Ambivalent sexism

by Mr.Ellipses

You ever compliment a woman on her beauty, telling her to smile more to show it off, only to have her look at you with disdain? Ever hold a door for a woman only to then see her uncomfortable, and insist she can do it herself? You know what the first gut reaction of most males, and some females, are to the this type of female reaction? C’mon… you know… it is to call them btches, which is a highly volatile sexist reaction. Yet, what if I told you that it is not just this plausible negative reaction that can be construed as sexist, but in fact the actions before that (the door holding) are in fact sexist as well, what would you say?

Now, most, highly sexist people, who read that last line will have a gut reaction that tries to dismiss such a claim as “radical” feminism. The use of the term “radical” here is just the idea that such things are “taken too far” and thus no longer rational. A lot of people will not take such claims (door holding for women is part of sexism) seriously.. and the ones who have an aggressive reaction to such claims, are the ones who are probably the most sexist.  These people probably think in stereotypical fashions about what gender roles women and men must take.

What I want to do here, is to make a framework that enables us to understand why such behavior can be in fact sexist. This modern framework will allow us to unpack sexist behavior and also to predict sexist behavior. It is a tool that will allow us to see past the clutter of sexist gendered norms, and instead embrace a more complex and accurate understanding of what sexism looks like. Ambivalent sexism is the theoretical framework we can use to unmask the way modern sexism operates.


So what is Ambivalent Sexism? It is a sociological framework that allows us to highlight sexist gendered norms. It is split into 2 components: Hostile Sexism and Benevolent Sexism. These two component, once properly understood, allow a remarkable level of clarity when trying to view things from a feminist angle. By feminist angle, I mean, in a way that promotes equality of the sexes by analyzing, and then freeing oneself from, sexist gender roles.

Before we begin, lets just address some basic terminology. What is gender? Well gender is a set of behavioral characteristics that we, as a culture, assign to what is considered masculine and what is considered feminine. The reason for making this clear is that we do not want to confuse sex, which is a set of biological traits that would traditionally make someone either a male or a female, and gender. Sex is a biological constraint, while gender is merely a cultural act we put on – and it varies with cultures. You need to be able to properly distinguish between the two or else you will risk some biologically deterministic, and probably sexist, view of both male and female behaviors.

With that quick introduction out of the way lets look at what sexism is. Sexism is a view that says that females are inherently inferior to males – no different from any other arbitrary bigotry, in that it is certainly false. The issue of sexism though is very unique in its bigotry, in that, there are many actual significant biological differences between females and males – pregnancy, and testosterone levels, just to name two. This biological difference is often use to justify bigoted ends, and most of the time, the people who espouse such ideology make the central mistake of confusing gender behavior and biological sex.

This is primarily why, when talking about sexism, we need to have a clear foundation on what is gender and why it is not easily associated with a persons sex. We need to talk about something called gender roles because it allows us to unpack cultural traditions that in fact propagate sexism. It is the belief in the rigidity of gender roles, and the belief that such roles are directly correlated and defined by someone’s biological sex, that makes a lot of sexist notions so pervasive in this society.

Let me lead in with an example. You are a male on the dating scene in western culture. How do you pick up a female?

Well, if you are not 12 years old.. you are well aware of how this song and dance goes. Males look for small signs of female interest, or sometimes ignore any signs at all, and then males must take the initiative first. That is the romance game. Females must learn to leave subtle ques to promote male advancement, and also must learn to politely handle unwanted male advancement. Females have very little incentives to take either the verbal or the physical initiative first, in fact they have a dis-incentive to do so, because any female to take such an aggressive initiative, is then viewed as a “slut” (and thus on a more serious note, puts themselves in a place to be unfairly blamed if a sexual assault occurs. Victim blaming and rape culture play a role in this). Men, on the other hand, are taught to be aggressive and taught that they must make the first direct move – the subtle moves are left to the females. Many of them are also taught to not take subtle no’s for an answer, and. in this rather odd contradiction, to treat females who give a direct, or un-polite, or even polite, no as an answer with disdain (this is typically where the word btch comes into play).

Notice how none of these traditions in the romance game can be rationally correlated with a deterministic view of a persons sex. Rather, these traditions reflect gendered traditions, these actions are have a cultural cause rather than a biological one.

Now if people have trouble believing that the song and dance around heterosexual romance is that strict… run this analogy in your head. Pretend a man at a club, instead of taking the initiative as the gendered tradition prompts him to… employs subtle hints of interest and waits for the females to make the “first move.” How successful do you think this man would be? Well, if you are not trying to be coy, I think many of us  would understand that his success rate would probably be zero. I mean, unless he is ridiculously attractive (i.e. fits into the beauty standard for men very well) it would be around zero.. but for now, lets ignore that beauty variable. You do not want to add too many complications when exploring the basics.

The idea is that the romance dance, the art of seduction, relies heavily on cultural gender roles. Both men and women behave in accordance to these gender roles – and the ones who can not or will not, will find various negative social pressures pushing them to conform. The idea is that, often times sexist ideology is invoked to push conformity towards gender norms when someone does not fit snugly into the feminine or masculine behavior category.

With that kind of fuzy foundation put forward lets dig in a little bit more. It is this sort of rigidity in gender roles that leads to actual discrimination. For if we are lead to believe that women are “too emotional” to handle a business atmosphere, than this means women will be less likely to get hired for such corporate positions – and this is in fact what we see if we look up the research. We really have to understand that if we do not wish to be sexist, we must take a good long look at gender studies – because that is the only way to understand what sexism is.

Traditional gender roles try to put women in categories that are inferior to men. These gender roles put women in a lower social strata – such that they are often viewed as: too emotional to be rational, incompetent such that they need male leadership, not intelligent enough for math or science…etc.. These ideas lead us to have an implicit gender bias against women, and thus lead to discrimination.

What I have just described above is in fact what we will call, in this framework, hostile sexism. Hostile sexism is the negative evaluations of women that are often associated with misogyny. In that hostile sexism is the ideas that look at women in an inferior way. What hostile sexism is, is pretty much old school sexist – that 1950’s sexist that wanted to keep women in the kitchen because they could not do man’s work.

Yet, there is another aspect of sexism that often goes either unnoticed or is not thought of as sexist. That is what we are going to call benevolent sexism. Benevolent sexism is the romanticism of hostile sexism. Where women are idolized for their place as the primary caretaker, romanticized for their place in a heterosexual relationship, looked up to as sexual pure objects, and put on a pedestal like a rare rose that needs, and would wither away without, male protection.

Benevolent sexism is often viewed as positive evaluations by both men and women.. but if you dig deeper you can see that their main influence is anything but positive. The idea that we idolize women who are “sexually pure” stems from the idea that women are not allowed to be sexually active with more than one man – as such sexual activity is a male endeavor. The idea that women are roses to be protected stems from the idea that women are weak and need men to lead the way. The idea that women must be idolized for their role are caretaker, stems from the idea that a woman’s sole proper place is to be mother and wife.

You see benevolent sexism is the other side of the social force. For every cultural tradition there are positive and negative social forces that push towards conformity. For example if you give a firm handshake someone is going to think you are a stand up guy, if you give a weak handshake many are going to look at you as a weak willed individual. Thus there are two social forces at play, the negative social force where negative social pressures punish you for not conforming, and a positive social force that compliment you for running with the pack. Notice though that both are pushing in the same direction – towards conformity. With sexism there are two social forces at play as well.. women who fit with in a gender role will get a positive social force acting on them called benevolent sexism, and women who do not conform to the traditional role will get hostile sexism thrown at them. Both are pushing towards the conformity to rigid gender roles – gender roles that play a large, if not primary part, in modern discrimination against women.

Let’s look how this might play out with the handshake example. Did any of you catch on to the fact that I described a firm handshake with a “stand up guy”? In that I attributed a strong handshake to a masculine gender role. Men who give a strong handshakes are “real men” and those who do not, are “nancy boys.” It is this type of gender tradition that has sexism written all over it – not to mention that masculinity is tied to a lot of homophobia.  Yet, let us apply this handshake example to women. If a women gives the traditional sort of weak “damsel” handshake… she will be greeted with benevolent sexism. In that “Now that is a real women, she is very feminine and thus awesome.” If however, a woman wants to give a firm hardy handshake.. she might be greeted with hostile sexism… in that “Man, she seems really like a frigid btch.” Notice how both forms of sexism push women to conform towards a sexist gender role – that a woman must be very “feminine” which, in this case, is appear to be physically weak and not dominating.

Now, of course we live in a more progressive era where there are lots of women in business.. so that this handshake example is probably out of date. It is probably perfectly fine for women to give a firm handshake these days – not much social force would be acting either way. Though, it would not be surprising if once in a while the old school sexists come out and precipitate that traditional view of the proper handshake. Nevertheless, that example is a good one, in that it allows us to learn how to use the tools of benevolent and hostile sexism together when analyzing actions as a whole.

Let us look at a more modern example. Street harassment is the idea that as soon as a woman steps out in public she is now offering herself to any male advancement. Male are taught to pick up women on the street or issue compliments on beauty, and women are taught to.. well fcking take it all in. Which is really fcked up if you think about it. As such the gender roles are set up. Men are allowed to try and pick up women in any public place, and issue often unwanted sexual advancement towards any women they see fit. Women, on the other hand are told how to dress to either attract or avoid male advancements, and are told that they must respond politely to any and all male gaze or aggression. With these roles set up, lets look at how common street harassment plays out.

Say a woman is walking to the store and a car roles up on the sidewalk.. a bunch of dudes say “Damn you lookin fine! wanna come home with me baby?” Now, lets be fckin real, the likleyhood of you rollin up in your hoopty and magically being able to get a girl to “come home with you” is slim to none. Spare me the stories about how this worked that one time out of the million times you tried it homies.. because that story is either false or exaggerated, or even just pure fcking luck. The reality is that this form of harassment is highly unlikely to yield the wanted results and most men, don’t front fcker (I am a man I know how this sht goes down), know that this sht never works – they just get off on doing it to random women.

Now, with this set up.. lets look at three different female reactions:

The first will be the female that politely refuses the advancement. She may say something like “Thank you, you are cute, but I am fine” or any derivative of this form of “thanks for the compliment, but I gatta get going.” What is likely to be the male reaction to this? Well they ask for her number of course! At this point, women often learn (and I will get to why this is) to give out a fake number and then go on about their day. Maybe the woman will say she has a boyfriend, and then try to politely parry any more male advancement, making sure to not piss off the male (and I will get to why this is as well). Maybe she finds a spot where the car can not longer follow her and force an end to the interactions. You get the idea… In the end, the woman “graciously” fends off the male advancement and goes about her day.

What is the male reaction to this? Most males will think of this female as “a real woman” in that she knows how to handle a man even when saying no. Others will try to engage in picking her up even more aggressive, and the woman will try to remain polite but also firm in the rejection. To which many males will often, after a while, just give up and say “it was nice talking to you.” Sometimes you might get a real arse that complains that the woman was “leading him on” by not aggressively saying no (I will get to why they may not take the aggressive no route too!) However, by and large, the male reaction to this female will be positive. They will categorize this female as “acting right.” This would be the benevolent sexism angle were males say to each other that females that act like this are truly mature women to be admired – and they romanticize them as a seductress. This is why, in so many romance comedies, you see women “graciously” saying no to the “playah playah’s” and it all seems like a fun engagement.

Now lets look at the other female reaction that is well known to produce hostile sexism, not benevolent sexism. Say the female in this situation wants nothing to do with the guys rolling up in their car. What does she do? Well she tries to ignore them. She says nothing, does not look at them, walks faster, and just tries to get to a place where they are not. This may seem like a rational reaction… but how will men respond?

Well most men will respond by acting more aggressive for their attention. They keep calling her over, or they keep stalking her in their car, or they start issuing even more brazen compliments like “you got a nice ass, let me get up in there!” Then if she keeps ignoring the men… what will happen is one of two things. They will drive off and be like “you btch, you ugly anyway!” or they will say “I am just complimenting you, can’t you even say thank you!” (which is usually followed by the gendered slur btch anyway if the woman does not say thank you). That is usually how it goes down. That is the hostile sexism, because the female did not “act right” and play the role of the seductress parrying male advancement, the males called her a “btch.” If you get enough of this, enough males calling you a B, then what this produces is a social force to act like the seductress above instead of the rational reaction I highlight here.

Finally lets look at the third reaction that is well known to be dangerous and produce actual violence. When a woman has had enough, because this is like the tenth time a man had rolled up and asked her out in an impolite way.. she may just says “fck off leave me alone asshole!” You know that will happen then? Well typically males will get even more aggressive and insult her – so they call he a btch or ugly even more, even more than the second reaction would produce. Then, on occasion, you will get a male who is violent.. and has a violent reaction to this. They may get out the car and confront the woman and demand an apology, or they may stalk the woman even more, or they may grab the woman, or throw something at her before they drive off.. either way, there is this rather scary action that comes after this response.

You know what effect this will have on women? It produces fear. They are then fearful to become too aggressive when they say no, because they might put themselves in danger, and you never know what guy is going to turn into that aggressive violent male when denied a sexual advancement. Hence the fake number, the polite no’s…. because it is simply easier to avoid hostile sexism and violent reactions by doing so. This is the very ugly side of sexism, in which, failing to abide by gender roles can lead to actual physical harm.

This is how women learn to respond to male street harassment.. in that they likely take the first or second route because the third route, even though it is completely justified, has a tendency to produce scary situations. This is also how they learn to, most of the time take the first route, because the second route produces too much hostile sexism, while the first produces benevolent sexism. Some women, because they have learned to go the first route, even begin responding positively to benevolent sexism – and may look down on other women who do not take kindly to benevolent sexist reactions.

Also….. notice how, even though only a few men would react violently on the third route…. all men who engage in street harassment benefit from that violent reaction. In that now, because that violent man we all look down on “taught women a lesson,” it is rare that we have to deal with women who say “fck off’ if we ever decide to pick them up on the street. It gives us, as men, a lot of leeway to say really crude and rude things if we wanted to. You see, It is that fear of a violent reaction, that is experienced by women, that enables all men to engage in street harassment without minimal trouble. So condemning it is easy, to condemn a man like that takes no effort.. but it is not so easy for men to understand that those actions benefit us. What are we then going to do about it? (explore that question for yourselves)

With this example, we can begin to see how hostile sexism and benevolent sexism can be used to look at sexism as a whole.

Lets look back at the door holding. Why is this an example of benevolent sexism? Well the belief that a man should hold a door open for a women is located in the idea that women are too delicate to do manual labor (this stems from the view that women are weak). Now, no one is saying that you should not hold doors open in general.. I mean you should. However, if you only want to hold doors open for women, than you are more than likely operating under some form of  sexist ideology. Now, when a women declines this invitation, that is when hostile sexism takes the place of benevolent sexism, and we call them the B word – simply for not welcoming a man holding the door open This enforces the gender role that women should welcome any man holding the door for them, and this propagates sexist ideology. You see when armed with this framework of ambivalent sexism, you are going to have an easier time calling out sexist behavior.

Normally, I would leave it here, because this forms the turn around I wanted.. but I want to dig a bit deeper with the modern research that is around benevolent and hostile sexism. I will just do a quick point by point thing to arouse your interests… and perhaps prompt you to look into it more yourself.

Studies have shown that men who have lots of hostile sexism, are more likely to commit acts of sexual assault or partner abuse. The research also shows that men who have lots of benevolent sexism, while not correlated with such violence, highly correlate with the victim blaming mentality that women have to suffer through after becoming victims of abuse.

Studies have also shown that women who have lots of benevolent sexism tend to romanticize and pick mates that also have benevolent sexist attitudes. This explains why pick up artists’s (PUA’s) techniques, that have both benevolent and hostile sexist attitudes buried in them, work on a fair amount of women. It also explains why PUA practitioners are bad in general, because it promotes a sexist gender hierarchy – not to mention is propagates a lot of rape culture.

Other studies show that benevolent sexist attitudes actually hinder a woman’s performance in the work place. In that the paternalistic attitudes within benevolent sexism is often viewed as patronizing and adds extra stress – more stress correlates with lower quality work. Those same studies show that hostile sexist attitudes are more than likely responsible for a woman’s failure to get promoted.

Finally, studies show that the more hostile sexism a woman is exposed to, the more likelihood she will endorse benevolent sexist attitudes. Therefore, by fighting back hostile sexist attitudes in the past in America, this enabled many women to then understand that benevolent sexist attitudes are no good either. That is actually the most interesting result for me.

Anyway, what we see here is that the ambivalent sexism approach is a far more nuanced and better way to evaluate sexism within our culture and I highly suggest that we all practice analyzing things with the hostile and benevolent sexism lenses.

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