identity politics

The Difference Between Romance and Chivalry

What’s the difference between romance and chivalry?

Colleen and I had an interesting discussion a while back. The two can look nearly identical, we thought – bringing flowers, pulling out a chair, taking a jacket – but something separates them.

I do think some things are not so chivalrous and are exclusively romantic – candlelight dinner, gazing into each other’s eyes, promises of love + affection – but pretty much all the chivalrous actions seem to fall under a romantic umbrella. Like a sub-set of romance.

But see, sometimes chivalry is purely kind and thoughtful, with no romance whatsoever. When I hold the door open for a stranger, or for my mom or sister or a straight girl friend, I do it with no romantic intent.

Ah – so perhaps that’s what differentiates the two: intention. That’s what Colleen and I concluded.

Chivalrous actions are done purely for the sake of doing the action – kindness, thoughtfulness, observation of something that would assist someone else.

Romantic actions, however, are done with a particular purpose: of wooing the other person. Romance does want something in return, and when the relationship changes to “just friends” or ends, the romantic gestures cease.

So the gestures of romance and chivalry can appear the same, but are given with different intentions.

So (here’s the part where I get personal), I’ve always been a romantic. Big time. Love poems, handmade gifts, mix cds, sweet nothings. (I know, you’re shocked.) Lately I have been extremely suspicious of romance and the webs of seduction it spins, but I haven’t let go of chivalry. In fact, my chivalrous impulses have gotten stronger.

Trouble here is, I think my chivalry is often misinterpreted as romance. Paying for dinner, holding her door. I’m told these aren’t things that many transmasculine folks do, so they can be interpreted as grand gestures, even though honestly that’s just how I am.

As with everything else in my dating life, it seems, I need to make my intentions clearer in matters like this. I’m learning, I guess – to have better boundaries, to trust they are in place, to be clear, to listen to others and hear when they are not accepting of the boundaries I have.

Sometimes I feel like the boundaries I have in place are too strong, too much, too thick. Huge cement walls with barbed wire instead of lines in the sand. But the strange thing is, it isn’t until my huge cement walls are accepted – really accepted and acknowledged – that I can start putting up a chain link fence instead, then a picket fence, then a hopscotch chalk line.

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. – Carl Rogers

Update: I also wrote about chivalry on the post for March’s masthead, bringing butch back – specifically the ways that I approach chivalry as deeply feminist.

Published by Sinclair Sexsmith

Sinclair Sexsmith (they/them) is "the best-known butch erotica writer whose kinky, groundbreaking stories have turned on countless queers" (AfterEllen), who "is in all the books, wins all the awards, speaks at all the panels and readings, knows all the stuff, and writes for all the places" (Autostraddle). ​Their short story collection, Sweet & Rough: Queer Kink Erotica, was a 2016 finalist for a Lambda Literary Award, and they are the current editor of the Best Lesbian Erotica series. They identify as a white non-binary butch dominant, a survivor, and an introvert, and they live outside Seattle as an uninvited settler on traditional, ancestral, & unceded Snoqualmie land.

16 thoughts on “The Difference Between Romance and Chivalry”

  1. muse says:

    I soooo understand the need to have your big fortress-y walls acknowledged before being able to dismantle them.

    it's a matter of the person you're with being able to accept you as you are, to yield to your authority over yourself and your own needs, without trying to change you. it's proof of a certain (necessary) level of self-sufficiency on their part, I think. the inability to do that is a red flag for codependence, in my book.

  2. I'd love to hear (read!) your thoughts on the difference between chivalry and misogyny or sexism. Intention probably has something to do with it, but I'd say it's more complex than that.

    [I wrote about this a little bit on a post a few months ago when I was talking about bringing butch back, which specifically explored the ways that I relate to chivalry is feminist. I do think it has to do with intention, mostly, and where the person doing the chivalrous gesture is coming from.

    I've been challenged on chivalry from femmes I've dated, usually how they say something like, "I can open my own door, thankyouverymuch!" And to this I say, Damn right, you better be able to open your own door! Of course you can, your ability to do it for yourself is never in question for me. But letting me open it for you is a way that I show respect for you.

    I've got lots more to say on this, I've got a few drafts of a follow-up to that bringing butch back post, but never quite finished it. I'll dust off those notes and see if I can't write a follow up this month. – ss]

  3. D says:

    isn't chivalry a code? regardless of romance?

  4. SublimeFemme says:

    I'll admit it; I love being treated chivalrously. A lot. But not in a (hetero)sexist, "don't-you-worry-your-pretty-little-head-about-it" way.

    In a romantic context, queer chivalry telegraphs that I'm being honored as a femme. It says, "I want to take care of you," which feels great. At the same time, it doesn't "fix" me in particular position. It's performative, one might say.

    To respond to Radicaldoula, I don't think this kind of chivalry is antifeminist and certainly not misogynistic. It could be antifeminist if a chivalrous dynamic ultimately confines one person to a pedestal. (I'm thinking of that famous Gloria Steinem quote, "A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space. ") For me, chivalry doesn't oppress/confine if it's playful & enacted in a way that values me for all of who I am & what I do.

    Taking romance out of the equation, I think chivalry can be easily misinterpreted because, in the end, it's really about manners. (She says, while blowing dust off her etiquette book.) We aren't used to people who treat others with respect, charm, and kindness. Instead, we're suspicious; we wonder about people's motives, etc. So yes, I think being up front and clear about your intentions is important.

    Um, what's wrong with "webs of seduction?"


    [What's wrong with a 'web of seduction', for me, at this time, is that I don't trust it. In the recent past romantic seduction has been used against me, and I don't want to be caught up in a web unwillingly, unable to break out of it. There's nothing inherently wrong with romance or seduction, I don't think, but I'm in a particularly fragile emotional place where I'm greatly suspicious of romance as a tool of seduction and the ways that that can manipulate emotions. I imagine this protected space won't last forever, I'm going through a whole lot of learning around what that means for me and how I can work on my own junk & baggage. – ss]

  5. Zoe says:

    I think I understand your distinction, but my experience of these two things is a little different. I see romance as somewhat ungendered – sure, certain specific actions tend to be gendered, such as the giving of flowers, but I can see that being turned around or played with, esp in the queer context (ie one can imagine a femme giving a butch flowers she had picked, and it being a totally femme gesture in context).

    Whereas chivalry is nearly always part of a gendered interaction, at least in my experience. And in that way, chivalry DOES ask something…it asks for recognition of the gender story that is unfolding. While some of the motivation might be kindness/courtesy, the specific actions seem to me to be designed to say, "these are the ways that i am different from you."

    But this is comes down to intention too, so I guess what I am saying is not that different.

  6. !spark! says:

    I agree completely that the distinction lies in intention.

    Chivalry – historically/linguistically I think, the word is slanted and defined as giving/respect in the direction of – from the male and to the female … And that fact really bugs the shit outta me. Why can't it be something like, "Here let me do this for you, not because I don't think you are capable, or society tells me to, but because I feel a desire to be nice to you at this precise moment in time…with no strings attached… cause I get a "feel good" in the giving… like, a sense of my own self-worth, when I give to you with no expected intentions… and because, I'm hoping that you too, will enjoy and get a relaxed feeling of "yeah-that-was-nice" from this/our encounter together….

    Does that make any sense?

    Romance – OMG, I haven't a clue; I've never felt comfy with ithe idea at all, the giving or the receiving… because both seem to include expectations… and anticipated actions… The whole thing makes me antsty, uncomfortable… Romance has always felt staged, faked, and false.

    A few weeks ago you linked to essen'em's comments about chivalry which mentioned the door-holding-thing. Wow, reading that really brought back memories for me, memories of my mom chastizing me because I refused to stand and wait for a man to open the door for me. I just didn't get it. If I got there first and the door wasn't inordinately heavy, why couldn't I open and hold the door for him? (I mean if he really wanted to open it, why was he bringin up the rear?) Why couldn't we just take turns? Why was I supposed to wait on him?… Why, if was perfectly capable of opening it???…. Why couldn't he accept my kindness, the act of me opening the door for him? Why was it assumed that it would be damaging or insulting to him, if I opened the door for him? Why couldn't we both just simply be equal human beings, who when the opportunity popped up, could show our respect/feelings/kindness etc to others whenever the opportunity presented itself?

    The point of that blog was that the whole thing had to do with respect. And thinking on that I realized that, in my mom's world I was supposed to respect him and his potentially fragile ego over me, myself and my abilities or desires to open doors, and that this was expected of me irregardless of any and every thing, no matter who he or I might be… and I chafed at that ridiculous idea…

    Believe me, I do have dependent needs and desires. And I do acknowledge that it would feel really great somedays, for someone else to take over, and open doors, and jars of mayo, and especially bottles of wine ;>) for me… But it makes no sense to me, for such actions to be defined by society in one particular gender direction. Why should one be the doer and the other the reciever? Why can't we both, do/be both, for each other, out of the love and freedom, out of kindness and desire, whenever the mood should strike?

    Why can't we all just relax and give and accept, freely?

  7. Polly says:

    Per usual, I totally love the conversation here and lament my inability to dedicate the time I'd like to a proper response. Particularly since my chivalry, over the years, has often been mistaken for romaticism.

    I also love the project of feminist chivalry, which I've practiced my whole live-long life. It's easy if the act(s) are done while seeing the person, and respecting them. Particularly since I chivalrize men as much as women. Okay, a little less so. But you damn well know I'm going to gallantly stride a little faster and lean in and get the door first whenever I can, when I'm walking alongside a man.

    Maybe that's competitiveness more than chivalry. And it's sure a ton more enjoyable to charm the ladies.

    Thank you, as ever, for what you do for us all here, by holding this salon.

  8. I understand the need to have your 'huge wall' boundaries accepted. You have them in case you need them, in case the other person doesn't accept you and starts laying siege to your boundaries, making war by stealth or inches or assault on your borders. A person who doesn't lay siege to you means you don't have to keep them up if you don't want to, and eventually lines in the sand suffice. And if it's not offensive, in my experience that's a very butch thing to do; put up walls unless and until you're sure you feel up to letting them down. Through my partner, I've had to learn to be much more patient with and accepting of someone else's boundaries than I used to be. Not that this is a bad thing; it's something I needed to learn. Sorry for the ramble, just a very wordy way to say, I get it. (I think.)

  9. Harri says:

    I’m told these aren’t things that many transmasculine folks do, so they can be interpreted as grand gestures, even though honestly that’s just how I am.

    that's funny, i'd think of chivalry as a core part of a transmasculine, particularly a 'Butch' identity. like SublimeFemme says: "queer chivalry telegraphs that I’m being honored as a femme", and as Zoe mentions: "chivalry is nearly always part of a gendered interaction".

    somehow, you seem to often post about things that are very relevant to me in that specific moment. the distinction between chivalry and romance works well as a way for me to articulate the difference between two of my relationships at the moment. in one, in which there is a definite butch/femme dynamic, i could be classified as chivalrous. and in the other, which has a dynamic we're still working out (something possibly more akin to an affair between schoolboys) i would describe my behavior as romantic. suffice it to say that the distinction has been a useful tool in figuring out my current situation/s.

    [The point about chivalry being inherent to transmasculine identities and butch identity in particular is interesting – I agree, at least for me personally, that chivalry is essential to my definition of butch and that each informs the other greatly as my own gender identity. I'm not sure that's true for all butches though. Or perhaps I should say, I'm not sure that's true for all transmasculine folks, and it does seem to me to be more likely true for butch-identified people.

    Perhaps I'm wrong in saying "these aren’t things that many transmasculine folks do" – my sources there are primarily the femmes I've dated, who have said that I am much more chivalrous than they are used to. But perhaps that doesn't mean that other transmasculine folks are not chivalrous, it just means that I do it differently or more enhanced. – ss]

  10. AveshaDee says:

    D~ yes, chivalry, in a historical context, is a code. A medieval knight's religious, moral & social code used to judge behavior and character.

    Webster's describes the code as "a combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, especially courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and a readiness to help the weak."

    Society's interpretations of "readiness to help the weak" sticks in my craw big time…

  11. funny, zoe, i was thinking quite the opposite – to me chivalry is fairly ungendered, while romance is very gendered. i realize the history of chivalry (and typically the dictionary definition too) is clearly a "man to woman" thing, but in my world it's not really so. it's more like this:

    "Chivalrous actions are done purely for the sake of doing the action – kindness, thoughtfulness, observation of something that would assist someone else."

    so if i get to the door first i open it for you, or if you look like you could really use help with it, i'll go a bit out of my way to open it for you. yeah, even if you're a guy, or butch, or strong modern woman. that's not the point – the point is that it's nice and helpful.

    but romance? oh, romance is very gendered (for me). that doesn't mean that "guys" are romantic and "girls" aren't. it means that there are a lot of very different ways of expressing romantic feelings, and they have the easy potential to be very gendered. in fact, since traditionally masculine romance looks a lot like chivalry, i tend to drop my chivalry in favor of more feminine romantic gestures in romantic interactions.

  12. Sinclair says:

    Hmmm, this is an interesting twist – are romance & chivalry gendered? If so, how?

    I think both romance and chivalry can be used as tools within gendered interactions, to enhance the gender differences (or similarities) or as play. But I'm not sure either of them for me are inherently gendered one way or the other.

    Sure, chivalry is traditionally masculine, in the Arthurian/knighthood sense, but I know chivalrous femmes, and I don't see any reason for chivalry to be confined to one gender's role.

    I think the relationship between chivalry, romance, and gender has more to do with the particular people who are enacting the chivalry or romance than it has to do with it being built in to the chivalry or romance itself.

    I wish I had time today to write a note back to each comment on this post! As I was going through the comments this morning I got a little teared up, sometimes I just so love this job, and I am so grateful to all of your additions to my own process, to the discussion, to the freakin brilliance in everybody who comments here. I feel like we're really advancing our own understandings of these things – I know I certainly am – and I'm so grateful for your contributions.

  13. Rebecca says:

    I think chivalry is a part of performing gender for some people. That doesn't mean it is confined to one gender – there are lots of aspects of gender performance that are used by multiple genders. I have read/heard many butches and transmen talk about being chivalrous as being a large part of their performance of gender – chivalry is usually seen as a masculine set of actions. Also, I know many transmasculine people who specifically reject the label of butch partially because they do not identify with or feel comfortable with the performance of chivalry that is often a part of butch identity. You've talked about (I think, did I make this up? I'm not going to go search for links) chivalry becoming increasingly important to you as your butch identity deepens. I think chivalry is asking something of the other person – it is asking them to perform a gendered role that is often labeled as more feminine, if even for just that moment.. Everyone, except the stranger, you listed holding the door for in non-romantic settings was female. If you hold the door for someone and they refuse to walk through it until you are not holding it any more, they are refusing to give you the reaction you want. That doesn’t mean chivalry is bad because it asks something of the person who you are being chivalrous to. A lot of kinds of gender presentation asks to be acknowledged and I don’t think that’s bad. My gender presentation as a femme is asking something of other people a lot of the time.

    I think romance, on the other hand, is a way to woo someone. That way of wooing may be – often is – gendered, but the primary goal is to attract the other person. Maybe what I mean is that I think there are many people who would feel their gender expression is incomplete when they can’t be chivalrous, but is not incomplete when they are not being romantic..

    So maybe what I’m really saying is I agree with you, the difference is in the intent, this was just a way to try to pinpoint that intent. I think this can get even more confusing when you are turned on by gender play – as you’ve described. Then what is the intent of chivalry? In my experience, when I’m on a date with a butch when they are chivalrous it feels like a way to draw attention to our gendered performances, to draw out those gender performances more than they are in our lives outside of a date, and by drawing attention to them to use that as a turn on. Personally I think I accept a very low level of chivalry in every day life but a much more intense level on a date. As a sort of simple example, I will let whoever hold a door for me (and I hold doors for other people), but I will only happily allow a date to put their hand on the small of my back as I’m walking through the door they are holding. On dates I think that’s hot and sweet, when people do it in every day life (which happens all the time), it pisses me off. What I’m trying to say is, I think people may get confused about what is romance and what is chivalry from a butch when gender performance itself is a turn on because they you are not sure if the person is being chivalrous as a way to express their gender or if they are exaggerating their expression of gender to get you both hot.

  14. SublimeFemme says:

    Dear Sinclair,

    Thanks for responding to my question ("what's wrong with webs of seduction?"). I think it's really brave of you to be so open and honest about your fragility, and I want to encourage you not to give up on romance or to view seduction as sinister.

    Maybe it's worth asking, What do we mean by seduction, anyway? You could write an interesting post about that. The French critic and theorist Bataille points out that "real" seduction is predicated upon respect for the object of desire. I think this is key and could be linked to the broader discussion of feminist/queer chivalry.

    On a more personal note, I'll admit that I'm not single so maybe I'm speaking about seduction from a place of safety. I'm happily married (my partner and I just celebrated a big double digit anniversary) . From my perspective, without romance and seduction, intimacy would be all work and no play!

  15. Peggy Sue says:

    Alas, I can't even *remotely* spend enough time responding to all of this wonderful dialogue. Thank you all so much!

    I can say, though, that there is a way in which I feel inherently *seen* as a femme when a butch holds the door or walks on the outside for me. It's a reinforcement of our chosen identities (and our queerness, ohhhh…queerness is so HOT) . I'm filled with such joy and affection for butch identity each and every single time a butch recognizes me *that way* and honors me with chivalrous behavior. It's a validation between us that warms my heart in a very special way.

    Chivalry in a dating sense is a whole different deal. It makes my knees weak, and the ways in which chivalry can be re-interpreted in a D/s context are endless. Yum.

    I firmly believe that one of the reasons I was put on this earth is to show butches that I see them and adore them precisely for their transmasculinity… in *all* its forms. Bois, daddies, dandies, boifags, preppie butches and all/none of the above, every part of the butch continuum makes me remember why I'm a dyke in the first place. And damn happy to be so!

    And I'm not talking about simply hitting on butches or just referencing sex. I just mean that there is something absolutely unique when I can recognize a butch, whether a friend, lover or stranger, and reflect back to hym/her what I see: a handsome, strong, and wonderful identity that is love love LOVED by this femme.

  16. p says:

    It hasn't been my experience that chivalry absolutely has to come from a paternalistic attitude towards women, or that it can only exist coming from one side of the spectrum (although historically, its tied up with the concept of courtly love, and in this way tied to men).

    That said, romance is also pretty stereotypical, in that there are certain "forms" that are used and recognized between partners, so I guess in that way both romance and chivalry are gendered archetypes (is that the right word?) of behavior…

    It gets tricky when you begin to look at behaviors as a performance of a certain identity, because chivalrous acts happen somewhat out of context these days. I think social standing is related to this. The implication is that the object is being taken care of/effort is being expended for her comfort, which made perfect practical sense for mid-high SES women socially required to be pretty ornaments and little else. Peasants and serfs don't do chivalry (they have a function), ladies of a certain class do (no function).

    Now that we are more equitable, the context of these actions isn't there, but the history is, so it doesn't always feel right. I'm still clarifying my thoughts on this, but its so interesting!

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