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Research Blog: Sexism in Men’s Decisions about Women’s Reproductive Rights

by Elise Bragard

Remember that photo that went viral last year of all the men standing around Donald Trump in the oval office, looking particularly smug, as he signed an executive order that would make it difficult for women around the world to access abortions? The global gag rule was put back into place, ensuring that no US funding would help international organizations that offered abortions. The photo received a lot of attention because it was so illustrative of the fact that most of the lawmakers who are trying to strip women of their reproductive rights, are men. Hundreds of anti-abortion bills were introduced in 2017 and while there were some women sponsoring the bills, it is noticeable that a significant majority were proposed by men.

Another of the ways that male lawmakers have tried to undermine women’s reproductive rights in the US has been by attacking Planned Parenthood. PP provides abortions, gynaecological health services, birth control, preventative care, and many other crucial services that women need. In 2015 Cecille Richards, former president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, had to testify in congress. An anti-abortion group had posted bogus “undercover videos” claiming that PP clinics had been illegally selling fetal tissue. Richards stayed calm and collected under the barrage of patronizing and largely uninformed male congress members who tried unsuccessfully to rattle her.

Why do all these men seem to feel such a desperate need to prevent women from exercising their reproductive rights? Is it about control? Are they so sexist that they don’t want women to be able to make decision about their own lives? (Or perhaps don’t think women have the cognitive or moral ability to make those decisions?)

Researchers Aino Petterson and Robbie Sutton[1] wanted to find out how sexism was connected to some men support restricting women’s reproductive rights. Importantly, they knew sexism has different forms nowadays so they specifically looked at hostile sexism and benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism is beliefs that women are trying to control, or usurp men, through feminism. It’s the kind of thing you’d see on Breitbart or in the depths of MRA reddit forums where men express a seeming hatred for women, or some kinds of women. Benevolent sexism is what you might think of as chivalry – the idea that women can’t or shouldn’t do certain things (like open doors or walk alone at night) because they need protection from men.

In order to explore the link between hostile sexism, benevolent sexism, and men’s control of women’s reproductive rights, Petterson and Sutton designed a pretty cool study. A survey was posted on an online survey platform (Amazon MTurk). 143 men and 141 women from the United States participated, ranging from 20 – 72 years old. Although the researchers are based in the UK, they chose to survey US adults because abortion is a far more divisive topic in the US than it is in the UK. The sample was majority white, with some African American, Hispanic, Asian and Native American participants. About half the participants had children themselves and some were pregnant or trying to get pregnant.

The survey that Petterson and Sutton designed asked questions that would gauge the participants’ levels of hostile and benevolent sexism, how religious they are, what they thought of right-wing authoritarian ideology, and asked for opinions on abortion, paternal control and pressure, and financial abortion. Financial abortion is the idea that men should be able to remove themselves from the legal and financial responsibilities of caring for their child.

What they found from participants’ responses is that hostile sexism was a major predictor of wanting to control reproductive decision making, including abortion, medical scenarios, and childbirth. Hostile sexism was also strong predictor of “financial abortion,” which suggests that men who hold hostile sexist attitudes want to control when a woman has a baby, but they also want to be able to shrug off the financial responsibilities of conceiving a child. Benevolent sexism was not a predictor of wanting to control women’s right to abortion, but it did predict whether men would want to control other medical decisions a woman might have to make throughout the pregnancy and birth. They also found that benevolently sexist people did not support “financial abortion.” This fits the paternalistic notion that men have a responsibility to protect women.

Of course there are many reasons men and women may have for being against abortions. But this study shows that sexist ideology is one significant factor in some men’s desire to control women’s reproductive rights and decision-making. Sexist men who believe that women are trying use feminism to usurp them and become superior, also want to control their reproductive rights. Do they realize that reproductive rights give women more economic and social freedom, and that makes them uncomfortable? Or do they just see that reproductive rights are a tenet of feminism, and therefore they are against that in principle? The study doesn’t answer those questions, but I think these are important discussions to have. For these men, it doesn’t seem to be about the survival of the fetus or well-being of the child after they are born, because they do support financial abortion. We need to stop letting sexist male lawmakers use the language of “pro-life” to mask their real intentions.

And for pro-choice and reproductive rights activists, I am not sure all our energy should be expended trying to change the minds of men with hostile sexist views. Education to change sexist belief systems is important, but ultimately, we need to make sure that sexist lawmakers lose their power. To do this, we should also focus our attention on educating men and women who believe in women’s equality, but don’t necessarily see the obvious connection to reproductive freedom. Participating in the women’s march in NYC this year, I saw a ton of women and men who care deeply about fighting for all women’s equality and health and choices. It gave me hope that if we can get millions of people out to march in solidarity, we can get more diverse leaders into our law-making institutions to represent our needs, not just those of white men who stand with Trump.

[1] Petterson, A., & Sutton, R. M. (2018). Sexist Ideology and Endorsement of Men’s Control Over Women’s Decisions in Reproductive Health. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 42, 235-247.

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