What is Benevolent Sexism?
By: Julie Saxton
If you’ve never heard the term “benevolent sexism,” you’re probably not alone. The idea that there are two types of sexism, benevolent sexism and hostile sexism, wasn’t postulated until 1996 by two psychologists, Glick and Fiske. This notion was part of their greater ambivalent sexism theory, which defined and discussed benevolent and hostile sexism.
If you consider the word “sexism,” the first general idea that probably pops into your mind is what Glick and Fiske considered “hostile sexism.” Hostile sexism towards women occurs when men see women as usurping their power, often when women do not conform to gender roles. As the name suggests, hostile sexism can be expressed in more negative, aggressive ways. Benevolent sexism, on the other hand, describes the protection and affection men show towards women when they conform to traditional gender roles.
Several psychological studies following Glick and Fiske’s original research show that benevolent sexism has the potential to be beneficial on a personal level, though it remains damaging on a greater, structural level. For example, a 2008 study suggested that women may be encouraged to accept subordinate roles in order to receive the attention or attraction of benevolent sexist men (Lau, Kay, Spencer, 2008). AAnd a study in 2012 showed that benevolent sexism and life satisfaction were linked (Connelly and Heesacker, 2012). When people hold benevolent sexist ideologies, they view their society, which continues to have gender inequality, as justified or legitimate. Their faith in the system is bolstered, and their life satisfaction increases. Ultimately, benevolent sexists continue holding to their ideals, as it provides them life satisfaction, and societal gender inequality is maintained.
Another study examined the link between benevolent sexism and perceptions of marital rape. Durán, Moya, and Megías found that people who endorse benevolent sexist ideologies tend to view marital rape less as sexual aggression and instead see it as the husband fulfilling his “marital rights” and the wife fulfilling her “marital duties” (2011). Obviously this view can be extremely harmful in the event that marital rape actually occurred; a benevolent sexist would not even view the situation as rape and could potentially dismiss the case entirely.
Benevolent sexism, despite its name, is anything but positive. On the whole, the current literature and research on benevolent sexism indicates general harm. While someone may be happier and more secure in their personal view of the system, gender inequality, an overall negative social structure, continues to exist.
Perhaps future research will focus more on causes of benevolent sexist ideology rather than just its effects. Other studies may demonstrate even more harmful effects of benevolent sexism and perhaps erase the idea that it can be positive altogether. However, knowing various causes of or influences on benevolent (and hostile) sexism can lead to changing people’s ideology and eliminating the gender inequality prevalent in our society.
Connelly, K. & Heesacker, M. (2012). Why is benevolent sexism appealing? Associations with system justification and life satisfaction. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 36, 432-443. doi: 10.1177/0361684312456369
Durán, M., Moya, M., & Megías, J. L. (2011). It’s his right, it’s her duty: Benevolent sexism and the justification of traditional sexual roles. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 470-478. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2010.513088
Lau, G.P., Kay, A.C., & Spencer, S.J. (2008). Loving those who justify inequality: The effects of system threat on attraction to women who embody benevolent sexist ideals. Psychological Science, 19, 20-21. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40064794