Body Image / evolutionary psychology / Feminism / Gender / media / Stress

Which Flavor of Sexism is YOUR Favorite?

What is sexist?

Maybe what first springs to mind is the glass ceiling: that women don’t get promoted as much, as quickly or past a certain echelon. Perhaps you think of pinching a waitress’s ass and calling her “sweets.” Maybe your thoughts turn to banter about banging skanks. Whatevs. They all count. But they’re only a PART of the spectrum of ways we can hold sexist beliefs and do sexist things. YAY!

Different types of sexism? Oh boy!

There are a few different theories, but here’s a brief intro on some different types of sexism. Note that someone can subscribe to multiple types, in fact, that’s what ambivalent sexism is about. And just because some are more obvious than others doesn’t mean that the less apparent types of sexism are necessarily better. Sometimes the really subtle stuff is actually worse because it’s harder to combat, often not taken seriously and can make the oppressed person feel even worse about the situation.


“The belief that female and male are rigid, mutually exclusive categories.” So this can be anything from a parent picking a kid’s toys and clothes on their gender rather than their kid’s actual interests all the way to keeping women from competing in sports and beating up a guy for seeming too feminine.

There are battles in neuroscience periodically where a study that shows statistically significant differences in the brains of men and women are taken as evidence that men are one way and women are another and therefore: PMS joke. Or kitchen joke. Whichever.

In reality, there is a huge amount of diversity in how men act and how women think and it’s not helpful to act like they’re two separate species or *groooooooooooan* from different planets. And it’s important to be aware of what are real biological differences and what are socially constructed ideas.


“The belief that maleness and masculinity are superior to femaleness and femininity.”  I’m sure you’re familiar with this. Traditional sexism can include beliefs that female interests are inherently less interesting and valuable. for instance, being a pro sports fanatic but saying that your girlfriend’s TV shows are stupid. This is the idea that if a female is let into a largely male space, she must be exceptionally cool or serve a specific function but if a male is in a female space he is either tainted by this experience, must hate it or is less than a man.

Like the last one, this can be backed up by belief in naturalistic fallacies and religious ideas that humans were created by a higher power that wanted them to remain in a separated hierarchy.  And these two forms (oppositional and traditional) often go together, framing women as separate, and specifically: lesser.


Like the name suggests, this is about being pulled in two different directions. Theories about ambivalent sexism acknowledge that while someone may think women are weaker or less capable, they may still need them in their lives. And this theory is about how sexism is ultimately all about maintaining gender roles and a patriarchal power structure. It explains a little more about how we get women on board with sexism too. So this theory is made up of two sub-categories of sexism: hostile and benevolent sexism.


Obviously, this one is bad news. It’s everything from shit talking and holding back rights to violence. It “encompasses the negative equivalents on each dimension: dominative paternalism, derogatory beliefs, and heterosexual hostility.” I don’t need to go into this much, cause you can probable come up with plenty examples on your own.


This is where people often get confused.  How can you be nice and be sexist?

Benevolent sexism is the flipside of chivalry. We can acknowledge gender differences, but attempts to show honor to women are many times messed up by perpetuating stereotypes about women being less capable, desirous of male attention and affirmation or not subject to the base needs of a human animal.

  • Holding the door open for a person is nice. Refusing to let a woman hold the door for you is stupid.
  • Referring to your partner as a goddess can be sweet and romantic. Calling all women goddesses, while usually well intended, is not actually helpful to the cause of getting women to be treated as humans.
  • Granting the mother custody is fine, if she’s better suited for it. Granting her custody because she’s the female and you extrapolate from that….. is benevolent sexism.


There’s one more theory to touch today and it’s about how sexism has changed in the presence of feminism. Overt sexism is the blatant type: “harmful and unequal treatment of women that is intentional, visible, and unambiguous.” Everybody gets it: you’re being a jerk. This sucks. But sometimes, as mentioned before, is easier to deal with in real life because there’s no doubt about what is happening.


As the name suggests, this is about what happens behind the scenes. This is not what is in the press release. It’s “either hidden and clandestine or unnoticed because it is built into cultural and societal norms.” Much like racism, people have figured out that it’s not socially acceptable to be an overt bigot anymore. Unless you’re being a hipster bigot, in which case you think irony is some kind of deflector shield for shittiness.  

Very few people would be willing to make a public statement that was racist or say that they identify as racist, but if they were raised in America, they unintentionally harbor racist beliefs. Sexism is the same, but is still more socially acceptable. Covert sexism is still apparent to those involved, but it’s not public, per se. It’s like how somebody might joke about girls getting raped, but only if there are less than X number of people in the room.


And here we really get to the meat of the matter in 2012. Subtle sexism is perceived as normal by most people, often not intended to be harmful, but still perpetuates stereotypes about women and creates and cultivates an environment where women are separated or put at a disadvantage.  Some good examples:

  • “Calling a woman politician loud, shrill, unattractive, or pushy, instead of demanding she explain her position on an issue.”
  • “Telling the only woman in a meeting, just before it starts, that you like her blouse (and not telling her male counterparts that you like their shirts.”
  • ‘Asking a woman at a meeting to take notes because “we guys aren’t good at that kind of thing.”’

They can also be things that are intended to divide women against each other as well. Every day I read facebook statuses that are platitudes about what makes a “real woman” versus “a girl.”  Here was a gem:

“Call me old fashioned, but I value a woman who treats her body like a temple, not like a theme park.”


Just a woman though. Men can do whatever. But women better not go do shit simply because it’s pleasurable.

Or yesterday a minor conflagration erupted when someone wrote “I’ve noticed the sexier a girl dances, the less they are to be trusted.” A flurry of responses ensued, women largely responded, “not true!” or “disagree!” A couple dudes agreed with incisive comments like “sooooooooooo true!”

This guy was completely missing a couple points: 1. that he doesn’t get to be the Arbiter of Sexy Dancing (that is for David Bowie, thank you) and 2. that if he’s had trouble with unscrupulous women in the past, it might have to do with him not being a good judge of character when attracted to someone. And his generalized statement is fucked up because it implies women who are perceived as sexy are bad, shameful or morally deficient. And that, good friends, is how slut shaming works.

I was pleased to find that this wasn’t an overtly mean conversation. It never turned into real antagonism, although it got sillier (Rick Rolling was involved), which served to distract from the possibility that it might have actually been offensive, if contemplated. It seemed generally quite productive.

This girl agreed:


Anyway, as always: be aware, be contemplative, be proactive.

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