“Find out what it means to me”: some thoughts on respect, chivalry, and campaigns against sexual violence

Vanessa posted last week about the Coaching Boys into Men program, a product of the New York Family Violence Prevention Fund. Vanessa posts one of the flyers produced by the program; it features a boy in an orange hoodie with the words “Awaiting Instructions” emblazoned across the front. And the instructions the boy receives:

1. Eat your vegetables
2. Don’t play with matches
3. Finish your homework
4. Respect women

And in the comments section at Feministing, there’s a mix of praise and criticism for the campaign, mostly revolving around the “problematic” meaning of “respect” for women. ProFeministMale writes:

…often times, when I hear the general, non-feminist public teach young boys to “respect” women, I get the impression that a lot of what they’re teaching also involves “chivalry,” to to see women as somehow being “different,” that they’re nimble and weak and need to young boys and men to serve as the “protectors.”

This is a good idea – but I can’t help but think these boys are also being indoctrinated into gender roles that so much of the world is buying into.

In the various workshops I’ve put on for young men (and not so-young-men) in church and school settings, I’ve talked a lot about the real meaning of one of my favorite words, “respect.” (And if you’re thinking of the Aretha Franklin song now, hold on, I’ll get to it.)

I often start by writing the word “respect” on a flip chart or chalkboard, and then ask the folks I’m working with to play the word association game with me. Everyone gets to throw out the first thing that comes into their head when they hear or see the word. As you might expect, I get a lot of different definitions. Some people do think of chivalry; almost always, someone will say that “opening the door for a woman” is the first thing that he thinks of when he hear the word. Others will offer a negative definition, suggesting that “respect” is more about what you don’t do than what you do: “It’s like watching your language around a girl”; “It’s about not grabbing her just ’cause you want to”; (I remember that definition vividly from one high school group), “It’s treating her as a girl and not like a guy.” I write as many of the definitions and word associations on the board as I can.

I then tell them the meaning of the word. Spectare means “to look”; re means “again.” So respect is “to look again.” I then ask the audience what they think “to look again” might mean when it comes to how we treat each other. (Usually, some wiseacre will say something like “That means when you see a girl who’s lookin’ fine, you look at her twice!” Everyone laughs indulgently.) But most of them start to get it: “looking again” means looking beyond a superficial exterior. Another way of thinking about “respect” is to suggest that it’s moving beyond “looking at” to “seeing”. To be looked at is to be perceived as an object; to be seen is to be recognized as a unique and valuable human being. Most young people can instantly think of times when they’ve felt the difference between “being looked at” and being truly “seen.”

Respect isn’t chivalry, if what we mean by chivalry is a fairly rigid, antiquated code of prescribed ways of treating men and women differently. Indeed, respect and chivalry can be in considerable opposition. If a code of chivalry conditions me to treat a woman in a certain way merely because she’s a woman, then by definition I’m not respecting her — because I’m not seeing her as a person, only as a female. Think of the epic battles that happen over the issue of holding doors open. I can think of countless men who’ve complained that, to put it vulgarly, they’ve been “bitched out” by women for whom they held open a door or performed some other act of traditional “courtesy.” Respect, however, is deliberately refraining from imposing your own particular views on how the sexes ought to relate onto others. Respect is paying enough attention to those around you that you begin to see as unique human beings; respect is adapting your own behavior to the different needs of different people. Chivalry is a “two-size fits all” approach.

Everyone knows the Aretha Franklin R-E-S-P-E-C-T song. One of the best lines in it is the refrain “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.” It’s not a throw-away lyric! Find out what it means to me. That “to me” is vital, and it’s right on. Respect may mean one thing to Aretha, and another thing to Joanne, still another to Maria, still another to Jill, still another to Ralph or Harry or Ted. Respect involves making a unique connection with one other human being; it is inherently incompatible with any rigid code of gender-based conduct. Holding a door open for someone who doesn’t want the door held isn’t respect.

Aretha’s magnificent song has a very different definition of respect than one currently doing very well on country radio: “Cleaning my Gun”, by Rodney Atkins. A song about a protective father, it includes these wince-inducing lines:

Well now that I’m a father
I’m scared to death one day my daughter’s gonna find
That teenage boy I used to be
Who seems to have just one thing on his mind
She’s growing up so fast it won’t be long
‘fore I’ll have to put the fear of god
Into some kid at the door

Come on in boy, sit on down
And tell me ’bout yourself
So you like my daughter, do you now
Yeah we think she’s something else
She’s her daddy’s girl, her momma’s world
She deserves respect, thats what she’ll get
Ain’t it son, ya’ll run on and have some fun
I’ll see you when you get back
Probably be up all night
Still cleaning this gun

It’s an old and ugly trope: Daddy uses the threat of violence to guard his daughter’s sexual innocence. “Respect”, in the Atkins song, offers no possibility for agency on the daughter’s part. Rather, “respect” is defined as “keep your hands off my little girl”. The beau is invited to find out what “respect” means to Dad, and it doesn’t matter one bit what it means to his daughter. And the end result will be the same: keeping your hands off your date just because you’re scared of her papa’s gun is no more a sign of respect than pawing at her in self-centered lust. In either scenario, there’s a complete failure to look again, to see what the woman involved might actually want.

Many feminists are rightly suspicious of the language of “respect” because they hear the word the way the likes of Rodney Atkins use it. But the word is a useful one, particularly when we reclaim its original meaning. When we use it the way Aretha used it, with its exuberant insistence that we “find out” the unique desires of the people with whom we interact, it’s a positive concept indeed. In the struggle against rape, harassment, and sexualized violence, clarifying the authentic meaning of “respect” is vital. And once properly understood, it’s something we can insist upon.

29 thoughts on ““Find out what it means to me”: some thoughts on respect, chivalry, and campaigns against sexual violence

  1. I was writing a post about chivalry, but I thought writing about opening doors was a silly topic, so it’s still a rough draft. I think I’ll publish it today. Thanks!

  2. Hope this isn’t a threadjack. It is sort of on topic…As a woman, I love holding doors open for men and watching their reaction. If they know me, they know why I do it and they walk through it without hesitation. If they are strangers, the responses range between trying to change positions (him holding the door for me), to bewilderment, to appreciation. It is a fun exercise in reversing roles. People whose ideas of gender and roles are not extremely rigid, will take it in stride and walk through the door. Others who have very rigid ideas of gender roles (like my father) will not walk through the door regardless of how much I insist.

  3. Looking at the coaching statement, it seems like a very positive program, particularly when you view it within the context of working on the root causes of gendered violence. If you take as a given that women are the overwhelming victims of rape and violence when it occurs between the sexes, it makes sense to work with boys on this specific issue. I don’t see a lot of chivalry in the statement, but rather helping boys deal positively with their own anger in non-violent ways. And lots of good stuff on being a positive role model for boys in the way you treat people – in general – with respect.

    Reading the comments on feminsting, it seems many of the comm enters seized on the ad poster, and the “boys and girls are different” aspect. They see it is a set of general instructions for how boys should treat girls as different types of people, rather than a program designed specifically to address the problem of violence against women. To me that goes off the deep end, ignoring a present, tangible problem because of a theoretical, abstract concern.

    I would have a problem with a “how to treat girls with respect” program for boys, unless there was similar “how to treat boys with respect’ program for girls. The way I see it, excluding the specific issue of violence, girls and boys are equally in need of ethical instruction on how to treat the other sex – and people in general – with respect.

  4. Where I work, whoever is in the process of going through a door will hold it open for another person that is approaching the door. It is form of common courtesy. It is considered rude to let the door close in someone’s face.

    Therefore any person that “bitches out” someone for the common courtsy of holding the door for them is being disrespectful and is trying to impose their views on them. Different people do have different needs and most people have a need to be courteous to others. They should not be “bitched out” for it.

    Hugo, I think you miss the main point of “Daddy uses the threat of violence to guard his daughter’s sexual innocence.” It does not have to do with what the daughter wants, but with what the parents want. Parents usually want their children to be in a certain stage of life before having sex. So for example, when a fourteen year old daughter wants to have sex with her boyfriend, her father hopes that the boyfriend will be too intimidated to agree.

  5. Perfect use of song lyrics! But did you realize that Otis Redding actually wrote Respect? I think that’s pretty cool. It might not have been a hit without Aretha, though.

  6. Fred, there are excellent reasons for young people to have sex — and to not have sex. But basing the “not” on fear of violence is never, ever a good reason.

  7. Hugo,
    Great post.

    My husband and I were just talking about respect the other day. Turns out we have different meanings of the word. He sometimes goes above and beyond to try not to make people feel uncomfortable. We disagreed that preventing discomfort is respect. I think honesty is essential for respect and that sometimes being honest means making someone feel uncomfortable.

    But ultimately, you’re right, respect isn’t about etiquette rules, honesty, comfort or any of that. It’s about treating people as people, as worthy of consideration and care.

  8. “Vanessa posted last week about the Coaching Boys into Men program, a product of the New York Family Violence Prevention Fund. Vanessa posts one of the flyers produced by the program; it features a boy in an orange hoodie with the words “Awaiting Instructions” emblazoned across the front. And the instructions the boy receives”

    My instructions, to both the boy in the orange hoodie and the girl in the light blue hoodie:

    1. Eat your vegetables
    2. Don’t play with matches
    3. Finish your homework
    4. Respect men and women and boys and girls equally.

    “As a woman, I love holding doors open for men and watching their reaction.”

    My reaction would be a sincere “thank you,” and then I might return the favor to show that we’re equals. Gender roles only serve to screw everybody over.

    “The way I see it, excluding the specific issue of violence, girls and boys are equally in need of ethical instruction on how to treat the other sex – and people in general – with respect.”

    I would agree with you completely, except that I see no need for your “exclusion.”

    bmmg39
    Stop violence against women AND men.
    http://www.dahmw.org

  9. Parents usually want their children to be in a certain stage of life before having sex. So for example, when a fourteen year old daughter wants to have sex with her boyfriend, her father hopes that the boyfriend will be too intimidated to agree.

    Yet there is no similar stereotype of the angry father hoping to intimidate his son’s girlfriend into not sleeping with him, or the angry mother trying to protect her son’s virginity ditto. This isn’t really about “parents” protecting “children”. It’s about men trying to keep their daughters from having sex.

    I can think of countless men who’ve complained that, to put it vulgarly, they’ve been “bitched out” by women for whom they held open a door or performed some other act of traditional “courtesy.”

    Interestingly, I’ve *never* talked to a woman who has ever said that she yells at men who open doors for her. I’ve heard many men claim that they’ve been scolded for doing so, but where are all these door-declining women? They can’t be afraid other feminists will scold them so they keep mum.

    (I have, though, encountered men who make a big fucking deal out of opening a door with a whole “Want to make something out of it?” glare. Real chivalrous, there.)

  10. Which is not to say that anyone who claims it happened is lying–I’m sure it does happen, although I’d note that most of the “and then she told me off!” incidents I’ve heard seem to have occurred in college. But I find it odd that I’ve never, ever heard a woman say “This guy opened a door for me and I told him to fuck off.” I’ve heard women say that they ignore the guy because they think he is making a big point of it, but nobody who thought the proper response was a lecture on the sexist history of door-opening.

  11. “Yet there is no similar stereotype of the angry father hoping to intimidate his son’s girlfriend into not sleeping with him, or the angry mother trying to protect her son’s virginity ditto. This isn’t really about “parents” protecting “children”. It’s about men trying to keep their daughters from having sex.”

    So what are you saying – that it is fine to generalize about the intentions of fathers because of stereotypes? Care to generalize about the intentions of mothers in general based on the stereotypical mother who who relentlessly criticize their son’s girlfriend?

  12. When we were dating, Nancy’s car developed a flat. She’d never been taught to change a tire, and so I made her change the tire. “Doing” is always better than “watching” to learn a skill. I stood back and guided her and made sure nothing dangerous happened.

    She brags about that, even 30 years later. To me, it’s a painful memory.

    We’ve always been like that: no quarter asked or given in road races, driver holds open door on dates (and we still date), whoever gets to a door first opens it for the other, and we help each other on with our coats. We defer to each other in our areas of expertise.

    That’s respect and chivalry.

    But I change all the flat tires now.

  13. Fred, i’ve had this problem as well: if I am walking through a door with other people, I *always* hold the door open for them, regardless of their gender.

    This is true even if the other people who are walking through the door with me are total strangers; it would feel rude to let the door slam in their face.

    I *have* been accused of being a chauvinist pig for doing so, on one or two occasions, unfortunately.

  14. hugo, my only quibble with this is that it seems like an impossible tall order to ask someone to “respect” another person by knowing whether they want the door held open for them! i don’t know if you just meant in the context of personal relationships (e.g. you should know if your girlfriend/boyfriend appreciates this, or makes him/her uncomfortable etc), because it’d be harder to apply that standard much more broadly, right?

    and i’m with christina – i do this for men when i get a chance – not just the “hey i’m not letting the door slam in your face,” but the whole “oh, you first, let hold this door for you” thing. messing with little gender norms = fun stuff.

  15. I realized after coming back to my original comment and reading some other that it may have come across as sexist. I do indeed hold doors for whoever is walking up behind me. I will also walk though a door that someone else is holding and hold the next one open for that person if there are double doors. However, as a woman, I do not get strange reactions from other women. I get “thanks.” I DO get strange reactions from men, and like kate.d said, I enjoy messing with their gender norms.

    “So what are you saying – that it is fine to generalize about the intentions of fathers because of stereotypes? Care to generalize about the intentions of mothers in general based on the stereotypical mother who who relentlessly criticize their son’s girlfriend?”

    One stems out of percieved right to control the body of another person. The other stems out of jealousy and fear of losing influence (not control).

  16. Kate, the post was about more than figuring out whether or not to hold the door open for someone; as almost everyone now agrees, that ought to be a gender neutral behavior. Neither Aretha Franklin or Rodney Atkins were using “respect” to describe door-holding! Respect, here, is about making an investment in finding out who the people with whom you are regularly interacting are. As for door-holding, generally being considerate of whoever is coming behind you (be they male, female, or elf) ought to suffice.

  17. “Yet there is no similar stereotype of the angry father hoping to intimidate his son’s girlfriend into not sleeping with him,”

    If the boyfriend’s father made a serious attempt to intimidate the girlfriend by threatening her with violence, the father would be locked up for a multitude of crimes.

    I have personally seen over the years, parents that have treaten to cut off income (i.e, paying for college or room and board) if their son continued to pursued a relationship with their current girlfriend.

  18. The discussion of “Cleaning My Gun” reminded me of my teen gal pal from church, who has a pretty complex relationship to sexual agency: On the one hand, she cares very much about being popular in a high school where sex talk, “grinding” dances and explicit music videos are a huge part of the culture. On the other hand, I sense that she wants to stay clear of the early sexual activity and teen pregnancy that she sees among her peers. So she brags a lot about how her male cousins would shoot any guy who had sex with her before marriage. I think this gives her plausible deniability in a Catch-22 teen subculture where girls are expected to be sexually assertive, yet are labeled “sluts” by other girls when they are seen as having “too many” partners. Perhaps the shotgun dad fantasy is still popular because some girls see it as the only alternative to facing down the teen wolves solo.

  19. “Perhaps the shotgun dad fantasy is still popular because some girls see it as the only alternative to facing down the teen wolves solo.”

    So papa with a gun can empower his daughter and at the same time keep the wolves away. Sounds like papa is a real feminist :)

  20. So what are you saying – that it is fine to generalize about the intentions of fathers because of stereotypes?

    I believe you want to direct that question to Fred.

    If papa were a real feminist, he’d teach his daughter how to face down teen wolves, and how to use a gun to protect herself. There’s nothing “feminist” about assuming your daughter doesn’t want to have sex and it’s a Father’s Duty to intimidate anyone who might have sex with her by implying violence.

  21. Hugo – EXACTLY!!!

    sorry to yell, but I’m so glad you feel the same way I do about respect.

    a work my boss insisted on helping me change the water cooler bottle because as he said, ” I’m just oldfashioned like that”

    If I had in fact been struggling with it and he came in and said “you look like you need a help, can I offer you some?” I would have thought that was nice and may or may not have accepted it.

    As it was I spent the whole day feeling a little miffed that I was seen as “merely a woman in need of help” instead of a human being.

    Also you might want to check out a great post on chivalry at Feminist allies: http://feministallies.blogspot.com/

  22. I agree with Mythago about what a good dad should do — I was just speculating about the calculation some girls may be making, not defending it as the ideal — and also suggesting that the chauvinist type of “chivalry” persists b/c at least some women see it as the lesser of two evils.

  23. “If papa were a real feminist, he’d teach his daughter how to face down teen wolves, and how to use a gun to protect herself.”

    Sure, everyone should know how to stand up for him or herself. But there’s also a lot of value in having an excuse external to oneself. When I was a teenager, if there was a party I didn’t want to go to my mother always made it clear that she would take the ‘blame’ of having kept me in, and this seems very similar. Nowadays I can blame working late or other committments to politely decline, but as a teenager those roads weren’t open to me.

    Similarly, in an adult situation, it’s easier to talk about not wanting to have sex, and if someone gets upset at the refusal or offended by the implication he can just be avoided. In many high schools, alienating the wrong people can have drastic consequences for someone’s social life and overall emotional well-being; in addition, a teenager with relatively pure intentions is more likely to take a straightforward “I don’t want to have sex” as an accusation than a similar adult, for reasons of simple maturity. But if someone wants to make it known that she dare not have sex, for reasons not within her control, that’s a far less dangerous method.

  24. The etymology of the word “respect” is irrelevant. The question is its meaning today.

    One cannot look twice at the inwardness of a person seen for a couple of seconds. You either put them in a category, or you don’t. If you don’t, you know nothing about them. If you do, you may know something about them. Later on, if the opportunity arises, which it rarely does, you may find out about their personal uniqueness. In the meantime, what about the door?

    Respect supercedes honesty unless the issue supercedes respect. “I was just being honest” with a partly-hidden smirk is far too often associated with hurtful speech. Thanks for sharing, but stuff it, would you?

    I respect women, which is to say I treat them differently from men, for several reasons. One is–see deBecker–overt acts of respect reduce the threat implicit in coming close to a large, unknown man. In walking on narrow sidewalks, for example, I will get off the sidewalk for a woman walking toward me before it’s absolutely necessary. But not for guys. They take their chances.

    There are women who, if I were to treat them no differently from men, would be lacking some of the teeth they had had the day before. But men, knowing things are different, respect other men more than some women do. I imagine nobody wants me to be more even-handed.

    I will take physical work from a woman, even if she doesn’t seem to need it, as a courtesy. In addition, whatever she’s doing is half as difficult for me because I’m probably twice, at least, as strong as she. I have less chance of injury, and if the water cooler bottle hits the floor, it’s my fault, not hers.

    As a guy, I am expendable, and there’s a reason for it. It’s to protect women and children from that which they cannot fend off themselves. In our current world, the rubber only rarely hits the road, but if I–and most men–were not emotionally prepared, it would be an ill world for weaponless dreamers (points for the reference), I mean for women and children.

    I respect women as a category until individual women prove I shouldn’t. Then, I remain polite.

  25. As a guy, I am expendable, and there’s a reason for it. It’s to protect women and children from that which they cannot fend off themselves.;

    This is the old “lifeboat” strategy. Women are more important than men because they can have children. A single man can impregnate large numbers of women, but a single woman is limited in the number of children she can have. So traditionally, women have been protected, as well as children–the latter as they are the future of the tribe. Downside is that women get treated as chattel. Can’t have one without the other.

    The problem is, we no longer live in tribal society. But we still cling to the customs.

  26. Westcampus.
    Due to the exertions and expending of a great many guys, you and I, for now, no longer live in a tribal society.
    This is not the norm of history.
    We’re lucky.

    When that moron shot so many women at the Canadian college, no men were hurt. They bailed. I guess to some that’s progress.

    Referring to the resulting endless anti-violence-at-the-hands-of-men activities, Mark Steyn observed that testosterone hadn’t seemed to be the problem.

Comments are closed.