Why Do Sexist Men Aggress toward their Female Partners?
“Women are inferior to men.” “Men and women are constantly battling for power.” “Women are trying to take men’s power away.” Although sexist beliefs such as these are probably less prevalent today than in the past, they are still surprisingly prevalent, even in egalitarian societies.
Researchers have fittingly dubbed such beliefs “hostile sexism”—which involves beliefs that women seek to take power away from men. A great deal of research now shows that hostile sexism is different than “benevolent sexism”—which involves the belief that women are wonderful but fragile and should be put on a pedestal by men. Although both forms of sexism can lead to discrimination against women, research shows that hostile sexism is more likely to influence overt aggression toward women in power, such as hostile derogation of female leaders, politicians, and feminists.
But hostile sexism is not directed only toward female leaders, female politicians, or feminists. The everyday damage of hostile sexism may be even more pervasive in romantic heterosexual relationships. After all, we interact with our romantic partners more than anyone else. Indeed, the more men agree with hostile sexist beliefs, the more they exhibit verbal and physical aggression toward their wives and girlfriends.
Why do attitudes about men’s and women’s power affect intimate relationships? Think about your own present (or past) intimate relationship. You probably depend on your partner more than anyone else for support, closeness, and intimacy, which makes romantic relationships rewarding and fulfilling. But this high level of dependence on your partner also challenges the power and control you have in your life. What your partner does affects you, and you them, and this dependence inevitably means your (and your partner’s) power is limited.
Men who hold hostile sexist attitudes find this challenge to their power in romantic relationships particularly threatening. In recent research, my colleagues I and tested whether these concerns about losing power would mean that men who hold hostile sexist beliefs think they lack power in their relationships. Across four studies, involving almost 300 couples, and more than 500 individuals from the United States and New Zealand, we found that men who score high in hostile sexism think they have less power than less sexist men think they do in their romantic relationships. Moreover, these perceptions were biased in the sense that men who held greater hostile sexist beliefs underestimated the power they had over their partners compared to how much power their partners reported the men actually had. So if Jack is high in hostile sexism, he is likely to believe that Jill has more power over him than Jill reports she has.
Our results suggest that men who more strongly endorse hostile sexism are more sensitive and vigilant about threats to power. This general sensitivity seems to lead men to underestimate the power they have in their own intimate relationships with women. This is important because when people think they lack power, they often behave in aggressive ways to try to restore their sense of power and control. Accordingly, across our studies, men scoring higher in hostile sexism perceived they lacked power in their relationships, which in turn predicted aggression toward their partners. This showed up on several measures of aggression—including derogatory comments, threats, and yelling at a partner during a conflict and both partners’ ratings of aggressive behaviors, such as being hurtful and critical, in their daily lives. It even applied when people recalled how aggressive they acted towards their partner over the last year.
Furthermore, perceiving a lack of power—and not simply desiring to be dominant over women—explained the link between hostile sexism and relationship aggression. This is important because people often assume that sexist men feel powerful and are aggressive to maintain dominance. However, in intimate relationships, neither partner can hold all the power. Power is always shared, and both partners depend on each other. Men who are worried about losing power—that is, those who endorse hostile sexism—should find it particularly hard to navigate the power constraints in intimate relationships.
Social scientists and the public often think about how sexism affects women in politics or the workplace. But hostile attitudes towards women are most routinely expressed in everyday interactions in close relationships. This research shows that sexist attitudes impact our intimate relationships, influence how we perceive our intimate relationships, and affect how we treat our partners.
The aggression associated with men’s hostile sexism is obviously harmful to women, and combatting this aggression to protect women’s health and well-being is important. But this pattern of perception and behavior is also damaging for men. Being involved in relationships in which men think they lack power and behave aggressively in a bid to gain power will inevitably undermine men’s well-being as well. To cite just one example, research in health psychology suggests that experiencing chronic hostility or anger is bad for people’s cardiac health.
The damage that aggression causes to intimate relationships might also reinforce hostile sexism by creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Men who endorse hostile sexism are concerned about losing power, which promotes aggression, which then undermines women’s relationship satisfaction and commitment. The more women are dissatisfied, the more likely they are to withdraw from the relationship, express negative feelings, become less committed, and so on. These effects will not only threaten men’s power further but may also reinforce hostile attitudes that depict women as untrustworthy. This potentially damaging cycle highlights another reason why examining the impact of sexist attitudes within relationships is so important.
For Further Reading
Cross, E. J., Overall, N. C., Low, R. S. T., & McNulty, J. K. (2019). An interdependence account of sexism and power: Men’s hostile sexism, biased perceptions of low power, and relationship aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 117(2), 338-363.
Davidson, K. W., & Mostofsky, E. (2010). Anger expression and risk of coronary heart disease: Evidence from the Nova Scotia Health Survey. American heart journal, 159(2), 199–206. doi:10.1016/j.ahj.2009.11.007
Emily J. Cross is a postdoctoral fellow at York University in Toronto, Canada, where she studies how sexism functions in romantic heterosexual relationships. The current research was conducted with colleagues at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.