Health and Fitness

The Appeal of Benevolent Sexism


Stories of sexual abuse and allegations have been front and center in our news for a while now. From the Me Too movement to the Catholic Church abuse cases to the recent Kavanaugh Hearings, we are faced with the harsh reality of how common sexual abuse really is in our society. But we are starting to talk about it and that is a good thing. My heart goes out to all those whose lives have been affected by sexual abuse.

For many well-meaning men and women, these times are fraught with tension and confusion. A man might examine how he treats women and wonder if he should change his behavior. A woman might feel ambivalent toward a man who opens the door for her or offers to pay for lunch.

I want to make it clear that I’m in no way suggesting any of these examples constitute sexual abuse or assault. I am not. It’s just that now more than ever we’re compelled to examine these gray areas in our relationships that we might previously have never given a second thought.

Well, it turns out that researchers are examining these areas as well. A June 2018 study titled “Benevolent Sexism and Mate Preferences: Why Do Women Prefer Benevolent Men Despite Recognizing That They Can Be Undermining?” delves into these issues.

There are detailed definitions of “benevolent sexism” on the Internet, but basically social psychologists who study benevolent sexism see it as an action by men that while outwardly chivalrous, is really a sexist insult to the (woman) recipient’s strength and competence. Opening a door, carrying something heavy, changing a light bulb — you get the picture. And as the title of the study reveals, women actually prefer men whose actions could be described as benevolently sexist over those whose actions are not.

Why is this?

Some theories suggest that women simply fail to see that benevolent sexism undermines them because they’re flattered by the acts of kindness. The authors of the above study were not convinced, however, and felt that most women are sophisticated enough to know when a man has been patronizing. Interestingly enough, no previous research had tested whether women do, in fact, fail to recognize that benevolent sexism can be patronizing and undermining. The researchers decided to explore this issue.

They asked over 700 women, ranging in age from 18 to 73, in five experiments, to read profiles of men who either expressed attitudes or engaged in behaviors that could be described as benevolently sexist, such as helping to put a coat on or offering to carry heavy boxes. They then had the study participants rate the man’s attractiveness; willingness to protect, provide and commit; and his likelihood of being patronizing.

While the researcher’s findings confirmed that women do perceive benevolently sexist men to be more patronizing and more likely to undermine their partners, they also found the women in the study perceived these men as more attractive, despite the potential pitfalls. And what made these men more attractive was the belief that they were more likely to “protect, provide and commit.” While one might assume these views were reserved for the more “old-fashioned” women, this was not the case.  Those who were considered strong feminists still found these men more attractive.

The reason for this, the researchers state, could be what is known as “parental investment theory.” Evolution has shaped female psychology to prefer mates whose characteristics and behaviors reveal the willingness to invest. Throughout human history, the man has provided food and protection while the woman completed months of gestation. She needed him to help increase her chances of giving birth to a healthy child.

Still, questions remain. Does there always have to be an ulterior motive behind benevolent sexism? Could it be that men are just trying to be nice? Of course, there is no one answer and it depends of each situation, but let’s not rule out that what some see as benevolent sexism might just be a simple act of courtesy.

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