Clumsy attempts

There are people who think there’s such a thing as “benevolent sexism.” What’s that? Like, holding doors open? Not necessarily. One definition I’ve seen is

Benevolent sexism is when, for example, you think a woman can’t “take” a clumsy attempt at flirtation.

Ahhhhhhh is that what it is. It’s a new word for the kind of feminism that thinks women should be able to work without constantly being interrupted by “clumsy” attempts at flirtation.

Ok look. No. It’s not that we think a woman can’t “take” a clumsy attempt at flirtation. Don’t insult me with that shit. It’s that we don’t think women should have to “take” clumsy (or graceful) attempts at flirtation when they’re trying to do something else. Ok? It’s not about incapacity. It’s about wanting to be able to be free to concentrate on something else.

This idea is very similar to the bullshit about thinking we’re too fragile to put up with the occasional joke. No, that’s not it. It’s that we shouldn’t have to. Why is that such a difficult concept?

Now it’s true that there are some women who are (or claim to be) perfectly happy to be subject to clumsy attempts at flirtation (and plain old propositions and gropings) at all times in all situations. I think some of them claim this just to disagree with feminists, and think somewhat differently when dealing with actual clumsy attempts – but never mind that; take them all at their word; I still don’t think their wants should trump the wants of women who don’t want that.

There are much more reasonable definitions and explanations of “benevolent sexism” though, like this one in Scientific American last April. It’s not about “versions of feminism I don’t like”; it’s about patronizing views of women.

Something can’t actually be sexist if it’s really, really nice, right?

I mean, if someone compliments me on my looks or my cooking, that’s  not sexist. That’s awesome! I should be thrilled that I’m being noticed  for something positive!

Yet there are many comments that, while  seemingly  complimentary, somehow still feel wrong. These comments may focus on an  author’s appearance rather than the content of her writing, or mention how surprising it is that she’s a woman, being that her field is mostly filled with men. Even  though these remarks can  sometimes feel good to hear – and no one is  denying that this type of  comment can feel good, especially in  the right context – they  can also cause a feeling of unease,  particularly when one is in the  position of trying to draw attention  towards her work rather than  personal qualities like her gender  or appearance.

In  social psychology, these seemingly-positive-yet-still-somewhat-unsettling comments and behaviors have a name: Benevolent Sexism.  Although it is tempting to  brush this experience off as an overreaction  to compliments or a  misunderstanding of benign  intent, benevolent sexism  is both real and  insidiously dangerous.

Completely different kind of thing.


  1. Bjarte Foshaug says

    Benevolent sexism is to sexism what the idea of the Noble Savage is to racism.

  2. says

    I wrote a similar post on this topic last year, but had not yet encountered the phenomenon of people claiming that it’s sexist, benevolent or otherwise, to oppose harassmen of women.

    Look, it’s just as wrong to harass men……

  3. says

    Oh look, and they’re based on two different blog posts on Scientific American blogs by Melanie Tennenbaum on benevolent sexism with a lot of similarities between them….

  4. says

    ….which she acknowledges:

    This is a revamped version of a piece that I originally posted at the Scientific American Guest Blog in January 2012.

    My bad; I should’ve read the whole way through. Sorry for so many comments!

  5. Eristae says

    Benevolent sexism is a fraud. It’s a lie that people are told to convince them to accept their own oppression. “If you stay home, mind the house, and raise the children, I will protect and provide for you.” And so the women agree, staying at home, minding the house, and raising the children.

    But then things go wrong. I start to beat you. I start to gamble all our money away. I rape you one night while I’m so drunk that I can’t even speak correctly. And when you go to tell the world, “It’s a lie! I was promised protection in exchange for my subservience and yet I am being attacked by the very one who is supposed to protect me!” the world responds, “You provoked him. You did something wrong. You should have realized he was going to be abusive before you got involved with him and picked someone else. You need to fix him.”

    Benevolent sexism is the lie that you will be treated well if you just toe the line. But whether or not you toe the line, the protection won’t be there, not when you need it.

  6. says

    Sexism, no matter how subtle, is never benevolent. There’s no such thing as benevolent racism, benevolent homophobia, or benevolent anti-Semitism, so how can there be benevolent sexism?

  7. great1american1satan says

    I have totally been guilty of and censored for this recently. Not face-to-face or direct. I said something about someone that was inappropriately amorous, in a venue that they didn’t seem likely to read. The censorship was justified, and I apologize (maybe pointlessly, because the offense was probably disappeared long before said person would have read it, if they would have at all), but it was an informative experience.

    Saying someone is attractive for their non-physical qualities – such as cool brains or great work – is actually pretty bad too, when the type of attraction you are expressing is amorous. It’s still putting them into the place of being valued relative to me – making them an object, even if not a physical one. That’s what my offense was.

    Now that awareness is getting raised for a lot of us privileged, we’re entering a new world. We’re going to have to learn totally new ways of going about things we assumed we understood. Part of the resistance to change is pure laziness, like people refusing to change the names or pronouns they use for a person when they transition their gender. People hear that something they’re doing is wrong or insensitive and think, “Ugh, it’s too much work to even contemplate changing one thing, because then I’ll have to change everything!”

    I find that changing everything, once you start doing it, is easier than one would expect.

  8. Amarantha says

    There was a study which showed a positive correlation between the level of “benevolent” sexism in a society and the level of the other kind. This makes it especially frustrating when people are all like, “So what if men insist on holding the door for you, some women are treated much worse”. As though the mentality that thinks of women as special flowers who can’t hold a door is somehow separate from the mentality that thinks of us as special flowers who can’t handle high-status jobs and need a beating to remind us to do the housework.

  9. bad Jim says

    The first example of “benevolent sexism” Ophelia gives us – not treating all women as sex objects – isn’t sexism at all, of course; the term is a bit of double-think, perhaps playing off “third-generation feminism” or some such.

    The comments are all describing the second sort, which isn’t actually benevolent, either.

    At work I didn’t often compliment anyone on their appearance, not least because I was likely to have mixed feelings about it (if I’m in a T-shirt and jeans, someone dressed to the nines makes me look bad, for one thing) but I tried to make a point of noticing anyone’s changes, and that went for men as well as women. We’re not really that different, and most people are gratified to find that their fellow humans notice them.

  10. says


    Think of “benevolent sexism” along the lines of “a statement or action that is ostensibly intended to be favorable but assumes explicit or implicit prejudice.” In Ophelia’s example, it’s explicit: “women can’t handle it” is clearly a sexist premise, portraying women as weak or inferior. A more obvious instance of the implicit variety can be seen in the argument that in a two-parent household, the man (as opposed to the woman, since this argument is invariably steeped in heteronormativity) should be the primary breadwinner. If you unpack this notion, you can see it clearly: why should the man do that? In the most charitable interpretation of that paradigm, men are effective leaders while women are effective nurturers. This kind of gender essentialism is transparently prejudicial. Most people would probably want to be a good caregiver, but assuming that a woman will be—simply because she is a woman—is problematic. (There are other issues that could be unpacked there, but I wanted to highlight the element of benevolent sexism.)

    It’s not always so clear, though. Giving preferential treatment to a woman isn’t automatically sexist, but if that preference stems from a belief that women are [insert stereotype here], you’ve got a problem. Think along the lines of paternalism.

    Bjarte Foshaug actually gave a good example of what would be benevolent racism in the concept of the “noble savage,” a process of romanticizing stereotypes and caricatures of “primitive” people.

    The relevant wikipedia pages can be found under “ambivalent sexism” and “noble savage,” respectively. I suggest you read them.

  11. ischemgeek says

    I’m curious about the stats on this but am too sick and busy to look it up right now: In my experience, women buy into benevolent sexism more than hostile sexism, which makes the social costs of engaging in benevolent sexism less severe, and the social costs of opposing it more severe. If a dude says something openly misogynistic, I know the women I work with will have my back. If a dude insists he remove the cylinder for me every time I try to change a gas cylinder even though I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself because he doesn’t want me to get hurt? Many of the women I work with would advise me to thank him for being so considerate.

    See also benevolent ableism and intersectionality: When my asthma’s acting up and I’m not invisibly ill, it’s amazing how many people want to do me the favor of keeping me bored silly at my desk when I’m able to do stuff around the lab, and more amazing how many think they know my limits better than I do. Not coincidentally, most of those who insist on bulldozing my boundaries and helping whether I want their help or not are men.

  12. says

    I hold doors open for women, but I also hold doors open for men too, so I don’t see it as sexist.

    Recently I saw a woman struggling up some stairs with two heavy suitcases and a full cup of coffee, so naturally I offered to lend a hand. She seemed a little put out by the suggestion until I offered to take her coffee so she would have a hand for each suitcase, which she gladly accepted.

    No point to this story really but it did make me aware that what I consider politeness and helping others could be seen as an insult to their gender by some. Gave me pause for thought.

  13. says

    Huh. I don’t think I would ever take an offer to carry one of two suitcases up some stairs an insult.

    The only time I remember ever being annoyed by the door-holding convention is once when I was working at the (Seattle) Aquarium and I was going somewhere in the service area and there was a guy I didn’t know who was carrying a bunch of tools or pipes or something as we both approached a door. I opened it and held it open for him (my hands were free!) and he wouldn’t let me hold it for him, because laydeez first.

  14. says

    Maybe “insult” is the wrong word, she may have just thought I might run off with one of them! We were in a train station though so I’m not sure where I could have gone with it.

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