An Ethical Analysis of Contemporary United States Society
Women have always been the victim of lesser treatment, even after being granted the right to vote. In World War II, the historic practice of rape of women by soldiers in the military was still accepted (DeLaet, 2006, p. 125). Some Southern states with Republican governments have limitations on a woman’s reproductive rights, including their right to abortion and contraceptives. However, women have made many advancements in the past century that has advanced their position in the world and society. Since female activism began in the early nineteenth century, women have slowly risen above their previously dictated status as lesser beings than men. Women are now finding themselves in positions of power more than ever before, and professional women are a rising force in many industries. Despite the progress that has been made in women’s rights, it is still not enough to eliminate sexism and place women on an equal level with men. Women are still not being taken seriously in positions of power, they are still exploited through the media and showcased through unrealistic beauty standards, and there are many industries that are still male dominated. In some cases, women are still not being paid equally to their male counterparts. Sexism is directly linked to women’s rights. Sexism is still a prevailing force in contemporary United States society, as can be seen through the media and educational systems. Sexism also has serious repercussions and can lead to more serious crimes, such as rape and human trafficking. By eliminating the sexism that is present in society, crime rates will likely decrease. Sexism in American society will remain present until there is no more need for a fight for women’s rights, and until women can say that they truly are equal to men.
Sexism can refer to “the portrayal of women in an inferior way relative to their capabilities and potential” (Plakoyiannaki et al., 2008, p. 102). It occurs when women are shown in a negative light that does not reflect the individual woman, but instead groups her as a whole according to her gender. Sexism often makes use of female stereotypes. A stereotype is generally known as a description of a group of people, or a standard that that group is held to (Delacollette et al., 2013, p. 296). Common female stereotypes derive from the past roles that women took on within the family and society, and have not been updated to suit the modern world where women have made tremendous progress. The most common image of this is the woman staying at home to take care of her children and husband, cooking and cleaning for them while the man serves as the primary breadwinner. It is argued that the stereotypes applied to women are often ones that benefit men (Delacollette et al., 2013, p. 296). Therefore, this forms the basis for sexism and showcases the relevance of the issue in today’s world. Domestic violence is a result of sexism that can have serious and sometimes fatal consequences. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that more women ages 15 to 44 die every year from domestic violence than they do from cancer, traffic injuries, malaria, and war combined (DeLaet, 2006, p. 125). The WHO therefore classifies domestic violence as a primary cause of death around the world for women (DeLaet, 2006, p. 125).
Sexism exists in many forms, whether in a major way or a minor way. According to professors Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, gender inequality is still prevalent and manifests through two types of sexism, hostile and benevolent (Glick & Fiske, 2001, p. 109). Hostile sexism refers to the view that women control men to get what they want and often use their body and assets to get it, for example a woman who sleeps with her boss to get a promotion (Glick & Fiske, 2001, p. 109). This form of sexism is directed towards women who do not fit traditional gender roles and are seen as threats to the institution of patriarchy and sexism (Plakoyiannaki et al., 2008, p. 103). Benevolent sexism is a more passive ideology that idealizes women as delicate creatures that need to be controlled and protected by men (Glick & Fiske, 2001, p. 109). An example of benevolent sexism is the common notion of the damsel in distress seen in movies, video games, and television shows. This concept of the two types of sexism, known as ambivalent sexism, is important because it reinforces the patriarchy that limits women in society, and studies have shown that many women condone benevolent sexism because it does not exactly show women in a negative light. However, it still reinforces the notion of patriarchy, that women need men to survive and must be protected and cared for by them. It is very prevalent in today’s society, as a study done in 2000 by Rudman and Heppen showed that women who saw their male partners as chivalrous and traditionally “manly” were less likely to have ambitious career goals as they believed that the male would support them (Glick & Fiske, 2001, p. 111). The underlying issue here is that women will tolerate sexist behavior if they believe that it they are being protected (Glick & Fiske, 2001, p. 111). Sexism can be manifested in many forms, and it is not always obvious, as it might present itself in a positive way but the underlying reality is that it is still prejudice (Glick & Fiske, 2001, p. 116).
One does not have to search far to find contemporary examples of sexism in society. Simply turn on the media in any form, whether on television, the Internet or even the radio. Gender stereotypes are often showcased in advertising, on television and the Internet. These stereotypes include clichés such as housewives, shopping addicts, or overly obsessed with appearances (Plakoyiannaki et al., 2008, p. 103). For example, the majority of commercials for cleaning products feature women, as the traditional stereotype for women is that they are to stay home to cook and clean. A study conducted by analysing online advertisements in 2008 concluded that 50.5 percent of the advertisements showed women in “decorative roles,” or typical female stereotypes (Plakoyiannaki et al., 2008, p. 106). This means that half of the advertisements that are shown on a daily basis contain sexist content. In contrast, only 6 percent of the advertisements showed women as equal to men, a small fraction compared to the overwhelming audience of the media (Plakoyiannaki et al., 2008, p. 107). In another media example, the hip-hop genre is a perpetual source for sexism and gender stereotypes, as can be noted from the music videos and song lyrics that are associated with this subculture. In the music videos, women are shown half-naked in oversexualised situations and they always have attractive body types. Hip-hop also showcases women who are willing to subject themselves to the men, committing crimes for them, taking abuse for them and generally being under their control (Chung, 2007, p. 34). This is an issue, as hip-hop music is a commercial industry that reaches young viewers all over the world, selling millions of albums and associated merchandise every year (Chung, 2007, p. 34). By placing women in a subordinate role in the mainstream media, the music industry is enforcing sexism.
Sexism is often connected to the problem of rape. This issue is still a problem for the way society views women for many reasons. Often the rape victim is blamed regardless of the situation. Rape is an issue of rising concern on college and university campuses across the United States. In 2009 a national study called ‘Voices of Diversity’ surveyed four American college campuses and noted that sexual assaults and sexism were a common occurrence (Clift, 2012, par. 3). Many female college students report feelings of sexism in programs that do not contain many other females as they are typically seen as male-oriented subjects, such as engineering (Clift, 2012, par. 4). College-aged females, between 18 and 24 years old, have higher rates of sexual assault and rape than any other age bracket (Sinozich & Langton, 2014, p. 3). Between 1995 and 2013 there were 31, 302 rapes, attempted rapes, and sexual assault cases reported to police (Sinozich & Langton, 2014, p. 4). However, many college rapes go unreported and often do not result in any real consequences for the rapist, resulting in less women being comfortable taking the case to the authorities. In the past 20 years, only 20 percent of rapes and sexual attacks against students were reported to the police (Sinozich & Langton, 2014, p. 1).
Another crime that stems from sexism is human trafficking. In the United States, 14,500 to 17,500 people per year become human trafficking victims, and 80 percent of those people are women and girls who are sent to sexual exploitation for commercial purposes (Goodhart, 2009, p. 203). Through human trafficking women and girls are sold in to the commercial sex trade, as sex “slaves,” and prostitutes, and some are forced into marriage or sweatshop work (Goodhart, 2009, p. 203). Human trafficking can traced back to the nineteenth century, when American white supremacy caused men to kidnap Caucasian girls and women to send them outside the country in a practice known as “white slavery” (Goodhart, 2009, p. 205). This also happened within the United States, as girls were kidnapped, lured, and shipped from rural parts of the country to larger urban cities to be forced to work as prostitutes (Goodhart, 2009, p. 205). Therefore historically, this is an issue stemming from the exploitation of women as a result of lack of equal rights and only still exists because sexism is still present. While this practice is highly illegal in the United States, codified by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, it is still a popular black market industry (Goodhart, 2009, p. 205). In addition to being a massive infringement of human rights for women, human trafficking can lead to other consequences for its victims, including violence and poverty. Domestic violence among illegal sex workers is a common problem, as since this is an illegal business there are no laws to protect the victims. In addition, the entire illegal trafficking industry is based around the idea of asserting dominance over the women and girls, making them subordinate to their male controllers.
There are many negative ethical impacts from sexism, and very little positive impacts. Sexism can lead to the development of eating disorders in young women, which can cause serious health problems immediately as well as in the future. This happens because young girls see glorified images of women in the media, which holds women to a certain standard of beauty that is not attainable by the average woman. Thus, girls think they need to go to extensive lengths that can cause serious damage to their health and well being to look like that ideal image. Sexism in the media can lead to a lack of self-worth and self-confidence in women of all ages, which can limit the future aspirations of women as well as their confidence to ask for equal pay and treatment in the workplace (Plakoyiannaki et al., 2008, p. 109). Sexual stereotypes are emotionally and mentally damaging (Trotter, 1975, p. 173). Depression rates are highest among females age 21 to 44, and experts have linked this to sexist attitudes and representations in society (Trotter, 1975, p. 173). Depression can lead to extreme consequences, including suicide. Suicide rates are alarmingly highest among females in their twenties (Trotter, 1975, p. 173). Sexist attitudes and perceptions can also lead women to tolerate dominance from men and become part of a submissive relationship that has potentially violent repercussions. If women believe that men are their protectors, they will allow them to control their person and will not be able to be independent.
There are a few possible solutions to end sexism. The first and most obvious is to further women’s rights and place women on an equal level to their male counterparts. This means equal pay, equal treatment, and equal opportunities. While some activists lean towards radical versions of feminism, there various ways that women’s rights can be implemented on a more rational scale. This includes general education, more women participating in things like sports and sciences, and more twists on the traditional aspects of femininity.
One ethical issue that stands in the way is the concept of cultural relativism. In some cultures sexism and discrimination against women are accepted and a part of society, while many other cultures condone it (DeLaet, 2006, p. 119). The issue lies within the governance of these cultures and human rights laws. The ideal solution that would end the acceptance of sexism would be to implement human rights laws and tribunals in countries that accept sexist practices. However, this is nearly impossible as many sovereign states have the legal right to govern their own human rights practices within their country as long as they are not committing major crimes such as genocide (DeLaet, 2006, p. 119-120). The United Nations exists to help promote equal human rights governance across the world, but to have the desired effect, countries would have to give up their sovereignty (DeLaet, 2006, p. 135). This is something that no country would be willing to do, and it is an ethical dilemma whether the United Nations has the right to ask that of individual governments. The ethical issue here is whether or not it is morally acceptable to try to govern the entire world according to a single set of human rights laws. In addition, there is the public versus private sphere issue. Many sexist incidents occur in the private sphere, such as domestic violence and discrimination (DeLaet, 2006, p. 120). This can be very hard to monitor and control, and some might argue that it is unethical to try to invade one’s privacy. International laws can only go so far in stopping what happens outside the eyes of the police. In the United States in particular, the constitution gives equal rights for all citizens, and human rights apply to everyone. While this does not prevent discriminatory attacks and hate crimes from happening, it does allow protection and justice for all Americans regardless of gender. It is arguable that other countries should adopt the same constitutional values, yet due to different religious values and practices, this cannot happen.
A simple solution could start within the advertising industry itself. The way women see themselves in advertisements can shape the way they value themselves in society (Plakoyiannaki et al., 2008, p. 109). Since advertisements are seen around the world, they have the potential to reach many societies, meaning they have a global influence, and therefore a global responsibility (Plakoyiannaki et al., 2008, p. 109). Advertisers should change their advertisements to show women in non-traditional roles and placing them on an equal level with men. This concept can stretch beyond simply advertising and be applied to the media in general. If films and television shows showed more women of power and less women on the domestic front, more women would feel empowered and men would see that women are more than capable of performing those positions. The media has such an enormous impact on society that its influenced is nearly unmatched by any other institution or industry. Therefore, it is appropriate that the first steps towards change in attitude should take place in this scope.
Research has shown that people are more likely to believe something or be influenced by something that comes from a source they believe is credible (Stake, Sevelius, & Hanly, 2008, p. 191). Therefore, education is an obvious step in changing the way gender is presented in society, leading to more respect and a decline in sexism. Education can begin at the elementary level. Girls are capable of perceiving sexism by the time they turn ten years old, which usually means they have experienced it in their first decade of life (Leaper & Brown, 2008, p. 686). In addition, 90 percent of girls ages 12 to 18 report having experienced some form of sexual harassment, and 53 percent report experiencing sexism regarding the subjects of math, science, and computer studies (Leaper & Brown, 2008, p. 691-692). These subjects are traditionally stereotyped as boys’ studies. 76 percent of teenage girls also report having experienced sexism when it comes to athletics (Leaper & Brown, 2008, p. 692). These numbers show that sexism among young girls is extremely common. Many adolescent girls experience sexism within their own educational system, and some gender expectations are reinforced within the classroom or at home (Leaper & Brown, 2008, p. 685). For example, girls are often expected to do worse than boys when it comes to sports, and as such there are less opportunities for girls to play sports, especially at school (Leaper & Brown, 2008, p. 685). Young children have mouldable minds and it is important to teach them about respecting each other early on. One study was done in Boston, Massachusetts, over six weeks during which a teacher who cared and was interested in sexism awareness implemented these subjects in their classroom, and the results showed that the attitudes of the students did change over those six weeks (Trotter, 1975, p. 174). Another element that begins in elementary school is the modern concept of “slut shaming.” This is enforced at the earlier level through dress codes that prohibit girls from wearing thin straps or any outfit that is deemed distracting for young boys. Sexual education is important, and many people are resistant to incorporating it into the elementary curriculum due to the topic and the age of the children. However, implementing this subject earlier on will allow students to approach sexuality and gender with more respect and tolerance than they would if they wait until later on in their lifetime. Simply, this means that little boys might not grow up to disrespect or rape their female acquaintances in the future.
Education has been provided at higher levels at increasing rates. In the last forty years, more than 600 undergraduate programs in women’s and gender studies have been established at colleges in the United States (Stake, Sevelius, & Hanly, 2008, p. 189). Studies have shown that these courses have enabled students to become more aware of sexism and patriarchy in society, giving them the tools to analyze this behavior (Stake, Sevelius, & Hanly, 2008, p. 190). While not everyone opts to take a course in women’s and gender studies, doing so allows students to combat sexism on their campus as well as in their society. If taking one of these courses were mandatory for university students, it might help to not only prevent sexism but it could also decrease rape incidents on college campuses. However, this is not practical as it can be considered ethically wrong to make students who are not interested in this topic take up the spot of one of their electives for a course they do not want. They also will likely not attend lectures or care enough to put effort to the class work, meaning their overall GPA will decrease unfairly. In some institutions where a gender diversity class is a mandatory credit, there has been resistance among the unwilling students, as well as a negative attitude towards the subject material (Stake, Sevelius, & Hanly, 2008, p. 191). This could have the opposite effect on eliminating sexism.
Sexism will continue to be prevalent in society as long as women are still unequal to men. By instilling women’s rights to the extent that women will no longer need to argue their case in society, prejudice towards women can be eliminated. Sexism and women’s rights go hand in hand, and must be taken in to consideration together. Women have come a long way, and have made much progress throughout history, but it has not been enough to eliminate sexism from today’s society. Despite the advancements of human rights in the last century, and the focus on human rights that has been emphasised more than ever before, there are still many necessary changes the country and the rest of the world need to see in order for peaceful living. To live equally among men, women must feel the importance of their belonging in society. Eliminating sexism through pushing woman’s rights further in to the spotlight would also eliminate other negative aspects of society, such as crime and health issues that stem from problems like eating disorders. Crimes such as rape and human trafficking would be greatly decreased, and women would not suffer eating disorders and body dismorphia that comes from unrealistic beauty standards by portrayals of women in the media. More rights equal less sexism, which results in a better society for every person in the United States.
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