Mansplaining: A Systemic Mechanism of Sexism and its Harmful Impacts on Women

“Mansplaining” is probably not a new word for you. On the off chance that it is, Merriam-Webster define it as: “(of a man) to explain something to a woman in a condescending way that assumes she has no knowledge about the topic”. Dictionary.com go so far as to suggest that it is often done “in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner, typically to a woman already knowledgeable about the topic”.

Although there is some debate among other women on this theme, I am of the opinion that mansplaining can only be perpetuated by a man. Before I lose all of my male readers, if indeed there are any, please read on; I write this with you in mind. Mansplaining is just one symptom of a much, much broader system of sexism. It becomes difficult to argue the case that women can mansplain to men, once we understand that mansplaining is fundamentally tied to the elevated position of societal power that we automatically grant men. This inherently forces women into a subordinate and submissive role, and thus portrays them as being in need of men’s unwarranted help, knowledge and so forth. Can women be patronising and condescending? Sure. Mansplaining, however, is a systemic mechanism of sexism against women.

Some people bristle at the use of a gendered term, with the prefix “man-”; some men I’ve encountered even consider it a form of sexism, but is it fair – or accurate – to label it as such? As Kim Goodwin so eloquently puts it, “A snarky word is… not the equivalent of systemic sexism, which primarily targets women...”.

In my opinion and experience, the popularisation of the word “mansplaining” has meant that it has become a bit of a joke to many, men and women alike (but especially men). It has become a word to ridicule contemporary feminism, invoked in mocking, sarcastic tones that indicate that as a societal and cultural phenomenon, mansplaining is not worth one iota of our attention and concern. I wanted to dispute this principle, so I posted a voluntary answer box on my Instagram story, asking for women to volunteer their experiences of mansplaining and what it was like. So, here are some stories demonstrating why we really need to take mansplaining seriously:

 

DISCLAIMER: Stories have been edited/shortened for understanding and clarity, although the facts of the stories have not changed. In some cases, names of places and people have been removed in order to maintain anonymity and confidentiality.

TRIGGER WARNING: sexual assault/harassment, sex, mention of blood.

 

“I’m an activist for an environmental group. When discussing a new action campaign, I said we should use some form of ‘Trust the Science’ messaging. A guy responded with something to the effect of: ‘As an engineer I think that that’s not good, because the science doesn’t guide morality’. For one, I study physics. For another thing, he had NEVER done political messaging before, I’d worked in messaging for about a year at this point.”

 

“I’m a biochemistry student. A guy knew this and still told me what STEM stood for.”

 

“I met a guy at a freshers event. We were exchanging facts about ourselves and I mentioned that I grew up in Spain. He started very excitedly saying how much he loved it there and how his family went every year. He asked if I was fluent in Spanish and when I said I was, he started asking me a couple of questions in Spanish (e.g. what’s my name, what am I studying, etc). I answered and he corrected my grammar. I was certain I was right, so we debated for a while, until I let it go. When I got home I looked it up, and I had been right. The next time I saw him, I asked him where he’d learned Spanish. Duolingo.”

 

“Me and my boyfriend were talking about catcalling and he claimed that women enjoyed it. I started getting emotional because I’ve been through bad experiences of catcalling since the age of 12. I told him about all of my negative experiences, and he said I was wrong to be upset and women just take it the wrong way, that catcalling is actually complimentary (even though he has never been through the experience of being catcalled as a woman by a man). He said that if women didn’t get catcalled we would feel sad about the lack of attention.”

 

“One of my white male friends tried to out-do me in explaining Japanese culture to me. I’m Japanese.”

 

“Once when I was in sixth-form, I was sat in a communal area with another girl discussing periods and birth control. A group of guys we knew came over and sat with us. We continued talking about it, as we felt comfortable enough to, until one of the boys interjected and tried to correct us on our terminology of the vulva, even though we were right. He even got a diagram of a vagina up to show us why we were wrong. We commented that it was funny how a guy, who was (openly and comfortably) a virgin and had never seen a vagina before, was telling two women, who have had vaginas their whole lives, how vaginas work. He then said he hates how defensive women get when a man knows more about their bodies than they do. We laughed it off so it wouldn’t be awkward, but it has genuinely stuck with me forever.”

 

“I was having sex with a guy. After we finished, my period came. He then tried to say to me that the blood was, in fact, not my period, but was the result of him being ‘well-endowed’. I seriously thought it was a joke, but he further went on to describe to me (with hand motions too) how a vagina works and how it can bleed if it hasn’t been ‘used’ in a while.”

 

“One time I was having sex with a guy and he wasn’t doing something correctly, so I explained that he was doing it wrong. He responded: ‘No, I’m not’.”

 

“I’d been sharing my love of netball with a male friend and how much it empowered women in sport. Instead of listening to me talk about the empowerment netball gives to women now, all he could focus on was how it was originally formed to fulfil the male idea of how women should behave. He was just repeating that netball started because of sexism. It was completely irrelevant from what I was saying, and it felt like he was trying to minimise the positive impacts that a majority female sport such as netball has. It was almost like he was trying to guilt trip me in some way to say I was a part of the problem.”

 

“I work in construction. Within the construction industry, you walk into a building site as a woman and the atmosphere becomes stiff. Why is she here? What can she know about building? They ask when your boss is arriving. They repeat themselves. You have to work harder to prove yourself at the same job your male peers gain automatic respect in. I’ve been mansplained to so many times I can’t even think of one specific instance.”

 

“I had a second date with a guy who mansplained my own biological clock to me. We’d just sat down, got a coffee, and within five minutes he asked me whether I wanted kids. I said I hadn’t really thought about it (I was 25 at the time) and he basically said that I needed to get a move on, doing a mathematical calculation of how many years I might have left to have kids (as I said I would want to spend several years developing the relationship before I had kids). He then said I would technically want to start settling down now if I wanted to spend time developing my relationship and be young enough to have kids and explained to me that every year post thirty increases the likelihood that your child will be disabled/unhealthy. I responded that 1) there’s so much wrong with that statement and 2) so many of my friends over thirty are having kids and they are perfectly happy and healthy. It was so infuriating, as he was essentially trying to explain my own body to me.”

 

“I was talking to a flatmate about my philosophy course and a module I’d been doing on death. I was explaining some of the philosophical concepts about the badness of death and how we can maybe be harmed by something after we die. He didn’t even let me finish the philosophical argument before he was calling all of it stupid and ‘a load of rubbish’ because we can’t feel anything when we die. I tried to re-explain some of the arguments for why this wasn’t the case, but he kept cutting me off and just said something along the lines of ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead, case closed’. So apparently my male flatmate was more educated on my course area than me in a matter of a few sentences.”

 

“My bosses (husband and wife) were co-directing a film together. People only came to her when they wanted to ask questions about makeup or costume. No one came to ask her opinion on camera or visual effects. Crew would literally come up and say ‘Where’s [husband’s name]? We need to talk about the shot.”

 

(Spoilers!) “I watched Inglourious Basterds with my (now ex-) boyfriend. He had hyped it up as a feminist film. When I watched it, I enjoyed it a lot, but told him that I didn’t think it could be considered a feminist film, especially when all of the ‘lead’ female characters die. He said I hadn’t understood the movie.”

 

“I study on an Environmental Science style degree. I got into a debate with a Tory guy after slating the Conservative government’s approach to sustainability and protecting the environment. We got onto the topic of neonicotinoid pesticides. We debated back and forth for a while. He pointed out that the pesticides were only being used for an emergency time period and they were essential to farmers’ livelihoods. I explained that these pesticides are thought to be one of the main causes of bees dying, and that even when used for a short-period of time, in the so-called ‘legal’ doses, they still have serious effects for bees. He then admitted outright that he didn’t know the long-term impacts of the pesticide. He still tried to argue as though he knew more about this topic than I did, having just admitted he didn’t know the effects of the pesticide.”

 

“I am doing a degree in International Development and my step-dad loves to lecture me about how aid really works.”

 

“My favourite instance of mansplaining is whenever a man tells me how to pour a pint, like I haven’t been a bartender for three years.”

 

“I had a customer mansplain how to fix our tills at work… while our female tech was there fixing them.”

 

“When I worked at [college name] for food services, I had to learn the specific till software in order to serve customers and ultimately close down the till system at the end of the day. Whenever there was a new employee, my female supervisor always got me to teach the new person because she believed I was experienced and capable; if the male supervisor was on shift, he would always say that he either had to show them, or had to watch me show them, despite the fact that I used the till system all day, so I actually used it more than him. Just hearing him repeat things to me that I did every day infuriated me. This extended to pretty much every task there, including the napkin folding, polishing, table laying, and deciding how to divide up the workload.”

 

“I’m doing a degree in Sustainability and Environmental Management, and my dad loves to tell me and my mum (who has a Geography degree) about how climate change isn’t real.”

 

“In any discussion with an older man about music, I am always mansplained to. Particularly being in a relationship with a big age gap, I was constantly spoken to as if I couldn’t possibly understand because I wasn’t alive in the 80s. Having the same taste was clearly not enough. I found this in particular when I was at the pub with [boyfriend’s name]’s friends, I was often talked over and it was made into a joke.”

 

“A guy said ‘Maybe I can help with your coding?’. I am a second year physicist at a Russell Group University, you maybe did computing at A-level: you probably can’t help.”

 

“I work in the theatre and film industry, and there are always men working that make it their personal mission to tell you what to do, where to be or basically narrate what you’re doing. In film it’s the rule that each department is responsible for re-setting its own items, so when you do another take everyone has to put their thing back to the beginning place/setting otherwise continuity is ruined. On a film set I worked on, the art department props guy was really rubbish and never re-set the props; they would be about to start a take and the props wouldn’t be in the right places, so I would quickly re-set the props, because otherwise it’s a wasted take!! One of the assistant directors realised I was resetting the props and said: “That’s not your job. I know this is your first job, but you don’t want to rub people up the wrong way by making mistakes.” I found it so frustrating and had to explain that YES I KNOW THAT, but he isn’t doing his job and I don’t want to waste time, aka money.”

 

“I had to go for a colposcopy after doctors found abnormal cells in my smear test. A colposcopy is a procedure where they take a sample of cells from the cervix, with a tool that is basically a single-hole punch for biopsies. I had my feet up in stirrups and the male gynaecologist inserted a speculum (that also doubled as a camera so he could see internally) into my vagina. I was not given anaesthetic for this procedure. The gynaecologist was incredibly casual about the procedure, but equally it is a very normal, common procedure. He even said: “This procedure doesn’t hurt.”

He began the procedure, and I was watching the screen out of curiosity, as he had told me that this procedure didn’t hurt, so I felt I had nothing to be afraid of. As he took the biopsy, I felt a lot of pain and cried out “Ow”. The gynaecologist looked up at me and simply repeated “This procedure doesn’t hurt.”

At this point the entire screen went red and I realised I was bleeding. The gynaecologist then reassured me that I shouldn’t worry, because the screen was an extreme magnification, so I wasn’t bleeding that much. He then performed the second hole-punch-esque biopsy. It really hurt but I didn’t say anything, as he had just told me the procedure wasn’t painful, although I was visibly in pain.

Then, I realised I could feel liquid running down, so I was clearly bleeding. The gynaecologist then started shoving cotton up my vagina (which was agonising) to stop the bleeding, repeating that the procedure was “not a painful procedure”. He then had to order an emergency cauterisation as he couldn’t stop the bleeding. The cauterisation involved searing the wound in my cervix shut to stop it from bleeding, but he told me: “You may feel a kind of surging feeling, but it won’t hurt.” I could actually smell my own burning flesh and was biting my arm in pain because I didn’t want to say “Ow” again.

Once he’d finished the cauterisation, the gynaecologist got up and left. I was told I could stand up and as I did there was a huge pool of my own blood at my feet, like a bloody red puddle. When I then went into the gynaecologist’s office, he behaved as though my feeling pain was the most abnormal thing in the world and completely invalidated my pain.

Afterwards, I went for a drink with my (now ex-) boyfriend, who I told about the entire situation, explaining how ridiculous it was that this man continued to say that the procedure wasn’t painful, even though I was visibly in pain the whole time. My ex then said: “Well, he is the expert.” A man without a cervix was the expert in how painful a biopsy on the cervix was?”

 

 

So why do these stories even matter? It shouldn’t even be necessary to explain, especially considering the severity and gravity of many of the stories above but here we go; if we live in a society where it’s normal for men feel so self-assured that they know more about women’s areas of knowledge and study, about women’s experiences, about women’s bodies and their health, and so forth, what are the wider implications of that?

In the case of women’s areas of knowledge and study, mansplaining perpetuates the stereotype that women are less experienced, less knowledgeable, less capable, and overall lesser. Even in the cases where it seems men are being helpful (such as in the story with the physicist and the budding coder), this is still problematic. The automatic assumption that a woman is in need of your help and your ‘expertise’, irrelevant of her own knowledge and expertise is still mansplaining.

In the case of women’s experiences, such as in the stories above about catcalling and harassment (which is an especially topical matter with regard to Sarah Everard’s story), mansplaining not only makes light of women’s experiences, but further means that their trauma is overlooked and disregarded. These dismissive attitudes contribute to a wider system that treats women’s needs as an afterthought, or an inconvenience, often just focusing on how these needs affect the comfort and routines of men.

In the case of women’s bodies and their health, such as in the story of the colposcopy, mansplaining teaches women that their knowledge of their own bodies and health will often be undermined and overlooked. It teaches them that they cannot always trust medical practitioners to take their worries seriously; in severe cases, this can lead to women being misdiagnosed or undiagnosed (Galick et al., 2015) , or even not seeking treatment at all, which is an endemic medical issue also experienced by BAME groups (Agarwal and Watson, 2021)

With all of this in mind, I address men directly: you can be better than this. Even if you consider yourself a feminist, this label is not enough. In a countless number of the stories listed above, many women commented that the man who had mansplained to them would certainly have considered himself a feminist/ believer in equality. If we want to work towards a better, more equal world, men need to unlearn their ingrained sexism in the same way that women are unlearning their internalised misogyny.

If you are struggling to determine whether you are mansplaining, this chart by Kim Goodwin is especially helpful.

 

Words By: Gina Moran

Edited By: Tamikka Reid