Sexism in the Atheist Community: Sexism and Misogyny

make me a sammichSexism and misogyny are loaded terms in that nobody wants to be accused of either of them. But what do they mean? I have seen many prominent atheist bloggers using these terms interchangeably. This was a surprise, as I've always understood them to be related but distinct concepts. I think it may be helpful to define these terms and determine whether they mean the same thing or not.


I'll start with misogyny because I think it is easier to define in some ways. I've always understood misogyny as referring to the strong dislike or hatred of women. In the social sciences, it is generally viewed as an attitude where an entire class of people (i.e., women) are hated because of their gender. It can be expressed in many ways, ranging from mild forms like jokes or insults to extreme forms like rape. When women are targeted for a particular type of brutal treatment, we look to misogyny and generally find it present in that culture or subculture (e.g., witch-related scares).


Like misogyny, sexism is primarily an attitude. However, the sexist attitude is not rooted in hatred but involves a variety of discriminatory attitudes. In essence, differences between women and men, real or imagined, are amplified and enforced. Expressions of sexism tend to involve efforts at social control rather than hatred. In fact, it has been suggested that much of what we label as sexist today may have evolutionary roots in control tactics.

Sexism vs. Misogyny

As I understand it, sexism and misogyny are distinct. They reflect different attitudes; however, they may be impossible to distinguish based solely on their behavioral expressions. That is, the same behavior could be sexist or misogynist depending on the attitude driving it. We would need more information about the underlying attitudes and intent of the speaker.

Take some of the insults Rebecca Watson has received as an example. I have seen some that look misogynist in that they appear to reflect hatred of women. Others seem more likely to be sexist but not misogynistic, and still others could be either sexist or misogynistic. We really cannot tell without more information. I should also note that some of the insults that have been labeled sexist or misogynistic appear to be neither. Instead, they simply reflect juvenile name-calling.

Some have argued that all casual sexism is driven by misogyny. I have trouble accepting this claim. Having worked with male perpetrators of domestic violence, I believe that true misogyny is distinct from sexism. The degree to which many of these men hated women was qualitatively different from most of the sexist attitudes I've encountered. Some of them genuinely hated women. I realize this is extremely vague, but this sort of misogyny always seemed to have a very different feel to it.

It seems to me that sexism and misogyny are distinct, but I acknowledge that these constructs have fuzzy boundaries. Many examples could belong to both categories simultaneously, and we may be unable to classify behaviors correctly without insight into someone's motives or intent.


I find misogyny to be a more serious problem than sexism, one rooted in hatred as opposed to ignorance or culture. My suggestion, then, is that we reserve the misogynist label for the clear-cut instances. I do not believe that most instances of sexism are motivated by misogynistic attitudes. In essence, calling everyone who engages in sexist behavior a misogynist dilutes the meaning of misogyny to the point where it is no longer useful.

The distinction may also have utility as we consider remedial approaches. In my experience, sexism can often be addressed through education. Many people hold sexist attitudes because they've never thought through the issues and just accepted cultural messages. It is not that different from religious belief in this way. Raising awareness and other educational approaches are often helpful here. Misogyny, on the other hand, tends to require something more than education. These attitudes are much harder to change and something closer to therapy may be needed.

Next post in the series: defensive responding