In the global context:

In the global context:

Women are working as commercial sex workers; working in sweatshop factories sewing garments, peeling shrimp, weaving carpets, picking cotton, mining minerals, harvesting rice, and working in households as domestic care workers. They are bonded by debt that is almost impossible to pay off and must do this menial, degrading, and debilitating labor for long hours with no rights or protections (U.S. Department of State, 2010). Assault and violence based on trafficking (the illegal trade in human beings that constitutes a modern form of slavery) of women and girls for forced labor and sex is widespread (Watts & Zimmerman, 2002; World Health Organization, 2009).


4.5 million of the estimated 21 million people in forced labor are victims of sexual exploitation, 98% of them are women and girls (United Nations, 2017). In 2012, one in two women killed worldwide was killed by their partner or family (Unnited Nations, 2017). In the 1994 Rwandan genocide, it is estimated that up to 500,000 women were raped during a 100-day period (Surf Survivors Fund, n.d.). In 1992 Croatian and Bosnian women were subjected to rape and gang rape by soldiers in rape/death camps (Allen, 1996).

While war rape is considered a crime against humanity and trafficking affects women in developing nations at higher rates than women in the United States or Canada, violent crimes and other forms of exploitation against women are not restricted to developing nations. Sexism occurs in U.S. and Canadian women’s lives in these ways:

One in four women in the United States has experienced domestic violence, and one in three women has been a victim of rape (Center for Disease Control, 2017). The number of American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2012 was 6,488. The number of American women who were murdered by current or ex male partners during that time was 11,766. (HOPE, n.d.). A woman is beaten every 9 seconds in the United States (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2015). Less than 10% of sexual assaults in Canada are reported to the police (Statistics Canada, 2006b); despite the rate of self-reported sexual assaults remaining relatively stable, the percentage of offenses that were reported to the police has dropped from about 12% in 2009 to 5% in 2014 (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2016). Fifty-one percent of Canadian women report having experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence; four out of five female undergraduates at Canadian universities have been victims of violence in a dating relationship; and 83% of women with disabilities will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime (Sexual Assault Centre of Hamilton Ontario, n.d.). In the United States, an estimated 10 million women are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner each year (National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2015). On average a woman is killed by her intimate partner every 6 days in


Canada (BC Society of Transition Houses, 2016). On average 3 women are killed every day in the United States. (National Network to End Domestic Violence, 2012).

What these statistics reveal is not only that rape, sexual assault, and violence against women (perpetrated primarily by men) occurs at extraordinary rates in Canada and the United States, but that many of us are unaware of the severity and pervasiveness of this violence. In addition to direct experiences of gender violence, there are indirect ways that many of us support violence against women and girls. For example, Canada and the United States are primary consumers of clothing, accessories, and household goods produced by sweatshop labor.

What Makes Sexism Difficult to See?

Given the extent of violence against women globally as well as locally, how are so many of us able to deny its existence? Why does mainstream culture position women’s oppressions as a problem of marginalized societies (developing nations or people living in poverty) rather than as a pervasive system that affects all women throughout the world, mediated by their additional social positions (of race, class, sexuality, and other identities)? In order to understand how the pervasiveness of violence against women, and violence against women of Color, poor women, trans women, and women with disabilities in particular, becomes so normalized as to be virtually invisible, one must practice seeing the interconnections between socialization, institutions, and culture.

There are several reasons why sexism is difficult to see. First, the way that dominant culture focuses on individuals obscures group-level patterns. If we view oppression as isolated events (such as suffrage or reproductive rights), or as an extreme example of violence against a single woman, the broader patterns become obscured. It is harder to see everyday and ongoing sexism when placed alongside the sensationalized examples (e.g., a woman whose nose is chopped off to “restore honor,” or a woman locked away in a basement for years and forced to bear children by her father/abuser). When we define oppression solely as individual acts that individual bad people do, we conceal the everyday ways that social institutions organize and hold sexism in place. Further, there is a silence that surrounds most individual cases, which helps keep gender violence hidden.

Second, corporate-produced popular culture has become a more pervasive institution in our lives through multiple points of entry such as


advertising, sponsored curriculum in schools, and mass media. For example, corporate-produced toys amplify rigid gender roles, socializing girls into femininity (nurturing, caring, beauty play) and boys into masculinity (aggressive, violent, physical play). Walk through any major toy store and peruse the aisles and you will see that rather than definitions of masculinity and femininity expanding and stretching, these definitions have become increasingly narrow and rigid. Male musculature in toys and media representations has become more exaggerated, the emotional range has become more limited—usually to some variation of rage—and violent play for boys has become more realistic through video games (Morrison & Halton, 2009). At the same time, girls’ toys and imagery have become more passive as girls’ play is focused primarily on self-grooming, friendship, and performing domestic duties.

As corporate culture represents masculinity as dominance, disconnection from feelings, invulnerability, and immunity from emotional attachment, it simultaneously represents femininity as passive, pleasing, and above all else attractive to boys. In this way, sexism is naturalized very early on in children’s popular culture.

At the same time, corporate-produced advertising promotes the idea of individualism and free choice. According to corporate culture, it is through their products (and the lifestyles advertisers associate with them) that we can demonstrate our uniqueness and freedom of choice. The sexism is thus sold to us and continually reinforced, while at the same time it is denied.

Third, the sexism in our everyday lives is obscured through the ideology of the “West” as civilized and liberated, in contrast to places that are uncivilized and backward, such as the “East.” For example, “The Muslim Woman” is an archetypal oppressed woman, standing in stark contrast to our own perceived liberation in the United States and Canada (places that are presumed to be free of Muslim women). Indeed, many of our female students frequently deny that sexism is a socializing force in their own lives and support this denial by giving the example of the Muslim woman as the woman who is truly oppressed (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2006). When our students look to the Muslim woman in this way, they see the opposite of themselves. Think about the following list and consider which side is associated with “Western” women and which side is stereotypically associated with Muslim women:

Modern/Primitive Active/Passive Individual/Group Industrious/Idle

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In the global context:
In the global context:

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