Benevolent sexism might sound like a fancy academic word but it can have profound consequences in relationships. The idea of benevolent sexism is essentially that while trying to appear overly kind or generous, someone actually views the other person as incapable or incompetent because of their gender.
**Disclaimer** We’re going to explain this concept in terms of men being sexist towards women because the examples are easier to understand, but it definitely happens the other way around too–women can be benevolently sexist towards men as well.
One professor shared a great example of this when she told a story one day about an old relationship. Many years ago when she was still dating, she was getting pretty serious with a guy she liked. For Valentine’s Day they went out to a nice restaurant, but it was pouring rain. When they pulled into their parking spot, she threw her door open, booked it to the restaurant, opened the door, and walked inside to the dry warmth of the indoors. All through dinner, he seemed perturbed and she didn’t understand why. After a little bit of prying, he finally admitted, “Well, you’re supposed to wait for me to open your door. I’m supposed to do that for you.” She was shocked because it was pouring rain and she just didn’t want him to have to stand in the rain any longer than necessary. She told him this, but he just replied, “Well I’m supposed to be your knight in shining armor on a horse coming to sweep you off your feet.” She asked, “Well, what if I wanted to be on my own horse?” He answered without a moment’s pause, “Well then I’d push you off!”.
Needless to say, their relationship ended shortly thereafter. You see, under the guise of chivalry, he was actually communicating to her that she wasn’t strong enough to be her own person. If she had wanted to be on her own horse, he wouldn’t have let her, because in his mind, women were always supposed to be the damsels in distress.
This is a silly example and most times when someone opens a door for you, it’s not benevolent sexism, but it’s all about whether the benevolent action is done because someone literally doesn’t think you are capable of doing it, or just because they want to help you out. A few more examples to illustrate this point:
Some families who never make their daughters sit next to strangers on planes because they feel that that’s a man’s job. This again looks like chivalry, but what it’s really teaching these girls is that they don’t need to learn the skill of striking up conversations with strangers, they never need to put themselves out of their comfort zone, and that a man will always be there to do the hard work for them.
Similarly, sometimes, girls don’t like calling to order pizza or answering the door when they’re young. If parents don’t make any of their children do this (regardless of gender), that’s equal gender roles. But if parents makes their sons do these jobs, while letting their daughters get away with never stepping up to the plate, they are (often unintentionally) reinforcing the idea that women aren’t expected to do hard things–That men will always be there to do it for them.
Because hostile sexism (outward and aggressive negative views of someone’s gender) is generally more recognized, it gets called out in the media frequently. Benevolent sexism, however, is a more subtle form that can seriously damage a man or woman’s view of themselves. Most of the time this benevolent sexism is unintentional (mostly because people don’t even know it exists), but it does happen, and it can shape how a person views their competency and capacities for the rest of their life.
This is, of course an oversimplification of the idea, and there are definitely situations where women view men as incapable and will laugh about it, while subtly engaging in benevolent sexism too, but for the sake of time and space, this article gives you enough to at least stop and think about how you really feel about your partner, and how that impacts how you treat them.