A while back, I was in the market for a day hiking backpack. I needed something that could carry more clothing and more food than my current pack. I settled on two packs that had the same water capacity, same size number, basically same pocket, strap, and pole-carry features. One was red-gray and the other was “reflecting pond/Andean toucan” color. Guess which was the “women’s” backpack (clearly denoted by the “women’s symbol” on the description tag)? Now guess which was $15 more?
I went to a local outdoor store that sold both packs for the different prices and asked the manager what the fuck was the difference. I assumed he would tell me the women’s pack had special cushions for my ovaries or extra pockets for my many, many tampons. He said the only notable difference was that the red-gray pack, the “men’s” pack (so called on Amazon), was one inch longer. The men’s pack was made slightly longer in the torso because all men are taller than women. ALL OF THEM. Because I’m tall, the manager recommended I buy the men’s pack as it would actually fit better. I got to save $15 and get one more inch of space, which was the whole fucking reason for getting a new pack. Yay me! But also, fuck cultural assumptions of sex difference that result in bullshit like the pink tax.
Exhibit #1: cultural binarism, or the idea that binary sex difference (male or female) is the most important difference in the universe and that’s why we have to separate bathrooms and locker rooms and toy aisles and backpacks. Sex difference is basically this “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, every single person has a specific and unique body with specific features and unique capacities. And even though human bodies are largely the same and function largely the same, bodies do have biological and genetic differences. Like I’m taller than some and thinner than others. So the deal with sex difference is that it presumes the sex assigned to your unique body (generally based on genital appearance, but also sometimes hormones, gonads, and chromosomes) makes you fundamentally different from some people and fundamentally the same as other people.
I’m a lot taller than some people and that can be a significant physical difference but we don’t see height as a fundamental difference. That’s why we don’t have bathrooms and locker rooms organized by height. BUT WHAT IF WE DID??? We have this idea that men and women shouldn’t use the same bathroom because they’ll be having sex in there or be sexually stalked or it will be the end of the world or something because ANARCHY. Caveat: some people do weird and fucked up shit in bathrooms. But this cultural binarism argument—that men and women are fundamentally different and thus need separate bathroom spaces—could really be made for any difference. Watch me do it:
- We need to divided bathrooms by height: over 5’9 bathrooms and under 5’9 bathrooms. People above a certain height are able to look over stall doors and peep; people under a certain height are able to look under stall doors and creep. We need separate bathroom spaces because this critical physical difference leads to uncomfortable, sexually dangerous situations.
Watch me do it again:
- We need to divide bathrooms by age: over 50 bathrooms and under 50 bathrooms. People over 50 take more time and thus need more space. They are are also more susceptible to being sexual victims of the high-sex drive of the under 50 crowd. We need separate bathroom spaces because this critical physical difference leads to uncomfortable, sexually dangerous situations.
Just to be clear, this “fundamental body difference leading to sexually threatening or compromising situations” is the same argument used to keep Black people out of White bathrooms.
Exhibit #2: the pink tax,* or when a product or service for women is arbitrarily more expensive than an equivalent product or service for men. The pink tax might extend to when female-body products like birth control pills or tampons are more luxury-taxed or harder to obtain than men’s similar products. But often the pink tax is way more sexistly overt: it’s when identical products like razors or services like dry cleaning are just different prices for men and women. So that pink razor sitting in the “women’s shave needs” aisle is a dollar more than the gray razor made by the same company but sitting in the “men’s shave needs” aisle. Or a lady is charged more for the blouse she took to the dry cleaners even though it’s the same fabric and ACTUALLY LESS MATERIAL than the men’s shirt. The pink tax is some arbitrary bullshit but it feeds on cultural binarism aka the idea that women and men are fundamentally different and thus cannot use the same products and services even if there’s little difference in the actual product or service.
So back to my pack. According to the store manager, the major difference was length; the men’s pack was designed for a slightly taller body. Yet instead of labeling the packs according to height difference, they were labeled according to sex difference. (We were left to fill in the blanks with stereotypes about all men being naturally taller and thus in need of man pack and women as generally shorter cause vaginas or something.) The ladies pack was then sold at a higher price even though there was literally less pack. And women, who historically earn less than men in the U.S., have to pay more for less, unless a kind store manager tells them the skinny and gives them an awesome local’s discount to boot.
The pink tax is some sex difference bullshit.
*I didn’t even know this term until a student came to my office and talked to me about it. You’re never too old or too educated to find out something new and fucked up about the world, and then process the shit out of it.