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How Protective Paternalism Hurts Women

Recently, we wrote about how conversations about gender-based violence should not be framed in terms of the victim’s relationship to a man (i.e., rape is wrong because what if the victim were your mother, sister, daughter or wife?). Doing so ignores the true cause of the violence — the perpetrator — and focuses on the victim instead. But this framing doesn’t truly put the focus on the victim as a person; it describes her only as she relates to a man. In this way, victims of gender-based violence are often not viewed as humans in their own right, but possessions of the men in their lives.

This is a form of protective paternalism, which is a type of benevolent sexism that tells men that they need to protect women and make decisions on their behalf. Rather than viewing women as autonomous, fully capable human beings, men who subscribe to protective paternalism tend to view women as weak and in need of their protection. On the surface, this may be seen by some as a positive thing: it can be comforting to think of someone else taking responsibility for the difficult decisions in life. In practice, it holds women back from leading full lives. When women and girls are viewed as weak and incapable of taking care of themselves, they are often prevented from doing basic things like driving, getting jobs, or (in extreme cases) even going for walks on their own — all while men and boys are permitted to move about freely and strive for their goals without these restrictions. While protective paternalism may seem benign, it has the effect of holding women back in a very real way. Putting a woman up on a pedestal may seem romantic, but it prevents her from doing anything other than standing there, being admired.

When it comes to gender-based violence, protective paternalism seems to make the argument that domestic and sexual violence are wrong because they are an assault on something that belongs to a man — not because violence against anyone is wrong. When gender-based violence is viewed through this lens, it defines the value of the victim exclusively based on her relationship to a man. In this way, protective paternalism devalues women as human beings in their own right.

Attitudes of protective paternalism also prevent men from seeing women as equals. After all, if a women is in need of protection and care, then she cannot possibly be on equal footing with a man. When women are viewed as objects or possessions to be protected by men, they are seen as less than equal. If a man does not consider his partner to be equal in the relationship, he is more likely to resort to violence or aggression if his partner is not acting in an “appropriate” manner. In this way, protective paternalism can directly lead to gender-based violence.

More broadly speaking, protective paternalism in our society contributes to gender-based violence because it assumes that women are weak or in need of protection. Inequality in the workplace and across society is one of the root causes of gender-based violence, along with the objectification and degradation of women in our media, rape culture and harmful gender norms. Getting men to see women as peers — rather than as the weaker sex, in need of protection — is critical to ending gender-based violence in our community.

While protective paternalism — like benevolent sexism — may seem to be a positive thing on the surface, it is actually incredibly damaging to women. It can prevent them from working, achieving their goals, being seen as true equals, and can even lead to gender-based violence. Attitudes of protective paternalism are often deeply engrained in our society, and can be hard to eradicate. By making an active decision to not subscribe to this type of thinking, we can all take a step closer towards a future free from gender-based violence.

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