The Chivalry Trap

Scott Farrell comments:

The image of the warrior as a champion or protector is central to the ideal of chivalry. Yet when that ideal is taken to an extreme, chivalry may become a license to make someone being defended feel helpless.

This is the “dark side” of chivalry that educator Jackson Katz works to eliminate in his lectures to college athletes and military personnel. As he points out in his book, The Macho Paradox, there is a thin, tenuous line between coming to the defense of someone in need, and treating that person like property. The noble cause of chivalry can be, and too often still is used as an excuse for making girls and women feel out of control of their own destinies. Like any good thing, chivalry can be taken to an unhealthy extreme.

Fortunately, as Katz explains, there is a solution. Those who value chivalry should always make sure that their efforts to “protect those in need” go beyond the confines of gender or family loyalty; chivalry should be extended to everyone. Additionally, in order to avoid making someone feel “disempowered,” everyone should be given the chance to become a protector or a champion according to their means: Those who may not be able to act as a “champion” on a physical level should be respected for the intellectual or emotional skills they possess, which can also be used to help those in need.

When The Champion Becomes the Abuser

katzFor men who are committed to working against gender violence, the question about when and if it is okay to “protect” women from other men is the source of ongoing introspection. If a man — because he is stronger, knows better how to use a weapon or is more accustomed to physical confrontation — is in a position to protect a woman from a violent man, then shouldn’t he? In principle, it is not just about protecting a woman as a woman. It is about the moral imperative of protecting a vulnerable person from harm.

But there is more to it. In theory, men should be confronting other men about their sexist attitudes and behaviors toward women. For years, feminists have urged men of conscience to do just that. The reasoning is straightforward. If you are a member of a dominant group, you have a responsibility to challenge other members of your group who are acting in oppressive ways. If you do not, then your silence it tantamount to complicity in their abusive behavior.

One pitfall in the effort to make the mistreatment of women a personal issue for men is the risk that it will tap into some men’s traditional chivalry without challenging their underlying sexism. It is one thing to talk about the problem of men’s violence against women in personal terms, couching it in words that acknowledge a man’s concern for his mother, daughter, wife or lover. The women and girls who are victimized are not nameless, faceless statistics; they are loved ones. But when the focus remains exclusively on the personal, it may only encourage family loyalty, without truly challenging men to confront the larger problem of sexual inequality and male dominance.

Yet another pitfall in this thinking is that women’s right to control their own destiny gets lost in the debate about how men should behave. As victim advocates point out, one of the most painful effects of being battered or sexually assaulted is the experience of a loss of control over one’s body. So if a man steps in to defent or avenge the victim and he has not checked in with her about what she needs, no matter how well-intentioned he might be, he is also depriving her of the right to take back control of her own life.

What lurks just beneath the surface of the debate about chivalry is the question of men’s ownership of women and the historical reality that for centuries, men have controlled women through force. This force has come in many guises — both at the institutional level, by the church or the state, and at the individual level, by physical violence or sexual coercion. So the question is ever-present: What if a man’s impulse to intervene for women derives not from caring and altruism, or a sense of fairness and equality, but from a deeply held belief that women are, in a certain sense, men’s possessions? What if he is coming from a place where an attack on “our women” is functionally equivalent to an attack on him, or his honor?

This is the dark side of chivalry. Under the guise of “protecting” or “defending” women, it prioritizes men’s needs. Besides, if women are always dependent on men to protect them, they will never achieve genuine equality with men, which puts us right back where we started.

© 2007 Jackson Katz

Read Jackson Katz’s 10 Things Men Can Do To Prevent Gender Violence

About the Author: Jackson Katz, Ed.M., is one of America’s leading anti-sexist male activists. An educator, author and filmmaker, he is internationally recognized for his groundbreaking work in the field of gender violence prevention education with men and boys, particularly in the sports culture and the military. He is the co-founder of the Mentors In Violence Prevention program, the leading gender violence prevention initiative in professional and college athletics. This article is excerpted from his new book, The Macho Paradox.

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