E&M‘s Sarah Gerwens on the silent killer that rarely makes bombastic headlines: sexism.

Smoking Sexism Kills

We are surrounded by things that can kill us. Cars, planes, pen caps. Smoking kills. Drunk driving does, too. Yes, maybe even coconuts falling on peoples’ heads are lethal. Doctors calculate our odds of survival and newscasters announce casualty counts between the weather forecast and new White House news. These patterns of thought steer our attention, our policymaking, and our research funding. We think it will kill us? We will try to kill it first (or, at least, throw some money at it).

This helps us pay attention to what matters and to decide what to do: Ensuring our survival is the most basic of all human needs, it trumps all else. But we are notoriously bad statisticians when it comes to what is actually dangerous. We worry about plane crashes while carelessly getting into our car every morning, fear Zika but not the good old flu, some even buy a gun to protect themselves from getting shot. Fear demands us to act, not to think – those who slowed down to decide whether the lion was dangerous got eaten by the lion. Us, who survived, never really stopped running from it.

Photo: Jonathan McIntosh (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-SA 2.0

But some lions still have not been spotted. When we think of danger, we think of shootings, accidents, illnesses – individual tragedies, we think of overwhelming personal pain. We oversee the systemic, the systematic ways that kill people: sexism, for example. Sexism can “contribute to […] suicidal behaviour”, it fuels deadly violence, it renders one’s own home the most dangerous place for women, and it makes first responders less likely to resuscitate a female patient. Sexism costs more than Hillary Clinton her presidency, it costs lives. It is not an issue of womxn, for womxn, or by womxn; it hurts everyone. When being effeminate is “gay” and being gay is bad, young boys learn how to fight rather than forgive and queer youth are at a significantly higher risk of suicide than their peers. “Incels” incite rebellion, while boys do not cry and men do not touch each other. Instead, men are lonely and loneliness is more lethal than cigarettes. In popular narratives, men become men through traditions steeped in violence and competition, first fist fights, schoolyard scuffles, hazing and initiation rites, video games, or contact sports. Indeed, men are more likely to die due to injury and violence than women – and they are more likely to kill.

In popular narratives, men become men through traditions steeped in violence and competition, first fist fights, schoolyard scuffles, hazing and initiation rites, video games, or contact sports.

But it is not only about how the sexist systems kill, but how they fail to save those that need saving: medicine continues to be developed in trials with predominantly male subjects – missing out on the specific needs of women, especially women of colour. Doctors treat women like men, might even send them home mid-heart attack with an antidepressant prescription because they do not recognise their symptoms, and sometimes doctors treat men not at all – they are much less likely to visit a doctor or do routine medical screenings – sometimes with deadly consequences.

This is a lion some of us have been running from our whole lives. It is about time society catches up. Because if this would be a virus, we would vaccinate against it. If this would be a deadly drug, we would pass legislation to fight it. Sexism is not any less lethal – so let’s start saving some lives.

Cover photo: Steve Rhodes (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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    Sarah Gerwens lives in London, but grew up in Dortmund, Germany. Currently a PhD student, she holds BAs in Global Studies and Psychology from Hofstra University and an MSc from the London School of Economics. In the past, Sarah has interned in the European Parliament, the Bundestag, an anti-torture NGO, and the GIZ.

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