By ‘chivalry’ I do not mean being nice to people, holding doors for them and whatnot. That stuff is good and useful, and I’m generally in favour of it. What I’m talking about today is the social norms that are used to frame and justify male violence, and particularly the way women are deployed in that.
The idea that male violence is justified by protecting women is a really suspect thing. We get a lot of pop culture stories where the death or rape of a woman is used to justify a man attacking or killing another man. There are many examples out there of male jealousy over attention paid to a woman being used to justify male violence. That whole business of duelling is a case in point, and it’s something that older films have tended to portray as attractive and appealing. What woman doesn’t want the man, or men she loves to fight to the death over her? Clearly the answer should be ‘anyone who isn’t a psychopath.’
Men fighting over women just reinforces the idea that women are prizes/property. Men taking revenge on behalf of women reinforces the idea that women have no agency, and need men to defend them from other men. This really doesn’t help us around building fairer and safer societies. It also centres the male rage and the male hurt feelings around things that are actually happening to women. It becomes a story about the fight between the men, the winner and the loser. Nothing restorative happens on these terms, and the original wrong may be entirely overshadowed.
Making women responsible for male violence can be incredibly controlling. I’ve been through that, there was a boyfriend in my teens who made clear his intention to punch any man who looked at me in a way he didn’t like. It was terrifying. I didn’t want to be the inadvertent cause of some lad getting attacked because he smiled at me or did something my boyfriend thought was flirting. For a little while I was cautious and anxious, and then I got the hell out. If your partner may be violent to others and is making that about how they treat you, it becomes hard to even feel you can be in the same room as other men – which is of course entirely the point.
There’s also the issue that violence tends to escalate. If someone disrespects you, and your partner responds by, say and for example, slapping them in the face, does it stop there? Sometimes, but not always. Sometimes the other person turns out to be a better fighter, or carrying a knife, or a gun. So not only are you, as the woman in this scenario, responsible for everyone else’s safety, you may also be afraid that your partner is going to get themselves hurt or killed if things kick off. In no way is this about female safety and wellbeing.
I was genuinely surprised by the number of female friends online who felt strongly that their men should be violent in their defence if they are verbally attacked. I can only wonder if they’ve thought through the implications. Having been offered that kind of violence in my ‘honour’ and ‘defence’ I have no doubt that it is an awful thing for people to be doing. Self defence is one thing, defending your people is always a good choice, escalation is always a terrible idea.