‘Benevolent sexism’ and the switch to violence

Dr Matt Hammond examines the belief that women ought to reciprocate men’s romantic interest, which can fuel aggression when those men face rejection. 

Studies indicate that men who believe in the concept “men should protect women” are ironically more tolerant of violence towards women. 

As a researcher, I am interested in puzzles like this, where there are psychological ironies going on. This is why I am so interested in benevolent sexism, which is sexism that praises women for fulfilling the stereotypes of their gender and expresses the belief that they should be cherished and protected. The moment women break the gender role stereotype, they no longer receive praise or protection. 

I have received a 2019 Marsden Fast-Start Grant from the Royal Society Te Apārangi to look at the topic ‘How do relationship needs promote sexist idealisation and aggression?’

With intimate partner violence higher in young-adult dating relationships, it is essential we understand sexist beliefs and how they relate to dating violence in New Zealand. 

My collaborators and I will test the theory that heightened needs for a romantic relationship are a source of men’s benevolently sexist beliefs. These beliefs then foster entitled feelings that women ought to reciprocate men’s romantic interest, fuelling aggression when men face rejection. 

Men build up the ideal picture of a woman in their head, and nobody can ever meet that, and then suddenly they are rejected. And they flip, going from being protectors to being aggressors. It’s all about men being bitter about women’s power in a way that sees them falling into the same sexist beliefs that caused these inequalities in the first place. And they don’t realise the irony. 

This irony occurs even in countries where we think we are progressive and egalitarian, like New Zealand. Just consider how Jacinda Ardern has been treated since getting pregnant and giving birth – with regular comments about how much she is missing out on through working while being a mother. 

No man who is a father gets asked how they can bear to be away from their child – this is benevolent sexism. 

Some psychologists categorise men’s aggression towards women as arising from a need for dominance over women, with a psychopath archetype they understand to be the main source of aggression towards women. 

But current research by myself and my collaborators indicates that these men don’t exist within typical romantic relationships – the expressions of aggression in romantic relationships we’ve found are primarily based in insecurity. For example, men are violent towards women when they have very low self-esteem, or they feel powerless in a context where they’re struggling, and typically report losing control rather than being “in control”. 

There is some resistance to thinking about men who are violent being insecure – it just doesn’t fit into our stereotype of what we expect them to be like. Yet, when you think back to school, the kids who are bullies are consistently said to be insecure. Not mean to the bone. I think this is true of adults and it doesn’t make sense that we give adults separate interpretations for the same inappropriate behaviour.  

It isn’t as though at some point in the development trajectory your entire brain switches over. Linking inappropriate behaviour to insecurities is a really important area for future investigation. 

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