How Sexism Intersects with Gun Control

By Dan Cassino (@DanCassino)

At its heart, sexism is a set of beliefs about the proper roles of men and women. According to these beliefs, the traditional role of women as subservient to men is beneficial to everyone involved, and women or men who question these roles are attacking the very foundations of society. Once we understand that sexism is about how people understand their own roles in society, the far-reaching consequences of sexist attitudes for our politics, and our country, become apparent.

For instance, sexism isn’t limited to men: some women may be even more invested in what they see as the proper roles for men and women than men are. This is evident from the sexism scale included on the WTHH survey carried out by Data For Progress last year. While men score higher on the scale (comprised of responses to three items, equally weighted) among all partisan groups, scores are much more closely related to partisanship than to sex. Also notable is that while Democratic men are quite a bit more sexist than Democratic women, there’s a much smaller gap between Republican men and women.

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This sort of sexism has some obvious effects on American politics: more sexist individuals are more less likely to support female candidates for office, especially candidates who espouse threatening gender roles. A candidate like Sarah Palin, describing herself as a mother and a protector of her children, would be less threatening than one who describes herself as a feminist. 

But many of the effects of sexism may be less obvious. For instance, when men who hold on to traditional views of gender have their masculinity threatened – and masculinity is remarkably easy to threaten – they tend to double down on aspects of masculinity that they can fulfill. For instance, when married heterosexual men start to earn less money relative to their wives, they do less housework, become more likely to cheat on their spouses, and express more negative views of homosexual men. None of this is rational, of course: when women earn more money, their husbands probably should be doing more housework, and cheating on a spouse makes even less sense if you’re financially dependent on her. But these behaviors aren’t about rationality: they’re a performance, with an audience of one, designed to help men assuage their own gender identities.

These performances of masculinity can have broad social consequences, and while different men may double down on different aspects of masculinity, the scripts for how they can best demonstrate their manhood are socially determined. In the US, one of the most powerful ways of asserting masculinity is through firearms. In traditional gender roles, men are supposed to be the protectors of the household, so when their masculinity is threatened, men can assert their gender identity by arming themselves. The idea of firearms as phallic supplements may be comically Freudian, but it’s not entirely wrong.

In the WTHH data, sexism is closely linked with views of gun control. Controlling for other factors that we know to be relevant, like party, ideology, education and age, men – but not women – who score higher on the sexism scale are less likely to endorse increased restrictions on firearm sales, and more likely to say that it should be “less difficult” to buy guns. Of course, most Americans favor increased restrictions on gun sales, but the percent supporting increased restrictions falls from more than 70 percent among the least sexist men, to 41 percent among the most sexist men. At the same time, the percent who want to loosen restrictions increases from 7 percent among the least sexist men to 23 percent for the most sexist men.

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While the WTHH data doesn’t include questions asking about gun ownership, other analyses have shown that gun sales increase when men’s economic and social advantages over women are reduced. In short, American men with traditional, sexist views of gender roles are using guns to shore up their threatened masculinity. Party plays a role here, too, but there are simply fewer Democratic men who have high scores on the sexism scale.

Why does this matter? More men with guns who feel that women aren’t giving them their due likely means more shootings of women, like the recent attack on a bank in Florida, in which 5 women were killed. But it also means that we can’t solve the problem of sexism simply by electing a woman president, any more than Barack Obama’s election in 2008 fixed racism. Indeed, having a woman as commander-in-chief is likely to threaten these men’s masculinity even more, leading to even more behaviors used to bolster their gender identities.

Sexism is far more insidious than we might give it credit for. It pervades the social and political behaviors of men, linked not just to votes against female candidates, but guns, and religion, and views about policies like parental leave laws, abortion and social welfare programs. Until we can get more men to embrace alternative ways of expressing their masculinity, by doubling down on roles like fatherhood, rather than on gun ownership, it will continue to drive men’s political behaviors and attitudes. 

Dan Cassino (@DanCassino) is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Ethan Winter