When I was in my 20s, chivalry wowed me. I loved it when men paid for my food, held the car door open for me and carried my suitcases — quite a step above the frat guys I encountered in college. Sure, chivalry made me a bit uncomfortable, but it also made me feel valued.
Now, having dug deep into the research on chivalry, why it exists, and what it actually accomplishes, I am very much against it, and I recognize that it’s actually rooted in disrespect. I won’t teach my son to be chivalrous, or teach my daughter to think chivalry is sweet. Today, I’m going to explain why.
I know this post is going to ruffle some feathers. So first, I want to point out that I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach our kids to be generous or helpful. It’s great to teach kids to hold the door for others! It’s important to teach kids to offer a helping hand when someone is struggling! But I firmly believe we should not be teaching boys to do this specifically for girls, and especially not to be doing it because they are girls. We should teach kids to come to the aid of others who need and want help, regardless of their gender — and not to make blanket assumptions about the kinds of people who need assistance and don’t. The notion that boys should go out of their way to help or protect girls promotes dangerous ideas, and, ultimately, dangerous behavior. (But if you have been teaching your kids chivalry, don’t fret! Just a slight tweak in framing turns chivalry into kindness towards all.)
Although chivalry is insidious — more on why in a minute — it’s very attractive. Among other things, it provides a simple code of conduct for young, typically heterosexual, people to follow when dealing with the opposite sex. “People are pretty desperate for a rulebook — ‘Okay, you want to get in a relationship, here's how you do it,’” said Matt Hammond, a social psychologist at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand who studies prejudice and intimate relationships. Chivalry provides “hard and fast rules, which are super restrictive [but] are also very freeing in their restrictiveness, because they present a solution to complex problems.” (Speaking of restrictive rules: This post focuses on people who identify as either men or women and who are in heterosexual relationships, but of course, the world is much more complex than that. Still, chivalry does tend to thrive within these particular spheres.)
At first glance, chivalry seems like a win-win: It makes men feel generous and useful. They get to be protectors and heroes, doing good in the world by treating women well and keeping them safe. It also makes women feel cherished — after all, only valuable people deserve protection and support. Research has shown that young women find chivalrous men more attractive than they find non-chivalrous men, and on some level, that’s not terribly surprising.
But if you sit with the concept for a few minutes, and take a look at the research, you discover that chivalry is patronizing and based on misogynistic ideas. (In the research literature, chivalry is referred to as “benevolent sexism.”) The notion that men should care for and protect women inherently implies that women are weaker and less competent. It’s as if chivalrous guys think, “‘We love women. We love girls. But they're also so helpless that we need to like make sure that they don't hurt themselves while opening the door,’” said Andrei Cimpian, a psychologist at NYU who studies cognitive development, including how biases develop. “Sending the signal that girls need additional protection — while in the moment, it might be a nice thing for girls and they might feel good about it — it is ultimately undermining because the message is that you need extra help.”
Consciously, of course, many women and girls don’t interpret chivalry as sexist — and as I said, years ago, neither did I. This is another reason it’s become such a staple of our culture: It serves, at least initially, to keep women happy in their subordinate roles. If men were overtly misogynistic, many women wouldn’t tolerate them (I mean, one would hope?). Chivalry makes the existing gender power structure more palatable — it is what researchers have described as “the carrot dangled in front of women to motivate them to accept inequality” (whereas overt, hostile sexism is “the stick by which they are beaten when they do not”).
I’m not saying that chivalrous men are pretending to adore women in order to get females to tolerate them. Chivalry isn’t an act of willful manipulation. Many chivalrous men truly believe that what they’re doing is helpful and loving — I know lots of these guys and they mean well! — and many may be extremely offended by the argument that chivalry is rooted in sexism. (I can’t wait for all the hate mail I get in response to this post.) But we know from the research that men who support or engage in chivalrous behavior also tend to hold more overtly sexist beliefs deep down, even if they’re not consciously aware that they do. The two kinds of sexism — benevolent and hostile — typically go hand in hand. We also know that chivalry has negative consequences, even when men mean well.
If you’re a chivalrous guy who identifies as a feminist, I urge you to consider the implications of making judgments about what people need, want or can handle based on their gender. (Or, substitute another physical characteristic for gender. What if tall people assumed all short people needed help getting onto the subway? What if people without glasses assumed all people with glasses needed help walking through doors?) To pull in an insight from the parenting research, we know that when parents jump in and help children with their homework, kids interpret the help as a sign that their parents think they’re incompetent. The same goes for when men jump in and help women and girls who don’t ask for, or particularly need, their help — it can make women feel like crap.
Research shows that women do, in fact, suffer direct harm from chivalry. Women who experience chivalry feel less competent and perform more poorly than other women due to increased self-doubt. Women who believe that they should be protected by men tend to have lower career ambitions, defer to their partners more about career decisions, and believe their main job is to support their partner’s goals.
In the long run, too, relationships that are built on chivalry tend leave women unsatisfied. Among other things, Hammond and his colleagues have found that chivalrous men tend to jump in and solve problems for their female partners rather than support them in an empowering way. “They're more likely to help women in ways that facilitate more dependency,” said Brenda Gutierrez, a developmental psychology graduate student at the University of California Santa Cruz. Because women in such partnerships tend to sacrifice their personal goals for their relationships, they wind up more dissatisfied when those relationships do not hold up to their ideals — and, because of their co-dependency, suffer more consequences if the relationship fails.
Chivalry does more than merely reinforce the idea that women are the weaker sex — it also celebrates and rewards certain kinds of women, and certain kinds of behaviors, at the expense of others. In a culture shaped by benevolent sexism, men are rewarded for their power and strength (including caring for women), while women are rewarded for their warmth and docility (including allowing men to serve as their protectors). When women don’t conform to these ideals, the happy facade often crumbles. “It's all part of a boundary-patrolling, hierarchy-enhancing sort of ideology, where attitudes toward women are positive as long as they're fulfilling the traditional norms of being a homemaker,” Cimpian said.
In other words, women are typically protected and loved by chivalrous men as long as they conform to traditional gender roles. As soon as women try to push against these norms, chivalrous men often turn against them. As Hammond explained to me, this double-edged sword of sexism helps to explains why men can say they love and care for their wives even as they also claim that women are too emotional or stupid to hold positions of power. As long as women stay in the kitchen, they’ll remain in men’s good graces; if they dare to venture out, they’re despicable.
This idea that nontraditional women don’t deserve the same respect and protection has implications for sexual violence, too. It drives men to believe that women who are assaulted somehow deserve it, perhaps because they weren’t conforming to traditional gender norms. The more chivalrous men are, “the more tolerant they are of acquaintance rape and sexual assault, because they blame women for being in that position in the first place,” Hammond told me. In one study, chivalrous men, when compared with non-chivalrous men, said they believed that men who committed acquaintance rape were less accountable and should serve less prison time.
Chivalry isn’t just bad for women and girls though — it’s bad for men and boys, too. “If you have the belief that boys are always supposed to be ones that are providing help, and never the ones that need help, that can inform ideas about masculinity — that you have to be tough at all times, you can't show weakness,” Gutierrez said. “We know that leads to poor adjustment and well-being.”
As for how and when children learn chivalry, we don’t know a lot as of yet — but what we model and promote as parents almost certainly plays a part. In a 2019 study, Gutierrez and her colleagues found that starting at around age 3, girls believe that they, more than boys, should be helped and rescued by others. They also found that preschool boys believe that they, more than girls, should act as heroes. And in 2021, Hammond and Cimpian reported that kids who endorse benevolent sexism — who essentially believe that women are wonderful but should be protected — also tend to endorse more overtly hostile sexist ideas, such as that women are weaker than men. Their study suggests that when we teach kids to be chivalrous, we also inadvertently teach them to believe that men are better and stronger than women. (For more insight on how sexism develops, check out chapter 5 of my book.)
Having read all of this research, I am now making a concerted effort not to promote chivalry in my house. Does this mean that I’ll never teach my son to help girls, or instruct my daughter to never accept assistance from a boy? Not at all. I will, however, try to do the following:
Teach my kids that they can and should offer help and be kind to others regardless of their gender. If they want to hold the door open for their friends, great — but do it for guy friends and girl friends. Gutierrez suggested that I encourage my kids to consider why they are offering help. “It's asking oneself: Am I doing this because it's nice or because of someone's gender?” she said.
Avoid modeling chivalry as a parent. If I notice that my partner helps my daughter more than he helps my son, I will point that out. I’ll also ask him not to help me just because I’m a woman. (I’ll be careful not to help my daughter more than I help my son, too.) That said, I will accept my partner’s help when I need it. As Hammond put it to me: “Being a nice person means being responsive to someone — not applying a blanket rule for how they should be treated.”
Avoid sexualizing cross-gender friendships. If my son has a friend who’s a girl, I won’t call her his “girlfriend” or joke about whether they’re going to get married. This promotes the idea that boys and girls should only engage with each other romantically, and it often leads to adults encouraging chivalrous behavior — saying things like “‘Go help her, make sure you treat her right,” Gutierrez explained.
Model gender equality in the household. Research suggests that when fathers take on more domestic labor, their daughters are not only more likely to aspire to have careers, but the careers they want are less gender-stereotypical. That’s because, when dads don’t help enough around the house, it reinforces the idea that a man’s role is outside the house as a protector and breadwinner, and that women should be homemakers.
Encourage my son to reject gender norms. We can’t “solve” sexism merely by changing how the world considers girls and women, Hammond said. We also have to change what society expects of boys and men. We need to let our sons cry. We shouldn’t shame them when they ask for help or feel afraid. We should never tell them they can’t be teachers or nurses. “Gender inequality is a problem for everyone,” Hammond said. We hold both boys and girls back when we promote outdated ideas about what each gender can or should do.
In last week’s Well newsletter for The New York Times , I explained what you should do if a doctor recommends surgery. Hint: Ask a ton of questions. Read it here.
I agree with your article in theory, but in practice, how do you discern which acts of kindness to appreciate and which acts of kindness to not appreciate?
Ooh, this is so good. I would totally have benefited from such an explicit discussion of the mechanics of chivalry as a teenage girl/young woman. Because I used to feel SUPER confused by the way it seemed like winning guys’ respect and winning their desire didn’t go hand in hand. I even used to joke about “the Coors Light Fucking Close to Water Fallacy,” which is: There’s this joke that goes, how is Coors Light like making love in a canoe? They’re both fucking close to water! And I believed this meant guys wouldn’t be into you if you drank drinks like Coors Light, they would only be into you if you drank whiskey and such, but I didn’t understand why they weren’t into me even though I drank whiskey. So that was the fallacy, while the behavior that WOULD make the guy interested was if you responded to the joke by squealing, “it’s NOOOOT fucking close to water! It’s NOOOOT!” and hitting him in a flirty way. Which is behavior that made me cringe when I thought about doing it in front of boys. They make fun of us for liking squeaky pop songs, but still want to sleep with us even if we do? Huh? So confusing!
As a young woman I enjoyed chivalry in a sort of once removed sense, like “Oh, I see he’s invoking the trope of chivalry, which signifies he views me in a sexual way! Exciting!” But I felt that disconnect between respect and flattering attention SO HARD, and didn’t know what to make of it.