In my story's world, witchcraft is a respected institution, with the most powerful practitioners being at the top echelons of society. Due to this, society traces its lineage through matrilineal lines. A witch has the power to summon a familiar by using her body as a conduit between the mortal and ethereal plane. These powerful spirits are forever linked with their master, and used in a number of ways, such as magical batteries and amplifiers, or for battle. Familiars are birthed into the world in the same way that human children are born, through a ritual ceremony, and grow in power with the user.

When creating a magic system, I was taught that there always had to be a cost, to keep the magic interesting. I am looking for a drawback to explain why every witch does not go through the process. One that I was considering was that the witch must have never given birth before the ritual, and that the process renders her infertile afterwards, ensuring that they will never have a lineage. For this reason, familiars are rare in this world.

In that particular example I am rethinking that scheme, because someone has told me that this concept is sexist toward women because it suggests that a female's only worth is her fertility and that having kids is the most important thing to them. I do question whether that is accurate, or if I am overthinking it.

However, that example aside, my real question is less about this specific scheme, and more general:

Presuming an author wishes to avoid bigotry and prejudice in their writing, how can they decide if some story element of theirs is prejudiced or not?

Are there tests to apply, or ways of analyzing their ideas to come to some objective conclusion?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – a CVn Jul 17 at 13:38
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    17 answers and counting... please check to make sure you're bringing something new to the discussion or check to see if your answer could better exist as a comment "suggesting improvement" on an existing answer. – Jeutnarg Jul 17 at 15:41

22 Answers 22

Sexism isn't a yes/no kind of thing, and it's a mistake to treat it as such.

Saying that a story or an idea is "sexist" is shorthand. What it means is that it creates, encourages, or reinforces sexist stereotypes, and that those stereotypes have real-world consequences.

So, a good way to come at this issue is to use these:

Guiding Questions

  • What are the stereotypes that my story is relying on, conforming with, or playing into?
  • Is my story repeating and reinforcing a particular viewpoint, bias, or narrative?
  • Is it a viewpoint, bias, or narrative I support and stand behind? Or am I reinforcing this "by accident" or "because it's convenient"?
  • If it's not a viewpoint, bias, or narrative I explicitly support:
    • Is it one I oppose? Is it harmful? How harmful is it?
    • Is there any change I can make to change things up, and avoid reinforcing it?
  • How central are these stereotypes to your story?

Let's try those questions with your particular example: A matriarchal witchcraft-based culture, where the most epic power is giving birth to a magical familiar, at the price of not ever bearing a human child.

1. What are the stereotypes that my story is relying on, conforming with, or playing into?

I can point to several:

  • The emphasis on "using up" their fertility plays into real-world views of prizing women for fertility and child-bearing. It could imply that a woman's fertility is her most valuable asset -- and in this setting she has a new way to spend that very valuable coin.
  • The requirement never to have conceived before can play into real-world pressure for women to remain chaste and virginal. Even if in your story, protecting a woman's virginity is important for an entirely different reason, the theme of "a woman shouldn't have sex outside of total and utter commitment" is very (pardon the pun...) familiar.
  • Treating losing one's fertility as a "price" can be dismissive of both the choices of people who don't want children, and the struggles of people who can't. (How prominent among witches are women who just never wanted kids at all? Is that going to be portrayed as callous or self-serving of them?)
  • Magic/power is dependent on biological sex at birth. This implies that a trans or non-binary witch has avenues which are entirely sealed to them, which places a great deal of cosmic, metaphysical significance on their biological sex at birth. "The universe cares what you were born as."

2. Is my story repeating and reinforcing a particular viewpoint, bias, or narrative?
3. Is it a viewpoint, bias, or narrative I support and stand behind?

We've noted multiple stereotypes, so the answer here is to varying degrees.

It also depends very strongly on how, exactly, you portray different facets here. If, say, your portray witches hoping to birth familiars as generally turning to lesbian relationships which don't risk pregnancy, then you've definitely avoided falling into the "isn't it important for women to not have any sex" narrative!

Or, for example, you might worldbuild a society with underlying sexism -- and then note and criticize that sexism. In this case, you're repeating the sexist viewpoint -- but you're not aiming to reinforce it; you're interested in deconstructing it instead.

Even so, you should understand: choosing such a fraught and sex-dependent element, you're necessarily entering those conversations.

And, obviously, the degree to which you agree with any or all of these broad stereotypes is something only you can answer! e.g., Maybe you do think people who don't want kids are very rare and, at some level, selfish. In which case I might disagree with you personally on that issue, but on the level of craft, I will encourage you to follow your own convictions, rather than try and artificially conform to viewpoints you don't share yourself.

4a. How harmful are these stereotypes?

Again -- each one would need to be examined in its own right. And, finding the nuance between what you are willing to portray, and what you aren't, is very valuable in and of itself.

For example, "women shouldn't have sex" is extremely prescriptive and direct, as opposed to the much fuzzier "women's fertility is a really important thing". On the other hand, "women's fertility is the most important thing about them" is pretty awful.

Likewise, "people born with male genitals cannot become pregnant is not a controversial position. "the etheral realm responds only to people born with female genitals" is more iffy. "the etheral realm responds only to people born with female genitals, and actually that's kind of tragic?" is one way to kind of thread the needle -- or at least try to. Here's Neil Gaiman's Sandman back in 1991:

"A Game of You," _Sandman_, 1991. "It's like, gender isn't something you can pick and choose as far as gods are concerned." "Well, _that's_ something the gods can take and stuff up their sacred retina. I _know_ what I am."

Also note that different people will have different opinions on everything, and different people will have different takes on whether (or how) something is harmful. The 1991 Sandman example I just gave is considered somewhat problematic today (e.g. 1,2)-- whereas in 1991, seeing it in mainstream (and even prestigious) comics was immensely significant. These things are complicated and have many facets.

You're not going to please everyone -- but at the same time, don't write hurtfully out of mere ignorance.

4b. Is there any change I can make to change things up, and avoid reinforcing it?

There always is.

Maybe the etheral realm is fine with trans women, and they can totally do the ritual! They just as much a conduit between the mortal and ethereal plane as cis witches, and they become magic-pregnant.

Maybe the brightest of witches are working hard to discover new ways to summon familiars -- and then it'll be their smarts that are most valuable, not their uterii.

If getting a familiar and then serving society with your newfound powers is seen as altruistic, not power-hungry, then that's no condemnation of people who don't want kids.

And so on. Each one of these is a change to your story, and you might not want to adjust what you had in mind, merely to avoid reinforcing stereotypes that are all around us anyway. That's your own judgment call. Just recognize that even not making a choice, is still a choice -- conforming to existing social norms is also shaping your story, as surely as avoiding them would be.

5. How central are these stereotypes to your story?

The more central an element is, the more care it needs. (On the other hand, the less central it is, the easier it is to just make whatever adjustments make it "safe" and then forget about it.)

In your case, this is the access ticket to epic power, and it's something everybody knows, that informs all of society and its social structure. So... pretty important to get this right, I'd say :P

(This doesn't mean your social structure needs to be a good, kind one. Maybe it's a really sexist society! But then, you probably want to make your criticism of it evident to the reader...)


That's how you do the analysis. You look at what your story is saying; how it's saying it; what the consequences and the implications are. You also look at how much it would "cost" you to change it -- maybe you say, "OK, there's some sexist undertones here, but I can't change it without telling a completely different story, and I think this story is a worthwhile one." That's OK! Not every adventure novel is a paragon of gender equality! Some subgenres have at least a little sexism or bias baked right in! Sometimes you're exploring gender issues specifically, and can't avoid stepping on some people's toes! Sometimes, "forgiving" some sexism is a choice you make -- but it helps if you make it deliberately, consciously, owning up to it, rather than doing it just because you didn't know any better. And, being aware of the issue in the first place will probably make your writing better at this than it would have been otherwise.

These are all your calls to make -- once you know how to make them.

Which brings me to one last and crucial point: In order to recognize sterotypes and biases that you suffer from (along with a whole lot of the rest of society), you need to get outside input. You're not going to know how you might reinforce sexism without learning about sexism. Ditto for racism, gender issues, religious identities, ethnicities and any subculture that aren't your own. Learn about these things in general; learn about the topics you're touching directly in particular, and for elements featuring heavily in your book -- get appropriate readers who can point out issues that you'd never have guessed.

Hope this helps -- all the best!

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    Excellent answer. The interesting thing is that just because you have stereotypes in your story environment, doesn't mean that your story itself is problematic. You can take a milieu where those stereotypes are part of the cultural backdrop, and then present a character that shows they aren't true, and her story shows why that culture needs to change (and, perhaps, at least the start of showing how that change could happen). It would be very hard to accuse that story of being sexist. – Jules Jul 17 at 9:45
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    @DavidK : Not this particular panel. :) Some issues I've seen discussed include (A) being a prop in somebody else's story, (B) portraying her idealized self as not being trans, but rather a cisgender women. Some good posts here and here. I don't think people hate Game of You or anything, especially for its place and time, but there's still so much further to go from there. :) – Standback Jul 17 at 17:33
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    Love the point here that its the whole overall effect that's important. I've observed this in RL where guys whose overall behavior tends to be problematic get jumped on for comments many other guys could get away with. In that vein, the absolute first thing I noticed here was that the author is assuming "witch" is a gendered term. Not only do I know lots of male Wiccans who'd read someone the riot act for that one, but the history of its use that way has been bleak, ugly, and supremely sexist. So they're off on the wrong foot right away, and people will be on alert for more sexism. – T.E.D. Jul 17 at 17:59
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    "Maybe it's a really sexist society! But then, you probably want to make your criticism of it evident to the reader..." - wait, does that mean you cannot write a story in a setting that has some (from our point of view) negative or critique-worthy aspects, without making a part of that story a commentary on said aspects? – O. R. Mapper Jul 18 at 6:25
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    @O.R.Mapper : Excellent question -- and one that'd take much more than a comment to answer! (Beyond the Writers.SE answer to everything: "Well, it depends...") Can I recommend you'd ask that as a new question? – Standback Jul 18 at 7:17

Assuming you aren't a woman yourself, I would suggest talking this idea through with several women to see how it strikes them. It can be difficult to see through the eyes of a group you don't belong to, and all too easy to overlook your own biases.

On the other hand that doesn't mean you need to take every piece of feedback as gospel truth. "Women" are not a monolithic group, and it's quite possible for something to bother one person for idiosyncratic reasons. But if you're consistently hearing that something is offensive, it would be a good idea to pay attention.

With that said, it may not be an all-or-nothing situation. You might talk the idea through with your reader to see if there's a way you can present it that isn't as problematic (from her point of view). Ultimately you'll need to make the choices that serve the story. But given that your concept is so closely bound to notions of female identity, you'll want to make sure you get female input.

I am a woman, and I don't find this sexist. It is only sexist if the implication is that women are somehow inferior because this process renders them infertile. I don't read that into this idea; merely that there is a cost for summoning a familiar.

You could think of it this way: if males can't summon familiars, then is that sexist towards males that they can't be magical in the first place? Also, the question is not if it's sexist in our society, but in the society in your universe. Many historical or fantasy novels have very sexist environments, but as long as you are not condoning that, then you're simply describing your world.

Honestly, I feel that it's a very interesting idea and I think that it is fine.

thanks for asking this question. I feel like far too many people would get defensive or just brush this off.

So, I'll say a few things...

A: The posters who've said that you should consult women are dead-on. Really, those are the only folks who can give really good feedback on this. You might also want to think about the implications of this for the trans community or non-binary folks.

B: My personal opinion is that you're probably fine. I'm not a woman, so my own feedback should be taken with a grain of salt, but the magical system only identifies fertility as something of value. It doesn't necessarily imply that the people themselves have more or less value. I have one eye, and I feel that having two eyes would be preferable, if only for the simple fact that it extends the range of action. To me, having the ability To is always better, because you have a choice.

For example, I'd say that having the ability to fly is better than not, all things being equal. Because if someone doesn't want to fly (maybe they have a fear of heights), they don't have to. They, personally, have the choice, and them not exercising that option doesn't have any functional difference than if they didn't have the ability.

Usually ableism is a problem in that certain kinds of ability are tied to the worth of the person, and/or barriers are erected for people who don't have certain abilities.

That "disability" itself has no bearing on the worth of the person, all that comes from the social construction of it, and discrimination against it. By that standard, infertility itself is simply the denial of a choice, it doesn't make the person less valuable, or enshrine the ability to choose as a source of that person's value. And hell, why wouldn't witches be able to have a magical birth, anyway? I'd say that the inability of infertile people to birth familiars seems unnecessary, and revisiting that might solve your problem.

But again, I'm a guy, so my feedback should be taken with a grain of salt.

C: My partner is a Women's and Gender Studies PhD candidate. I ran this by her, out of curiosity, just to understand the perspective of your friend, and she said its "flirting the line" because its elevating fertility as something of value. For similar reasons to B, she didn't consider it misogynistic, but thought you might want to revisit the idea and rework it a bit to avoid the problem of being misread.

So...overall, the vibe I'm getting is that its probably not sexist, but there's a decent chance it could be interpreted as such, and you may want to revamp specifics to avoid the problem.

Generally speaking, if you have to ask, even if its not sexist, its problematic enough that it might need work.

I've gotta say, though, I like the core of the idea. You may also want to dig into the various perspectives of women who either choose not to have kids, or cannot, to see how they feel about it. If you go through any iteration of this, that's going to be huge for this project. And understand that it's not your lived experience either...so be extra careful.

Good luck, m8 ☺

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    agree with a lot of this, especially your last paragraph -- it depends a lot on the handling. If every woman in the story treats it like a big deal, that could be a problem. If you have characters who say "great, yeah, wasn't planning on having children, gimme that magic!", you add nuance. Nuance is always better in these types of scenarios. The POV of "ability is better than lack of ability, even if one prefers not to exercise that ability" is something that should be considered. +1 from me. – ale10ander Jul 16 at 21:48
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    "I ran this by her, out of curiosity, just to understand the perspective of your friend, and she said its 'flirting the line' because its elevating fertility as something of value." ...is it not? I'm confused by what she means by this. – eyeballfrog Jul 17 at 0:42
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    It, arguably, is. The catch is picking that particular thing of value, out of all the other things of value, as a plot device, in an explicitly gendered context. – user49466 Jul 17 at 0:45
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    I agree with @eyeballfrog. "elevate fertility as something of value" implies fertility isn't already valuable - but clearly the ability to continue the human race is valueable, without that ability there would be no more humans (though some would argue that's an improvement). – Pharap Jul 19 at 2:22
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    But by the nature of the requirement, it is specifically elevating female fertility as something very highly valued (else there would be more familiars in the fictional world). This whole proposal is about finding something so valuable (to women) that they would forgo power to keep it. That happens to resonate with many sexist memes IRL, namely those supporting the idea that women exist primarily as incubators for children, their primary role is to be a wife and mother and provide sexual relief to their man, who is the "breadwinner", protector, decision maker and leader. – Amadeus Jul 19 at 16:35

You have a very real world example here on Earth to provide insight into this.

Consider Monks and Nuns. Many religious orders of this sort require chastity of their members.

Then ask yourself the following rhetorical question. "Is it sexist towards men/women when a Monk/Nun enters a monastary/convent and effectively gives up his/her fertility?"

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    Some people would argue 'yes', the practice is an example of sexist culture. Such cases are up to debate and vary depending on opinion. (For the record, I'm not one of those people, I think it's a perfectly relevant parallel.) – Pharap Jul 17 at 3:05
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    @Pharap - A better historical example would be male Eunuchs, who occasionally volunteered to have that done to them to increase their job prospects in societies that were really worried about the dynastic aspirations of people working in government. – T.E.D. Jul 17 at 18:05
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    @T.E.D. another extremely relevant example would be the castrato. They gave up fertility for singing voices. Although I don't know how much choice some of them had. – EveryBitHelps Jul 18 at 14:13
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    @EveryBitHelps - I think your example is good as well. TBF, the vast majority of Eunuchs probably had no choice in the matter either. But its at least true that the condition made them useful in some capacity that other people were not. – T.E.D. Jul 18 at 14:19

The witch-candidates in your world value witch powers above motherhood. You don't have to condone this, criticise it or worry about today's feminist opinion of it. It's just how it is in this, fictional, world.

You may also write about a world where children are maltreated, where races are subjugated into slavery, and many other bad things happen. Not every story has to be about a Utopia.

You could start the story with: "This story is about a world where bad things happen. But what would be the point in one about a perfect world?"

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    Exactly. If you want to preach a sexist or anti sexist message, then do so honestly. If you want to write an interesting plot, ignore anyone who accuses you of using your story to dishonestly hide a sermon. Unless you are actually doing so, Heinlein-style. – WGroleau Jul 17 at 23:41

This is why many people laugh at feminism.

Yes, saying that losing one's fertility is a price that some are reluctant to pay implies that fertility has value. Duh. Who in his or her right mind would say that fertility does NOT have value? It is perfectly possible and rational to say that the ability to bear children is a good thing, without for a moment implying that it is the only good thing that a woman can do or even the most important thing.

In my state, if you don't pay your taxes or if you fail to pay court-ordered child support, the state can take away your drivers license. Apparently they see this as a deterrent: people will be afraid to violate these rules because they don't want to lose their drivers license. Does that mean that the state thinks that the only value I have as a human being is that I can drive people around in my car? That if I lose the ability to drive, that my life will no longer have any value or any meaning? Of course not. I certainly don't think that's the only thing of value in my life, or even a particularly important thing. But being able to drive has value, and I do not want to lose that.

In this case, the vast majority of actual women in the world want to have children. Of course there are some who don't and some who don't see it as particularly important, but they're the minority. Most men in the world want to have children also, by the way, though it's not the same. Your story idea seems realistic in its implications to me.

All that said, it's undeniable that there are people in the world who will say that your story idea is "sexist". The question becomes, Are they a big part of your audience?, and, What can you do about it?

If this idea is a small add-on to your story, perhaps you can just throw it away and do something else. (If you said that men perform this magic spell and every time they do it drains their strength, so that they get weaker and weaker, would people say that it is sexist because it implies that men are only good for their physical strength? But whatever.)

If this idea is central to the story and throwing it out would mean writing a very different story, you have two choices: (a) do something to mute the sexism charge, or (b) say too bad and plunge ahead.

How to do (b) is pretty obvious, I'd think. You just do it.

As to (a), you could have characters say things that make clear that no one supposes that this is the only thing that makes a woman's life of value. Like, as someone else suggested on here, have a woman say, "So what? I don't want children anyway." Or have a character say how terrible it is that this takes away a woman's only purpose in life, and then someone else say, "Don't be ridiculous. There are many things a woman can contribute to the world other than children." Someone could contrast the loss of child-bearing ability to the value of the magic power. Etc.

You are not overthinking it.

"Is this sexist/racist/problematic/etc" is always a good question to ask, particularly when the subject is a group (particularly a minority group) that you are not a part of. Answering the question is harder.

It's probably possible to create the world that fits your desired paradigm without being sexist, but you'll still have problems.

Any system where the value of a particular group is determined by a single attribute (be it child-bearing or clock-making) is discriminatory, because it forces members of that group to fit a certain mold in order to be valued by society.

However, if you expand the group being valued this way to include all members of society (i.e. men's worth is determined by the number of children they've raised the same way women are*) then your society isn't discriminatory against women. It's still discriminatory, of course, against people who don't want or can't have children, but that is not a category exclusive to either gender.

But

Historically, there are many Earthly societies who base(d) women's merit on their ability to have children, and your readers bring the biases inherited from those systems to the books that they read. So even if you create a world entirely absent of sexism, you still have to actively detach your work from the associations to real world sexism in order to accurately portray the world you intend.

It's okay to create a world with sexism, if you are careful about how you do it.

The key to writing about discrimination is to illustrate the consequences of that discrimination on the people being discriminated against. It doesn't have to be the focus of your novel (although given that your magic system is not gender neutral, I expect that you're planning on addressing gender discrimination anyways), but whenever you create a society (or a magic system) it is always important to consider who stands to gain, and who stands to lose in this system. And then you must show both of them.

Get someone else to review your work

No matter how hard you try, you can't always identify aspects of your story that are problematic. You simply don't have the experience necessary to recognize those problems. It's not a fault, just a fact of life. But it means finding someone who does have the necessary experience, and asking them to review your work. Possibly multiple people, depending on how broadly your story touches on complex issues.

*There are issues to be dealt with because of men's ability to "fire and forget" (as it were), but I'm confident that you could create a society that measures worth based on a person's children in a way that doesn't favor either gender.

  • "whenever you create a society [...] you must show both of them" You state this like it were a fact, but I don't see why this has to be true. Why wouldn't you be able tell a story purely from the point of view of a suppressed minority or the majority? (The latter would probably be pretty boring) – Voo Jul 20 at 10:55
  • I didn't mean that you need POVs from both sides. I meant that both sides need to exist in your story in a place that the readers can see, which is a lower barrier. You need to show both in order to make it clear how much is being taken from the ones being taken advantage of. It's a contrast issue. (And must is maybe not the right word - there are always going to be exceptions) – Arcanist Lupus Jul 20 at 14:42

I can't help but feel that in large part the solution to this problem is to have good and varied beta readers and/or editors. Any author can offend unintentionally by approaching what they consider a non-issue from the wrong angle and they often can't see what they've done. So you only really know if you're being sexist, or otherwise offensive, because someone else points out to you that something you're written can easily be read a certain, unflattering, way.

I want to focus on one specific aspect of your world as described, that some but not all answers are picking up on:

One that I was considering was that the witch must have never given birth before the ritual, and that the process renders her infertile afterwards, ensuring that they will never have a lineage. For this reason, familiars are rare in this world.

I expect that's what made your reader read this as valuing women's fertility above all and being sexist. The concept that in this world, taking away a woman's fertility is not only a sacrifice important enough that it's enshrined in one of the fundamental laws of your universe, but it is so important that very, very few women make it despite the apparently valuable reward of having a familiar (which is valuable enough that you couldn't justify every witch not doing it otherwise), does naturally imply that a woman's fertility is one of the most important things about her/to her.

Another answer brings up Monks and Nuns, and suggests asking the question "is it sexist for religious orders to require their members to give up their fertility". I would argue a more interesting use of this example is to point out that monks and nuns were not rare in Medieval times. They were powerful institutions in fact. Not everybody went into them completely of their own free will. Many others did, because the rewards of belonging to that institution outweighed the sacrifice of having descendants, and even having sex at all. There were complex social mores around what kind of people went into the orders and why.

One could easily imagine in a world that works as you describe, that it would be tradition in witch families for the first daughter to continue the lineage, and the second daughter to birth a familiar and contribute to her family's success through having this greater power. Under such a system familiars could be quite common indeed, though not every witch would have one. You would also end up with social dynamics around familiars and what having a familiar means (not to mention the internal dynamics of witch families) that are quite different from what you might have been envisioning.

  • "Tradition in witch families" also may lead to significant imbalance between genders as male babies may "occasionally" have problems to survive... thus leading to almost everyone surviving long enough having familiar. Real world example could be found in China... so for fantasy settings essentially wiping out male portion of population is not too far reaching either which suggested rules may cause. – Alexei Levenkov Jul 21 at 3:13

In general, bigotry is calling or assuming something inherent to a trait (gender, race, sexual orientation, religion, language spoken) that, even if it is true, does not have any rational basis for being associated with that trait. For example there is no rational basis for assuming skin color has anything inherent to do with intelligence, promiscuity or morality. Any mental trait attributed as inherent to skin color, even if true, should be assumed to be traced to social factors (including racism resulting in poverty or wealth, good schools or bad, ample opportunity or a paucity of it, etc).

Even if women DO highly value having children, there is no rational reason to think that is inherent in women. Many women do not value it at all, are they suffering from some birth defect in some way? Or is the high value a result of cultural (including religious) brainwashing that this is their purpose in life, to be mothers?

In fact, in the current American culture men are far more sexually promiscuous than women, and can father far more children than any woman can mother. If "must have children" was inherent in women, wouldn't they outrank men in promiscuity and get themselves pregnant early and often?

You can't really know how another group will take something, even interviewing them may do you no good. Minds change. Your safest bet is to make the cost something that plausibly impacts both males and females equally; even if it is only females that will pay the price.


Edit to address arguments in commentary; since this is on-topic as to what is sexist:

It is brought up that Infertility affects both men and women. I believe the question is whether men would value "descendants" as much as a woman does, and that is not implied by the story or clear to readers. In modern culture our stories suggest differently; young men in books and stories routinely risk (and lose) their lives and nobody thinks of the loss as "the loss of a potential father".

Our modern culture focuses on females as reproductive vessels; hence the phrase "women and children first", implying men of any parental status are expendable. It's why young men form the vast majority of our combat troops and women still must struggle to fight on the front lines or in elite ranks.

However, while it is appropriate for adults to decide for children that do not have fully formed brains, note that in "women and children first" the men are also deciding for the women as if they do not have the necessary cognition to decide for themselves; i.e. the statement implies that adult females are incapable of thinking for themselves. That is sexist, it is part of treating women as dumb livestock that exists to bear children. It doesn't make a difference if this on occasion benefits women by putting them first in a rescue or not letting them join front line warfare, it harms them through the far more widespread subjugation of women in everyday life as being less capable of making good decisions than men, less capable of leadership and making the tough decisions about life, death and nations going to war.

It was argued "women and children first" was not about childbearing but chivalry; but chivalry comes from the same sexist root: That women need the protection and guidance of men. It defines a clear cultural value of women over men, for one and only one reason: Women have wombs and are not as expendable as men. If your tribe loses 45 of its 50 men in battle, the remaining 5 can impregnate all 50 of your women. The next generation is full. But if it loses 45 of its 50 women in battle, the next generation isn't even viable to keep the tribe going. Read "Is There Anything Good About Men? How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men", a book by Roy Baumeister.

Another commenter then claims the adaptive fitness of 'desires children' is so much higher than 'doesn't desire children' that it would be more surprising for it not to be inherent; and another agrees that there is every rational (evolutionary) reason to think that is inherent in women.

No, there is no rational reason to think it is any higher in women than it is in men; and rational reason to believe otherwise: Modern humans capable of anticipating the future far enough in advance to picture themselves in a completely different life (with children vs. without) are likely the only animal that can plausibly evolve to "want children", and we've only been around about 50,000 years. All the rest of the animal kingdom wants sex, and nearly universally males are evolved to want it more than females due to the greater cost and risk to females.

Thus it is far MORE likely that men's greater desire for sex has evolved into a greater desire for children, because fatherhood has no inherent biological costs to bear: No pain, disability, risk of death or even responsibility. Nothing prevents a man from fathering a child in a few minutes and walking away forever, putting all the risk and costs of parenthood on the mother. Those risks to the woman's health and life are considerable; and includes a biologically driven imperative to devote years of raising her children for years to an age where they can fend for themselves. The total energy cost differential, between women and men creating a viable human that can fend for itself, is about a million to one.

Thus, if anything "evolved" as a desire for children, it should be much stronger in men than it is in women, because for a man the cost is trivial and has no penalties. Literally a few minutes of enjoyable effort versus several years of hard labor for her. In rational evolutionary terms motherhood is (on average) far more heavily penalized than fatherhood, and that far greater cost to women should lessen her desire "to have children." (I'm not saying that is the case, but that it is plausible.)

Back to the story: For an author that does not want to appear sexist, it is best not to attribute emotions to just one gender when there are (for readers in the real world) many examples of the opposite being true. In this story, because the witches are all female, there is a heavy risk of this, especially since lineage is determined by matrilineal lines instead of paternal lines; creating a penalty (in this fictional world) for women that men do not have (but IRL men would have; "passing on their [sur]name" and thus honoring their male ancestors).

A preferred penalty would be something that readers think clearly applies to men as well as women, both in the matrilineal fiction and in real life.

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    Infertility affects both men and women, but won't protect him/her from the sort of person who complained here. – Orangesandlemons Jul 16 at 19:03
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    @Orangesandlemons The question is whether men would value future fatherhood as much as a woman does, and that is not implied by the story or clear to readers, and modern culture of stories suggests differently; young men in books and stories routinely risk (and lose) their lives and nobody thinks of the loss as "the loss of a potential father". Modern culture focuses on females as reproductive vessels; hence the phrase "women and children first", implying men of any parental status are expendable. It's why young men form the vast majority of combat troops. Thus the OP engages a - (continued) – Amadeus Jul 16 at 19:16
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    @Orangesandlemons - sexist cultural bias by using it as the penalty for engaging in magic. A creative author should be able to find something that is in reality and culturally equally important to males and females; such as a magically enforced shorter lifespan. e.g. you will be quite powerful, but die on your thirtieth birthday, and there is no way around that. – Amadeus Jul 16 at 19:20
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    @Orangesandlemons We shall disagree. "women and children first" specifies a clear cultural value of women over men; and this is specifically due to chivalry that does the same, for one and only one reason: Women have wombs and are not as expendable as men. Lose 45 of your 50 men in battle, the remaining 5 can impregnate all 50 of your women, and the next generation is full. Lose 45 of your 50 women in battle, and the next generation isn't even viable to keep the tribe going. Read *"Is There Anything Good About Men? How Cultures Flourish by Exploiting Men", a book by Roy Baumeister. – Amadeus Jul 16 at 19:32
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    "Even if women DO highly value having children, there is no rational reason to think that is inherent in women." The adaptive fitness of 'desires children' is so much higher than 'doesn't desire children' that it would be more surprising for it not to be inherent. – eyeballfrog Jul 17 at 0:49

The Main Answer

However, someone has told me that this concept is sexist toward women because it suggests that a female's only worth is her fertility and that having kids is the most important thing to them.

To some women, wanting children is one of their main goals in life. Conversely, some women do not want children. This is also true of men - some want children, some do not.

It is generally accepted that being capable of having children is important to the human race because it prevents the human race from dying out - there is nothing inherantly sexist in this idea.


Oportunity for story development

That said, you have an opportunity here.

Firstly you can counteract this misinterpretation of your intent by having characters who clearly state "I never wanted a child anyway, so magic is a no-brainer". This makes it completely clear that the reason for chosing fertility as the 'cost' of magic is purely mechanical, and that the 'cost' is a bigger sacrifice for some characters than for others.

Furthermore, you could give an example of a character who has a medical condition that makes them infertile, but rather than turning to magic they instead hold out hope for a cure to their condition because they would rather have a child than magical ability.

In effect, you can use this mechanism as a means of showcasing what the different reactions would be to such a system.

If being a witch is so important, what will the impact be on society? Will the population dwindle because of the scarcity of fertile women? Familiars are useful for war, but what about peacetime?


Possible flaws in the system

Oddly enough, giving birth is reputed to be rather painful. Presumably that means creating familiars is probably also going to be rather painful, which is going to have an interesting impact on your world.

If the mechanism involved is like a normal pregnancy, these 'all powerful witches' are going to be somewhat vulnerable just prior to and during the 'birthing' a familiar, which means they'll have to hide themselves away to stop their enemies taking advantage.

Additionally, what's the incubation period for a familiar? If it's 9 months then it's going to be hard for individual witches to rise to power.

And how exactly do the familiars leave a female human body when the exit hole is barely large enough to squeeze out a human child? You can't say "though a magic portal" because that raises the question "why do the portals have to be connected to a female human orifice?".


One possible sexism concern

From the way it has been described, it sounds like this magic system actually favours women since men cannot give birth and thus cannot be masters to familiars. So from that point of view, it could still be argued to be sexist. I expect you won't get quite as many people complaining about that, but I suspect the thought "why can't men do magic?" will cross people's minds.

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    The reason for why men can no longer do magic plays into the story, which I didn't put here because it would make the question too long. As for how familiars leave the female body, I got the idea from the witch melisssndre on game of thrones. – Incognito Jul 17 at 11:46
  • @Amadeus Mistake rectified. – Pharap Jul 18 at 0:54

Sexism is fine in a story WHEN it is a part of the story's world, or a character's personality, and NOT the lesson of the story itself.

It's lazy to say that a story is "sexist" unless the story itself is trying to encourage sexism, which isn't the case if sexism is simply a part of the world the story is exploring (just like it's apart of ours.)

An example: A Handmaid's Tale. Is the story sexist? No. The world in the story is. The male characters in the story certainly are. But neither the book, nor Margaret Atwood, would be (or should be) considered "sexist."

Now, of course, if your writing a story who's moral is "men are better than women" or some bullshit like that, then yes, there's a serious problem. But that's something else entirely. As another example, the Turner Diaries. Now, that book is an example of racism, not sexism, but the concept still stands. The message of the Turner Diaries is "all black people should be killed" and that makes the books themselves, and by extension the author, despicable and vile.

Simply bear in mind the lesson you want the story to put forth and the lesson your reader will perceive you're putting forth.

There are little inconsistencies in your explanation that allow for misinterpretation by others.


Due to this, society traces its lineage through matrilineal lines.

By semantical definition of "sexism", this is sexism. It somehow considers your mother more definitive to your identity than your father.

Note that it's only sexist if men contribute. If, as an extreme example, every child is a genetic clone of its mother, and men do not actually contribute to the child's genes, then a human's genetic lineage is purely matrilineal (but genetic lineage is not always the same as lineage, e.g. consider that you still want to trace who the father is, or even just adoption).
If you're looking for hereditary diseases and only look at the matrilineal line, then you're not being sexist. You're simply excluding the father's line because the child didn't inherit any genes from them. You're not excluding the father because you think men are unworthy.


However, someone has told me that this concept is sexist toward women because it suggests that a female's only worth is her fertility

That is a logical fallacy. Your concept states that a woman's fertility is valuable. Your concept does not state that a woman's fertility is the only valuable thing about her. It doesn't even state that it's the most valuable thing about her.

and that having kids is the most important thing to them

The same argument applies here, it's a logical fallacy.

I really want to keep my left hand. I'm right handed, so my left hand is not the most important thing to me (obviously, my right hand is more important). The fact that I'd rather not lose my left hand does not mean that my left hand is the most important thing to me.

Is that accurate or am I overthinking it?

It's not accurate. Whoever pointed out the alleged sexism has applied wrongly inverted logic.


How would I know this for a fact when something is prejudiced or not?

That's a broad question. I'd hazard a guess to say that this is the #1 question that the (western) world is currently trying to find an objective and universally applicable answer to.

Prejudice is not black and white. While we can coin a definition that applies in most common cases, those definitions becomes less clear for fringe cases. Keep in mind the definition of discrimination:

  1. Recognize a distinction; differentiate.
  2. Make an unjust or prejudicial distinction in the treatment of different categories of people, especially on the grounds of race, sex, or age.

When we say call things like racism or sexism discrimination, we are referring to definition 2. WHen definition 2 applies, so does definition 1. But the opposite isn't true: there are cases of (gender) discrimination where definition 1 applies, but not definition 2. For example:

  • A gynaecologist refusing to book an appointment for a male patient.
  • A nurse who writes down the gender of a patient on the patient chart.
  • Segregating bathrooms/locker rooms by gender.
  • An animal that only eats human testicles (since it inherently attacks men, not women).

All of these examples are cases of gender discrimination, yet they are not labeled as immoral behavior.

So how do I detect sexism?

Simply put, randomize all the genders in your story. Does the story still make sense? Does changing two people's gender (MM, MF, FM, FF) inherently change their relationship or power dynamic?

If changing the genders changes something that is not related to the physical differences of the genders; then it's sexist (definition 2). Some examples:

"I changed the gender of my main character, and now the story doesn't work because they don't need to go out to buy tampons and thus don't run into the story villain who (for some unexplained reason) is a tampon salesperson."

That's not sexism. That's related to the physical difference between men and women. Weird story arc, but not inherently sexist.

"I changed the gender of my main character, and now the story doesn't work because they don't need to go out to buy tampons because men don't do the shopping; and they therefore don't run into the story villain who (for some unexplained reason) is a tampon salesperson."

That is sexism.

"I changed the gender of my main character, and now the story doesn't work because women can't rule a nation".

That is sexism.

"I changed the gender of my main character, and now the story doesn't work as well because "Bling Queen" doesn't rhyme like "Bling King" does".

That's not sexism. The rhyme (or lack thereof) does not in any way change the fact that someone rules the nation. It simply means that you have to find a different name that works for the same reason ("Sheen Queen").

I understand that the examples are simple, but examples are inherently supposed to be clear-cut for the sake of clarity.

  • +1, but I think the problem with the examples are they are too explicit. an unjust or prejudicial distinction in treatment can be applied implicitly, e.g. with no explanation why, only men lead nations, armies, companies, religions, are doctors or lawyers. Especially so if the story norms resonate with IRL worldwide sexist norms; e.g. women should "behave" but men should be "assertive" or "woman want to be wives and mothers with a providing husband," not leaders in politics, business, religion, not front-line soldier or many other roles unnecessarily occupied almost wholly by males. – Amadeus Jul 19 at 12:00
  • @Amadeus Explicit or implicit, either case will run into a "but [gender] can't/don't do [X]" issue, regardless of whether the reason for saying so can be put into words or not. That's why I'm suggesting that OP doesn't try to objectively assess the morality of the world he's creating ("is this sexist?"), but rather stress test the world ("does changing the gender create issues unrelated to the gender itself?"). Unless it is an actual plot point, sexism is often implicit and unintended, but can be revealed by realizing you think the opposite gender is somehow incapable of something. – Flater Jul 19 at 12:11
  • @Amadeus: The thing is that sexism in stories is not necessarily bad storytelling, e.g. when the main character specifically breaks that otherwise held sexist belief. Writers should avoid sexism that is not plot-relevant yet still takes the effort to argue a needless point (which effectively violates Chekhov's gun). But this is so dependent on the story. A story set in 1950's may contain sexism not as a political statement or a plot point, but to create a realistic setting. The added sexism isn't useless and while sexism itself if immoral, including it in the story isn't (necessarily). – Flater Jul 19 at 12:16
  • @Amadeus: More often than not, the fictional plot challenges the fictional world. It is okay to create a world where sexism exists or is even actively seen as the right thing to do. It is not okay to create a plot that in its conclusion furthers sexist ideals or argues that sexism is correct. When you say Especially so if the story norms resonate with IRL worldwide sexist norms, that is applying it too broadly (imo). It is often through fictional settings that social and emotional issues can be explored with emotional safety and without the need to be defensive about it. – Flater Jul 19 at 12:18
  • I agree sexism is not necessarily bad storytelling, but that is not the OP's question; for whatever personal reason the author implies they wish to avoid sexism in their story, or they consider a charge of sexism by their reader as a valid criticism to be addressed. Thus the OP asks for ways to discern sexism, and telling them "sexism is not always a bad thing" is straying off-topic; trying to change their value system. Same for "Don't try to objectively assess the morality of your world": That is explicitly what the OP wants help doing! That's what I am pointing out. – Amadeus Jul 19 at 12:29

Remove the example or generalize it? 'Cause this seems sorta Worldbuilding-y.


I'd say it's not "misogynistic", but it is "sexist" as it's "discriminatory towards a sex".

If you're thinking this is misogynistic because one person said: "because it suggests that a female's only worth is her fertility."

To that, I say, "No, it doesn't suggest that at all!"

Because presumably, women have other reasons to have worth. It's not like familiars are the only currency in the world or something.

It does make women have more value, though, and if both humans and familiars are born through that ritual method... Then for a population as a whole, using familiars is sacrificing population growth for combat strength / higher immediate utility.

Tackle it head-on. If you are wondering this, a share of your audience is probably wondering it - why can't a character in the world you are building wonder the same? They can discuss the question with someone else, at which point you can have them come to a conclusion or have split opinions about

a) yes, this is sexist, and here is how people accept or deal with it, or

b) no, it is not, and why not.

Please do not shy away from something that just might maybe perhaps tickle someone somehow the wrong way. Almost every interesting topic has that potential. What great writers do and always did was to tackle those problems, and what mediocre writers always do and did was trying to skirt them.

Among the topics to explore is how people in your world view women in general and mothers in particular, how women view themselves and how men view them, what the importance of children and family lines is, what kind of choices women can make in the world and what the consequences of those choices are - all of which are great, intriguing questionsthat will make your world come so much more alive if you have answers to them. You can also use them to set the world apart from the real world, which will serve to explain other parts of your book because readers understand that in the real world that girl would have had a choice, but in your world, due to tradition and social rules, she doesn't.

  • Yes. It's a novel. You are imagining this world, not proposing it as a model for your own. Now this question has made you think about the sexism thing. Good. Make the people in your world feel that way too. Introduce a woman who wants both. Introduce a man who wants both. What happens if they find a way around it? What happened in the past? – RedSonja Jul 17 at 13:38

It is not sexist. Thinking it is sexist requires some mental gymnastics, and actively searching something to nitpick about is, I would say, in my humble opinion, everything wrong with postmodernism. Building on @user49466's answer, I will expand on why this concept is far from sexist.

  • Reproduction is generally a good thing for our species and society, otherwise we wouldn't be here today. If you can accept as an axiom that perpetuating our existence is good, we can continue to the next point.
  • Not being able to reproduce is not so good. Naturally, genetic replication isn't the only way someone has to contribute to society, so lacking that ability is far from an impedance to being useful to society. In fact, even if you happen to be unable to continue your genetic line, you can still continue your memetic line by mentoring someone else, usually a child. Ultimately, memes are what make society, so I would argue laying good foundations via implanting the thoughts you are so proud of is way more important than continuing your genetic imprint. Thing is, being able to reproduce is good for us as species, as it is the only way we have to let the human race continue existing, but individually speaking, it is not so important as trendsetting is, which can have a much bigger impact on the way mankind will develop. Doubly so if you are powerful enough to reach many people and greatly impact society, like a witch.
  • Sometimes, reproducing is not so good. Some people may have faulty genetics with grave incurable diseases that make them suffer in life. In those cases, deciding not to reproduce genetically may be beneficial, and would benefit much much more, both as individuals and to society, if they decided to reproduce only memetically.
  • Assuming any woman can become a witch through study and practice, and it is not some exclusive magical trait only certain genetic lines have (which would have probably led to extinction very early on, as their mechanics do not seem fit for the perpetration of their genes), they may decide that their extraordinary memetics can be more valuable for the world than their probably more average genetics, thus opting for changing the world with their actions than adding yet another "regular" person to the already overcrowded pool. Long story short, they have the ability to choose whether they value more their genetics or their memetics; having a choice, as commented by @user49466, is objectively superior.
  • For these witches, losing their reproductive abilities is actually an upgrade with downsides, not a downgrade. They have decided they preferred either the altruistic path of perpetrating their memes through a sacrifice, or the more "egoistic" (but still completely respectable, and not necessarily evil in any way) path of living a better life by sacrificing something they did not consider vital to them, which is something we do on a daily basis in less extreme instances.
  • Just like many women nowadays choose not to have children to purse their career (which may be highly memetic), these witches decided not to have children for this same reason. In the case of witches, there is no going back on the choice and no other way around; in the case of modern women, there may be going back, but sadly, sometimes there is no other way around, but that's a topic for another day.
  • The long story short is witches value who they are and how they live over who their potential genetic offspring will be, which means these are really confident and empowered women, and probably the opposite of the concept of mysoginy. Some of these women may even have chosen to change the world with their actions, which is the epitome of empowering.
  • Assuming these women become useless for not being able to reproduce IS sexist. Luckily, we can safely affirm these women have acquired the potential to have more impact in society and history than if they just decided to have children, and it was entirely their own choice.
  • Likewise, assuming losing the ability to reproduce is not a handicap (albeit a really small one) is disingenous. Losing any ability is bad, as useless as it is, since it limits agency, which may be vital or not. If we were to explain it with a dumb analogy, it would be like cutting your arms off in exchange for psychic powers: you may lose the ability to sense with your arms or grab things like you were used to, but you will probably still have the ability to move things or even operate objects, probably more effectively than before; likewise, witches have lost the ability to reproduce their genes, but they have gained the ability to reproduce their memes more effectively than before. Consider it a sidegrade if your genes truly are exceptional (betcha no matter how exceptional, they can't beat having witchcraft powers, anyway), an upgrade with penalties otherwise.

I would say this implies women can do things better than reproducing, and still be respected and venerated for it. If anything, I would say you found a subtly feminist detail for your setting. Personally speaking, I would say genetics pale in comparison to the power of memes, so I find it fascinating that these witches are valued for their memes, rather than their genes, which more or less seems to reinforce my personal opinions.

As a bonus suggestion, I would consider exploring the possibility of letting these witches have adoptive children. If some of them happen to have a maternal drive, they will probably want to take care of children, which is now only possible by adopting. Having "spiritual" daughters may be a way of perpetuating the memetics of the witch clan, which I assume they will want to do, so either schooling young girls in their arts and philosophies, or even taking them as daughters may be just the logical thing to do.

It's difficult if not impossible to say for a fact is some action is prejudiced. Certainly, there are some actions that would be universally viewed as such by a given culture. There are very few people alive today who would say that the US history of slavery wasn't racist. But that wasn't true a few generations ago. It wasn't that long ago that homosexuality was widely regarded as deviant behavior in the US and there is still a significant population that retain that viewpoint. Prejudice and sexism/racism/*ism is, to some extent at least, a judgement, not a fact.

What is your concern with asking the question? Are you worried that if your magic system is viewed as sexist it may impact the appeal of your writing? Are you morally opposed to sexism and wish to avoid it showing up in your work, even inadvertently? (I think, or at least hope, that most of us are morally opposed to being sexist, but that's distinct from being morally opposed to writing sexist characters.) The answer to that question may significantly affect the way you approach the issue.

Writing a book which includes sexist characters or cultures does not necessarily imply anything about the author. I'll give two specific examples, but there are many more out there. First, consider Mark Lawrence's Broken Empire series. The characters and society in that series are profoundly misogynistic. Lawrence has taken significant criticism for that. See this review. But also see Lawrence's response to some of the criticism. You can make up your own mind about the worth of the series. The second example is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, also the inspiration for the Hulu television series. The culture there is also profoundly misogynistic. Atwood, of course, intentionally wrote the series that way as a protest against the subjugation of women.

The magic system you described doesn't remotely approach the level of sexism in those two works, of course. But they do suggest two quite different ways to approach sexism and misogyny in literature. And they show that you can use the magic system even if some people will consider it sexist. As others have suggested, discuss the issue and try to get a feel for how other people, particularly female readers, will perceive the system. And if you're still concerned with that perception, incorporate it into the story. Have characters note and react to the unfairness of the way the world works, and the assumptions it leads non-witches to make about witches. Explore the theme and use it to deepen and enrich your story.

When I look at the story line, I don't see it as being sexist. If anything, it's reverse-sexism, because only females can attain this power (at least, that's what I'm assuming, as you talk about birthing familiars, which would be hard for males). It's easy for people to pick on one small detail and argue against the greater flow of a book.

However, there is something worth thinking of here out of universe. You say "there always has to be a cost," and you are looking at fertility as that cost. That thinking could lead you to write a story which does have sexist content along the lines that people are warning about. If that's just one of many costs a witch pays, then you probably won't run into trouble. However, if this is the only price that's paid, and the fact that a price is paid is important to your story, then that is indeed making the suggestion that fertility is a major part of the value of a woman.

On the flip side, I think it would be completely feasible to write a story which turns this whole sexism argument around. You could easily write a story which strives to show that women are far more than just their reproductive organs with the same basic premise. I can envision a story line where the majority of people value a woman's reproductive capabilities too much and their other attributes too little, confining them to strict roles accordingly, and the whole story line revolves around a group of women who prove those people wrong, through many means of which witchcraft may be one of them.

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    For the record, there's no such thing as 'reverse-sexism'. Sexism is sexism regardless of whether it's targetted at women or at men, just like racism is still racism whether it's targetted at black people, asians or white people. – Pharap Jul 17 at 3:02
  • Funilly enough already using this term is sexist :D What a world we live in, where everything can be offensive. – Hakaishin Jul 17 at 8:38
  • @Pharap It is an interesting term, isn't it. Languages grow organically, and words are created to convey concepts that a society feels need to be conveyed. You can learn quite a bit about the state of a culture by looking at the concepts people feel the need to develop new words for. – Cort Ammon Jul 17 at 15:26
  • @CortAmmon I'd attribute it more to a misunderstanding/miscomprehension of the definition of 'sexism', or the (possibly mistaken) belief that to 'reverse' the consequences of past discrimination one must perform a different (often 'opposite') kind of discrimination. – Pharap Jul 18 at 1:18

Any '-ism' is based in narrowing an individual to a value associated with a specific trait that individual may possess. The one applying the judgement may have a bias that either enhances or diminishes the overall value assigned to the individual. One does not have to be bigoted or have ill-intent to do this. But, it doesn't matter if your intent is to enhance (think: place women on a pedestal of purity because of reproduction) or diminish (think: to demean women through negative judgment on their sexual desires), you have still reduced an individual - in all their complexity - to a thing.

That said, I will add only one reality check you can do all on your own: if you apply your value judgment to an individual considered the opposite, e.g. apply what you've thought up for a woman to a man, or for a black person to a white person, does it seem absurd or ridiculous? If it does, you might want to re-think your approach.

No, this will not be sexist. You made clear that women (witches) are very high-standing personae in your society - and not through their sexual prowess or beauty, but simply by the fact that your universe functions as it does. Having gender differences between magic users is a common trope in Fantasy, so there's nothing special about that.

May the topic be off-putting to females due to awaking unpleasant associations? Maybe, depending on how graphical your depiction of the birth of an ethereal is - and I see no particular reason why you have to actually describe that process at all, so it's easy to stay clear of that. Can you make your book sexist? Sure, if you really degrade your women in some fashion. But I see no hint that you are intending to do that.

To answer your main title question, "How do I know if a concept is sexist" - simply look at your intention. If you wish to paint one of your genders as small, insignificant, overly archetypical (i.e., the trope of the blonde big-bosomed beauty on a remote planet in the early Star Trek episodes), reduce them to their sexuality, give them mostly negative connotations (i.e., weak, stupid, ...), then that's sexist.

Can I add my perspective as a reader rather than a writer? I think you don't need to worry too much about whether you use something that might be seen as sexist. Good fiction very often explore the borders of what is permissible, and I think that is in fact one of its most important features; thinking, writing and talking about things is a relatively safe way of working with difficult issues, and it can help us improve our collective attitudes, I think.

However, from what you describe, I can't spot anything sexist - you describe a context in which your story happens; if you don't use a setting with some level of inequality and injustice of some sort, you will end up with My Little Pony, which may be a worthy ambition, of course, but I sense that this isn't what you are aiming for.

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