The first time I encountered the idea of benevolent sexism was a shock, particularly since it was a context of my own benevolent sexism being confronted. I had a crush on this girl/young woman in high school. I asked her out and she wasn’t interested, but it seemed like we could still get along. There continued to be some unexplainable tension, though, that got worse over time instead of better. She contacted me again about a year after we had stopped talking.
I got to the Tim Horton’s where we were meeting ahead of her and already had a drink when she got there. I instinctively said something along the lines of “go ahead and grab something first, if you’d like.” She visible twitched. That made sense as soon as she explained why she always had a hard time with me. In short, it was some benevolent sexism on my part, including things as small as giving her permission to go get something before joining me.
Here’s the definition for those still confused at the idea, from a recent National Post article:
Psychologists found that a friendly or chivalrous attitude can mask chauvinistic and patronizing views because the men see females as weak creatures in need of their protection.
Many people would call these kinds of things “chivalry”: opening the door, offering your coat, insisting on paying for a meal together. But the underlying impulse is still based on the assumption that women are somehow less-than, at least in those areas. You can’t expect a woman to do the hard work of opening a door when there is a strong man there to do it for her! Or be a little cold when she didn’t plan for the weather if he could be cold instead! Or have her own money to spend! (Tangent: there’s a commercial that annoys me every time it comes on. It starts by saying how he forgot his wallet with her expressing “oh no, what will we do?”. That is answered by it being an all-inclusive resort, but every time I see it I wonder where her wallet went.)
The defense of these things, of course, is that these are simply being nice. In that case, I ask a simple question: why don’t you do it for men, too? Maybe some of you do, which is fair. I do have one friend who last time he visited insisted on paying for lunch for Emily and I, so I insisted on paying for dinner. We’re close enough friends, and since we don’t see each other that often anymore, that wasn’t too weird. Outside of about 3 male friends, though, that would really throw me off guard.
The idea of micro-aggressions is a valuable one. These are small things, almost never intentional, that reinforce harmful ideas like women needing extra help and protection from men. The example of a micro-aggression I’ve heard the most often is from black women with white women touching their hair. The white woman may mean it as a compliment, but for the black woman, it can easily be a reminder that white people often subconsciously still think they have some kind of ownership over black bodies. I think many of these “chivalrous” actions can fall into this category.
Note what I am not saying. I am not telling men to never be nice to women. If you want to be nice giving your coat to someone, you can probably find a person living on the street without one who actually does need that help (of course, you still offer it, not just force it on him/her). I’m also not saying to avoid those things with your significant other if he/she has made it clear he/she appreciates it.
I am saying to not do things that reinforce that women are in any way less than us. Don’t assume because she is a woman she wants to be treated as frail; you probably are reinforcing the false idea that she is frail. It took me some time to swallow the hard pill that day, learning that something I thought was good for her was actually hurting her. But over time and hearing several other women say similar things, I learned to confront my own benevolent sexism.