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Friendly, chivalrous men might be benevolent sexists

Beware of super friendly and smiley men — they could be sexist wolves in chivalrous sheep’s clothing, according to a new study from Northeastern University.

The researchers carefully examined the social interaction of 27 pairs of American undergraduate men and women. They were filmed while they played a trivia game together and then chatted afterwards. Observers then scrutinized their interaction by reporting their impressions and counting certain nonverbal cues such as smiles. Word count software was also used to further analyze the content.

The more hostile sexist men were perceived as less approachable and less friendly in their speech. Men with more hostile sexism also smiled less during the interaction. In turn, those who displayed benevolent sexism were rated to be more approachable, warmer, friendlier and more likely to smile. They also used more positive emotional words and were overall more patient while waiting for a woman to answer trivia questions

The benevolent sexists were “well-intentioned.” They tended to see women as “warm and pure yet helpless, incompetent and in need of men’s protection” and agree with statements like: “A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man.” (Ewwwww) The researchers point out that, while everyone likes a benevolent sexist better than a hostile one, both perpetuate gender inequality — and sexism that cloaks itself in friendliness may actually be more treacherous. “These supposed gestures of good faith may entice women to accept the status quo in society because sexism literally looks welcoming, appealing, and harmless.”

At the very least, it means you have to dig a little to discover if someone is being friendly and courteous because they are friendly and courteous — those people do exist! they’re great! if that is you, don’t stop! — or because they believe you’re a delicate flower.

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St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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