Why Doesn’t Spending Time With Women Make Men Less Sexist?

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Photo: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images

Recent election polling shows that women prefer Hillary Clinton by about 15 percentage points, while men prefer Donald Trump by about 5 percentage points. This points to a gap that could end up being larger than the record-setting 20 percentage-point (or so, depending on the polling outfit) gender difference between voters for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012.

We’ve grown so used to the gender divide in politics that we don’t even blink at these sorts of numbers. But if you look closely there’s a bit of a mystery here, especially in light of how salient an issue misogyny has been in this campaign. Donald Trump has made it clear — over and over and over again — that he is unabashedly misogynistic. His overt sexism is without parallel in modern presidential history, and is clearly turning off a lot of women. What about their sons and fathers and husbands, though? Why is this not an issue for them? It points to a broader set of questions: Why, for many men at least, does living with and having close relationships with women not make them less misogynistic? Why are there still so many households where the wife is disgusted by Trump’s behavior, but the husband just shrugs?

While meaningful intergroup contact can often lead (PDF) members of majority groups to exhibit less prejudice toward members of racial and ethnic minority groups, in the most common real-world domain — gender — this so-called “contact hypothesis” seems to often fail. After all, almost every man in the world has had meaningful relationships and interactions with women — at the very least, with their mothers, sisters, and/or wives. And yet misogyny persists. Why?

The short answer is that “[g]ender prejudice isn’t the same as ethno-racial prejudices, or other types of group prejudices,” as Betsy Levy Paluck, a professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton who studies, among other things, various forms of intolerance, put it (Paluck also created a fascinating anti-bullying intervention Science of Us covered earlier this year). “There are on average qualitatively different intimate relationships between men and women such that ‘contact’ and also prejudice takes a different form.”

“Different” here refers to the idea of “ambivalent sexism.” This concept, first introduced in 1996 by the psychologists Peter Glick of Lawrence University, and Susan Fiske, now at Princeton, posits that there are two types of sexism: hostile sexism and benevolent sexism.

Hostile sexism is basically what it sounds like — aggressive, explicit, sometimes violent misogyny couched in the belief that men and women are locked in some sort of perpetual, zero-sum conflict. In this view, women are always trying to get one over on men, trying to snake their way into special treatment and advantages. Glick and Fiske have developed survey questions to measure individuals’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism, and those who rank high on the hostile variety agree with statements like “Most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them,” or “Many women are actually seeking special favors, such as hiring policies that favor them over men, under the guise of asking for ‘equality.’”

Benevolent sexism is different. Benevolent sexists endorse a paternalistic view of the world in which women are to be cherished and protected, in part because they aren’t quite equal to men. Oftentimes, seemingly positive sentiments about women are manifestations of benevolent sexism. People who score high on this measure agree with statements like “No matter how accomplished he is, a man is not truly complete as a person unless he has the love of a woman,” “A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man,” and “Men should be willing to sacrifice their own well being in order to provide financially for the women in their lives.” A good example of benevolent sexism? All those GOP tweets following Trump’s Access Hollywood tape about “wives and daughters” (with, to be fair, plenty of progressive ones sprinkled in as well).

Glick explained that the overarching theory here is that benevolent sexism evolved culturally as a way to maintain the gender hierarchy while also allowing men to enjoy close companionship with women, consensual sex, and so on. In other words: If you adopt the stance that part of your role is to protect your wife or girlfriend and to be made better by her goodness, then you get those aforementioned perks, without losing your place in the gender hierarchy. “You’re the knight in shining armor, you’re Prince Charming — rather than, ‘You’re the oppressor,’” said Glick.

Women, meanwhile, often benefit from benevolent sexism in the crude, unfortunate sense that it’s simply better than the alternative. Laurie Rudman, a social psychologist at Rutgers who studies sexism, made this point in an email. “We live in a patriarchy,” she wrote. “The best women can hope for is benevolent sexism (being cherished and adored by men who love you). It’s a small pedestal that you can fall off easily, but it’s better than being harassed, raped, and demonized.”

To Glick and other researchers, one of the reasons close contact might not reduce misogyny at the family level, for example, is that within households, “oftentimes unequal status is reinforced through gender roles and daily interaction,” as he put it. If you’re a son interacting with your mom or a husband interacting with your wife, sure, there’s plenty of empathy and compassion and tenderness, but it’s all through a prism in which you view her as somehow beneath you.

A final important insight to understanding how all this stuff ties into Trump is that it’s quite easy for hostile and benevolent sexism to co-exist. “Men can reconcile being high in both hostile and benevolent sexism,” said Glick, and plenty of people score high on both. “Hostile sexism is, ‘Well, I don’t hate women — I hate those feminists. I hate Hillary Clinton. I hate those career women who are bitchy. I hate women who try to control men.’ It’s more targeted. I think as long as his targets were, Hillary Clinton, lock her up, his supporters are going to be like, She’s crooked — it’s not because she’s a woman, it’s because she’s crooked.

In other words: benevolent sexism for my female family members, hostile sexism for women who, unlike them, step out of line. It’s a pretty straightforward explanation for the bizarre image of a man returning from a Trump rally that was electric with hostile sexism, changing out of his “Trump that bitch!” shirt, and sitting down for a nice dinner with his wife and daughters.