Recently the listicle “9 Chivalrous Habits Of A True Gentleman That Make Women Melt” drifted across my social media radar. In it “fabulous twenty-something” lifestyle blogger Jen Ruiz bemoans a general lack of class on the part of men on the modern dating scene. Here are some of the small-but-meaningful gestures she suggests they might re-adopt: Opening Doors, Suffering though a Girly Movie, Putting Your Jacket On, and Sending Flowers. There you go, fifteen seconds pleasantly wasted.
Depending on which Sex and the City character you most resemble, you may find this cute, saccharine, or retrograde. If you fall towards the negative end of that spectrum, your sticking point may lie with the concept of chivalry, which at its worst is a kind of patriarchal noblesse oblige codifying the ways in which women are the weaker sex. (The original URL of this article refers to “girls” rather than “women”. Presumably changing the title was a last-minute editorial decision, though “girls” is truer to the tone of the piece.)
I share this reservation and make a point of doling out small courtesies in a gender-neutral fashion, but I’m willing to grant a bit of leeway in the area of heterosexual dating since that is an inherently gendered activity. Besides, the clanking plate mail of the word “chivalry” is too comic to provoke outrage. I only ever hear it as part of the stock phrase “Is chivalry dead?” which indicates to me that chivalry is pretty much dead.
If anything, the hackneyed nature of this evergreen women’s mag cliché makes me kind of like Jen Ruiz. I imagine her suddenly realizing that she had fallen behind in her monthly listicle quota and hurriedly banging this one out in ten minutes before rushing out for a fabulous twenty-something night on the town during which men may or may not have opened doors for her. But then I went back and reread the boilerplate she uses to introduce her list.
In a world filled with late-night booty calls, infidelity and a general “hit it and split it” mentality, it’s easy to become jaded by today’s dating scene.
As women, we brace ourselves for the worst, proceeding with extreme caution during the first few months, for fear of falling victim to the aforementioned debauchery in which so many men partake.
Even though none of the nine chivalrous habits have anything to do with sex, the opening paragraphs are all about it. This is not a non sequitur because the list is a gently chiding account of the ways in which men disappoint women, and one way men do this is by tricking them into bed. It goes without saying that a woman would never initiate a late-night booty call or an affair. Women are naturally asexual creatures except when (I’m speculating here) dangling sex as bait to capture The One or, in a moment of weakness, giving in to their baser drives and becoming victims.
It’s the word victim that sticks in my craw. Maybe I shouldn’t read so much into it. Ruiz’s trifle is not written in the mode of the cultural left, where “victim” carries heavy connotations along with a prickly sort of pride. It only appears here as part of the idiom “fall victim”, so the tone I get is more “Oopsie, girlfriend, you fucked him. Better luck next time!” I’ll bet Jen Ruiz is herself nobody’s victim, and may even (speculating again here) have taken part in at least one late-night booty call in a strong, non-regretful, sexually self-determined sort of way. The whole sex-is-a-thing-men-do-to-women thing feels more like a rhetorical tic, something a harried writer produces on her way out the door. But there it still is, denying women’s agency, albeit in a breezy amirite-guys kind of way.
There’s so much to as-they-say-unpack here I’m at a loss where to begin, so let’s start with this: the clear desire for some rules. This whole sex-and-relationships business would be easier to negotiate if everyone knew what the hell they were supposed to do, but they don’t because the generalized taboo about sex extends to talking about sex with someone you might like to have sex with, so Mars and Venus are left to communicate via oblique signals and ossified codes. This, however, is true of human relationships in general. You don’t make new platonic friends by presenting an agreeable candidate with an itemized list of your emotional needs. Instead the two of you just hang out together and see if you click. It’s a kind of seduction.
Actual seduction, though, involves sex, which for some feels fraught, scary and beset with traps. The non-sexual silent mutual agreement thing is nerve-wracking, but the Ethical Slut explicit negotiation thing feels weird. Then in heterosexual relationships mix in the power differential between between men and women, which to the baseline sense of interpersonal nervousness (that, depending on your disposition, is why you either hate going on dates or love going on dates) adds an ethical component. There’s the discomfort arising from sexist baggage (bad) and the discomfort arising from sexual vulnerability (totally hot), and in the moment it may be difficult to disentangle the two. Given such complications, people may feel inclined to fall back on whatever guidance is available, even when that guidance consists of these really awful old man-woman scripts that serve no one.