A Form of Benevolence Increases Tolerance of Domestic Violence Against Women

Violence against women is a particularly urgent problem in India and other countries where gender inequality is high. But Indians who worry about women being the victims of random violence in public are more likely to tolerate domestic violence against women in private, according to results of a study reported in Psychological Science.  

The findings illuminate the relationship between benevolent sexism (the belief that men must protect women from outsiders) and tolerance of violence both in and outside of the home. 

“Even these seemingly protective beliefs about women can make women vulnerable to violence,” Nikhil K. Sengupta, a University of Kent psychological scientist who led the study, told APS. “The more people endorsed this ideology, the less they tolerated violence committed by strangers, but the more they tolerated violence committed by intimate partners (in the name of protection).”  

Sengupta, who conducted the research with Matthew D. Hammond, Chris K. Deak (Victoria University of Wellington), and Ragini Saira Malhotra (University of Southern Maine), analyzed results from a 2017 survey of 133,398 respondents. In that survey, conducted by the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, participants rated how strongly they agreed with six statements designed to measure hostile and benevolent sexism. For hostile sexism, participants rated the extent to which they believed women seek to gain power over men, are too easily offended, and tend to complain about sexism when they lose to men in fair competitions. For benevolent sexism, participants rated the extent to which they believed women have more refined taste, should be cherished and protected, and are more naturally caring and empathetic compared with men. 

Men and women who reported higher levels of hostile sexism agreed that women should accept street harassment such as catcalling and groping as a normal part of life, indicating a high tolerance of violence against women in public spaces. Participants high in hostile sexism were also likely to agree that “a husband has the right to discipline his wife” using physical and psychological abuse, suggesting a high tolerance for violence against women in private spaces. 

By contrast, participants who reported high levels of benevolent sexism were less likely to agree that women should accept street harassment. Unfortunately, they did tend to agree that men had the right to abuse their wives, even more so than people who scored low in benevolent sexism and high on hostile sexism. 

“Any protection from public violence that women gain from benevolent sexism also means they are more vulnerable to violence committed by their ‘protectors.’ Its protective appeal goes hand-in-hand with disempowerment of women within relationships,” Sengupta and colleagues wrote. 

Though these effects were slightly stronger for men, it’s also important to note how women’s internalized sexism can contribute to the belief that women should tolerate violence in public and private spaces. 

“Although an overwhelming majority of this violence is committed by men, both men and women can hold gender stereotypes and ideologies that create a social environment in which violence against women is tolerated,” Sengupta said. 

These findings support previous work on ambivalent sexism theory, which proposes that hostile and benevolent sexism work together to perpetuate men’s unequal power over women in society, Sengupta and colleagues wrote. In this model, hostile sexism reinforces men’s power through aggression while benevolent sexism offers women safety in exchange for fulfilling a restrictive gender role

“Our findings suggest that if reducing violence against women is framed in terms that restrict women’s autonomy, especially with respect to their male partners, it can make them more vulnerable to violence,” Sengupta said. “Women’s freedom from the threat of violence is not a matter of ‘men protecting women,’ but of greater empowerment and gender equality.”  


Sengupta, N. K., Hammond, M. D., Deak, C. K., Malhotra, R. S. (2024). Ambivalent sexism and tolerance of violence against women in India. Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/09567976241254312  

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