There are many ways people pretend to be ethical. A popular way is to focus on religious identities while ignoring the substantive ways in which religious people treat others. As previously discussed, hyper-religious, post-colonial spaces like Ghana pay closer attention to whether people call themselves “Christian” or “Muslim” than to whether people treat other people with respect and dignity regardless of sexual orientation, gender, or race/ethnicity. Another way our society distorts morality is through chivalry. Chivalry, especially in a romantic context, is a set of gendered performative actions that men take in relation to women. Examples include holding the door open for women, or bringing women flowers or some gift as a token of love. Supporters of chivalry claim that the essence of chivalry is about being kind to women, yet supporters of chivalry cannot explain why this type of “kindness” has such rigid gendered rules and barriers.
Meaning, if chivalry is about kindness why do men sometimes refuse to walk through doors that women hold open? If chivalry is about kindness why do men not engage in this kind behavior with other men? Why not pull out your homie’s chair when you both go out to dinner? Adɛn, you don’t want to be kind to your homie?
This post has one goal: to discuss how teaching men and women to view chivalry as indicative of good behavior distorts morality.
Chivalry As Performative Kindness: Niceness With Strings Attached
There are many problems with how chivalry operates within our society. One problem is the encouragement of male entitlement. Often times, heterosexual men who seek romantic contact with women engage in chivalrous behavior while expecting women to “repay” their so-called kindness by reciprocating with sexual interest or romantic desire. Chivalry, particularly buying gifts, is also used to guilt-trip women into participating in romantic contact. Examples of these emotionally manipulative behaviors are described below:
I bought you dinner, how about a kiss?
I paid for your Trotro, now give me your number.
I bought you a drink, you won’t even dance with me?
There exists familiar narratives: one where men who spend money on women feel that they are owed sexual contact, and another where men who feel they are owed sexual contact believe that being denied this contact warrants anger and thinly veiled threats of physical abuse to make women comply.
Chivalry thus becomes an emotionally manipulative way of interacting with women. Where niceness comes with many strings attached, and men come to expect women’s obligation to “repay” the debt of nice gestures with an act that indicates romantic and/or sexual interest.
As the phenomenon above describes, men are socialized to expect women’s romantic and sexual participation after they engage in “nice” or “kind” acts. Chivalry thus becomes an emotionally manipulative way of interacting with women, where niceness comes with many strings attached, and women are expected to “repay” the debt of nice gestures with an act that indicates romantic interest.
Heterosexual men often lament: “girls do not like nice guys”, after a woman that they are interested in does not reciprocate their feelings of interest. The statement itself reveals the deep seated entitlement that many men are socialized to possess. The kind that informs men that a woman is supposed to reciprocate romantic interest if they are nice. The kind that also informs men that a woman’s failure to respond to their “niceness” with romantic interest means that there is something wrong with that woman.
Chivalry As Distorted Morality
When women are taught to look to actions that mimic goodness it can be really distracting from evaluating important moral behavior. When men are taught to mimic actions of goodness it may stunt their development of meaningful ethical behavior. Rather than teaching men not to manipulate women for sex, we teach them to open doors.Even worse, teaching women to look for “nice guy tactics” like chivalry often hide the ways in which “nice-guys” can be violent.
There is harm in teaching both men and women that a good man is a man who engages in chivalrous acts such as: (a) opens the door for a woman to walk through, (b) buys women flowers on the first date, (c) pays for women’s meal (d) pulls the chair out for women, rather than teaching both men and women that a good man is
(1) one who listens to women without dismissing women as “irrational”
(2) one who never pressures women for sex
(3) one who seeks meaningful consent before engaging in sex
(4) one who does not use “dirty tricks” like setting his dogs loose to trap a woman in his house so he can continue to work on her to “give it up“
(5) one who respects women as competent human beings, equal in dignity
(6) one who does not grab, fondle, touch women’s bodies without women consenting
(7) one who who will stop engaging in sexual contact immediately when a woman retracts consent, rather than saying “I’m almost done” or ignoring a woman’s “no” or “stop”
(8) one who respects women’s boundaries
When a woman thinks “goodness” is based on whether a man buys her a gift or opens her door, she is more apt to fail to recognize the soft forms of violence. The kind that occur when a person you trust: boyfriend, husband, friend, sex buddy, rapes you by ignoring you when you say “no”, or kissing you restrictively and firmly such that you cannot verbalize “stop”.
The problem with teaching women and men that “good men” engage in chivalry is two fold.
First, chivalry does not indicate a man’s moral character. It only indicates that he is willing to follow social conventions that prescribe a set of gendered actions that men must make. If society required of men to jump off buildings to demonstrate love, and if society afforded men respect for doing so, the kind of man that follows chivalry would happily oblige. Chivalry, for men who participate, is about their own individual understanding of what a man is supposed to do, rather than a necessary consideration of individual women’s needs and desires.
Second, it conceals abusive behavior. How are women supposed to recognize the subtle ways that abusive men violate their boundaries if women are busy focusing on performative actions like flower buying? Teaching men and women to focus on whether a man opens a door, rather than whether a man respects a woman’s boundaries sets women up to be manipulated and abused. When a woman thinks “goodness” is based on whether a man buys her a gift or opens her door, she is more apt to fail to recognize the soft forms of violence. The kind that occur when a person you trust rapes you, by ignoring you when you say “no” or kissing you firmly so you cannot verbalize “stop”.
Thus the emphasis on performative morality like chivalry, rather than the socialization of men to engage in substantive moral behavior that centers on respecting women creates a distortion of morality. Men come to believe that they are “good” as society deems them good for engaging in chivalry. Whether they rape women, or violate women’s boundaries they imagine themselves as good people as long as they open a few doors and pull out a few chairs.
Chivalry sucks. Chivalry sucks because it is often used as a means to guilt-trip, and pressure women into reciprocating sexual and romantic interest through a “nice act with strings attached” approach. Chivalry sucks because it encourages male-entitlement by teaching men that they are owed romantic interest after they are “nice” to women. Chivalry sucks because it distracts men and women from identifying proper moral behavior. By focusing on performative actions like door opening and chair pulling, men and women are taught to ignore the important issues like meaningful consent, mutual respect, and acknowledging women’s bodily autonomy.
But personally, chivalry sucks because it encourages gender stereotypes that ignore a particular woman’s needs and desires. I don’t want you to open my door for me because I’m a woman and you think this is what women like, I want you to bring me a mango because I am Obaa Boni and you understand the amount of joy I get from sucking on delightful, ripe, mangoes.