Question: What is sexism?

FAIR Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: What is sexism?

Introduction to Question

It has become increasingly common from feminist critics of the Church to assert that many things about its practice, belief, and history are sexist. In order to adequately respond to this criticism, it will be necessary to define sexism so that we can all be sharp moral thinkers about important issues. Having something called sexist is a serious accusation to face and Latter-day Saints should be prepared to respond intelligently but also sensitvely to those that have faced sexism and perceive it in the Church.

In the Sunday Afternoon session of the October 2017 General Conference of the Church, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught that "[w]e need to embrace God’s children compassionately and eliminate any prejudice, including racism, sexism, and nationalism. Let it be said that we truly believe the blessings of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ are for every child of God."[1] Elder Neil L. Andersen of the Quorum of the Twelve quoted Elder Ballard's words favorably and affirmatively in that very same session.[2]

The Book of Mormon boldly declares that God "inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile."[3]

Sexism is condemned by the Lord.

With that in mind, let's explore the definition of sexism philosophically. Doing so may help ameliorate some concerns that women and men have regarding the Church and the perceived sexism within it.

Those who believe that they have substantive philosophical or scriptural objections to the argument presented in this article are free to make them to FAIR editors at this link.

Response to Question

DS1

The first very obvious definition of sexism has to do with the belief of the inherent increase or decrease between the two genders in terms of moral worth: men being inherently superior to women or women being inherently superior to men. When we say "moral worth" we mean that, for instance, if we had two men and two women are tied to two strands of a train track and we get to decide who lives and dies by pulling or not pulling a lever, we would prefer to save the two men over the two women because they are more valuable to long term successes of a particular population. This inherent moral worth is supposedly recognized in either men or women because of things like intelligence. If you believe that any man is going to be inherently more intelligent than a woman, you may want to only allow men to be your leaders and do everything you can to save men from danger like the trolley problem just described. You'll assign more inherent moral worth to men because of their greater intelligence. Thus, moral worth decides the kinds of opportunities that we afford to men or women depending upon how much inherent moral worth we recognize in them and that moral worth is given because of characteristics like strength, intelligence, etc. All can agree that this is sexism. We can call this DS1 (definition of sexism #1): Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes.

DS2

We need to add to our definition something about misogyny and misandry in connection to sexism. Misogyny is defined simply as the hatred of women or the hatred a single woman because she's a woman. Misandry is defined as the hatred of men or the hatred a single man because he is a man. When you hate a man or woman because they are a man or woman, it is necessarily the case that you have a hatred of all men or all women or both. If you have a hatred of all men or women, you are a misogynist or misandrist. If you have a hatred of a particular person because they are a man or woman, you're are a misandrist or misogynist. If you have misogyny or misandry in your heart as an attitude towards women or men, you will, by definition, also believe yourself as superior to women or men which is sexism. You will also likely (but not necessarily) deny them opportunities on the basis of their gender. You will be slightly more likely to commit acts of violence against them or verbally hurt them. There are times when people can have misogyny or misandry in their heart that we can empathize with even though that misogyny or misandry is still wrong. For example, some man may have some misogyny in his heart because he has been hurt too many times by women who he has dated. He can exclaim loudly his disdain or hatred of women. His hatred will come with a reason that he's conjured in his mind. "I hate women!" "Why do you hate women?" "They're liars and cheaters!" We have a categorical statement from the man. All women are liars and cheaters.

Now, the vast majority of people who are in this type of situation quickly recognize that they've made a passionate and obviously wrong claim as they talk through their frustrations with someone. However, it still remains a fact that this man made a claim about women that comments on their inherent moral worth as human beings and gives a reason for that perceived lesser worth. Misandry or misogyny is necessarily connected to sexism. These people's hatred of women or men and the necessarily sexist beliefs they'll adopt because of that hatred are of course still wrong, but we can empathize with that misogyny/misandry and sexism to an appropriate degree and seek, with love and by the Spirit, to heal their hearts of the pain they've felt that is causing the very generalized, disdainful attitude of and belief about men or women.

Another example of misogyny or misandry would be seen if, for instance, if two children, one a boy and the other a girl, can come to a person's door on Halloween and that person can intend to give both children candy but deny giving candy to one of the children when they see that that child is a girl. In this example, I don't have any reason to deny the candy to the girl other than an irrational hatred of all women. In DS1, I'm valuing men, for instance, for a very particular characteristic they supposedly all have inherently over all women. In DS2, we hate either men or women and thus don't want to provide them certain things or opportunities for things. DS1 might be called rational sexism and misogyny/misandry might be called irrational sexism. Misogyny/Misandry differ themselves from DS1 because they're passionate and irrational. They have a necessary connection to sexism though.

Thus, we get DS2: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny, or misandry.

One can now see the tight association between sexism and misandry/misogyny. They're not the same, but closely related. One is a belief about the sexes, the other is an attitude toward the sexes. Both can define the types of opportunities that we want to afford to them.

DS3

The major deficit of DS2 is that it does not give us what might be a more insightful lens for knowing when someone is acting with rational sexism or irrational sexism even when they don't declare it.

Say that a man is being interviewed for a job and he is declined that job. The job is given to a woman. The man can ask his would-be employer why. The employer can say that it was because the man didn't have as high educational attainments as the woman did. Assume for the sake of argument that the man was able to find out the educational attainments of the woman and found that he actually had better accolades than her. It instantly became more likely that the man didn't get the job because of rational sexism or misandry. What are the other keys that we have to know whether or not we or someone we love is the victim of rational sexism or misogyny/misandry? To understand that, we have to talk about justice and how we define it.

We most often think about justice in terms of stuff or opportunities to get stuff. If I deny stuff or opportunities for stuff to someone on the basis of sex, I'm necessarily carrying a belief in sexism. For instance, going back to our candy example, if two children, one a boy and the other a girl, can come to a person's door on Halloween and that person can intend to give both children candy but deny giving candy to one of the children when they see that that child is a girl. This would be an example of injustice and misogyny. Similarly, we can deny one of the genders the opportunity of playing sports and competing for awards. Thus we can discriminate with stuff or opportunities to get stuff. But there are other conditions that need to be met in order to us to make a valid accusation of sexism or misogyny/misandry.

Let's consider things like scrunchies, bras, or panties for women. We typically provide all those things for women but not for men. Why? Because men typically don't want those things. Returning to the candy example, say that all that we have as candy for the children are Heath bars. What if the girl simply doesn't want a Heath bar and refuses us giving it to her? Have we done something sexist by not giving her the Heath bar? Of course not! Thus, stuff or opportunities must be wanted in order to infer that someone has done something sexist.

Sometimes things are needed to preserve our health or life. Say there are two people, one male and the other female, that are stranded in the desert in need of water to survive. They stumble upon me and I have water to give to them. I give water only to the female but not the male. Clearly something we would consider an example of sexism. Thus, sometimes stuff or opportunities for stuff must be needed.

There are certain times when stuff or opportunities for stuff must be merited such as in competitive sporting events, scholarships for school, and many jobs. Denying someone an award or medal when they haven't earned it can't be unjust. Denying someone an aware or medal when they have earned it is unjust.

These are among the conditions that must be met in order to know when someone is denying us an opportunity based in either sexism or misandry/misogyny: want, need, and merit. This gives us DS3: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.

DS3's deficiency is that it doesn't discuss and incorporate the issue of stereotypes.

DS4

We recognize the existence of stereotypes: ideas that people can have about the attributes about another specific segment of the human population. Some of these stereotypes can be true and some can be untrue. Many believe that the belief in stereotypes about a certain group of people is inherently harmful.

It is certainly true that stereotypes can lead to discrimination. It's a much more debatable thing to affirm that the belief in stereotypes is of itself discrimination.

We recognize that a lot of our humor as human beings is built on playing on stereotypes. The animated sitcom The Simpsons is famous for how it plays comedically on all the stereotypes that one can find in the United States. Some would say that the use of stereotypes in humor is wrong. But that also seems debatable. Does a joke really harm anyone? Especially when the content of jokes is not sincerely believed by the one relaying it?

Some stereotypes are simply true. Others are true and important. For instance, women, on average and in general, tend to have more oxytocin receptors in their brains. Oxytocin is one of the most important chemicals in human bonding. Women (on average and in general) thus more naturally choose careers that are focused people rather than things. Their brains are (on average and in general) primed to be people-oriented, nurturing creatures. That's what makes them particularly apt to be mothers to their children and it makes it so that women are more likely than men to stay at home and take care of children. That is a true stereotype of women and it's important. It's not sexist to show how men and women think and behave differently. Women's nurturing aptitudes are beautiful manifestations of femininity and female nature. They are manifestations of what makes women wonderful. They are manifestations of the nature of the Divine Feminine that Latter-day Saints believe in. It is because of this nature of women that the Church encourages them to be mothers so that their feminine nature can be most fully and frequently expressed and glorified.

The most we should and probably can say as far as incorporating stereotypes into a definition of sexism is to say that the affirmation of untrue stereotypes is a form of sexism. The least we can say is that the affirmation of untrue stereotypes leads to sexism.

Thus this is what we get for DS4:

Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, the affirmation of untrue stereotypes regarding either sex, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.

This is the definition of sexism that most people operate under, but it is still not a sufficient conceptualization of what sexism is. There is still one more requirement that the denial of stuff on the basis of sex needs to meet in order to qualify as legitimate sexism.

DS5

Let's consider this deeper and go back to our candy example. Say that the two children come to the door and the man simply doesn't have enough candy to give to both of them. He has one piece for the boy and no more for the girl. He doesn't have time to go to the store that is right next to his house and get more because his wife suddenly went into labor and he needs to get her to the hospital. Would we say that the man has done something sexist to the little girl? It would be patent nonsense to try and argue that. Of course, it does suck for the little girl; but we wouldn't hold that man morally accountable for not giving that child candy. He didn't have any other option. The author is sure that we wouldn't say that that man has done something unjust or sexist. There was both a practical and moral consideration that precluded the man giving candy to the girl. This is an extreme example and an obvious one, but its purpose is to demonstrate that there is no person on earth that can accept any other definition of sexism and justify the man taking his wife to the hospital and every rational mind would affirm that the man should take his wife to the hospital. It shows that everyone must accept this definition of sexism and that the debate regarding sexism must include talk of certain occasions in which the greater good demands that we deny one of the sexes a particular opportunity or thing. The debate must consider whether a particular instance of perceived sexism (since something perceived is not necessarily reality) isn't really sexism given a greater good to which we all aspire and that rationally precludes the possibility of giving one or more opportunities to either of the sexes. It must also consider whether the potential greater good is actually the greater good and whether it actually justifies us in restricting opportunities from someone on the basis of sex. That should be a locus and focus of debate.

This definition applies in even less dire circumstances. Say just that the boy and girl come to the door and the man doesn't have any candy for the children. It would be a cumbersome request to tell that man to get more candy to bring to the boy or girl. The boy or girl should cease their want of and request for candy from the man by recognizing that they're asking too much of him to get them candy. There's a practical reality, the lack of more candy, that precludes him from providing candy to the girl or boy. Thus the debate should consider whether there are moral and/or practical circumstances that are not that dire but still important that preclude us from offering the same stuff/opportunities to both sexes.

Thus we must expand our definition of sexism to DS4: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff when it is possible to be given and when it is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.

This definition of sexism is almost guaranteed to help many in their continued efforts to have faith in the Church and to be sharp moral thinkers about sexism. It may become more clear as people read articles that have been or will be written about this topic in relation to the Church.

One can now survey all of the requirements that must be met in order to a valid accusation of sexism to be made. If stuff or an opportunity for stuff is denied and it was possible to be given, needed, wanted, or merited, then it must necessarily be the case that that thing or opportunity is being denied on the basis of something fundamentally unjust such as your gender, religion, sexuality, race, nationality, or other things. Knowing the conditions which must be met for stuff or an opportunity to be given helps us to detect prejudicial and unjustified discrimination.

The Connections Between the Belief, the Attitude, and the Action

We have this separation now between a belief (of an increase or decrease in inherent moral worth), an attitude (misogyny or misandry), and a particular kind of action (denying stuff or opportunities for stuff) given certain circumstances. Here are the logical connections to keep in mind about them.

  1. The attitude necessarily entails that someone holds the belief.
  2. The attitude will likely carry someone to the action but not necessarily. They may refrain from the action but still carry the attitude.
  3. The belief does not necessarily entail that someone has the attitude of misogyny nor will take the action given circumstances.
  4. The particular action given circumstances necessarily entails that someone has the belief and suggests that someone may have the attitude but does not necessarily entail that someone has the attitude.

Review

To review:

  1. DS1: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic.
  2. DS2: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny, or misandry.
  3. DS3: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.
  4. DS4: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, the affirmation of untrue stereotypes regarding either sex, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.
  5. DS5: Belief in the inherent increase or decrease of moral worth between the sexes because of a particular characteristic, misogyny or misandry, the affirmation of untrue stereotypes regarding either sex, and/or denying someone stuff or opportunity for stuff on the basis of sex when that stuff or opportunity for stuff when it is possible to be given and when it is wanted, needed, or, when appropriate, merited.

DS5 and the Potential for Partial Qualitative Equality as Justice

The potential wisdom of DS5 can be demonstrated now as we consider a few different potential definitions of equality and their potential relationship to the Gospel.

Most today consider the word "equality" to be something that is something intuitively derived and obvious to any rational mind. But, with DS5 in mind, we might consider other viable definitions of equality as viable.

Most today hold to a version of equality that says that equality is giving both the same amount and the same type of stuff or opportunities to get stuff to all people. We might term this full qualitative equality. It's demonstrated in the photo below. We'll take males and females as our example. 'M' represents males and 'F' represents females.

Full Qualitative Equality Better.png

But DS5 allows us to consider two other imaginable definitions of equality. One we might call non-qualitative equality where different segments of the human population—in this case men and women—receive the same amount of stuff or opportunities for stuff but not the same type or nature of stuff or opportunities for stuff as other segments. That is demonstrated with the image below.

Non-Qualitative Equality Better.png

The other version of equality DS5 may make possible may be termed partial-qualitative equality where different segments of the human population receive the same amount of stuff or opportunities for stuff and at least some of the same type or nature of stuff or opportunities for stuff as other segments. That is demonstrated with this image.[4]

Partial Qualitative Equality Better.png

Now, it's near impossible that we'll live in a society where non-qualitative equality becomes a reality. We'll have to give both men and women the same opportunity to get food if we want them to survive, for example. But partial-qualitative equality may be a viable option for understanding equality. It's wisdom is in showing, in tandem with DS5, that it is not necessarily the case that we have to be the same or be given the same stuff/opportunities for stuff in order to be equal.

We can take the Family Proclamation as our example. Many have criticized the Proclamation for what they perceive are its strict separation of gender roles between men and women—men being tasked as presiders, providers, and protectors and women as nurturers of children. First, we should note that there are problems with that interpretation of the Proclamation. But let's just imagine that it were the case that men and women were given such a strict separation of roles. We recognize that marriage is a procreative relationship between a man and a woman. We recognize that majority scholarly opinion tells us that there are sex-based, biologically-determined, psychobehavioral differences between men and women that make us more apt for certain tasks—men as providers and women as nurturers, for example.[5] We also recognize that nations need labor in order to function economically. They need men and women to be married and have babies and they need those babies to grow up and become productive citizens of that nation. Without men and women having babies, societies would not be able to replace their labor force as older humans enter advanced age and die. There may be (and, in the author's view, are) problems with some of these assertions. But could we consider that it is at least possible for men and women to be given strict gender roles and still be considered just under the before-discussed definitions of sexism and equality? Yes, we can. That is the wisdom of DS5 and partial-qualitative equality. Again, they allow us to consider that it is not necessarily the case that we have to be the same or be given the same stuff/opportunities for stuff in order to be equal. These definitions of sexism and equality may allow us to make sense of much of the moral standards that are presented to us in scripture and other moral conflicts we see today between modernity and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

To be sure, in each case that we are considering restricting certain opportunities from one sex and not the other, we will have to consider carefully whether there is an adequate moral justification for doing so: something that supersedes the wants, needs, and merits of one of the sexes. And, in perhaps most cases, we believe that it won't be necessary to restrict opportunities from one sex and give those same opportunities to the other. But we just wish to open the door philosophically for more careful consideration of sexism and equality in light of the Gospel.

Deriving Other Definitions from This Analysis

What's interesting is that one can substitute the word "races" for the word "sexes", "hatred of a particular race" for "misandry or misogyny", and "race" for "sex" and have a very coherent, very defensible definition of racism.

One can substitute "people of a homosexual sexual orientation" for "sexes", "hatred of a person or group of people on the basis of homosexual sexual orientation" for "misandry or misogyny", and "homosexual sexual orientation" for "sex" and have a very coherent, very defensible definition of homophobia.

One can do similar substitutions for nationality, religion, etc. and come up with very coherent definitions of xenophobia, islamophobia, mormophobia, anti-semitism, etc.

Conclusion

It's the authors belief that many of the concerns that men and women have about perceived sexism in the Church will be helped by recognizing that certain opportunities may be denied them because of higher moral goods that supersede either their wants, needs, or merits. FAIR will likely author future articles under this definition of sexism as it seems to make sense of many accusations of sexism against the Church. Hopefully, this argument will continue to hold philosophically and this definition of sexism will help us to become sharper moral thinkers and be more intelligent as well as sensitive defenders of the Church.

This definition of sexism has been used to answer the questions about the Church listed below.

Notes

  1. M. Russell Ballard, "The Trek Continues!" Ensign 47, no. 11 (November 2017): 106. Emphasis added.
  2. Neil L. Andersen, "The Voice of the Lord," Ensign 47, no. 11 (November 2017): 124.
  3. 2 Nephi 26:33. Emphasis added.
  4. One will see that only qualitative equality is impossible. One will also observe that full quantitative equality is a necessary feature of any imaginable definition of equality. We must at least receive the same amount in order to be truly equal.
  5. Bruce Goldman, "Two minds: the cognitive differences between men and women," Stanford Medicine, Stanford University, May 7, 2021, https://stanmed.stanford.edu/2017spring/how-mens-and-womens-brains-are-different.html; John Stossel, "The Science: Male Brain vs Female Brain," YouTube, October 15, 2019, video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tTEi2-FAEZE; David C. Geary, "The Real Causes of Human Sex Differences," Quilette, October 20, 2020, https://quillette.com/2020/10/20/the-real-causes-of-human-sex-differences/; Male, Female: The Evolution of Human Sex Differences, 3rd ed. (Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2020). Indeed, every single cell of our body is influenced by our sex. See Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Understanding the Biology of Sex and Gender Differences; Theresa M. Wizemann, Mary-Lou Pardue, eds., Exploring the Biological Contributions to Human Health: Does Sex Matter? (Washington D.C.: National Academies Press (US), 2001), Executive Summary, 2, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK222291/#!po=1.11111. For further info on male-female neuroanatomy and psychobehavior, see Amber N. V. Ruigrock et. al, “A meta-analysis of sex differences in human brain structure,” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews 39 (2014): 34–50; Larry Cahill, “A Half-Truth is a Whole Lie: On the Necessity of Investigating Sex Influences on the Brain,” Endocrinology 153 (2012): 2542; “His Brain, Her Brain,” Scientific American, October 1, 2012. For a paradigm of gender compatible with the Gospel, see Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (New York: Encounter, 2017), chap. 7. For the most thorough coverage of the literature exploring sex differences in neuroanatomy and psychobehavior in one book, see Charles Murray, Human Diversity: The Biology of Gender, Race, and Class (New York: Twelve, 2020), 11–127. See also David C. Geary, "The Ideological Refusal to Acknowledge Evolved Sex Differences," Quillette, September 1, 2022, https://quillette.com/2022/09/01/the-ideological-refusal-to-acknowledge-evolved-sex-differences/.