The Soapbox: What It Means To Be A Gentleman

I came late to appreciating chivalry, which I have written about on The Frisky before. For most of my life, chivalry made me uncomfortable. I’ve always identified as a feminist and Third Wave feminism generally is pretty frosty towards traditional gender roles. But moreso than being a feminist, I felt the same way a lot of modern women (who may or may not identify as feminists) do in that I felt pride of my ability to take care of myself better than my mother can take care of herself. I pay my own bills, I know how to change a tire on a car, I buy my own technology, etc. etc.

However, as I grew older and had more life experiences and more serious relationships, I realized that I liked being treated chivalrously. Some of it is that I like the outward displays of both respect and affection; as a person whose job entails the reading of many nasty Internet comments about my beliefs/life choices/appearance, those little loving moments are golden.

But more strongly, over time I’ve realized that I am okay with choosing to have a more traditional “feminine” role in a relationship. Between having had more life experiences in my ripe old 27 years and discussing those life experiences in therapy, I’ve realized that I have a tendency to turn into a guy’s mommy. I get in relationships with guys who can be needy and I swoop them up in my arms and take care of them. It starts with a smidgen of romance, but eventually becomes about prioritizing someone else’s needs above my own almost constantly. Of course, being maternal isn’t always a bad thing and I’m not suggesting it is. One of the things I like about myself is that I am nurturing towards the people I care about, whether it’s my sisters or my boss or my girl friends or even someone I barely know at all.

However, through talking with my therapist, I now know I have to have more of a two-way street with my partner. Partners should take care of each other, rather than one partner being the sole caretaker. And I like to be taken care of by the types of guys that I now date, the chivalrous ones who oftentimes happen to be the ones who take more of a traditional “masculine” role in a relationship. So, now I’ve turned 180-degrees and I feel comfortable with chivalry — I might even say I love it. I would never prescribe that all men have to be have a certain way “just because,” but I know that the guys that I want to date are the ones who behave chivalrously. It makes me feel good. Every time a guy acts chivalrously towards me, especially a guy I’m dating, it reminds me that he’s making an effort to “take care of me.” That in turn reminds me that we are in a romantic relationship together and I am not his mommy.

All that being said, what it means for a man to be “a gentleman” is hard to define. Like being “a feminist,” the label has some unifying principles but what it means varies from person to person. And I’m finding from the self-proclaimed “gentlemanly” guys I’ve dated in the past 10+ months — all but one of them I met through an online dating website, where there are lots of questions potential suitors can read about a person’s thoughts on chivalry and manners — that there are a lot of guys who think they are gentlemen, they pride themselves on being gentlemen, but in reality they’re actually quite sexist, rude, and disrespectful.

There was the guy who wasn’t lying next to me when I woke up in his bed one morning, who I found in his female roommate’s bedroom, lying on her bed next to her as she was wearing a nightgown, watching TV together. There was the guy who was already several drinks in by the time I showed up on several of our dates. There was the guy who yanked my hair when he had our first kiss and then told me he wanted to see my “p**sy” as he walked me to the subway. (And I actually went on a second date with this loser. Ugh.) There was the (different) guy who kissed me at the end of a first date (which is fine, obviously) by shoving his tongue deep into my mouth, awkwardly, right in front of several diners sitting next to us. And who can forget this guy, who told me that he could never introduce me to his mother because of the stuff I’ve written about sex on the Internet, but don’t worry, he still wanted to go on a date with me anyway!

All of these guys — every single one of them — went through the motions of behaving like “a gentleman”: they paid on the first several dates, they held open doors, they helped me get into a cab if I was wearing crazy heels. If you just looked at those surface behaviors, you might think they were gentlemen, too. But I came to see eventually that each and every one of them was giving a performance.

Of course, those little motions are appreciated for what they are. (And, for the record — because this is something so-called “men’s rights advocates” love to raise hell about — I always, always, always offer to pay for myself on a date. However, I find that guys are more comfortable trading-off who pays rather than splitting a bill.) But that’s not what being “a gentleman” is. It’s not about superficial behaviors without the real respect or care behind it to back it up. Being gentlemanly, to me, is more about genuinely acting with respect for a woman because of who she is and what she means to you, not just treating her a certain way because she is “some woman you are trying to impress.” What would really impress me is if you treat me with actual, genuine respect because you do actually, genuinely respect me.

To be clear, I don’t claim to be Miss Manners. I am aware I interrupt people while they’re talking because I get so excited about what I want to say. I am aware I sometimes say things that come out as rude or hurtful, even if that’s not at all what I intended. And I’m aware that I’ve done some things that were inconsiderate and I knew they were inconsiderate but I did them anyway. I am not perfect by any means. Not even close.

None of that means, though, that I don’t wish men who claim to be “gentlemen” listened to me about this: are you really a gentleman who treats women with genuine respect or are you just performing like one? Are you actually making the women you date feel uncomfortable or disrespected, even though you think you’re “gentlemanly duty” has been done (so to speak) because you paid for dinner? Do you actually hold rather sexist attitudes towards women — sexual women, complicated women, real women?

Something to think about.

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