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While your experience was extremely unpleasant and invasive, there are unfortunately enough women who would kick up a fuss for being defended by a man…that you unfortunately can’t expect men to do anything any more.

A commenter on a recent blog post summed up an attitude I come across a lot when talking about sexism with men.  The basic problem, as he saw it, was that men could no longer know whether women wanted men to “protect” them or not.  In the particular case, this was a question of whether a man should intervene when a woman was being assaulted in a nightclub.  “Men can’t read your mind, figure out what sort of complaint you’ll make afterwards, and act accordingly” and so for him, there were two options facing women:

1) gender roles of some sort settle down, and we all work out what to expect from one another again.

2) there are no gender roles, and you can’t expect men to respond any more than you would women.

It’s a familiar complaint, that feminism (or “some women”) have disrupted the stable social obligations and expectations which used to exist, and that therefore men will no longer put themselves out in order to benefit women.  Men’s violence against women is thus a greater problem now, because “good men” are too worried or uncertain to prevent it.  It’s a common attitude, but one which I think totally misunderstand the situation.  And the proposed solution – that gender roles are generally agreed again – strikes me as either incredibly naive or downright exploitative.

Traditional gender roles, as proposed by this commenter, apparently offer women the protection and care of people in society who have more power than they do.  That might be economic power, political power or physical power: men are imagined as taking the burden of government on their shoulders, providing a house and an income for their partners, and objecting when someone gropes their partner at a party.  But at root it claims to be a way of putting male power at the service of women.  However, this bargain requires that women legitimise and submit to male power.  In order to be perform their gender role correctly, they have to resign any claims to power, instead admiring and adoring the way men in their lives have more power than they do.

It’s no coincidence that many of the stereotypical accoutrements of traditional “femininity” – long hair, skirts, long nails, high heels – can physically get in the way of strenuous practical activity.  That certainly doesn’t mean that women can’t or shouldn’t wear those accoutrements in modern society; what any woman does is up to her, and I’m not in any position to give either fashion advice or ideological guidance to women on running their lives!  But as men I think we need to recognise how what we have decided is delightfully appealing and charming about women are often markers of weakness.  The fluting, delicate tones of voice – so different from “strident” feminists – can be easily spoken over by someone else.  The high heels prevent running fast or running far.  Adopting a “traditional gender role” for a woman involves signalling to the men around her that she can’t defend herself.

So the demand that women accept fixed gender roles in return for male protection starts by asking them to symbolically give up any power they might aspire to.  It then insists that they derive their meaning from a man, rather than from themselves.  Another commenter on that same article, objected that “plenty of men do respond in clubs. It’s called starting a fight. ‘Hey, you groped my girlfriend/friend/nudged my best mate…’ etc.”  It’s revealing that this protection is imagined as being extended to a woman because of her relationship with a man.  It’s not “Hey, this woman wasn’t doing anything to you” or “You can’t treat people like that”, but “you groped my woman”.  Rather like those well-intentioned but flawed publicity campaigns which ask men to realize “she’s someone’s wife/ daughter/ sister”, this asserts that a woman’s value comes from who she belongs to, not who she is.  It’s a grim reminder that for centuries in this country, rape was a property crime, legally committed against the man who “owned” a woman, whether as daughter or wife.  And that rape within marriage only became a crime in England during the 1990s.  That’s an astonishingly offensive bargain to offer women: I don’t put up with people touching my things, so you should become my thing.

This idea of gender relations keeps men as the central focus of meaning and power.  Women matter in so far as they belong to a man, or can attract a man.  It tries to pit women against each other in a scramble to achieve some of the benefits of security, by resigning their right to be seen as anything other than a relative clause.  It attempts to give men the power to confer personhood upon women.  It also ignores the fact that men have historically been very imprecise and inconsistent about who gets their protection under these supposedly fixed gender roles.  “Whenever I hear a man say he would never hit a woman,” my wife once remarked, “I wonder how he decides who gets to be a woman.”  Black women, gay women, disabled women, working-class women, women who’re too young or too old: they’ve all been made exceptions in various ways to the allegedly sacrosanct status which “real women” possess.  And women can rule themselves out of the category, by being too loud, or too “common”, or too sexually active, or too ungrateful, or too sexually reticent.  Men have a whole list of words, starting with “bitch” and going downhill from there, which they use to convince themselves they’ve never hurt a “woman”.

If we needed any final proof that these traditional “gender roles” (which women should apparently accept for their own good) are an assertion of male power, we might look at the way this offer was phrased.  “[T]here are unfortunately enough women who would kick up a fuss for being defended by a man…that you unfortunately can’t expect men to do anything any more”.  In other words, women’s vulnerability to male violence is women’s fault and women’s problem.  It’s an issue they need to get out of by submitting to men who can offer them security because of their own potential for violence.  If they don’t, then “there are no gender roles, and you can’t expect men to respond any more than you would women”.  That’s a man explaining to women that they’re in danger of violence from men if they don’t behave properly.  That’s the authentic voice of traditional gender roles.