men, masculinities and gender politics

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“Stay away from my woman!” On the inanity of men trying to police women’s behavior.

 
I live in a relatively progressive part of North America.  Comparatively, it’s probably one of the more progressive places on the globe.  A place that has universal healthcare and same-sex marriage, and where people speak passionately about gender equality.  Where women legally have total freedom of movement and action.  A place unlike, say, Saudi Arabia, where a woman must at all times have a male legal guardian who must give her permission to do pretty much anything, and who must also accompany her while she is traveling anywhere. This male chaperone is always related to her either by blood or by marriage. 
 
No, my friends, where I live is a place that is far, far removed from that sort of patriarchal control over women.  Women here are free to go wherever they please and to socialize with whomever they want.  Even with other men.
 
At least we like to think so. 
 
But then my wife got a motorcycle. 
 
(I don’t ride.  It’s her thing.)
 
Almost instantly she was asked by many, many, many people: “Is your husband okay with you getting a motorcycle?”  
 
Was I going to allow it? 
 
(And although I was in fact supportive of her wanting to get a motorcycle, the reality was that – as she gently informed people – I had no say whatsoever about it.  Whether I approved or not was irrelevant.  She is an adult.  It was her choice to buy and ride a motorcycle.  She was using her own money.  It was her choice.) 
 
It struck me as a little odd to have so many people ask if I was okay with my wife getting a motorcycle. 
 
Did I approve? 
 
Would I allow it?
 
But then… then things got even weirder.  Since I don’t ride, would I still allow her to go out riding by herself? people asked.  Would I be willing to watch our young child while she went for motorcycle rides?  And if she did go out riding, would I be okay if she went out riding with others?  Even if those others happened to be men—men who might not be her brothers?
 
One guy I know looked right at his own wife and said: “If you ever wanted to go out riding a motorcycle with other guys, then don’t expect me to be here when you get back!”
 
It was a joke.
 
I think.
 
Maybe.
 
On the other hand, maybe it wasn’t.  And even though he said it “lightly,” it sure seemed that there was an underlying seriousness to his message: You can spend time with other men only if you are willing to put our relationship in jeopardy.  Because that, my dear, is the risk you will take! 
 
Let me repeat: I live in a progressive part of the world.  Not Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to socialize with men who are not immediate relatives.  And yet that exact same message was being directed at my wife, at me, and at that other guy’s wife as well:  that married/partnered women should not socialize with men whom they are not related to.  That a woman should not have male friends of her own with whom she goes for long motorcycle rides.   
 
It just isn’t proper!  It just isn’t right!
 
And why was I even ok with it?
 
But that’s the wrong question!  To me the question is not why am I “okay” with my wife going on motorcycle rides with men who are not her husband or her brothers, but rather: Why would so many other men not be okay with it?  Why is it that a woman who is in a relationship with one man is not then allowed to pursue enjoyable hobbies or social activities with other people – people who may also happen to be men?  Why, in 2013, does this still raise eyebrows? 
 
One man I know stated his feelings about this issue very clearly: “Let me put it this way,” he said, “No one else is allowed to ride ‘my’ bike.”  
 
The issues of referring to one’s partner both as an inanimate object and as a personal possession aside, the question remains: Why not?  Why is he uncomfortable if his wife shares her time with others?  Just what exactly is the issue here?  Why are so many heterosexual men so busy policing the behavior of “their” women? 
 
Is it to guard against infidelity?  If that’s the case, that’s a really bad plan.  Because clearly it doesn’t work, for several reasons:
 
First, research shows over and over again that it is heterosexual men – not heterosexual women – who are more likely to have affairs.  To step out.  So if men really want to prevent cheating, perhaps our energies would be far better spent policing our own behavior rather than trying to police “our” women!
 
Second, policing a partner’s behavior is simply ineffective.  Affairs are relatively common.  Sometimes they’re planned, sometimes they’re not.  But a woman who has an affair with another man (or a woman) is likely going to do it regardless of the level of surveillance that her spouse subjects her to.  Trying to fence a woman in is no guarantee against her cheating, and making her feel trapped might even further encourage her to explore outside options!      
 
Finally, if a woman’s continued faithfulness in a relationship is only due to her being held captive by her husband or boyfriend – being subject to his continual control and surveillance – well, that is not something any guy should feel very good about!  Because it is hardly a measure of relationship quality if the only reason that a man’s wife or girlfriend does not step out on him is only because he is always watching her! It’s actually evidence of a pretty weak bond indeed!  In any relationship, it is only those commitments that both people freely choose to make – and keep – that have any meaning at all.
 
So, if a man’s desire to police his wife or girlfriend is based on his worries about her possibly cheating on him, then instead of attempting to control her, what he needs to do is overtly discuss that issue with her.  He needs to share his fears with her, and both people need to determine what sort of boundaries both of them – Yes! Both of them! – want to observe both inside and outside of the relationship.  And then they both need to agree to honor any commitments they make.  Both people.   
 
After all – what’s good for the goose is good for the gander! 
 
And then he needs to trust what she says.  And if he feels that he still can’t trust her, then they need to end things.  Because a relationship without trust – a relationship wherein one person is the prisoner and the other is the prison guard – is no relationship at all.
 
And, guys, you are definitely not allowed to go around being all suspicious of your partner if you yourself are up to things that run counter to your current relationship commitments!
 
Is it to guard against abandonment or loneliness?  If a man’s desire to police his wife or girlfriend is due to his own fears of abandonment or about feeling lonely when she is out socializing with others, then again he needs to discuss these issues with her.  If he wants more time – quality time – with her, then he needs to ask for that.  But neither person has the right to monopolize the other person’s time!  Or their social life!  A guy gets to have a life of his own – and so does his partner!
 
Driven by jealousy?  If a man is feeling jealous – which is actually not a sign of love, but is a common enough emotion nonetheless – again he needs to bring it up.  Because jealousy is really just about being afraid that she likes someone else more than she likes him.  It is okay to ask for reassurance from time to time.  But that means being willing to be vulnerable enough to admit to one’s fears.  Hopefully that will resolve the issue.  Because a relationship wherein one person is consumed by jealousy is no fun for anyone, and probably needs to end.
 
Is it being driven by a desire to be “Lord and Master” of one’s wife?  If a man’s desire to police his wife’s or girlfriend’s activities is a result of the historical notion that we men get to control “our women” because we still own them like chattel, well, my friend, you are increasingly going to find yourself shit out of luck.  Men no longer own women legally (at least in this part of world), and, increasingly, we do not own them socially, either.  And that is just how it should be. 
 
Men do not own women.
 
All women should be free.  Whether they are in a relationship or not.  And in a healthy relationship, it is the psychological and emotional connection of the couple – and not the chains of a prisoner – that binds two people together.
 
Women don’t need men’s permission.    Not long ago the wonderful actress Helen Mirren appeared on the Jay Leno show.  A picture of her was put on the screen that showed her with her hair dyed pink.  She said that she had colored it for some award show or other. 
 
Jay Leno, repeating the patriarchal notion that men get to control women, asked Mirren if she had consulted with her husband before dying her hair pink.
 
Mirren’s response? 
 
“I’m too old to ask people permission to do things anymore!” 
 
I cheer Mirren’s reply.  But I would go even further.  I feel that no adult woman, regardless of her stage in life – be it in her late teens, her 20’s, 30’s or 40’s, middle or old age – should ever have to ask a man’s permission to do something like change her hair color.
 
And my wife sure as hell didn’t need my permission to buy a motorcycle.
 
Or to ride it.
 
Not even if she chooses to ride with other people.
 
Not even if those other people happen to be men.