(Note: Benevolent sexism is largely an issue in hetero groups, but benevolent stereotyping is harmful to all people.)
By Savanah Mandeville
Women are more compassionate.
Women are better parents.
Women are cleaner.
Women are more beautiful.
Statements like these seem like compliments but they are actually subtle forms of sexism. The opposite of overt, hostile sexism, benevolent sexism (sometimes referred to as “ambivalent sexism” or “pedestal sexism”) compliments women based on stereotypes. In our culture, benevolent sexism is much more insidious than hostile sexism because it’s more widely accepted by men and women.
Professor Peter Glick of Lawrence University and Professor Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University published the first article on benevolent sexism in 1996. The professors wrote that sexist ambivalence is the result of male dominance (patriarchy) and interdependence between the sexes. Despite male dominance across cultures in business, government, religious institutions and so on, men are often highly dependent on women as wives, mothers, and romantic partners. This dependence fosters pedestal sexism in which women are recognized in the culture as valuable and attractive.
We often hear about the benefits of pedestal sexism. Women can get out of speeding tickets. Guys pay for meals and hold doors. Women and children get on the lifeboats first. As much as men like to complain about pedestal sexism, they’re usually the ones working the hardest to uphold it in order to wield it as a weapon. This is why you see all those “feminism killed chivalry” memes.
Chivalry is not the same thing as respect. Chivalry is often nothing more than a thin veil over sexist and misogynistic behavior. Respecting women runs a lot deeper than holding open doors.
Benevolent Sexism is Insidious
Benevolent sexism is especially dangerous because it can seem harmless, noble, or even romantic. (On the other hand, racism and homophobia rarely take a benevolent form.)
Benevolent justifications for discrimination are more likely to be accepted by men and women. For example, “Women should forego a career because they’re better at childcare” is more likely to be accepted than a hostile justification like, “Women should forego a career because they lack ability.”
Women are more likely to endorse benevolent sexism themselves, especially in countries with high levels of hostile sexism where male protection may seem more appealing. This is where you might see women policing other women to uphold the status quo or exhibiting hostility toward women who reject traditional gender roles.
Benevolent Sexism Contributes to Rape Culture
It’s a widely accepted rule on college campuses that male students aren’t allowed upstairs in Sorority Houses but female students are allowed to go upstairs in Frat Houses. At first glance, this rule simply seems like one of those old-fashioned collegiate traditions. But rules like these — the ones designed to “protect” women — are forms of benevolent sexism and contribute to rape culture.
Assuming that women are virtuous angels implies that, on the flipside, men are slovenly animals. These assumptions lead to double standards and reinforce slut shaming, victim blaming, and all that comes with the “boys will be boys” mentality.
Why aren’t boys allowed upstairs in the Sororities? Because women are placed (literally) above them, off limits, like angels up in heaven. They’re being protected. Protected from what, exactly? The male students’ uncontrollable urges?
Why are female students allowed upstairs in the Fraternities? Because the male students aren’t going to be in any sort of danger or discomfort if a strange girl is in their midst, right? And if something happens to her in the Frat house? Well, she should’ve known better. She was asking for it.
On a larger scale, Professor Glick and Professor Fiske found that countries with higher levels of hostile sexism also have higher levels of benevolent sexism. Therefore, cultures that put more emphasis on protecting and shielding women from men actually have higher rates of rape and sexual assault.
Benevolent Sexism Hurts Men
Benevolent sexism, like all forms of sexism, also hurts men. We’ve heard these arguments from Men’s Right Activists: women are automatically assumed to be better parents; women are given a lighter sentence for the same crime; men are forced to sign up for the draft and women aren’t, etc.
Ironically, MRAs are usually either lamenting the unfairness of benevolent sexism or trying to use it as a weapon to control women. What I think all feminists wish MRAs would realize is that we don’t like benevolent sexism either. We want to be treated like human beings and be accepted as unique individuals, flaws and all. We want to have the same standards and be given the same freedom to be ourselves.
Another way benevolent sexism hurts men (and women), is it contributes to the Madonna-Whore Complex. First identified by Sigmund Freud, the Madonna-Whore Complex is a psychological complex in which men see women as either saintly Madonnas or debased prostitutes. Men with this complex desire a sexual partner who has been degraded (the whore) while they cannot desire the respected partner (the Madonna).
Men, women, and nonbinary individuals exist across a wide spectrum of morality, toughness, strength, empathy, kindness, and so forth, and we need to reject stereotypes and accept people as complex individuals. This is why feminists continue to work to dismantle the patriarchy to create equality for all people.