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When men say they “respect women” or women say they teach their sons to “respect women,” I cringe.
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe we need to teach men how to treat women, but I’m not at all convinced that the concept of “respecting women” is a meaningful way to do so, because the word “respect” is completely subjective.
For example, I’ve been on many dates with good men who were brought up to respect women by practicing a kind of old-fashioned chivalry that makes me want to scream. Even though I explicitly express that this is not how I like to be treated, they’re completely convinced that this is the “right way to treat women,” and can’t stop.
To me, this is the ultimate patronizing disrespect, because it says, “I know better than you how you need to be treated.” Put simply, if a woman asks a man to stop opening doors and pulling out chairs, it is not more respectful for him to ignore her wishes and do so anyway.
I also know plenty of decent men whose definition of respecting women doesn’t keep them from talking over me, giving me unsolicited and patronizing advice, playing “devil’s advocate” to my lived experience, or feeling that they’re just being “objective” when they poke holes in my opinions—perhaps because they were taught that respecting a woman means never hitting or threatening her, so none of the above behaviors fall into a problematic category in their minds.
Clearly, the concept of “respecting women” means something completely different to each of us, which is why it’s kind of a useless concept.
Not to mention the fact that, in my book, any rule that involves deciding how to treat a woman based on the fact that she is a woman will never feel like respect because it’s inherently conditional and derivative.
Now, listen. You might love being treated “like a lady,” or if you are a man you might love “treating your woman right” in a way that is specific to her sex or gender. That’s fine, of course. I believe each of us gets to decide how we want to be treated, and then teach the people in our lives to treat us accordingly so that we may each be happy.
But regardless of how you like to be treated or treat others, it’s worth unpacking what “respecting women” actually means.
What kind of treatment from men makes you feel most respected? And do we need a unique and specific code for how one half of the population respects the other half? (If so, why? I’m genuinely curious.) More importantly, what does it mean to respect a person, in general?
The interesting thing about respect is that it is naturally context-dependent. What we consider “respectful behavior” varies based on the relationship between two people, and the social norms which inform what kind of treatment goes along with that relationship.
For example, what is considered “respectful behavior” would be different if you were talking to a homeless person versus the CEO of a major company.
Your relative position of perceived power being lower or higher dictates that giving the homeless person $5 and making eye contact with a smile might feel like a generous act of respect, while such a moment could actually feel really rude if you did it to the CEO. In order to demonstrate appropriate “respect” to the CEO, you might need to go way above and beyond such “basic” respect, by researching her company in advance and preparing a list of ways to offer value.
Put another way, peasants show respect to their kings by bowing and groveling and offering gifts, while kings show respect to their peasants by not killing them.
This contextual nature of respect is why I challenge the idea of teaching boys and men to respect women. The power dynamic of the relationship will always dictate what an appropriate display of “respect” looks like, and gender is a relevant factor as to who has the power in a relationship.
Ever notice that we never talk about “respecting men?”
Given our history of gender inequality, women respecting men is as obvious as peasants respecting the king. It’s the default, it’s historically enforceable by punishment and violence, and we all know how to do it.
But men respecting women? That feels sort of like a cute bonus, like the king respecting his peasants.
It’s not so much about letting women thrive as autonomous individuals as it is about permitting women to have certain basic rights. If a king shows his peasants respect by smiling at them, not stealing their crops, and not killing them, everyone is supposed to be grateful to his generosity, right?
Likewise, many little boys are taught to not to hit or rape women, not to “talk back” to their mothers, and not to lie or cheat. All of this is good, but it’s barely scratching the surface of what it means to respect someone. Unfortunately, it’s often where the conversation stops when it comes to men respecting women.
Personally, it seems to be that this context for respecting women allows men to feel generous when they let women talk, have opinions, express sexual freedom, and rise to success (especially women they’re not attracted to!) because anything above not physically hurting her is kind of a bonus, as far as respect goes.
This gendered context is part of the reason why a woman who says “women deserve respect!” is often met with resistance from people who say, “but we already give you respect!” What they really mean is “we already give you the kind/quantity of respect that feels appropriate for your station in life.”
It’s extremely difficult to identify disrespect in action when it occurs to people we view as inferior, or as deserving of less respect, or a different kind of respect, so when they speak up about feeling disrespected, we often label them as greedy, uppity, entitled, or audacious for daring to ask for more than they deserve.
Does that make sense?
Without considering the context of the relationship and power dynamic though, the topic of respecting women will always be incomplete at best, and damaging at worst.
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