Recently a new study about so-called “benevolent sexism” stirred up internet indignation with its provocative conclusion that “Being Nice to Women Is a Sign of Sexism,” as one headline put it. “Men who hold doors open and smile may actually be sexist, study claims,” said another headline. “It turns out chivalrous men are actually just benevolently sexist,” read a third. That sound you hear is the collective groan of decent men everywhere giving up.
Jin X. Goh and Judith A. Hall, researchers in the Department of Psychology at Northeastern University, published the study with the dryly academic title, “Nonverbal and Verbal Expressions of Men’s Sexism in Mixed-Gender Interactions.” It is described as “the first to examine how men’s hostile sexist and benevolent sexist beliefs are differentially expressed, nonverbally and verbally, during actual social interactions with women.” The study concluded that “benevolent sexism is expressed differently than hostile sexism” and “was associated with more patience, more smiling… and more usage of positive emotion words.” Simply put, benevolent sexists seem nice but are manipulative jerks.
The concept of “benevolent sexism,” or B.S. as I like to call it, didn’t begin with this study. It’s been around since a similar study nearly 20 years ago. It refers to a deference accorded to women that seems gentlemanly and flattering on the surface, but which feminists perceive as paternalistic and condescending—in other words,chivalry. It’s contrasted with “hostile sexism,” which is just what it sounds like: overtly sexist beliefs, expressions or actions, from considering women inherently incapable of running a business, to stoning them for adultery.
Benevolent sexism, such as holding a door for a woman or helping her change a flat tire, may seem like just the opposite of the hostile sort, but in fact it is merely at the other end of the same spectrum of misogyny; in fact, B.S. is actually considered evenmore oppressive because it supposedly flatters a woman into embracing her inferior position in a gender-unequal society, whereas the hostile sort engenders resistance from women. B.S. is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The recent study calls it “the more covert and hard to resist form of sexism.”
“Unless sexism is understood as having both hostile and benevolent properties,” Goh and Hall warn, “the insidious nature of benevolent sexism will continue to be one of the driving forces behind gender inequality in our society.” So the next time a man helps a woman get her heavy luggage off the airport carousel and gets a tight-lipped glare rather than a “thank you,” he’ll know it’s because she has been indoctrinated to believe that his gentlemanly gesture was insidiously oppressive.
At the fashion and style website Refinery29, the study’s implications were labeled, “The Dark Side Of Chivalry.” The writer there expressed a common misunderstanding of chivalry: that it’s reserved for women who “deserve” it:
[It is] not necessarily based in a belief that all women are deserving of politeness and respect; rather, it implies that a “good woman” is. Should a woman step outside of the “pure and warm” profile benevolent sexists assign to her, well, then she’s on her own. For benevolent sexists, chivalry is not for women—it’s only for women who “deserve it,” and who know their place.
This is nonsense. A man about to open a door for a woman doesn’t stop to assess whether she “deserves” such consideration. How would he even be able to determine such a thing? Holding a door is not a subtle power play to keep a woman in her “place,” nor does it stem from the ridiculous assumption that a woman is incapable of opening her own door. Chivalry is a demonstration of respect for a woman, and an implied offer that the man stands ready at her service, if she needs it.
What studies like these accomplish is quite simply to discourage men from acting like gentlemen. Men today feel they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: if they behave like gentlemen, they’re bashed as “insidious” sexists; if they refrain from acting like gentlemen in order to avoid offending women, they’re castigated for, well, not being gentlemen. The net effect of the theory of benevolent sexism is to frustrate and anger men, sow suspicion and resentment in women, and drive an even larger wedge between the two.
To begin chipping away at that wedge, we must begin by asking ourselves if radical feminism’s intentional destruction of traditional roles in America has improved relations between the sexes and made women and men any happier. Unmoored from their natures, confused young men no longer know what it means to be a man, and confused young women think that equality means becoming the worst kinds of men—promiscuous, crude, domineering.
We must also ask what kind of society we want: one in which men are held to a higher, chivalrous standard of behavior, and men and women embrace our complementary differences with mutual respect, or what we have now: a society in which young men and women drift farther and farther apart as bitter, mistrustful antagonists.
(This article originally appeared here on Acculturated, 3/24/15)