Laura Bassett, the British soccer player who scored a goal on her own net, handing Japan the win, was understandably upset at her spectacular failure in the World Cup. The reaction from media and the general public is a perfect illustration of sexist double standards against men. Supporters took to Twitter and various social media to express their solidarity with Bassett, using the hashtags #IWillStandWithBass and #ProudOfBassett. ‘What a dreadful way to lose. Poor, poor Laura Bassett.’ Bassett was offered sympathy, support and encouragement, even though her actions dropped England out of the World Cup.
Bassett is not alone in committing sporting gaffes that result in catastrophe for the team. When Andres Escobar scored on his own net in the 1994 World Cup, he was not given condolences and sympathy. He was murdered. Escobar may be an extreme case, but there are examples of other male athletes failing on the sports field, and they are not generally met with kindness or forgiveness. When Gareth Southgate missed a penalty shot, costing England their title, The Business joined in the national chorus of condemnation and wrote a song about him. The lyrics are instructive. ‘Gareth Southgate stood on the spot, couldn’t believe the chance he got, he’d be a hero with one toe punt, but sent it at the keeper oh what a c**t’.
The assumption that women need to be treated with gentleness and kindness is known as ‘benevolent sexism’. Benevolent sexism holds that women are special and should be singled out for delicate treatment, particularly from men. Benevolent sexism, also known as chivalry, is what prompts men to open doors for women, walk on the outside of the street (to place their bodies between women and oncoming traffic or other obstacles), protect them from gunfire and remain seated on the deck of sinking ships. Benevolent impulses towards women may be innate for many men, arising from a phenomenon known as neotony. Women retain characteristics of childhood (softer skin, smaller stature, hairless faces) into adulthood, triggering protective instincts in men.
Bassett’s supporters may be engaging in benevolent sexism, assuming a protective stance towards her because she is a woman, but the more significant sexism is our assumption that men who fail should not be extended the same consideration. Known as the ‘empathy gap’, as a culture, we tend to treat men with the expectation that they face their mistakes and accept brutal retribution, up to and including death, without flinching. Men are not permitted to express vulnerability, sorrow or genuine remorse, particularly not when their actions were preventable. This is a type of sexism that results in real harm against men and boys, who are taught their actions carry more weight than the same actions, when carried out by women. This is a partial explanation for huge sentencing disparities in the criminal justice system. Men and women who commit identical crimes face wildly different consequences. According to Professor Sonya Starr, ‘men receive 63% longer sentences on average than women do, and women are…twice as likely to avoid incarceration if convicted.’
While benevolent sexism has been identified as a serious source of discrimination against women, benevolent sexism also results in gentle treatment of women who have made errors that would be unforgivable if made by a man. The sexist treatment of men as undeserving of compassion or gentle treatment arguably does far more harm than the benevolent sexism currently protecting Laura Bassett from experiencing the consequences of a bad play. If sexism is a problem in our culture, it is sexism against men that is more harmful.