Adolescence is typically a time of declining gender prejudice and stereotyping. Over the course of the teenage years, sexism wanes. A team of researchers, though, believed that a particular subgroup of adolescents may actually become more sexist. Who might those be? The ones with more romantic relationship experience.
A good way to test this hypothesis would be to study the same people throughout their adolescent years, and see whether adolescents who become romantically involved become more sexist. The authors didn't do that. Instead, they assessed the sexist attitudes and relationship experience of a large group of adolescents at one point in time. That means that any results are just suggestive - if there really is a link between adolescent romance and sexism, it would not be clear what was causing what.
The participants were 1,447 Spanish adolescents, ages 12 to 19, from a diverse set of high schools. They answered questions that measured two kinds of sexism - hostile and benevolent.
Here are some examples of items measuring HOSTILE SEXISM; greater agreement indicates more hostile sexist attitudes.
- When women lose to men in a fair competition, they typically complain about being discriminated against.
- Women seek to gain power by getting control over men.
- Most women fail to appreciate fully all that men do for them.
- Most women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist.
Here are examples of items measuring BENEVOLENT SEXISM:
- Women should be cherished and protected by men.
- Many women have a quality of purity that few men possess.
- Every man ought to have a woman whom he adores.
- A good woman should be set on a pedestal by her man.
Hostile sexism is aimed at women who don't stay in their place. It is believed to capture a resentment toward women who compete with men (for example, in the workplace). The benevolent sexist attitudes, in contrast, may seem positive, but they are actually patronizing. As the authors put it, benevolent sexists see women as "wonderful but weak and in need of men's protection and provision."
The authors found - as other studies of American teens have - that older adolescents endorse less sexist attitudes than younger ones do. They also found - as have studies of teens in other countries - that the boys expressed more hostile sexism than the girls did.
The new findings were about romance. The boys who had more romantic relationship experience were more benevolently sexist. The two possible explanations for this offered by the authors are:
"...as boys become romantically interested in girls they endorse benevolent sexism both to attract female partners and to reconcile their affection for female romantic partners with traditional roles;"
"...boys who already hold benevolent sexist attitudes are more likely to be romantically interested in girls as there might be more appeal for boys to engage in a relationship with a girl when they believe their masculine role involves protecting women."
The findings were different for girls. The girls who had more romantic relationship experience endorsed more hostile sexism. So, for example, they are more likely to say that girls complain too much about sexism and discrimination and don't appreciate all that boys do for them. To understand why that might be, consider this sad finding from other research: some heterosexual women don't want to call themselves feminists because they think that would make them less romantically attractive to men.
Here are the authors' suggested explanations for why adolescent girls with more romantic relationship experience express more hostile sexism:
"girls use hostile sexism to signal that they do not fit into female ‘types' (e.g., feminists) that boys often openly disdain;"
"with increasing contact with boys, girls are more open to being influenced by their attitudes, including boys' greater endorsement of hostile sexism."
Bottom line: adolescents with more romantic relationship experience are more sexist. Now add to the mix what Wendy Morris and I found in our studies of stereotyping: College students who are not currently in a romantic relationship, or who have never had a romantic relationship, are viewed more negatively than college students who do have romantic relationship experience. So get romantically involved early on, and you may be more sexist; don't get involved, and you will be put down.
Those early years are challenging. What may be great at any age is a strong sense of self. That's a hard-won ability to hear other people's judgments without being battered or bruised or unduly influenced by them.