Graphic by Rachael Previti

Graphic by Rachael Previti

The women men pursue versus protect

It seems that many men group women in only one of the two categories

By Lina Savage

4 · 14 · 2019


It’s an interesting thing thinking about the women that men choose to pursue versus protect.

Ironically, I am both.

I spent the majority of my childhood mimicking the actions of my older brother and five boy cousins.  Growing up, I assumed my role of the permanent “little sister,” always knowing I was different from the boys but desperately attempting to fit in.  

For the most part, I did strive to maintain my stereotypical femininity by wearing dresses and playing with dolls – not because I had to but I wanted to. But being surrounded by mostly boys, and them being the ones I looked up to the most, I was taught to enjoy hobbies that are seen as masculine.  I preferred a lacrosse stick over ballet slippers, for I knew that I needed to perfect my shot if I didn’t want to be picked last for our family’s next pick up game. I owned swiss army knives, three of them, all in different colors, because I knew I’d need something to keep me preoccupied the next time we were to adventure.  All of these, of course, were acquired through my own will. I wanted to fit in with them, and more so, prove to myself that I could. I wanted to be one of them, respected by them, and treated as an equivalent. And I was.

It was when I got to high school, though, that the gender roles that society lays out for us became more deeply ingrained – times were different, and interests began to conform dependent on one’s gender.  All in hopes of fitting in, my brother, cousins, and I automatically assumed our new roles and differences in society. The difference was that now, instead of playing and adventuring together regardless of gender, my brother and all his friends felt the need to protect me.  Whether that be due to biological instincts to prove their masculinity, or simply a fear that anyone would potentially hurt me, I was consistently looked out for by no less than 10 older brothers. At school dances, they would jokingly threaten any guy to approach me. If they heard of a boy that I was interested in, they would ask my friends to make sure he would treat me well.  One time even, I came home crying over a boy who wronged me, and the fury in their eyes proved that maybe they were more affected by it than I had been.

I got lucky with my brother and who he chose to be friends with.  Even though I had done nothing to gain their respect, my last name automatically incited protective instincts within them.  I have consistently been provided a group of boys who genuinely care and respect me, which was an idea so foreign to several of my girl friends that they have admitted their envy to me.

But this enviable dynamic began to change a bit when we both ended up at the same college and his high school friends were swapped out for newer boys -- ones who didn’t see me get ready for middle school dances and cry over 15 year-old douchebags. One year ahead of me at UCLA, my brother had basically paved the way as he did in high school. I must say that most of his newer friends have welcomed me like their own sister.  Many of them consistently remind me that to them I am family, and am able to come to them with any problem. I notice the way they value my opinion and respect my voice. Lucky for me, they are the boys that every parent would want their child to become. Even my closest friends are welcomed like family simply through association.

Even still, though, these boys are not the same friends that I grew up with, and therefore do not have the same innate desire to protect me.  Sometimes, they even make amorous remarks towards me or other sisters of the frat, even if they are merely jokes. My brother and I have both agreed that since my entire sorority is not off limits to him, it would be unfair to not acquire the same set of standards for myself.  Regardless, even when there have been scenarios in which I was the “pursued,” a genuine apology and an agreement to never talk about it again is usually followed by figuring out my last name.

One thing I have noticed, however, is that he is not necessarily seen as my permanent “older brother”:  the older I get, the more I understand how me pursuing one of his friends is seen as shameful, but him pursuing one of mine is admissible. Throughout high school and even through college, friends of mine have not restrained their own attraction because of our matching last names. Even when my brother assures me that he would never incite a double standard by pursuing one of my friends, society still deems it acceptable.

Never, however, would it be okay for his friends to pursue me. This brother-sister relationship, whether it be innate or developed through societal expectations, is divergent.  My role in his life is far different from his role in mine. As a younger sister, I know my role is to make him smile when he’s stressed, to be someone to cry to when he has no where else to go, and to be caring, generous, and kind.  My brother’s role for me, however, is all this and more. Whether it be due to age or gender – I’m guessing it’s a mix of both – my brother has always understood that he needed to protect me.

This isn’t meant to be a complaint, a cry for help, or even an encouragement for change.  In the world today, it’s clear that women typically may need more protection than men. Rather, this is an observation of how two people, born around the same time, by the same people, in the same household, assume completely contradictory yet interconnected roles in society due to their genders alone.

Girls with similar brother- sister relationships have felt the same way. Tessa Bass, a freshman at Indiana University, reveals her opinions on the differences between her older brother’s role as a sibling versus hers. “He 100% feels the need to protect me and goes to lengths to make sure that boy treats me well,” Bass says. “I don’t feel the need to protect him, but I feel the need to watch out for what he does and checking in on his actions to make sure he’s not treating another girl bad. That’s the last thing I ever want, and I want to make sure he’s respectful of her.”

In this sense, Tessa is indirectly protective over the girls her brother pursues.  His role in her life is to protect her from the men, while her role in his life is to assure he is not acting like the men he protects her from.  

Nicole Walker, a freshman at UCLA, recalls an experience in high school with her older brother in which she was talking to a guy on her brother’s lacrosse team. “My brother got so mad at both me and the kid.  He even confronted my parents about it. It’s weird, when guys are together in groups like a team or a frat, they have this mentality that sisters are off limits.”

This begs the question: is this “mentality” applicable to solely a group of men, or is it held consistent for a group of women?

In an attempt to understand these seemingly common but problematic gender dynamics, I interviewed three college guys, all from different colleges, to see what they had to say.  One brother said, “Having protective relationships with girls has given me more of an understanding of what a girl has to go through, especially having a sister.” When asked about their responses to guys pursuing the girls they protect, one responded, “There’s a level of similarity and seeing it from the outside, that makes you check yourself a little.”

Although having a sister embeds an intuitive desire to protect her, it became clear after talking to these brothers that they have similar protective relationships with other girls in their life, too. Their platonic relationships with girls have also taught them what girls typically have to go through.  “Hearing how my friends have been assaulted has made me second guess my personal interactions with girls,” one boy said. Another boy agreed, saying “A friend of mine at work was getting hit on, and he eventually bought her a drink, and my initial response was ‘okay douchebag.’ But I see that from an outsider’s perspective, and can see myself doing the same type of thing.”  

However, these boys admit that they sometimes pursue their “girl friends,” but can conversely, feel protective, or at least would like to, over girls that they hardly know at all.  So, what is it that compartmentalizes girls they protect versus girls they pursue? When asked how they separate these relationships, the three boys’ collaborative response was the same: Intuition.  “You can recognize attraction verse protection,” one boy says. “Mainly, it’s my closest friends, but I would like to think that I am cautious of any aggressive behavior towards any girl.”

So perhaps all of us, ironically, are girls that are both protected and pursued simultaneously.  Certainly, whether it be a brother, cousin, or platonic relationship, there are men in our life who intuitively feel the need to protect us.  Often times, they admit that who they are trying to protect us from is in essence themselves. They understand other guys’ intentions as they have been on the opposing side of it, and don’t want people they care about to be hurt in that way.  Although through these experiences, they admitted to have learned the damaging, ever-lasting effect of their actions which potentially dictates their future decisions.

Maybe it’s about time we no longer box women into one of two categories. Maybe the women men pursue can also be the women they protect. And better yet, maybe women can begin choosing which role they want to take on in the first place.