Lately, I have seen quite a few references to ‘real men’ as in ‘real men don’t rape’, ‘real men don’t beat women’ and so on. This has been making me rather angry and for some quite complex reasons.
To start with, what is a real man? Well, biologically speaking, a real man is a genuine adult human male. That is, a human being with the anatomy to rape. Now I know that this isn’t what is being meant when people (usually men) say ‘real men don’t rape’ so I want to explore the cultural significance of this saying and also what it infers.
My own reading of ‘real men’ is that it relates to a specific type of masculinity, one we can trace way back to the Dark Ages: chivalry. Chivalry is a proscribed code of conduct and laws originating from the medieval institution of knighthood. Knighthood was about honour, piety, loyalty and brotherhood. It was also about violence and using violence to express and enshrine those codes. The chivalry of the knights became part of what a fiercely patriarchal society expected of its males and it affected how men related to women. Women, of course, were ascribed (by the men in control, in particular the Christian church) our own specific set of permissible behaviours that placed us very clearly in a position of subjection to men.
(Whilst I am discussing European culture here, we see elements of what became known as ‘chivalrous’ behaviour in all cultures, usually proscribed by the dominant religion.)
So, men were raised to aspire to be masculine as it was enshrined in the code of chivalry – to be prepared to live and die for their beliefs and to take a patriarchal role in the community. In reality, it meant idolising violence and oppressing women (specifically) but also men from outside of the ‘brotherhood’.
The Victorians, who looked back to the Middle Ages with longing, took chivalry to extremes, in particular where it determined the way the sexes related to one another. Men took on a paternal, protective role while ensuring women had no autonomy or political presence.
Compliance and obedience became virtues for women while for men, who took charge of all aspects of life, both within and outside of the home, masculinity itself was the virtue. As the status of women was so low, there was nothing as bad as being considered feminine or to display what were considered feminine characteristics, such as tenderness and empathy.
Chivalry is still with us in various forms; centuries later we still have knights. We no longer refer to chivalrous behaviour as knightly, or even as chivalrous but we see it often in its modern form, The Real Man, and we see it in the demarcation of specific behaviour and virtues applied to women and men.
Chivalry, or being a ‘real man’ is part of a narrative of masculinity that depends largely on the suppression and control of women for its validity. For example, holding doors open for women while many of the doors of political and cultural agency remain firmly shut.
As an aside, I can remember feminists getting a lot of flak years ago by suggesting that holding open doors for women was sexist, in the sense of it being part of the same sexist system that determines the number of women in positions of power. Hold open doors by all means, but because you are being polite not chivalrous.
What does all of this have to do with rapists?
The phrase ‘real men don’t rape’ serves two functions, neither of which benefit women.
The first is that it relies on the tradition of chivalry for meaning, and as I have tried to explain, that tradition is one of violence and oppression and a total disregard for the autonomy of women. Incidentally, I’m sure that even knights raped.
Secondly, it implies that rapists are some sort of ‘other’, a type of man that is outside of masculine culture. Yet we know that however monstrous the crime of rape is, rapists are not ‘monsters’. They are men from all parts of society; fathers, husbands, priests, servicemen (ironic, given that soldiery is the modern incarnation of knighthood), teachers, politicians. Even a man lacking in every recognisable attribute of power can exert his power over a woman by raping her.
By ‘othering’ rapists, it allows men to shirk collective and personal responsibility for rape. By defining rapists as not ‘real’ men, it allows men to conveniently place the blame for rape and violent male behaviour as something apart from them. By describing rapists as not ‘real’ men, men needn’t look at the systemic culture of rape and violence against women and how it defines our existence.
Never mind ‘real men’, we would all be safer if men aspired to be more like women.