Most of us are familiar with the term “misogyny.” Today, we regularly hear it in conversation. And we regularly see it all over social media.
And yet, misogyny, or misogynist, is largely misunderstood.
The dictionary defines misogyny as a hatred, dislike, or mistrust of women, said Jill A. Stoddard, PhD, a psychologist and director of The Center for Stress and Anxiety Management in San Diego. The word, she noted, has Greek origins: “misein,” meaning “to hate,” and gynē, meaning “woman.”
However, misogyny goes beyond despising all or even most women.
Rather, “misogyny is hostility toward the women who threaten to remove the male status as superior to women,” said Stoddard, author of the book Be Mighty: A Woman’s Guide to Liberation from Anxiety, Worry, and Stress Using Mindfulness and Acceptance.
“In other words, men in a patriarchy do what they want, when they want, how they want, and women are expected to support and promote those entitlements,” she said.
The Many Faces of Misogyny
What does misogyny look like?
According to Stoddard, “incels,” a group of “involuntary celibates,” are a clear example. “They see women as objects and feel entitled to engage in sexual interactions with them. They believe women who reject them are evil and do not take responsibility for their role in being rejected by women—that role being their sexist attitudes toward women.”
However, misogyny isn’t restricted to men. Anyone can be a misogynist, said Joanne Bagshaw, LCPC, a therapist in Gaithersburg, Maryland and author of The Feminist Handbook: Practical Tools to Resist Sexism and Dismantle the Patriarchy.
According to Bagshaw, misogyny is “an enforcer of sexism,” because it rewards “women who follow society’s prescribed gender norms and patriarchal expectations” and punishes “those that don’t.”
“[A]ny of us can police women to maintain a male-dominated society, by enforcing us to stay within our prescribed role,” Bagshaw said. She noted that this idea comes from the book Down Girl written by philosopher Kate Manne.
One example of policing is slut-shaming women “for acting in ways outside of what is expected for women to act sexually,” she said.
Another example is praising moms for maintaining the role of the selfless nurturer. “We don’t ever see women who have careers told what good mothers they are for working, for instance, even though they are providing for their family,” Bagshaw said.
Misogyny can also look like perpetuating devastating (and ludicrous) stereotypes: During an interview, Donna Rotunno, Harvey Weinstein’s attorney, was asked whether she’s been sexually assaulted. She replied: “No, because I would never have put myself in that position.”
While Rotunno’s response was likely a legal strategy, Bagshaw noted, “she is using a dangerous yet common stereotype about rape victims to defend Weinstein, in order to manipulate a win in this case.”
The Consequences of Misogyny
Not surprisingly, misogyny has massive consequences for both men and women. Stoddard noted that in women, misogyny predicts poor health outcomes. In men, she said, misogynistic attitudes increase risk for substance use and depression.
Research has found that misogyny in men has also been linked to violence, delinquency, unsafe sexual behaviors, and intimate partner violence (toward women).
What Causes Misogyny?
Why do some people adopt misogynistic attitudes while others don’t?
According to Stoddard, “this is a complex question with equally complex answers.”
Several researchers, she said, have proposed that people develop misogynistic beliefs because of strict masculine gender norms. A 2016 paper in PLoS One defined gender norms as: “the widely accepted social rules about roles, traits, behaviors, status and power associated with masculinity and femininity in a given culture.”
For example, masculine gender norms often include traits and behaviors like being strong, stubborn, stoic, muscular, and macho. Others include authority, leadership, and dominance. They include beliefs such as: “It’s a husband’s job to earn money,” and “it’s a wife’s job to look after the home and family.”
Other researchers have identified emotional suppression as a culprit, she said. Similarly, Bagshaw believes that men think they deserve special privileges, and when this belief is challenged, “they lack the emotion regulation skills to manage their feelings of rejection and or shame.”
Why the lack?
Bagshaw blames gender role conditioning: Even though boys and men are absolutely capable of expressing rejection, shame, and other vulnerable emotions, they’re generally not taught how to actually express them (and really to even accept these emotions and view them as valid). She called this combination of entitlement and emotional skill deficit a “potentially dangerous mix that, at the very least, will make their romantic partnerships difficult, and for some, increase their risk of perpetrating violence.”
Stoddard added that other researchers speculate that boys’ early maternal relationships may shape their attitudes toward other women.
In short, she said, “The ‘true’ answer is probably some complicated combination of these and other factors within both the individual and his culture.”
Can Misogynists Change?
“Everyone is capable of change once they see the harm or cost of their ways and actually care about and take responsibility for it,” Stoddard said.
Bagshaw, a couple’s counselor, has worked with men who were motivated to change in order to save their sinking marriages. “The threat of actually losing their partner who they loved even though they treated as inferior in many ways was enough for them to change.”
Bagshaw has witnessed men who never expressed their feelings and saw zero benefit in doing so, open up and share, “much to their partner’s delight and relief.” Other male clients started helping to care for their children and do household chores.
(“There is still a significant gender gap in household tasks in the home that is detrimental to marriages,” she said. “Even working women whose husbands are unemployed do more household work than their husbands.”)
Bagshaw has also helped men change their sexist beliefs, such as no longer objectifying women or using offensive terms about women.
To truly dismantle misogyny, both Stoddard and Bagshaw stressed the importance of implementing structural, systemic changes.
This “requires that the privileged men in positions of power accept that women can be equals without it signifying they have ‘lost’ or been harmed in some way,” Stoddard said. According to Bagshaw, we must create policies and laws that promote equity, “like closing the wage gap, and protecting women from violence.”