Benevolent Sexism

Some men may want to break away from dominant styles of masculinity, but often their newfound ways of “performing” masculinity conceal ongoing gender inequalities.

That was my takeaway from the panel on “Masculinities” that I attended at the American Sociological Association’s (ASA) 2014 Annual Meeting in San Francisco last month. The three papers delivered covered everyone from self-identified egalitarian men to evangelical Christian men to Korean immigrant men, but all highlighted how “hybrid” masculinities—which incorporate into dominant masculinity some stereotypical feminine qualities and aspects of “marginalized” men (non-white, non-heterosexual, etc.)—can still mask the same-old same-old power imbalances.

Sarah Diefendorf, a doctoral student at the University of Washington, examined evangelical men’s experiences in taking virginity pledges (pledging sexual abstinence) until marriage in her paper, “After the Wedding Night: Sexual Abstinence and Masculinities over the Life Course.” The men in her study received much of their support to remain abstinent from a male accountability system called “The River,” which is “dedicated to applying biblical principles of love and respect into every portion of our lives as men of God.”

The men, who gathered together in a small group, polarized their sexual desires into two categories: beastly and sacred. “Beastly” referred to sex and prurient thoughts outside of marriage (including pornography, masturbation, lust and same-sex desire), while “sacred” referred to sexuality within the marriage. The men believed all sexuality should be controlled pre-marriage, and their accountability groups served as a tool to support that goal.

Interestingly, Diefendorf found that when the evangelical men had to transition post-marriage and view their wives as their new accountability partners, they faced difficulties. They refused to disclose ongoing “beastly” desires with their wives because of the assumption that their partners would be “devastated” to learn of their ongoing struggles.

In this way the evangelical men practiced forms of “benevolent sexism,” protecting their wives from their perceived immorality. Benevolent sexism, according to the study “Seeing the Unseen: Attention to Daily Encounters with Sexism as Way to Reduce Sexist Beliefs,” views women as “pure,” the “better” sex and “idealized caregivers.” “Moreover, it reinforces the idea that women should be protected and financially provided for by men.”

The work of Ellen Lamont, assistant professor of sociology at Appalachian State University, also noted benevolent sexism in the behavior of middle-aged men who characterized themselves as “caring, progressive and respectful of women.” Some of the men even distanced themselves from casual sex encounters—at least after they formed committed relationships—because they felt they were disrespectful to women. Nonetheless, Lamont argued that these men may use egalitarian narratives to position themselves as progressive and benevolent when they aren’t actually challenging male privilege or translating their beliefs into more egalitarian relationships.

For instance, one respondent in Lamont’s study described his opinion regarding paying for dates:

I’m not against her paying some of the time, but I would probably want to pay most of the time. I think it goes back to the me wanting to show my gentlemanly chivalrous side that I wanted to be the provider or at least willing to take care if you want.

The final paper delivered at the panel, by assistant professor of sociology Allen Kim at Clayton State University, “Gender Boot Camp for Korean Immigrant Patriarchs: Father School and the New Father Conversion Process,” explores how some first-generation Korean immigrant men in the U.S. adopt a “new father” model. Although Kim doesn’t directly mention benevolent sexism, his work highlights practices and forms of benevolent sexism that pervade the teachings of the Father School for Korean men.

The Father School offers seminars for both Christian men and those devoid of religious references. Much of Kim’s research, however, focuses on the programs operating in the Korean immigrant church, where men are taught how to take on caring, loving and emotionally expressive qualities. Kim suggests the Father School “emphasizes the importance of overcoming and abandoning Korean patriarchy shaped by Confucianism and embracing a more Western fathering identity.”

In the program, the fathers learned how to openly express their feelings and effectively communicate with their wives and children. One father described his experience:

I was like a king within my house, a strict father difficult to approach. Recently, my conscious effort to hug my children, to pray with them before going to bed and comforting them instead of scolding, as encouraged by Father School leaders, is paying off. I can feel the kids approach me little by little.

Many of the men had formerly adopted a fatherhood model that was consistent with the domineering, strict, emotionally unresponsive father. While this model is prevalent and widely acknowledged in the Korean culture, the men’s families weren’t happy with the identity. But while Father School may equip men with tools and skills to be better fathers, their transformed identities also exhibited signs of benevolent sexism.

Consider this seemingly thoughtful practice: The men are taught to refrain from sexist language by referring to their wives as anae (spouse) or saranghaneun anae (beloved wife) rather than ipsaram (house person) or ansaram (inside or domesticated person). Also, consider the Father School ritual requiring husbands to wash the feet of their wives to convey how much they care and respect their marriage partners. Are these actions done with the best intentions of their partner in mind, or as a chivalrous performance?

As part of the fathers’ social activities, they were also obligated to write memorable letters and share them with their wives and children—letters that don’t exactly celebrate their wives’ independence. One read:

Things I Love about My Wife:

1. When she answers with a smile rather than verbal expression.

2. When she cares about my son’s and my own appearance.

3. When she married me who had nothing.

At the conclusion of their fatherhood schooling, the men “publicly recite a purity statement to reinforce men’s Christian responsibility as faithful fathers, declaring, ‘As a father I will be sexually pure, spiritually holy and I pledge to be honest and sincere in front of my family members and society.’ Then the men collectively raise their fists and shout in unison … ‘If the Father Thrives, the Family Thrives!’”

Benevolent sexism can be difficult to detect, especially in interpersonal relationships. Much of the time, I believe, the men who perform acts of chivalry are trying to manage the social and cultural expectations placed upon them. As they try to construct a more idealized identity, it’s important to be aware of sexism that isn’t so apparent. So guys, while you work towards these progressive changes, look deeper into your behavior and beliefs. For instance, consider why you may feel more comfortable being the financial provider in the relationship, or why you perceive consensual casual sex to be demeaning to women, or perhaps why you would never consider having your female partner propose marriage. Then you can better shine the light on gender inequalities and help promote a more egalitarian society.

Top image from Flickr user miguel under license from Creative Commons 2.0







Andreea Nica is a freelance writer, media strategist and budding scholar. She is writing her first book, Freeligious™, and freelancing for Huffington Post, AlterNet,, Sociologists for Women in Society, Feminism and Religion, among others. Andreea is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in sociology with research interests in gender inequality, religion and immigration.