This post is the most troubling I’ve ever written. I don’t have the answers, and I hope we can think this through together. But this needs saying.
What hit me in the Isla Vista shooter’s murderous tirade on virginity was not the entitlement, the misogyny, or the cold calculation. What hit me, what has stayed with me after his sun-drenched face faded from my screen, is the moment this killer refers to himself indignantly as ‘the perfect gentleman.’
What about the idea of being ‘a gentleman’ allowed this utter misogynist to claim it for himself?
Ideas have meaning beyond the individual people who use them. Ideas exist. They have heft, They have weight. They shape reality. Ideas lay around in popular culture waiting for people to pick them up, adopt them as their own. ‘The gentleman’ is one such idea. And its invocation to justify an utter lack of genuine empathy with murder victims should give us pause. Because the idea has an ordinary life beyond, but connected to, this one person’s actions.
What are men saying when they say ‘I’m a gentleman?’ We need to ask these questions – men need to ask these questions – because when you decide you care for a woman and want to be close, what you can do to be part of the solution goes a lot farther than just not being a rapist or murderer yourself. We all live in context. Thinking through how to be a genuine force for positive change is going to take changing the fundamental paradigms with which we relate to one another.
In taking on positive change, many men still have to grapple with existing narratives about masculinity. Narratives that men navigate teach them to always be the one who knows, to not be vulnerable, to not admit uncertainty, to be decisive, to help others by seeing what they need without asking, to be providers, to be in charge. Feel free to add your own bits of that script; you know it better than me.
These pressures – on good men, men who are really trying – create awkward hybrid forms between chivalry and solidarity.
I suspect that the phenomenon of the mansplain, popularized by Rebecca Solnit’s delightful Men Explain Things To Me, is less a question of men behaving cluelessly, and more a result of the lifetime of pressure that molds men to fake it, to sound like they know things they do not know, to tune out their own inner worlds, to fear and desire and fantasize about and reject and disregard women rather than perceiving us, simply, as we are. Patriarchy harms men too, and it harms our relationships with one another, our capacity to meet each other as full human beings.
Being a safe male presence is a lot more complex than simply behaving ‘like a gentleman,’ and unlike in the world of chivalry, you don’t make up the rules on your own. Being a real safe male presence includes learning to be open to the actual lived reality of the woman you wish to be good to.
In ‘being a gentleman’ we still are stuck in a situation in which you, – or you in dialogue with popular ideas, but not in dialogue with the woman you’re with, notice – define what ‘treating a woman properly’ looks like. Interestingly, sometimes that creates more distance and pressure, especially if you get upset when an actual woman is a bit uncomfortable when she encounters your need to act in this way.
Being a gentleman is all well and good if it is what the other person actually wants. Sure, some women may like to be treated with extra courtesy, and it can of course be wonderful to know you have made someone you care about feel safe and sheltered. But what happens when your idea of chivalry, whatever it may be, does not actually make the other person who is the subject of it feel good?
Because it is you in your head deciding how to treat a woman, chivalrous action contains an implicit quality of threat: ‘like what I’m offering or else.’ Or else I’ll pout, or else I’ll feel rejected, or else I’ll like you less, or else i’ll feel less important in my role as protector and may just take that out on you in a million small and big ways. Every woman knows the instinct to placate, whether we listen to it or choose to risk speaking our minds.
How does thinking of yourself as ‘a gentleman’ create distance from systemic male violence, a refusal to hear its effects on women? It’s not enough to refrain from violent acts yourself and distance yourself from the problem. I hope this will matter to you, because I guarantee you, most of the women you will become close to do not come to you with no history, do not begin their experiences of men when you find them and profess your interest, do not have their first experience of touch when you hold their hand.
This is what is real: most if not all of us have come through the war zone that is being a child girl and then a pubescent girl and then a teen girl, the war zone that is navigating the desire, anger, and power-over of many men before we are old enough to know how to handle it, the war zone that is shaped by our much more restricted access to resources, to autonomy, to the material power that would give us the safety to make our own decisions without fear of reprisal. Most of us learned our safety depends on placating men and keeping them happy, from the time we could breathe and smile.
Most women will, at some point in their lives, whether in casual walkbys by strangers or in friendships and intimate relationships, have been inappropriately sexualized by much older men back when a younger they were first exploring their place and agency in the world. Many will have learned early that men are nicer to them and listen to them more when they are sexually desireable. Many will have learned that access to resources, shelter, decision making, mobility, is largely in the hands of men, and thus that men’s happiness is necessary to women’s survival.
More than half the women you date will have some history of unwanted sexual attention, assault, or rape. Yes, you know men who have raped, yes of course you do, and yes they are ordinary men, often men who simply have not learned meaningful consent skills or how to get out of their own heads long enough to see and hear what someone else is feeling.
Yes, most will have had the experience either of being ogled or ignored, set up on the trapdoor of attractiveness: made to feel useless in society if their ass is too big, put in danger of violence if their ass is too small.
Yes, all us will have walked down daily streets and known we were being assessed: praised or rejected, our worth and value as human beings assessed based on nothing but our appearance. Some of us will have formed strategies to hide, to avoid being the target, strategies that then mean we are not seen at all.
When the conversation focuses too much on violent assault we can allow a distancing, an ‘I’m not like that so this isn’t my problem,’ that hides the deep, systemic fabric of mysogyny and sexism that is about much more than overt violent acts. The tip of the iceberg of overt visible misogyny masks deep subterranean institutional and cultural practices that are hidden in plain sight.
What you need to know is that no matter whether you have individually assaulted or not, none of us come to you unharmed by this system.
Being devalued in this merit system hurts, and being targeted in this merit system hurts. But more importantly for you, the men who care: learning our own voice, speaking it clearly, and realizing men we love and trust are afraid to hear it and may get mad at us when we speak it – that shit hurts.
And the code of gentlemanly behaviour does nothing to remedy this problem. Because it is not in dialogue with women, because it is still you stuck in your head, the gentleman’s code of behaviour may make this situation worse.
Because I guarantee you, every single one of us has experienced the continual, systemic, daily, insidious insistence that we don’t really know our own minds or our own experiences, that our perceptions are simply not as valid as a man’s.
Every one of us, every day, in a million cumulative microaggressions so pervasive that you and we don’t even always notice they are happening, have been told that our perceptions are not to be trusted.
So much so that we stop even noticing and just take for granted that male perceptions are always more accurate than our own. And when we insist, when we speak in voices with strength and honesty instead of shrinking to fit our assigned role, we face the standard repercussions. You know them already, this tightrope we walk: bitch, crazy, irrational. You have heard this before. We all have.
That is how systemic violence works: we all buy in. We all buy in. When a power dynamic is woven throughout all the social systems that form you, there is no outside. There is only the choice: stand still on the moving train, close your eyes, pretend it’s not happening while you’re being carried along. Or run against the train’s direction, actively resisting the easy course of action.
So when you decide you care for a woman and want to be close, you can do so much more than just not be a rapist or murderer yourself. You can do so much more than just ‘being a gentleman.’
You are responsible for not retraumatizing the women you care for.
You are responsible for seeing her full humanity and being accountable to her – whether you want her for a night or a month or the rest of your lives.
Chivalry is risky and disconnected. It is still a man’s game, played in a man’s head.
Instead, if you want to love women and love yourself, if you want to be part of the solution, then learn to play an active role in healing, act as true shelter from the storm. Learn what it means to be a safe man, a genuinely safe male presence in women’s lives, who can hear the honest truth – about your actions and those of men before you – and not balk or attack.
Move beyond the idea of ‘the gentleman.’ Be an ally instead.
Abandon all your scripts and listen, truly listen, and encourage her to trust her voice, her perceptions that have been downplayed all her life – including, most likely, by you, even though you didn’t mean to, even though you are a good person, even though even though. If you’re not actively learning, you’re settling for the status quo, and the status quo is not ok. Accept this. Accept that all men, all people, are socialized into a sexist society, and that change is a process. If you’re not actively working against your gender role, you are reinforcing it.
So try Nonviolent Communication. Try cocounselling. Try saying, ‘this is what I heard, is that what you mean?’ Be careful with your words. Don’t make promises you can’t keep; build trust slowly and deliberately, remembering the history women come to you with.
Most of all, stick around. You can’t only ‘treat women well’ when you are attracted to them; also treat them well when you are no longer attracted to them, if they no longer serve your needs. If being female in this world is being valued when you are attractive and shunted aside when you are not, and if both those axes of sexism are violent, do not reproduce that violence.
Learn to be an ally, a friend, an accountable presence working on your shit, not merely a non-rapist or a non-murderer.
Encourage her voice, encourage her to trust her truth and her experience. even if that raises fears in you of your own darkest sides, or of being ‘lumped in’ with ‘bad men’ when you have worked so hard to distance yourself from them.
Because saying ‘but I’m not like that’ instead of ‘I’m so sorry that happened, what do you need,’is being ‘like that.’
When she speaks of her experiences, learn to check your own defensiveness and not take it out on her. If she doesn’t happen to need or want your chivalry, if she would rather your ear and your honesty, do not force her to ignore her own healing and downplay her perceptions in order to protect herself from yet another male ego, one that can’t even handle hearing what she has had to live.
Because being a feminist or even just a ‘good man’ in your head or in theory, without being accountable, means nothing.
The men who have genuinely treated me well have understood themselves as allies, or as people dedicated to improving their listening and communication skills, so they could speak their heart and really hear what the women in their lives are experiencing, beyond their own filters. It is not enough to simply decide ‘a gentleman doesn’t touch.’ No means no, but yes can really mean yes, and more empowering than having doors held or having someone ‘treat you like a lady’ is having your perceptions of reality genuinely heard.
So think about moving beyond being a gentleman. We just saw what that narrative can do. This one man took his indignant rage to rare extremes. But he is not a solo act. Bits of him are woven through all of us, and the script is all of ours. It’s not serving us.
What does it mean to you when you refer to yourself as a gentleman? Who do you listen to, who are you in dialogue with, whose trust do you gain, when you think of yourself this way? What is the difference between being a gentleman and being an ally? What am I missing? I hope this can be part of a dialogue.