desire to have a penis, thus implying, in full sexism, that men are better than women, and suggesting, in ways his father would have forbidden, Freud’s own desire for penises. Let’s not get caught up in Freud’s errors or neuroses, but let’s still acknowledge that he was onto something important when identifying the triangular conflict that exists between children, mothers, and fathers.
Let’s rewind Freud’s Oedpial story to the part where the child realizes that there is a sexual relationship between mother and father, but let’s not assume that all children secretly want to marry their mothers and kill their fathers. We can reframe Freud’s claim by saying that children feel animosity toward father and intimate closeness toward mother as a result of the structure of family relations.
The child feels betrayed by mother upon realizing that she has sex with father, especially if both of them have been sucking on her tits. Father is now a threat to the mother-child bond that the child must address. The father is recognized as a motherfucker in both the literal and figurative senses, for the child is upset about knowing that mother and father have sex because knowing this undermines what the child thought was a monogamous relationship with mother.
While it is true in every case that all fathers are motherfuckers, not all fathers are motherfucking motherfuckers. In other words, some fathers affirm their motherfucking name by being abusive, cruel, and manipulative bastards who mistreat their family probably out of their own disavowed relationship to being abused as children by their parents. It is taboo, however, to criticize one’s parents — especially fathers in a patriarchy, for folk wisdom suggests that “father knows best.” The force with which society protects the concept of fatherhood indicates to me that many fathers are abusive, otherwise paternalism would stand on its own in clear demonstration of its integrity. In other words, if fathers weren’t actually motherfuckers, then motherfucker wouldn’t be an insult, and nor would we be socialized to accept paternal authority without question.
The crux of the argument I am developing about the origin of sexism is that children are aware of being abused by (in this case) their fathers, but are forbidden from explicitly identifying this abuse, and are instead forced to adhere to the law-of-the-father (hey, Lacan!) to cover-up the hurts their fathers inflict upon them. Sanctions against parental criticism by children persist throughout the lifetime, for we are not allowed to criticize parents and are instead forced to celebrate them on Mother’s and Father’s day. Parents are by no means perfect, and we’d be better off as a society if we could honestly, openly, and compassionately critique our parents’ parenting… but this is not allowed, neither as children nor as adults. We defer to paternal authority, and with that comes the attempted erasure of the pain we feel in relation to being abused by our fathers.
Motherfucking motherfuckers (i.e., abusive fathers) add a new realm of tension to the Oedipus conflict, for the child now feels doubly betrayed by mother— first in virtue of the mother-father sexual relation, and second by the awareness that father is abusive and she is okay with it. The child will now come to resent mother because she’s not only having sex with father, but also because she is now complicit in perpetuating the abuse he inflicts on his family. “How could mommy love this man who scares and hurts me so much?” is something a child might think if there were words to describe this experience at this point in the lifespan. “I thought I could trust mommy to protect me and thought that she loved me, but now I feel betrayed and don’t think she loves me anymore.” Mother is now felt to be someone who not just permits but accepts and embraces paternal abuse for both herself and her family. The depths of pain that accompany this realization are profound and submerged into the unconscious, for the child is forced to love and approve of their parents no matter what despite feeling betrayed by mother and afraid of father.
This, dear reader, is how the motherfucking problem manifests sexism, for now the child comes to regard mother and all that she represents with disdain. Her emotionality — once a site of infantile joy, care, and belonging — is now suspicious, ominous, and maladaptive. Her body — once a site of comfort and nutrition — is now an exploitable hole around which flesh hangs for that motherfucker’s sexual pleasure. These dramatic perceptive shifts regarding mother’s capacities then bleed into broader perceptions of feminine inadequacy and hatred of women in general, for parents set the template for how children believe all men and women behave.
Mommy can’t stop daddy from being a motherfucker, and if he is a motherfucking motherfucker, then children will learn sexism from the combination of daddy’s abusiveness and mommy’s acquiescence with being abused. Mother shifts from being our first protectors to our first betrayals before we even have language to describe what we are thinking or feeling. This seed of upset grows into adulthood, where men might then mistreat women by acting out the ways they wish they would have responded to their mothers for choosing to love an abusive man. We learn sexism is a solution to the motherfucking problem when in reality the motherfucking problem is sexism itself, for none of these issues would happen if our society were more emotionally literate and respectful toward women.
I say “the child” to refer to no child in-particular, but as a character we all play during the beginning of our lives; the same goes for “mother” and “father” being character descriptions. I make claims about how the child feels about their parents to outline how these characters interact in ways that could give rise to sexism, but while doing so I also acknowledge that not all children feel these ways, and that the motherfucking problem is not the only origin of sexism. I encourage the reader to take the perspective of a child who has an abusive father and then consider all the implications that could follow from this kind of situation. I am being both playful and very serious in naming the motherfucking problem, and hope that you find some insight, entertainment, or both in reading this piece.
Thank you for reading this exploration of where sexism might originate. I dedicate this piece to Sigmund Freud, whose 164th birthday would have been today. I also dedicate this piece to my motherfucker, a man whose subversive abusiveness has taught me a lot about how the world works.