Speaking as a senior who has attended the Northwest School for over seven years, I have only taken one health class during my freshman year. Within our health classes that year, sexual education took up only a fraction of the already limited space in the curriculum. I share this experience with the student body to name the fundamental topics that I believe should be part of our curriculum which are left unaddressed. When subjects such as consent, toxic masculinity, and gender equality are skimmed over, it then becomes up to the individual to self-educate when we should be taught these skills every year. Being a “liberal” school does not change the fact that many of us, particularly the men and boys in our community, perpetuate rape culture, and it is our community’s responsibility to address that.
Too often the language that we use in everyday conversation has misogynistic undertones. Calling a woman a “female” as a noun has been called out numerous times as sexist in the way that it strips women of their identity separate from her reproductive organs, which has little to do with gender identity. It’s a word that is most often used in the context of bringing someone down or objectifying them, usually without their knowledge, and for validation from other men. This is a term that is spoken out against but is popularized to the point where the majority of the time there are no repercussions other than someone feeling angry or uncomfortable. “Female” is one of the more obviously sexist words that’s still common, but there are numerous others that someone might not even think of as having any gendered connotations. Terms like “pick me girl”, or even “basic” are used all the time and by people of all genders, but still are fundamentally a double standard. These terms, along with others, inadvertently place women into insulting categories that target femininity as something shameful. When a word is mostly used in reference to women or feminine people, the speaker should consider why they might not use the same term to refer to a man.
Noticing and reforming our language is only a small step in the right direction. Calling out your friends when they say something objectifying or generally insulting is critical to not being complicit in our toxic culture. While you might think that their comments are harmless, by not speaking up you are silently affirming their sexist thinking. This can be dangerous and could lead someone to internally justify more serious violent actions. Someone’s behavior can change entirely when they are in a position where they feel in control and can act without taking any accountability, even if they act differently around their friends.
Recently there has been a push on various social media platforms for survivors of sexual assault (s/a) to share their stories and spread awareness. Almost all of what’s being shared on the issue is coming from women and queer people, and few men are speaking up. Men need to participate in dismantling sexism, because our culture allows them to be heard with less judgement than when people of other genders speak on the same issues. Toxic masculinity, the cultural pressure that tells men to act a certain way, is harmful to everyone regardless of gender. It perpetuates the notion that validation should come from men, on top of the gender-based violence it causes. This is harmful and wrong, but it means that when a man protests misogyny, other men are so much more likely to listen. So, to the male-identifying students at Northwest: we notice your silence.
Sexism takes place within schools in different forms, maybe the most common being subtle “benevolent sexism” in the classroom and athletics. This could be unequal treatment in STEM classes based on assumed ability levels, or just generally inappropriate comments from teachers, but likely most women in schools have experienced discomfort or frustration with having to work harder than their peers to prove their academic abilities. A more dangerous issue, however, is lack of protection of women in schools from “hostile sexism”. An example of this is failure from an institution to provide a clear system where anyone can report incidents of harassment or assault. Schools must also have explicit consequences for these incidents, and should define consent for the whole student body so there is no confusion or “grey lines” when something needs to be addressed. This is the bare minimum for keeping students (of all genders) safe. We must demand this from Northwest as an institution, so that people of all genders can feel protected, safe, and heard.
Feminism objectively benefits everyone regardless of identity, because of the way that toxic masculinity affects our complete society and the way humans interact. Learning to dismantle the patriarchy and toxic masculinity is a process, but some boys are still hesitant to outwardly identify as feminists. Even if someone believes in gender equality (which is the definition of feminism), feminism is sometimes falsely accused of being synonymous with misandry (the hatred of men), which is why it’s important to have men support feminism publicly. Now that we are finally going back to school in person, male students should be aware of how they are taking space in certain classes to make an environment where everyone feels welcome and heard. Conversation around gender equality should be held regardless of identity, and with the goal of self-reflection.