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As society inches toward greater equality for women and sexual minorities, psychologists continue to report links between prejudices against these groups and religion.

Chana Etengoff, PhD, assistant professor in Adelphi’s Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology, co-authored a deeply insightful paper on the psychological and sociological underpinnings of this issue, titled “Sexual Prejudice, Sexism, and Religion,” published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology. Her research did not take the stance that religion is the inevitable cause of sexism and sexual prejudice, but rather views religion as a cultural tool that individuals can use to either support or undermine gender and sexual equity.

A parent rejects a child who comes out as LGBTQ. A woman is pressured to stay home with her children because her place is in the home, not the workplace. A same-sex couple is made to feel uncomfortable at a religious service. A woman in a position of power is doubted and criticized.

These scenarios, though hypothetical, are not uncommon. Even as our society works toward greater equality for women and sexual minorities, psychologists have long reported links between prejudices against these groups and religion.

What lies at the root of sexism and religious beliefs? Chana Etengoff, PhD, assistant professor in Adelphi’s Gordon F. Derner School of Psychology, seeks to understand the psychological and sociological underpinnings of this issue in “Sexual Prejudice, Sexism, and Religion,” recently published in the journal Current Opinion in Psychology.

“My research does not take the stance that religion is the inevitable cause of sexism and sexual prejudice,” said Dr. Etengoff. “Instead, I view religion as a cultural tool that individuals can use to either support or undermine gender and sexual equity. This study took a close look at the individual and social factors that play a defining role in the convergence of religion, sexism and sexual prejudice.”

Sexism can take several forms—among them beliefs in heteronormativity, male dominance, and that men and women are fundamentally different. Sometimes perceived as benevolent, those with sexist beliefs often idealize traditional gender roles or believe that women need male protection. It can also manifest in hostility, anger or resentment toward women who challenge male power or traditional gender roles, or in negative views about sexual orientation.

Sexual prejudice, on the other hand, is the internalizing of negative attitudes toward and belief in the inferiority of sexual minorities and same-sex desires, behaviors and communities. Dr. Etengoff shares that, while some sexual prejudice can be linked to fears like homophobia, most is cultural rather than psychological.

Her research shows that while religiousness can predict both sexism and sexual prejudice, the impact of individual differences and social attitudes plays a defining role. Social conservatism—a preference for stability, conformity and the status quo—which is often a key trait of the religious experience, is a greater predictor of these views.

Still, Dr. Etengoff finds that even when accounting for conservatism as a factor in sexism and sexual prejudice, the relationship between these views and religiousness remains. Reasons she identifies include the sanctioning of sexism and sexual prejudice by religious doctrine or culture (as in the prohibition of homosexuality in Leviticus 18:22), clergy’s views and practices (not performing same-sex marriages), and individual variables (frequency of worship attendance and congregations’ level of orthodoxy). She also notes that, since sexual and gender minorities affiliate half as often with religion as heterosexual and cisgender individuals, a low exposure to these sexual “out-groups” does not provide opportunities to challenge preexisting sexist or prejudicial beliefs.

“All of my work is informed by the theoretical stance that human development is a transformative process embedded in relational, sociopolitical and historical contexts,” Dr. Etengoff said. “Drawing on a social justice platform, I focus on how minority groups’ community and interpersonal relations can improve even amidst adverse circumstances.”

Dr. Etengoff’s research on religion underscores the importance of analyzing the factors leading to sexism and sexual prejudice in order to avoid the wide-ranging negative impacts of these beliefs, from mental and physical health challenges to economic and educational inequities. As she concludes, the positive impact of inclusive and equitable religious frameworks can benefit not only those affected by sexism and sexual prejudice, but those who support these individuals.

Citation: Chana Etengoff, Tyler G Lefevor. Sexual prejudice, sexism, and religion. Current Opinion in Psychology. 2020 Sep 6;40:45-50.

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