Monday, November 18, 2013

Why Myriad Double Standards?

This is one in a series of blog posts in which I discuss some of the concepts and terminology that I forward in my writings, including my new book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive

So in an earlier post, I discussed the concept of myriad double standards that I forward in Excluded. The idea is quite simple: Generally within feminism and queer activism, we have a fixed idea of the system that we are challenging—e.g., the patriarchy, heteronormativity, the gender binary, kyriarchy, and so on. Being fixed models, each of these acknowledges certain forms of sexism and marginalization while overlooking or dismissing others. The forms of sexism and marginalization that are ignored tend to become points of exclusion—for instance, if your concept of “patriarchy” does not include transphobia/cissexism, then your movement will exclude trans people; if your concept of “the gender binary” does not include biphobia/monosexism, then your movement will exclude bisexuals. And so on.

In contrast to these fixed models, in Excluded, I argue that there are myriad double standardsAs Carl Sagan might have said, “billions and billions” of double standards. We may be aware of some of these double standards, yet unaware of countless others. Acknowledging this should compel us to forward new strategies that help challenge *all* double standards, rather than merely those that we are already familiar with or concerned by. And I discuss some of these strategies in the second half of Excluded as part of what I call a “holistic approach to feminism.”

Since the book has come out, I have fielded a few recurring questions about this concept that I will address here:

Why “double standards”?

Years ago, when I was trying to find a broad definition for sexism—one that would include traditional sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, monosexism, and others—I ultimately settled on the following definition: “sexism may refer to any double standard based on a person’s sex, gender, or sexuality.” More broadly, double standards may include assumptions, expectations, norms, stereotypes, meanings, value judgments, etc., that we apply to one group of people but not another.

Not only does “double standard” encapsulate many aspects of marginalization, but I also found the idea to be useful in my day-to-day activism. For instance, if some random person who has just found out that I am trans starts asking me invasive questions about my genitals (which too often happens), I could say, “what you just said is cissexist!” But if they are unfamiliar with that activist terminology, they will likely get defensive and/or accuse me of making up words. However, I find that if I address the incident by pointing out the double standard at play (i.e., that they wouldn’t dare ask someone who isn’t trans about their genitals), they usually immediately see the problem (unless, of course, they are a complete asshole).*

People tend to understand double standards on a deep, fundamental level. Even young children will point out how it’s not fair that they are treated in some way that another child is not. Thus, framing sexism and marginalization in terms of double standards has the potential of resonating with many people outside of activist circles.

For the record, I am highly aware of how framing sexism and marginalization solely in terms of double standards can be incomplete. As I say in Chapter 15, “Myriad Double Standards”:

...there is more to an ideology than just double standards. Each ism also has its own history and mythology, means by which it is transmitted and people indoctrinated into it (e.g., language, stories, schools, traditions), ways in which it is institutionalized (e.g., through laws, medicine, government bureaucracy), and so on. By focusing primarily on double standards here, I am not in anyway denying or dismissing these latter aspects of isms—they are important and need to be addressed in our analyses and activism. But I do think that breaking down an ism and examining its constituent double standards can bring to light aspects of how different forms of marginalization function and interact that typically remain obscure—that is what I am trying to do here. [p.210]

Specifically, I think that framing the matter in terms of double standards can make it easier to see the many parallels that exist between different forms of sexism and marginalization, and how they effectively undermine and invalidate the marginalized group(s) in question. I attempt to illustrate this in Chapter 14, “How Double Standards Work,” as well as other chapters in the book.

What about “reverse sexism”?

A common concern that people raise is that conceptualizing sexism in terms of double standards seems to legitimize complaints about “reverse” forms of sexism—for instance, when men feel that they experience sexism because they can be subjected to a military draft, false accusations of rape, or that they have far less options regarding clothing choice than women have.

Admittedly, these are all double standards, but they do not happen in a vacuum. In fact, they are all the “flip-sides” of sexist double standards that primarily undermine women: The assumptions that women are inherently weak, passive, dependent, and require protection are what drive the belief that women are unfit to serve in the military; the assumptions that women are sexual objects and the denial of women’s bodily autonomy leads to rape culture, a by-product of which is that men are seen as potential sexual predators; and as I discuss at great length in Whipping Girl, it is the assumption that femininity is artificial, frivolous, and less legitimate than masculinity that allows women the leeway to wear items of masculine clothing (because such articles are seen as practical), whereas men who wear feminine clothing are undermined by the inferior meanings associated with femininity.

In other words, men who complain about “reverse sexism” point to very real double standards, but they completely fail to address how these (and countless other) sexist double standards impact women. Indeed, this type of “me me me!” activism (where people are only concerned with challenging the double standards they face, but not those faced by others) is entirely incompatible with the holistic approach of challenging myriad double standards that I forward in the book.

Along similar lines, I have been asked about whether affirmative action, or the idea that people with privilege should step aside to make room for those who do not have such privilege, count as double standards that should be eliminated. Obviously, these actions are intended to be correctives to make up for huge disadvantages faced by marginalized groups. As with the “reverse sexism” examples above, anyone who singles these out these practices as double standards that must be challenged is clearly not genuine in their desire to eliminate all double standards.

Are all double standards of equal concern?

Related to the previous examples, some people have suggested that challenging myriad double standards seems to create a false equivalency between double standards. They may make the case that traditional sexism and racism have longer histories and are far more entrenched in society than biphobia/monosexism, transphobia/cissexism, or asexophobia, and thus should take precedent. Or they may argue that double standards that exist in straight mainstream society (e.g., heterosexism) are more damaging than double standards that are more specific to queer subcultures (e.g., subversivism).

For the record, I do not believe that all double standards are equal in their severity—as I admit throughout the book, some are more prevalent, institutionalized, and strictly enforced than others. But all double standards are unfair and can potentially lead to marginalization and exclusion, and for that reason, we should challenge all of them. The notion that we should rank double standards according to importance and only focus on the most damaging ones seems to be rooted in a zero-sum mentality—the underlying presumption is that we only have so much time or energy or bandwidth to devote to challenging sexism and marginalization, so we should only concentrate on the most pressing issues. (And of course, every marginalized group will no doubt view the double standards they face as being the most “pressing issues.”)

I entirely reject this zero-sum hypothesis. I reject the notion that challenging monosexism, cissexism, or asexophobia somehow “distracts” us from also challenging racism or traditional sexism, or that challenging masculine-centrism and subversivism within queer communities somehow “takes away” from our efforts to challenge heterosexism in straight mainstream society. To the contrary, if we take a broader approach that challenges *all* double standards (rather than focusing narrowly on one or a few particular isms), we can potentially undermine all forms of sexism and marginalization simultaneously. This does not necessarily require any additional time, energy, or bandwidth, but it does require us to adopt a new perspective (i.e., a holistic approach), which I forward in the second half of Excluded.

*note: I am not suggesting that we should refrain from discussing cissexism (or any other ism) simply because some people are unfamiliar with the concept. I am merely pointing out that sometimes it is a more productive and pragmatic strategy to address people at their level of understanding. I find that once people come to acknowledge that a particular double standard exists, they become exponentially more open to learning and using activist terminology to describe it. 


  1. <3. That's the answer I was looking for, thank you.
    Although I have been using this approach a lot and it actually works quite a bit of the time, even if they don't "get it" it at least gets them thinking and some dialog started..... It's a start :)

  2. I think you could shore up your argument against the whole "reverse sexism" type of discourse by framing it as a single bind, not a double bind:

    "A double bind situation has a number of features. The agent is given two (or perhaps more) injunctions as to how to behave, and these injunctions conflict, so that it is not possible to fulfil both of them. Furthermore, failure to comply with one or more of the injunctions has negative consequences, and the person cannot leave the situation. Finally, there is no way for the person to seek clarification or a meta-injunction about what to do. It is characteristic of a double bind situation that any action taken to try and evade the problem will in fact make the negative consequence more likely.

    "... Although men also face social judgements that restrict their options, those restrictions are not the mirror image of those facing women. For instance, although men do receive a social injunction to be assertive and confident, they do not experience a penalty for complying with this injunction, and in fact such behaviour often leads to social rewards, such as professional success. Both women and men are subject to pressures to behave in gendered ways, but only women face a double bind. In other words, the injunctions directed at men are prescriptive and limiting, but men are not subject to patterns of competing injunctions in the way described above. It's the difference between win-lose, and lose-lose, and it's this difference that leads radical feminists to claim that whilst men are obviously affected by the gender system, it is only women who are oppressed by it – and it is oppression, specifically, which feminism should target."

    - Jenkins, Katharine (unpublished work, 2012)

    That point's also pretty reliant on Marilyn Frye's description of oppression (in "Oppression") as a cage made out of multiple bars, which takes its oppressive form when the bars are considered as a restrictive system rather than individually (individually, any bar can just be walked around).

    Men who are privileged enough on various axes (even the idea of axes/dimensions works well here when considering the idea of being boxed-in from all sides) can get around the "single standard" bars in their way. Its when they become multiple standards that it becomes impossible to get out from under them.


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