The Phrase That Is Subtly Sexist
“There are two sides to every story.”
There are many problems with this phrase. For one thing, philosophically it is rarely accurate. There is usually one story and a plurality of views and experiences and perspectives of that story. “Two sides” implies a binary experience that is rarely the case.
Also, this phrase is rarely used empathetically but instead it is usually spoken to subtly discredit someone’s story or at least raise suspicions that his/her telling of the story may not be true.
Finally, think about the last time you heard that phrase or used that phrase. Was it directed at a woman or about a woman? Was it about her experience in a relationship or a workplace or public setting where she felt maligned or marginalized or even abused?
A woman’s story is often not believed simply because it is her story. Women are often assumed to be hysterical and/or manipulative and/or likely to “blow things out of proportion”. Women are accused of making things up and/or putting themselves in the position of a victim in order to seek attention. Women’s stories and experiences are routinely doubted and and questioned.
Sexism and specifically misogyny in our contemporary western culture is insidious. It pops up at unexpected times in unexpected places. And I would like to believe mostly unintentionally. I do not believe that men are solely to blame for this either. Women also carry unconscious (and sometimes conscious) bias against other women.
A couple weeks ago This American Life aired a great episode entitled “Anatomy of Doubt” which follows two sexual assault investigations – one in which the victim was believed and one in which she was not. Both cases were eventually proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be rape and the perpetrator was convicted. But the woman who was not believed went through significantly more trauma and has had a much more difficult recovery process in large part because she was not believed. She was questioned and dismissed to the point that she began to question her own story and for a while “admitted” to making it up. And the first people to cast doubt on her story? They were women.
Even in much less dramatic and severe situations, women’s experiences and stories are questioned and invalidated. I had never even noticed how gendered the phrase in question is until I heard it repeatedly when sharing my experience of divorce. Divorce is already an incredibly invalidating experience – you are being told that you are unlovable, undesirable, and not worth fighting for. To have your experience of divorce then invalidated with a simple, “Well, there are two sides to every story” can be incredibly painful. I heard this phrase from men, from women, even from close friends.
I do not think most people who used this phrase really understood what it implies. I think they meant to say, “I’m sure your ex-husband is grieving too.” Or “That sounds like an awful experience – maybe it is not as bad as it appears right now.” Or “Maybe you will have more perspective on this situation when you are not in the middle of grief.” Or any number of things that should sound more comforting than condemning.
I am sure they did not mean, “You are woman so your story is probably hysterical and your experience is probably exaggerated and on some level you probably deserve the way you are being treated.” Or at least I really hope that is not what they meant. Because unfortunately that is what it can sound like.
It’s time to start believing women and taking them at their word. Or at least just as much as we take men at their word. We need to validate women’s stories and experiences. Or at least to the same extent that we validate men’s stories and experiences. We need to stop viewing gender as “us vs. them” but as we.
The stories women tell are our stories and the stories men tell are our stories. And I think we can only start moving toward true gender equality once we fully embrace all stories and experiences as our stories and experiences. The human experience is varied and monolithic, beautiful and joyful, painful and ugly and is definitely complicated but no, I do not believe there are two sides to every story. I believe there are as many sides to every story as people in the world and none of those experiences should be trivialized or immediately disregarded.