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Is "Mansplaining" Real?

[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]

Well, sure mansplaining is real. But, if we take a look at the definition "Mansplaining is what occurs when a man talks condescendingly to someone (especially a woman) about something he has incomplete knowledge of, with the mistaken assumption that he knows more about it than the person he's talking to does."

Although women certainly can interrupt and speak over men and other women in ways that are inappropriate or rude, “mansplaining” is a uniquely gendered issue, sprouting from a culture that implicitly values men's voices over women's. Bitch Magazine published an article called "7 Studies that prove mansplaining exists." From men interrupting women more to dominating meetings and occupying more space in media, the proof is difficult to argue with. Even so, men will argue that not all men mansplain, or even that mansplaining itself is a sexist term. It is incredibly frustrating to live with the constant assumption that men know more, even if they don't. Women who are experts in their fields experience this repeatedly, almost, it seems, because they are experts.

My favorite example comes from Rebecca Solnit, a prolific writer and author of the essay and book "Men Explain Things To Me." Although she didn't use the word "mansplain" she describes one of the most painful examples I've come across to-date. At a party hosted by a wealthy older man, Solnit and a friend were making conversation with the host, who learned that Solnit published a book on 19th century photographer Eadweard Muybridge. The host then proceeded to explain her own book to her. I cannot comprehend this level of arrogance.

Solnit is quoted to say: "Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world."

Just last week, a UK woman named Sara Everard was walking home from a friends house around 9:30 at night and mysteriously went missing. Later, a police officer was arrested and charged with her kidnapping and murder. This is heartbreaking and infuriating for many reasons, one of which is the glaring reminder that women are never safe. Even those whose duty it is to protect us (police) are not safe. Sara should not be dead. Women should not have to be afraid to walk home alone in their own community. We shouldn't have to be with a man to deter another man from inflicting harm on us. We shouldn't have to carry mace or pepper spray although even then, we aren't safe.

But, even in light of this obviously horrifying act, men took to the internet to say that "not all men" are bad, a hashtag that trended on Twitter far too long. Sure, not all men are dangerous but enough of them are that women don't feel safe. Women aren't safe. And claiming that not all men are bad is not only obvious but the most egregious form of mansplaining. They are saying, "don't be afraid, we're not all bad," while we're saying, "please stop harming us, killing us, blaming us, and then explaining to us how we might have avoided you."

Mansplaining can be as harmful as normalizing fear and as benign as talking over us in meetings or explaining something to us that we already know. But all of it is detrimental because all of it normalizes the silencing of women, perpetuates the belief that we are responsible for the harms done to us by men, and incorrectly place men in positions of knowledge and power.

One of my friends is a doctor and told me how her male patients will try to explain routine medical procedures. One patient told her she was talking his blood pressure incorrectly. Another friend had a male doctor who continually disregarded her complaints of pelvic pain until she finally got a second opinion. Turns out, she has endometriosis. Another friend once dated a guy who claimed that catcalling is complimentary. I once went on a date with a man who explained what women are like, claiming that we all want to feel protected and taken care of.

Finally, another friend joined the military, where she not only felt physically unsafe but had to work twice as hard as her male peers to prove she was tough. "I consistently felt like I had to prove myself because I'm a woman," she wrote, "and the name calling wasn't the worst of it. I was groped and sexualized but I kept to myself because I knew nothing would happen if I took it to command." Sexual assault and harassment in the military is not a new phenomenon. Over the past decade, the number of reported sexual assaults has doubled from 3,327 in 2010 to 7,825 in 2019, but the actual number, including those not reported, is estimated to be 20,000. A soldier is more likely to be raped by a peer than shot by an enemy. The military encapsulates an entire problem of it's own, that goes much deeper than mansplaining.

The complexity of the patriarchy renders the lives and experiences of women less important on both micro and macro scales. Research indicates that although women outnumber men, they actually speak up less than men starting from an early age. And when women who want to be heard mimic the interrupting behavior of men, they are perceived as rude, less intelligent, abrasive, or bitchy. We all know a domineering man who is either respected, well-liked, or both. But how many of us know such a woman?

The remedy to mansplaining is almost too simple: men need to refrain from offering advice, opinions, and commentary unless specifically asked. As for women, we need to amplify the voices of other women, make space for ourselves, and support each other in speaking up and being heard.

P.S. This blog was inspirited by a man I love and admire who claimed that the term "mansplain" is sexist...against men. Having a respectful dialogue is the only way to change someone's mind, so don't get your undies in a bundle. While I have your attention, check out this list of words (including "mansplain") that were recently added to the dictionary. Check out this neat mansplaining chart, or watch this funny video explaining mansplaining here.


Sarah Rose

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