“You Are Not Your Own” Series: On Hostile and Benevolent Sexism

“You Are Not Your Own” Series: On Hostile and Benevolent Sexism June 3, 2013

This post is part of a series called“You Are Not Your Own,” focusing on rape and sexual assault in Christian relationship/dating books.

Trigger Warning for rape, sexual assault, and victim blaming

Note: this research mainly focused on female rape, so I am not sure if the same trends toward rape myth acceptance would apply in cases of male rape. If anyone wants to see if research has been done on that subject and report back, feel free. Though it is not the focus of my project, male rape is a huge problem as well–1 out of every 10 rape victims is male. I wanted to make it clear that, despite the focus of my study, it is not only women (and definitely not only cisgender women) who face sexual violence. 


Last time I posted about this series, I talked about rape myths. Today, I’m going to talk about a few of the factors that researchers find correlate with rape myth acceptance.

The biggest predictor of whether or not someone is going to accept a rape myth as true is the sex of a person. Male people are more likely to accept rape myths than female people [1]. After a person’s sex, the greatest predictor of rape myth acceptance is sexism [2].

According to researchers, sexism comes in different forms and has different components [3]. Understanding these different forms/components of sexism is essential for understanding the messages in the Christian dating books that I’ve researched. Tomorrow (Lord willing and the creek don’t rise and I don’t too get caught up in a video game), I’ll talk about a couple of components of sexism that correlate strongly with rape myth acceptance. But, today, I’m going to talk about two forms of sexism and how they play off of one another.

Sexism can be hostile or benevolent, but often it’s a weird mixture of both [3].

Have you ever heard a John Piper or Mark Driscoll sermon that insists complementarianism (the belief that men are meant to be leaders in a family, while women “complement” them by submitting as helpers) is good for women? That only under complementarianism can women truly be protected from a misogynist world? That only by submitting to a loving, servant-leader can a woman truly “flourish” and reflect the image of God?

This is something that researchers call benevolent sexism [3].

Benevolent sexists don’t see themselves as sexists, because they compare themselves to those who practice hostile sexism.

Hostile sexists seek to control and exploit women through “derogatory characterizations” of women [3]. This form of sexism often relates to violence against women, and rape [2].

Benevolent sexists hear the word “sexism,” think of hostile sexists and say, “That’s not me.” And they’re probably telling the truth. Benevolent sexism does not relate to rape proclivity [2] like hostile sexism does. It puts women on a pedestal, rather than in a gutter, relying on “kinder and gentler justifications of male dominance and prescribed gender roles; it recognizes men’s dependence on women . . . and embraces a romanticized view of sexual relationships with women” [3]

Yet, benevolent still reinforces the same power structures that hostile sexism does.

And benevolent sexism still correlates with rape myth acceptance [2].

In a study by Dominic Abrams and colleagues, people who ranked high in benevolent sexism were more likely to accept rape myths that passed blame on to victims in situations where the rape victim was transgressing traditional gender roles [2].

A benevolent sexist might certainly oppose rape in situations where they viewed the victim as being totally “innocent.” But what about a woman who gets drunk at a bar? Who cheats on her husband? Who has sex before marriage? Who dresses immodestly? A transgender woman?

Because they believe that benevolent sexism is truly good for women, a benevolent sexist is likely, according to research, to see victims as having brought hostile sexism–sexual violence–upon themselves. 

In this way, benevolent sexism and hostile sexism feed off of one another. They work together, though often unintentionally, to create a pervasive rape culture that blames victims and excuses perpetrators. We cannot stop rape culture if we continue to only view sexism as something hostile and violent. Benevolent sexism is subtle, but still harmful.


[1]  Aosved, Allison C., and Patricia Long. 2006. “Co-occurrence of Rape Myth Acceptance, Sexism, Racism, Homophobia, Ageism, Classism, and Religious Intolerance.” Sex Roles 55(7-8):481-492.

[2] Abrams, Dominic, G. Tendayi Viki, Barbara Masser, and Gerd Bohner. 2003. “Perceptions of Stranger and Acquaintance Rape: The Role of Benevolent and Hostile Sexism in Victim Blame and Rape Proclivity.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84:111–125.

[3]  Glick, Peter, and Susan Fiske. 1996 “The Ambivalent Sexism Inventory: Differentiating Hostile and Benevolent Sexism.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 70(3):491-512.

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  • I think benevolent sexism tends to be more insidious, too. It’s the nicer, more thoughtful version that thinks that because they love women they could do nothing to hurt them.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Yes, and even when benevolent sexists become abusive, they still see it as “for her own good/safety”

  • forgedimagination

    I’ve also found the benevolent sexist attitude toward women’s sexuality– that because I’m a woman, I’m automatically not as interested in sex, my default status is “more chaste” or “asexual” than men– contributes to the idea that, as a woman, I’m responsible for the safeguarding of physical boundaries. If a man violates my physical/sexual boundaries, it’s must have been because I didn’t make my boundaries clear enough.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      What about if you violate the boundaries of a man?

      • forgedimagination

        That is just as possible, and has the same solution: communicate your boundaries, and if they’re violated, do whatever you feel it takes to correct that. It’s not your fault if she didn’t respect them.

  • Thanks for your opening note that males can be and are raped as well, even if labels like “statutory” are used to minimize it. And your point in your post is a good one.

  • Tess

    “Have you ever heard a John Piper or Mark Driscoll sermon that insists complementarianism (the belief that men are meant to be leaders in a family, while women “complement” them by submitting as helpers) is good for women? That only under complementarianism can women truly be protected from a misogynist world? That only by submitting to a loving, servant-leader can a woman truly “flourish” and reflect the image of God?”

    I actively avoid listening to those sermons for that very reason, though that doesn’t mean that I don’t put up with it from my church–in fact I have my whole life. I stay and hope that I can contribute to change from within.

    I think that’s what I appreciate the most about feminists–they don’t act like I’m crazy for seeing inequality. The benevolent sexists do. My whole life, they’ve tried to convince me their system is liberating, and act so shocked when I don’t see it. Oh I’ve tried, but the logic is so tortured–and twisted in exactly the form necessary to be oppressive. It’s refreshing to find people who acknowledge the existence of the inequality, and yeah, that’s why sometimes I prefer the company of out-and-out sexists to benevolent sexists. At least they aren’t telling me I’m crazy for seeing what I see.

  • Hannah_Thomas

    The benevolent sexism popped up this last week on the subject of women bread winners. Erick Erickson was taking some heat for it as well. lol the fall of society/marriage is due to them working, and not being at home with their children! Major Bleck!

  • Andrew Fisher

    Yeah it all makes sense. It reminds me of codes of chivalry in barbaric times where anyone who could not defend themselves was fair game and to step in and protect them was going against the grain. Chivalry looks good in the face of barbarism. Anyone who was used to being raped would welcome a bit of patronage for a change, but obviously there are women who have known almost nothing but patronage. In other words, it goes totally the other way. I think what makes it worse though is that some women learn to enjoy the patronage and become very dependent on men. I mean it’s a perfectly natural temptation. I do believe though that there is more potential for men to make a difference by balancing their behavior towards women. I think men show very little discretion when deciding whether or not to help a woman. They’re inclined to give “all or nothing”. It takes a bit of thought in order to make the right decision. I don’t say that the right decision is necessarily giving the woman exactly the help she asks for. Maybe sometimes that is the right thing to do, but other times it might turn out that a woman who thinks she needs help can do more than she gives herself credit for. This attitude sounds a little patronizing I know, but it’s only because of the way women have been bought up to accept that they are inferior to and dependent on men. I think we are still in process of changing that.

  • Guest

    This is really interesting, I always love some good research. Sexism and especially dehumanization/lack of empathy make a lot of sense as determinants. Do you know if there’s any research on the interaction between believing rape myths and opposing abortions? It seems like a lot of anti-abortionists would like to brush aside the issue of pregnancies from rape by blaming victims, though I suppose that would also correlate with the religious brand of sexism.