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Fact or Non-Fiction

27 October, 2009 (12:07) | Social Commentary

Self Help

“Well, yeah. It just makes sense,” I admitted.

“Ok, follow-up question,” warned Matt.

“Shoot.”

“Would you say that’s sexist?”

My immediate inclination was to say no, but even after discussing the topic for nearly an hour, there was still a shred of doubt in the back of my mind. It ate at me, gnawing on my conscience until I started posing the same questions to friends. I didn’t want to be prejudiced, especially given the amount of respect I have for the opposite sex, but no amount of reassurance is enough to completely quell the possibility.

The question seemed innocuous at first: you’re in a book store, trying to pick out a self-help book (a scenario that instantly demands the requisite statement of “not that you need one, it’s just hypothetical”). The self-help book you’re looking for should be designed specifically for your sex with their issues in mind. When you get to the shelf, you find two books with this topic in mind. One is written by a man and the other is written by a woman. Which do you expect to be a more useful book?

The question is almost always answered “man” by men and “woman” by women. No one really thinks twice until the question of sexism is raised. This is quickly followed by rationalising, backpeddling, and an intense dislike for the scenario:

“I’m not saying a man wouldn’t do a good job writing a self-help book for women,” someone would quip, mimicking my own arguments, “he’s just less likely to do so. I mean, maybe his is actually better, but I wouldn’t make up my mind solely based on the sex of the author. I’d want to read the back of the book too. Men and women have inherent differences, and a man can’t experience what it’s like to be woman or vice versa.  Besides, you’re talking about a judgment without all the data, it’s not fair.”

No matter the arguments, the question of whether this initial judgment is sexist or realist looms large well after the fact.

Sexism is no longer a singular prejudice. Instead, it has become a raging multi-headed monster and a premise so loaded that it can instantly make a room a war zone. Comment on any aspect, however verifiable and true, that defines a difference in the sexes is liable to ignite a fire no amount of water can quell.

The issue in this case is that the judgment is neither active nor is it noticeable until someone points it out. Many sociologists and psychologists talk about the ingrained prejudices that have been norms within the society: the silent judgment of a woman fearful of a black man because of his urban dress and skin color; the thought in the back of a young woman’s head that the big guy walking behind her at night is going to rape her; the idea the Hispanic person serving someone in a restaurant is probably illegally here. These are all assumptions made in that first instant, without any evidence. And while one can defend it as survival instinct, it’s still prejudice and ingrained in such a way that nearly everyone is guilty of it at some point.

Certainly, the question of authors of self-help books is not nearly as blatant or offensive as the scenarios I’ve just presented, but it’s still indicative of the way in which we judge without even realizing it. My favorite parallel vindicating this sort of judgment is one relating to sports books: if you wanted a book on baseball, would you look at a book by a baseball player or by a football player first? They may both be good, but I’d still be inclined to trust someone who played the sport to know more about it. It’s no different for books relating to the sexes, even if it is a double standard.

The political correctness and women’s liberation movements have long been seeking equality, but it seems as though equality of opportunity has become a Harrison Bergeron-esque expectation of equal results. I will often refer to myself as a feminist because I believe that women should be given every opportunity that men have to succeed, but that doesn’t mean I expect them to be able to perform equally in sports; women simply aren’t built for that. For the life of me, I can’t tell if that’s a sexist statement or a factual one.

The argument of the double standard isn’t a new one. For my generation, it’s often  simply summed up as the “pimp-slut” dichotomy. For men, pimp is more likely a compliment of one’s prowess, while its female counterpart is nearly invariably an insult (though there’s certainly a movement that’s trying to change that by using it much in the same way men will use pimp). But this double standard is also completely unfair. The sexual freedom expected of men has been spurned in women when there really isn’t any difference in the act.

A recent study claimed that women are getting more attractive while men remain the same, a result of pretty women breeding more and having more daughters.  This is now science fact, yet there’s the subtle inclination not stated that proves the shallowness of men. The inequality is one based most often on looks or, in the case of men, success. This is a socially acceptable prejudice, yet it’s no different than our self-help book inclination. It’s well established that what seems like it may be the most desirable result at first is often not the best result (see: divorce rate). We almost always need more data.

None of my friends have been able to give me a satisfactory answer. Every one of them has offered the same counterarguments and none seems willing to accept that their judgment is symptomatic of sexism. But it doesn’t really matter. In the end, no matter how hard we try, these initial judgments will be there. And though I’d love to be able to have a truly equal society, we have to face that these judgments are often made for a reason. So rather than dismissing the result as sexist or inherently wrong and trying to come at things anew, the only good solution seems to be to acknowledge these ideas and factor them in to our final choices.

Despite what the constitution says, all men were not actually created equal, just with an equal opportunity for succeeding.

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  • I was actually the first one to pose this exact question to Matt. I was reading about a guy who write a book about “finding your strongest life,” but the book was for women. My first reaction was, “Psh, like a guy would be able to help me with that.” Then I thought, “Would I be saying that if the author was a woman?” The truth is, I'd rather read a woman-authored book about the same topic. Why? Even though the guy who wrote this book probably knows way more than me because he has done years of research about the changing roles women are taking on, I just want to know that the person writing the book has been through these experiences, like they're in the “girl's club” or something. Does my preference make me sexist? In plain terms, yes. It's a judgment I'm making about a male author who is well-read and widely published. I'm not sure what to make of that, honestly– I just know that I'd rather work through my personal problems by getting self-help analysis from a gal. Kinda like wanting a female gyno.
    However, this issue doesn't seem to be hurting Marcus Buckingham, the author of “Finding Your Strongest Life.” He's been written up in Business Week, Forbes, NYT and the Today Show. So maybe it's just me who's sexist here. 🙂

  • Peter of the Norse

    Are we talking about a sexual self-help book, or a non-sexual one? Everyone agrees that “Our Bodies, Ourselves” was a much better book because it was written by women, but for a spiritual or mental book, I’m not picky.

  • AceHarmon

    If you actually wanted a self-help book and read Buckingham's book, I suspect you would still get something out of it regardless of what your first inclination is.

    My dad presented an interesting scenario of the book “How to Have and Please Your Mistress,” or some such book (which apparently exists, though I'm sure I've butchered the title). In this case, I'd actually rather have it be written by a woman explaining what she wants and needs out of that specific relationship. It's no different than with a self-help book except with the roles reversed.

  • AceHarmon

    It doesn't have to be sexual, but it does have to be aimed at a specific sex. I don't think a man can console a woman for being passed up for a promotion because she's not a man. Not only is it kind of wrong, but our empathy can't be truly in sync, due to the fact that we're not women and can't have that experience.

  • Marion the Librarian

    In 1971, Bill Wattenburg “…whipped out a book with the title 'How To Be Good To A Woman'. But New York publishers said it wouldn’t sell. … Unconvinced, he changed the title of the book to 'How To Find And Fascinate A Mistress', changed “woman” to “mistress” in the text … Before it was over, the book that he had tried to give away had earned him over $1,300,000! It was published in six countries.”

    http://www.pushback.com/Wattenburg/bio/publishi

  • AceHarmon

    Great job finding that! I was trying to grasp at the wisps of second-hand knowledge strung across the corners of my mind, but clearly this was a job for a professional.

  • Marion the Librarian

    In 1971, Bill Wattenburg “…whipped out a book with the title 'How To Be Good To A Woman'. But New York publishers said it wouldn’t sell. … Unconvinced, he changed the title of the book to 'How To Find And Fascinate A Mistress', changed “woman” to “mistress” in the text … Before it was over, the book that he had tried to give away had earned him over $1,300,000! It was published in six countries.”

    http://www.pushback.com/Wattenburg/bio/publishi

  • AceHarmon

    Great job finding that! I was trying to grasp at the wisps of second-hand knowledge strung across the corners of my mind, but clearly this was a job for a professional.