Growing up in a religious family, Dr. Horrell became interested in this topic as a student because her early experience of studying psychology was that “religion was something you checked at the door.” As a Christian, she was confused by this and knew she had to delve deeper, deciding to pursue a graduate psychology program that focused on religion and spirituality.
She soon became interested in the intersection with sexism, noting that elements of sexism are present in most religions. Dr. Horrell notes that there are two types of sexism, benevolent and hostile. She explains the three pillars of benevolent sexism: protective paternalism, heterosexual intimacy, and complementary gender roles. She notes that, generally, the assumption is that men and women are psychologically very different. Then points out that the available data does not support that conclusion. Conversely, the research shows that, when it comes to psychological make up, men and women are strikingly similar.
Dr. Horrell’s research led her to explore whether sexism could positively impact well-being. She discusses two types of wellbeing, hedonistic and eudemonic. Hedonistic focuses on happiness and defines well-being in terms of pleasure attainment and pain avoidance. Eudemonic well-being focuses on meaning and self-realization and the degree to which a person is fully functioning. She discusses research that demonstrates sexism correlates more positively with hedonistic well-being and negatively with eudemonic well-being, giving examples from studies that have been done.
Dr. Horrell observes the benevolent sexism in religion can lead to shame. She gives examples, such as the focus on a woman’s purity. She notes that when patients are having struggles with spirituality or religion, it often relates to gender, sexuality, and shame. She observes that these conflicts can cause trauma.
In working with patients, Dr. Horrell says clinicians must “hold space for the importance of religion, family and spirituality in a patient’s life and empower them to think about their values and identify those things that are at odds with that.” She says one the best things a clinician can do is to offer patients the space to stay with the tension and the pain, to think about and it talk about it, without closing quickly on what might feel easy.
“I think there's so much goodness in having things in our life that are sacred to us, and having things that feel bigger than us,” said Dr. Horrell, “Whether that's the concept of love, whether that's nature, whether that is divinity or God…and it's why I'm so passionate about it and about giving people space to get to know that side of their life.”