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The charge of “sexism” is a serious and often emotionally-loaded one. The same can be said of “stereotyping”.
Focus on the Family’s “It’s Uncomplicated” relationship workshop has been in the spotlight ever since a student from Hwa Chong Institution, Ms Agatha Tan, posted an open letter on Facebook criticising the workshop. The booklet used in the workshop had drawn certain generalisations about boys and girls. For example, it is stated that guys “need respect”, “are insecure” and “are visual”, while gals “need to feel loved”, “can be emotional” and “want security”.
Thus, in her open letter to the principal of the junior college, the 17 year-old student criticised the workshop for “sexism” and for perpetrating “gender stereotypes”.
What does it mean?
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “sexism” is the “unfair treatment of people because of their sex; especially: unfair treatment of women”. Similarly, to “stereotype” is “to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same”.
As can be seen from both definitions, the common fundamental principle of “fairness” lies embedded both the concepts of “sexism” and “stereotyping”. Fairness, in turn, is a potentially amorphous term which is liable to import lock-stock-and-barrel entire worldviews and value-systems.
This could be one of the reasons why a number of critics have been quick to point out the fact that Focus on the Family is a “Christian charity”, while questioning whether religious groups ought to be allowed to teach courses in schools.
Critics undo themselves when they attempt to single out the value systems of those they criticise, since they reveal that they themselves are basing their criticisms on their own substantive value-systems.
The real question, then, is deeper – whether the differences between males and females are fairly and accurately highlighted in the first place.
Differences between males and females?
Men and women differ in ways beyond their bodily anatomies.
For example, the field of neuroscience has shown that men and women’s brains are wired in ways that cause them to respond differently to visual cues.
Studies have shown that the emotion control centre of men’s brains showed significantly higher levels of activation in viewing sexual visual stimuli than females viewing the same images.
And if there still remains any doubt, just look to the media industry.
Advertisers, filmmakers and media moguls everywhere bet millions of dollars annually on the different responses of male and female consumers to the images displayed everywhere on screens, billboards and magazines.
Now, of course, this is far from saying that women do not respond to visual cues at all, or that there are no men on whom visual cues have no effect. Neither does it rule out the possibility that these differences can altered or changed by various forms of social, medical or other conditioning.
What this shows is that men and women, by and large and for the most part, intrinsically tend to respond differently and to different degrees when dealing with the same situation.
What shall we do about these differences?
As many would have probably realised by now, the real fear of “sexism” and “stereotyping” does not seem to lie in whether men and women are different in the first place. Instead, the fear probably lies in whether these differences will be fashioned by societal forces into oppressive gender roles.
This fear is not unwarranted. In recent times, we have read news of extremist groups like Boko Haram and the Taliban which restrict the access of girls and women to education through acts of violence and terror.
By condoning violence against women and discriminating against women in areas such as education, they have violated numerous human rights principles.
Nevertheless, equality is not sameness; while men and women are equal in worth and dignity, they are not the same. Neither are all gender roles necessarily bad.
One example of this is the role of mothers in a family, which itself is an inherently gendered institution. Article 5 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women – to which Singapore is a party – obliges states parties to “ensure that family education includes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function”. Steps taken to protect the role of mothers in society include the prohibition of dismissal on the grounds of pregnancy as well as the provision of maternity leave.
The lesson learnt here is this: By recognising and affirming the unique and complementary differences between men and women, society can better appreciate and adapt to the needs of both sexes.
A charge of “sexism” or an accusation of perpetrating “gender stereotypes” cannot be unquestioningly levelled against the workshop, since these beg the question of whether the characterisations of males and females in the workshop are fair and accurate.
Credible evidence does suggest certain key differences between males and females.
One thing that struck me about the booklet used in the workshop was how it was phrased in terms of duties rather than entitlements. Seen in this context, the emphasis was on a mutuality of responsibilities between boys and girls.
Nothing of value is achieved by denying the unique and complementary differences between men and women. Instead, young men and women should be taught to respect these profound differences, to control their desires according to right reason, and to exercise mutual responsibility in their conduct towards one another.
Darius Lee, 26
Darius Lee is a practicing lawyer.