By Jess Edwards
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The Equality Illusion

This article is over 12 years, 5 months old
Kat Banyard, Faber and Faber, £12.99
Issue 345

Kat Banyard places this, her first book, subtitled “The truth about women and men today”, as a contribution to the new wave of writings about women’s liberation. Throughout Banyard argues that gender inequality is not predestined, an approach that differs from many feminist arguments that place the blame for sexism in natural male behaviour. For Banyard gender stereotypes are to blame.

Banyard draws on studies that show how boys and girls are treated differently by parents and teachers when displaying similar behaviour, and how “masculine” and “feminine” behaviour starts to emerge in children as a result.

She reports the World Health Organisation’s claim that schools are a common arena for sexual harassment and often sexually aggressive behaviour, such as boys groping girls’ breasts or making sexual comments to girls, goes unchallenged by teachers who see it as a case of “boys will be boys”.

Banyard argues that such stereotyping teaches men and women about what to expect in life and how to behave, with devastating consequences for women.

Her chapters dealing with the sex industry highlight this. Pornography doesn’t exist in a vacuum, she argues – ideas of male dominance and female submission filter down to the mainstream. Women start to model themselves on the women portrayed in pornography, even if they have never seen it themselves. Women and men come to expect their sexual experiences to reflect those in pornography.

Banyard is brilliant at illustrating the impact of gender inequality on the personal relationships and lives of individual women. In case studies young women discuss their self-esteem and self-image, women migrant workers talk about their exploitation and women working in the sex industry describe their lives.

This book is fantastic at describing the effects of sexism but its weakness is seeing gender stereotyping as the cause of sexism rather than a symptom. Although Banyard refers to the effects of sexism being worse when they collide with other factors, such as race and class, she doesn’t see class inequality as a cause of women’s oppression and tends to overplay the role of legislation as a solution.

Despite these criticisms this book is a really important and useful contribution to the recent debate about women’s liberation. I highly recommend it.

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