“That’s somebody’s sister.”

This is a line of rhetoric I’ve often heard from men who are trying to encourage other men to respect women.  ‘Sister,’ of course, can be substituted for ‘wife,’ ‘girlfriend,’ ‘mother,’ ‘daughter,’ et cetera.   (As ‘sister’ is the least heterosexist of these words, it’s the one I’ll be using throughout this post.) 

Now, many of the people who I have seen using this are people I respect, and I’m not trying to say that they are bad people.  They are using words which make sense to them, and which they believe will make sense to the people they are trying to reach.  They’re making an effort towards respecting women, and an effort towards eliminating sexism, which is always a good thing.  The only problem is, they aren’t making enough of an effort.  They aren’t taking things to the next level. 

Because the ‘somebody’ they are speaking of is not gender-neutral.  They are not saying, “this woman means something to other people in the world.”  They are saying, “this woman means something to another man in the world.” 

This statement is often accompanied by the question, “how would you feel if someone was treating your sister badly?”

Personally, I’d feel pretty angry if someone were treating one of my sisters badly.  (I’m  a woman, by the way, in case you didn’t know that; and both of my sisters are younger than me.)  The only problem is, their feelings ultimately shouldn’t be my call, and when people consider how to treat one of my sisters, the thing they should not think about is, “how would Genevieve* feel about this?”  It should be, “how would Jenna * feel?”  or “how would Catherine * feel?”

It also brings to mind paternalistic ideas.  This is possibly because the first place I ever saw this rhetoric was in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens , Sean Covey’s ode to proactiveness and synergy for high schoolers which my dad gave me when I was twelve.  I can’t remember which part of the book it was in, but there was a section in which Covey wrote of the harmfulness of addiction.  One addiction he mentioned as being especially harmful was pornography (something I had never even heard of until reading this book…sheltered child that I was, I doubt my dad gave me the book to introduce that particular word into my vocabulary.)  Covey used another man’s personal account to illustrate pornography’s effects, and my memory’s a bit fuzzy but I believe I recall its basic jist: the man works for a construction company during the summer, the other workers look at porn, he joins in, one day his sister goes to the site to give him something, another worker makes lewd comments about her body, she gets very upset and leaves, the man feels bad about this, and is left thinking that he shouldn’t look at porn because the women in it are all “somebody’s sister,” and you don’t want people making lewd comments about your sister.

And I can understand where the man in this story is coming from.  After all, his sister was upset about these comments, as she did nothing except appear in public with a female body.    The women in the porn magazines, however, chose to be photographed without their clothes on.  They know what the end result of their actions would be: (mostly) men buying the magazines to look at them naked, to examine and admire and comment on their bodies.  Now, whether you’re for or against porn, whether you agree with these women’s decisions or not, whether they would decide to do this in a non-patriarchal culture or not…it doesn’t matter for this argument.  They live in this culture, they made their decision. 

And if their brothers don’t want men looking at their sisters’ bodies, why does it matter?  When you argue “that’s somebody’s sister,” you are arguing that women ultimately belong to the men in their lives.  And it’s an argument that might be helpful in the short term, it might get rid of some street harassment and sexist comments (at least for ‘good girls;’ I can see this argument playing very well into the hands of the virgin-whore dichotomy), but in the long run it is harmful and it will not make the world any more egalitarian. 

Ultimately, misogyny, sexism, discrimination, harassment, rape, and domestic violence aren’t bad because of what the female victims’ brothers will feel.  They are bad because the woman , a person in her own right, is being hurt.  And until this starts being the frame around which people, even men trying to appeal to misogynists, argue for equality, equality will not be achieved.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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