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Finding Your Feminist Voice: Benevolent & Hostile Sexism


woman is upset because her boyfriend is displaying hostile sexism

Learning how to spot and respond to sexism is a process of deconstruction. Although sexism creates inequality for all genders, women and girls, as well as those who present as feminine often suffer greater consequences. Being a recipient of sexism can engender emotions of anger and confusion. Read on to learn how to identify and respond to benevolent and hostile sexism with your feminist voice.


What is Hostile and Benevolent Sexism?


Ambivalent sexism, a theory coined by researchers Glick and Fiske, refers to the dual components of sexism: hostile and benevolent.  Although distinct in style, they are complementary to male dominance.


Benevolent sexism (BS) is a form of sexism that is often viewed with subjective positivity due to its guise as flattery and protection. It exists more openly and has greater acceptance among men and women.


BS posits women are in need of protection and support in return should offer care and nurturance to men. Presenting as chivalry, men who engage in this kind of sexism are viewed as likable. These sexist beliefs remain harmful and relies on problematic paternalism and gender inequalities to thrive.


When women aren’t viewed as competent and whole, negative implications for performance,  personal, and professional enhancement ensue. Research studies have shown exposure to BS is associated with women’s lower cognitive performance. Chronic discrimination, i.e. pervasive sexism and sexual harassment, correlates to lower well-being.


Receiving BS falls under the “women are wonderful effect,” but leads to experiencing intrusive thoughts, preoccupations, and self-doubt. Falling prey to BS contributes unknowingly to women’s continued subordination. Unconsciously fearful of losing protection from close relationships with men, women endorse BS.


BS aligns with viewing women as sex objects and draws attention away from their competence onto their physical appearance. Women then feel pressured to spend an undue amount of time and resources on unrealistic beauty ideals because they have been conditioned to believe their value is correlated to their looks; yet another form of women’s subjugation.


Hostile sexism (HS) presents when women exist outside of traditional gender roles. Defying patriarchal norms has the ability to lead to harassment. Labels such as bitch, aggressive, and cold are commonplace and justified by the claim that “women are attempting to control or seduce men with their sexuality and feminism.”


HS often exists in private spheres in cis het relationships. Male intimate partners appear kind in public but allow their disdain for women to present in private which keeps women at a greater risk of domestic abuse. HS is less insidious and allows women the opportunity to externalize blame for this behavior. On the other hand, BS causes more intrusive thoughts and further reduces womens’ performance.


How to Respond to Benevolent and Hostile Sexism


The first step in responding to sexism is learning how to identify the signs. Begin noticing the difference between hostile and benevolent remarks as well as when and where they tend to take place. Feelings of shock, rage and confusion may arise; honor these feelings, they are important for the development of your feminist voice.


Practice responding to sexism in your mind, in a journal, or join a women’s group based in feminist practices. It can be difficult to respond in the moment due to many years of conditioning and internalized misogyny. Keep in mind that automatic thoughts and responses have been learned, in part to keep women safe.


Over time, you will likely feel more comfortable confronting sexism directly. Change occurs when knowledge about the harms of sexism are shared, and individuals are willing to stand for gender equality.


Generic Options for Responding to Sexism

  • If someone says something sexist, simply reply, “that’s sexist.”
  • “I’m not sure what you mean by that comment. It sounds like you are putting down women; is that your intention?’
  • “That remark doesn’t deserve a response; perhaps it’s time to look up the word misogyny.”
  • If you’re feeling playful, pretend you didn’t hear and say, “what?” The more someone has to repeat a sexist comment, the sillier it sounds.
  • Instead of commenting on women’s physical appearance, make notes about women holistically:
  • “I love your energy.”
  • “I’m impressed by your presence.”
  • “Wow, you are smart!”

The Beauty in Finding Your Feminist Voice

Be kind with yourself as you begin to deconstruct the patriarchy and its woes. As you learn to identify and reject sexism, you might prepare yourself for feelings of loneliness and grief. You are not alone and you have inherent power, should you choose to find it. An absence of benevolent sexism may feel like a rejection by men; in reality, it means discovering you are worthy of respect and acknowledgment, aside from your gender orientation. When everyone has equality, no one needs to have power over another.


Choose women supporting women, and all oppressed groups, not when it is convenient for you, always.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Heather "Lulu" Mazzei is a Clinical Associate at Modern Intimacy, in Los Angeles, an Associate Clinical Social Worker, supervised by Dr. Kate Balestrieri, Heather is passionate about healthy relationships and helping the people she works with to develop relationships that thrive.



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