not in Primary anymore

feminist theory: the two ugly faces of sexism

Note: My intention in writing this post is for it to be an informative yet accessible introduction to the theory of ambivalent sexism developed by Drs. Peter Glick and Susan Fiske. I borrowed heavily from the website and highly recommend it as a resource for those who want to learn more. The website also allows you to take a test that accesses your own personal levels of sexism and compares your score with others around the world.

Sexism is a word that’s often tossed around on this blog, and in the wider feminist community, for that matter. Battling sexism is one of the biggest things we as feminists do. But what is sexism, exactly?

Sexism is a form of prejudice relating to sex or perceived sex; the belief that one sex is superior to the other. It is usually used to disadvantage or discriminate against women, though there are negative consequences of sexism that harm both men and women. Both men and women can hold sexist beliefs both about each other and themselves. We live in a patriarchy which by its very definition institutionalizes sexism against women, so this is the type of sexism I will be focusing on for the rest of this post. Stereotypes about men and women and their perceived gender roles help to reinforce sexism and the patriarchal power structure at all levels.

Sexism can be found in many forms, from casual comments to television portrayals and workplace policies, and even to the laws that govern our cities and countries. The effects of sexism are insidious, and can have a negative impact on every aspect of women’s lives, from lower average earning potential to higher rates of sexual assault to higher incidence of eating disorders and everything in between.

There is a theoretical concept known as Ambivalent Sexism which divides all sexist beliefs and behavior into two sub-components, the basic premise being that there are two different motivations for sexism. The first of these is male dominance. This first type of sexism, called Hostile Sexism, often arises in cultures where men make up most of the high status positions in areas like business, government, and religious institutions. Hostile Sexism is an overtly antagonistic attitude towards one sex, and it often manifests in the dominant sex (in this case males) holding beliefs about the inferiority of the opposite sex (females). When most people think of sexism, this is usually the type of sexism they are thinking of. This type of sexism is usually fairly obvious to spot, and can range from things like dumb blonde jokes to it being illegal for Saudi Arabian women to drive.

However, there is a second type of sexism, called Benevolent Sexism, which is much harder to spot. This type of sexism is based on the interdependence of the sexes: even in a male-dominated society, men are very much dependent on women to be their wives and mothers. Benevolent Sexism recognizes women as being valuable and attractive. At first glance Benevolent Sexism may seem harmless or even complimentary, but it is no less damaging than Hostile Sexism because it still supports gender inequalities and helps to keep women in the subordinate position.

One form Benevolent Sexism can take is chivalry, a word that today means men holding doors open for women but that was originally created in the middle ages as a code of conduct that dictated the courteousness with which a nobleman would treat another nobleman’s possessions (and yes, that included his women). Even without the knowledge of that dark past, the underlying premise is that women are weak creatures who are incapable of opening their own doors without the help of gallant men.

Benevolent Sexism can also hide under the guise of romance. To be clear, it is possible to be romantic without any sexism, but many of the typically romantic traditions, such as men asking women on dates, paying for dates, proposing to the woman, and buying her gifts such as flowers or jewelry are rooted in sexism. They are from the times when women had no property of their own and needed a man who was financially capable of taking care of her.

One of the most common forms Benevolent Sexism takes is the idea that women are more nurturing/spiritual/beautiful/etc. than men. These are nice concepts, and some of them may even be true, but there is a second, often unspoken part to this that often dictates discriminatory policy. For example, women are more nurturing than men so women should spend more time caring for their children and doing household duties, which studies have shown actually happens, even in household where both parents work the same number of hours outside the home. Women are more spiritual than men so men need the Priesthood to help them out, a common argument against the Ordain Women movement. Women are more beautiful than men so they need to spend a lot of time and money on beauty products, daily routines, and even plastic surgery in order to keep up their looks while men do not.

There are three subcomponents to each of these types of sexism: paternalism, gender differentiation, and heterosexuality. Paternalism treats women as immature or not fully adults, and can manifest as men controlling women, or alternatively men protecting and caring for women. Gender differentiation can either be competitive, in men men assert their superiority, or complementary, in which the importance of a woman’s role as wife or mother is emphasized (early 1900s concept of Separate Spheres is an example of this). And finally, sexism in heterosexuality manifests itself in the madonna/whore binary: women are either viewed as sexual objects or are praised for their virtue and their virginity prized.

Due to the firm emphasis on gender roles and heteronormativity, both types of sexism can be especially damaging to those who break the norm in some way, such as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. But sexism hurts everyone to some degree, be they men or women. For example women are sexually assaulted in much higher rates than men, and on the flip side there are widely held beliefs that all men are perverts, that they are interested in only one thing, or that all men are potential rapists. Another example: working women face the “glass ceiling”, very real barriers to promotions and higher pay, but it is often much more difficult for men to take time off work or work flexible hours in order to care for children or sick relatives.

On a very personal level, I’d like to share two experiences I’ve had with the subtler aspects of sexism that have had a very real negative impact on me. The first relates to my choice in a career and college education. I grew up in what I thought was a fairly progressive home (and it was; to this day I am grateful to my parents for what they taught me about equality). It was never any question that I would go to college, and I was lucky to have received encouragement from my parents and teachers when I was thinking of going into math, something a lot of girls are discouraged from pursuing. But while no one ever told me what type of a career I should pick, I decided to become a math teacher fairly early on and never considered anything else. It was only several years later as I was deep into my major and struggling deeply that I realized that I really had no desire to be a math teacher (it’s a great job but apparently not for me). And I got really angry at myself for taking so long to come to this realization. It was then that I realized that the reason I had never considered anything else was the work schedule. I had been subconsciously blocking myself from considering any sort of job that would keep me away from hypothetical children for too long, and a teaching job with its summers and weekends off and work during the same time as children’s school was the most accommodating job I could think of. So I took a break from school to figure things out and here I am, 24 years old and preparing to go back to school with a changed major (accounting, I believe), when I could have been done with school already.

My second experience relates to my sexuality. Growing up LDS and going through the Young Women’s program I was bombarded with the messages that women were the gatekeepers of sexuality, that we were not motivated by sexual desire the way men were. I lapped up all the things we were taught, like not dating before 16 (I took it a step further and took to ignoring or glaring at boys who made any sort of advances that were not purely platonic), or dressing modestly for the young men (the thought of me arousing sexual desire in any of them made me shudder). It all made so much sense to me, and I didn’t understand why other girls in young women’s worked so hard to get boys to notice them. After I turned 16, not much changed. I only ever went on one date in high school, with a boy I considered a platonic friend. Eventually I figured it out – I am asexual! However it took until I was nearly 23 to realize this, in the midst of a great societal and religious pressure to find a husband and get married. If I had been taught that it was normal and healthy for most women to be just as interested in sex as men, I probably would have realized I was different at a much younger age and saved myself a great deal of stress.

I’m sure most women have stories they could tell you about how sexism negatively impacted their lives. So what can be do to protect the future generations from experiencing what we have? Once thing to remember is that Hostile Sexism and Benevolent Sexism are mutually supportive: they complement each other in reinforcing traditional gender roles and male power structures. Studies have shown that countries high in Hostile Sexism tended to be higher in Benevolent Sexism as well, and there is also a correlation between the two on the individual level. Most of us are fairly good at spotting and decrying Hostile Sexism, but in order to fully eradicate or even reduce sexism, we really need to work on recognizing and reducing both types. We have made a lot of progress in the last 100, 50, or even 20 years, but we still have a long way to go before we reach equality, and we all have a part to play.

12 Responses to “feminist theory: the two ugly faces of sexism”

  1. ryan

    You are on a fool’s errand. You will never “fully eradicate” your version of sexism because it goes against nature. Feminist popularity is failing. You fight a losing battle and I, for one, enjoy fighting against you. You make it too easy and way too much fun.

  2. Keth

    Ryan, that may be, but she still has a point. It seems to me that your vitriol shows that you know that at least to some extent she is right. Did you not read what she said? Feminism is not about being sexist, whereas patriarchy is. God is no respecter of persons, why should we be?

    • ryan

      “Feminism is not about being sexist.” Priceless. How many times have we heard feminists whine about the word “his”tory being sexist or about the use of the word “man” to mean humankind to be proof of “patriarchy” and oppression. You are confused.

      Your warped view of the sexes attacks masculinity and femininity and would reduce us all to robots without passion or appreciation of the beauty that is meant for us to enjoy. Open your eyes to the differences. Learn to appreciate masculinity instead of always tearing it down. Quit trying to make men something they aren’t or you will experience a backlash and will miss the wonderful things masculinity can offer.

      I am so thankful for femininity, it completes me and wraps me in a blanket of love, warmth and sweetness. Men and women compliment each other. Feminism destroys.

  3. Keth

    Ryan, I’m sure you you enjoy the differences. Patriarchy allows you a great deal of privilege. I don’t doubt there are differences, but there are also similarities. My experiences should not be discounted because of my gender.


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