Trigger warning for rape.
A fascinating article at Sociology in Focus describes the male equivalent of the virgin/whore dichotomy: the protector/rapist dichotomy. Women in our society get classified as either virgins or whores– that is, as pure and perfect wife-and-mother-material Good Girls in sweaters, or slutty and “crazy” drinking-and-screwing-and-breaking-hearts Bad Girls in microminis. Similarly, men get to be white-knighting Good Guys in shining armor and ready to save women from their suffering, or slavering-beast Bad Guys who will rape and abuse at the slightest provocation.
I think that protector/rapist is badly named, however: more properly, it is the knight/beast dichotomy.
Every one of those idiotic Facebook statuses and Tumblr posts about the perfect guy who’ll put her on a pedestal and hold her while she cries and tell her she’s beautiful every day and on and on and on… That’s pretty much the Knight. He’s Prince Charming! He’s sweet and romantic and a protector and he will take care of his girlfriend.
The Beast, on the other hand, is every rapist and abuser and cheating bastard and slutty dude who leads women on and miscellaneous douchebag. The interesting thing is that Beasts are generally considered to be their own variety of humanity that are very different from actual men. You can’t go out in public wearing a short skirt lest you turn a Beast on and then he will have to rape you. The straight men you actually ask– who are generally perfectly nice people who would not respond to a short skirt with more than an appreciative glance– are not Beasts, and therefore do not count. Of course, it is not just rapists who are Beasts: the dude who leeches off his girlfriend or cheats on her constantly is equally Beastly, although how you would provoke him is presumably different.
Here, I’m not talking about things that people actually are, but about jokes and memes and archetypes and the rest of the cultural miasma that floats through our brains. Just like no woman is purely Virgin or purely Whore, no man is purely Knight or purely Beast; it is simply not a meaningful way to divide up actual people. All of the examples I’m about to give? Not the way actual people work! Just cultural ideas about how people work! That said…
The Knight is the father, oiling his shotgun on the front porch in case his teenage daughter’s new boyfriend gets any ideas about not treating her like a perfect gentleman. Perfect gentlemen, for that matter, are usually Knights. The dude who listens to his female best friend sobbing on his shoulder about how her boyfriend is terrible and she just wants someone who can listen, like you, and all the while he has a crush on her? Knight who wants to save her from all the Beasts. The guys (usually boyfriends or fathers, but sometimes male friends) who get all dramatic about how if anyone tries to rape you they will never find the body? Knights. Wartime propaganda that suggests that the (male) soldier would be liberating the women of Country X? Knights. Anything that could possibly be referred to as chivalrous or “treating you like a princess”? Knight.
The Beast, on the other hand… well, it is rapists and abusers, of course, who are, of course, extremely obvious people who wear a sign on their foreheads that says Rapist. The “player” who has sex with tons of women and then never calls them back? Beast. Frat boys and bros as a whole are generally considered Beasts, for some reason, as is nearly anyone who could be reasonably referred to as a douchebag. Men who give you a candy bar the day after Valentine’s? Beasts. Wartime propaganda about how the evil soldiers of Country Y are raping nuns? Beasts. The stereotypical abuser punching out his wife for not doing the laundry right? Beast.
Beasts generally prey on whores while Knights worship their virgins. (In fact, the promise in a lot of abstinence-until-marriage programs is that if a woman is properly virginal she’ll eventually meet her white knight… which is interesting.) However, I am told that sex workers occasionally encounter Knights who want to pretty-woman them out of this horrible life that they’ve been oppressed into; at the same time, the idea of the Beast who harms an innocent virgin is one with a lot of emotional power.
Do I have to mention that this whole Knight/Beast dichotomy is bullshit? It’s bullshit. First of all, as I said above, no one can ever be purely Knight or purely Beast outside of the worst forms of melodramatic fiction. Second, neither Knight nor Beast is a healthy, non-objectifying way of relating to women: Knights treat women as interchangeable creatures whose opinions are more-or-less irrelevant regarding whether or not they need to be saved; Beasts, at best, treat women as interchangeable sex objects and at worst are rapist, abusive fuckheads.
The Knight/Beast dichotomy has a quite different solution from the Virgin/Whore dichotomy. For the Virgin/Whore dichotomy, the solution is that both virgin and whore are okay ways to be. You can not want sex or only want sex within committed relationships, and that’s fine. You can have hundreds of partners or do sex work or be poly or like casual sex, and that’s fine. The idea that one is better than the other and that what everyone ought to be is bullshit.
The Knight/Beast dichotomy, however, is flawed because neither Knight nor Beast is an okay way to be. You shouldn’t have to choose between degrading women and pedestalizing them: between is the sensible path of treating them like motherfucking human beings.