I’m pretty sarcastic and snarly at the patriarchy most days, but I’ve recently gotten more fed up than usual and we need to talk.
Sit down. Pour a cuppa or a finger of whiskey or a beer or whatever you need to get through this. It’s going to be a little long. And I’m scared to publish this, which means I need to.
Clarification up front: I don’t hate men. (And I don’t plan on writing about dating experiences as a rule.)
But the fact that I feel the need to tell these stories and feel obligated to give that disclaimer at all makes me really tired and angry.
This is not how humans should relate to each other.
This is the story of two boys. Two “prospects.” Two evenings of deliberate vulnerability. And no second dates.
Both evenings ended the same: me driving home alone, feeling raw, and maybe crying at stoplights.
But these two dates were very, very different.
The first date was one of those dates where you’re not sure if it’s a date, or just hanging out in a somewhat intense and prolonged fashion and you happen to be alone with each other for the duration.
I barely knew this guy, but he had something about him that piqued my interest, and I liked him. I am/was also kinda not into commitment (and heard from a mutual friend that he wasn’t into commitment either), and so the idea of undefined hanging out with the possibility of more and little pressure was also pretty attractive.
I mean, let’s be honest, I haven’t been divorced that long and I’m totally learning how to date for the first time since ever, thanks to being raised in a culty subculture where a “healthy” relationship meant barely talking, never being alone, and having a three month engagement because you have to wait to have sex until you’re married and everyone knows that normal people can’t wait that long, so you just speed everything else up super fast.
So, handsome, smart, and no pressure. This looked good. And we hung out, and had a great time, and then I drove home. Everything went well.
Except I liked him a little more than he liked me, and I was “on the hook” for a couple weeks, waiting around, sending hesitant little texts, emailing him links, suggesting he join me for outings I’d planned with groups of friends, etc. He never responded negatively to any of this, but he never responded enthusiastically either, and eventually I just moved on.
Not a big deal. But here’s the thing to note: I had commitment issues. So did he. But because I knew he had commitment issues, I held back and was never very aggressive about my interest. I played it casual, I was vague and hesitant, and I was unsure of myself enough that I never really told him “hey, I like you, let’s hang out more.” I should have, though. It wasn’t like I wanted any sort of commitment from him; it would have just been an honest expression of interest.
But I never did that because I felt like I was supposed to be sensitive to his (presumed) commitment issues and take things at whatever speed he wanted to take it at, so as not to let him get overwhelmed or uncomfortable. I felt obligated to conform to his comfort zone and to let him initiate if he wanted more.
Honestly, it was poor form all around. I shouldn’t have felt like I needed to protect him, and I should have respected him as an equal, as an adult able to take care of his own emotional needs. I should have been up front and not played these culturally acceptable girl mind games.
Part of that was my own unlearning of codependent relationship habits. But a bigger part of that was fear of the patriarchy, of his social power and standing as a man: I have been acculturated to accommodate the man’s preferences and let his comfort zone be the hard lines around which I am taught to mold myself. My lack of confidence is the result of my own internalized misogyny.
Now, before I tell you about boy #2, I want to tell you a story about my sister.
She’s a freshman in high school—the first of my siblings to attend. She’s making me proud with how she’s transitioning to that environment, and she’s making choices that show a healthy sense of autonomy, boundaries, and self-respect. She’s emotionally and socially mature in ways I wasn’t until I was almost 21, just because she’s been exposed to more and is deliberate about respecting herself.
But earlier this year she called me up in a panic, because she had two female classmates threatening to beat her up, and waiting for her on the bus or at her bus stop or around school to catch her and hurt her.
Why? Because: before either girl started dating their current boyfriends, these boyfriends both expressed interest in my sister and got turned down. Fast forward a few weeks, and the new girls discover that their boyfriends are still in contact with my sister (these boys are stupidly flirty and my sister kept her same position and was ignoring them), and decide to punish my sister for being a “slut.”
Not the boys. My sister. Who has consistently told these guys to leave her alone.
These girls were afraid to confront their shameless and immature boyfriends, and instead chose to take out their insecurities and fear on my sister.
No wonder everyone still assumes that guys and girls can’t be friends. And no wonder there are so few depictions of healthy female friendship in popular media.
Hold that thought, and let’s move on to the story of boy #2.
This date started very differently. Meeting him was movie-style electric—he asked me out after one of those across-a-crowded-room eye contact moments. I said yes, he said he was making reservations at a nice restaurant, and he’d pick me up that evening.
I was nervously excited, dolled myself up, and off we went. Dinner was perfect, he was flattering and attentive, and the view from our table was breathtaking. The conversation was easy and interesting and skipped around to cover all sorts of things that I loved to talk about.
We went to a scenic spot afterwards, climbed some rocks and talked and kissed. The moonlight and the moment was storybook-perfect. I held my breath a little and memorized it all, and decided that this was awesome, but scary (vulnerability!) and I wanted to take it slowly.
Remember: commitment issues! And he knew about them, too. We’d covered that part of my emotional resume at dinner, and I’m usually really nervous to bring up that part of my story, especially on a first date. But it had been okay, and he hadn’t made me feel uncomfortable about it. So, I thought: good. This is nice. This could be good.
Then he drove me to my car—I’d parked in a parking structure and had a way to go before I got home—and it was 1 a.m. and the moon was magic and we kissed a bit more before I was ready to go.
And then it happened: he asked to come home with me.
Now, please don’t get stuck on this, because that request is not what went wrong.
But I wasn’t ready for that, and I told him so. And I told him nicely.
That aside: he was more into me than I was into him, and I wanted to take things slowly. I’d been burned before, and it seemed like he hadn’t been on the cynic’s end of a breakup yet. If I was going to keep seeing someone as enthusiastic about the idea of falling love as he was, I wanted to ease into it.
There is nothing wrong with his request (although it wasn’t the smoothest move to make), and there is nothing wrong with really wanting to fall in love.
But what happened next was frightening. He was visibly upset, and I asked him what was wrong, and he decided to tell me.
Clarification here: I’m not telling this story to punish him, I’m not telling this story because he was wrong to feel what he felt, and I’m genuinely don’t think he was responsible for feeling the way he did. But patriarchy fucks over dudes a lot and they don’t see it because they’re usually on the power side of it, and this was one of those blind spots.
What he told me was this: He was upset that the evening wasn’t ending like he’d hoped it would. He really wanted to fall in love, and he wasn’t getting much of a commitment from me after a beautiful date like that. He was hurt that he’d opened up to me and wasn’t getting rewarded with an assurance that I wouldn’t see other guys after our date. He was disappointed that sex wasn’t happening, and that dating is hard and unpredictable and he hadn’t met “the one” yet.
Very human emotions, all. But each emotion was underlined with an unspoken assumption, caused by how our patriarchy-driven culture treats love and sex.
- The assumption that a girl owes a guy anything (usually sexual intimacy) after being wined and dined. If he picks her and the tab up, if he opens doors, if he says nice things about her eyes…he should get a little something in return.
- The assumption that being slow to commit is a reflection on how much someone respects someone (as in: if she’s slow to commit to him, she doesn’t take him seriously).
- The assumption that taking something slowly is a sign of rejection (and by “slowly” I mean: without premature commitment and letting trust grow organically and in a non-codependent manner).
- The assumption that sex and love are limited resources, going out of style tomorrow—that you can use up all your love by spreading it around too thin.
- The assumption that you either fall head over heels and it all works out, or you get your heart totally broken (this is the “it’s better to love and lose than to not try at all” mindset taken to an unbalanced all-or-nothing extreme).
- The idea that a woman shouldn’t make her own choices based on experience and experimentation because then some good guy is getting the shit end of the stick. (This is basically an indirect version of slut shaming.)
His refrain was: “it’s not fair!” and he ended it by saying “I should have just had my way with you” because (in his mind) it would have been better to have “loved and lost” than to have had a nice romantic evening without sexual fulfillment or emotional commitment. Having sex with me at all costs and then losing me totally was (apparently) easier to deal with than continuing to hang out with me and the post-divorce commitment question mark on my forehead.
That comment (“I should have just had my way with you…”) was scary and sounded very rapey. And we were alone in an empty parking garage at 1 a.m. I sat up and looked at him then, and decided that I needed to wake him up out of his sad good-guy pity party (thanks to patriarchal entitlement blindness) and let him know how that all sounded to me, what it implied.
I knew I was not in any danger of being raped—he was much more sad and vulnerable and confused than scary and threatening, and he’d been a totally gallant, gentlemanly sort of date up to that point—but I also know that the more confused a guy like that gets, the more resentful they become, and I couldn’t just let a speech like that slide.
So, the romance ruined, I spoke frankly. I told him that those comments made me feel unsafe, that no girl is going to be able to respect and trust him if he talked like that, and that he absolutely had to stop treating love like a commodity that could be used up, or yeah, maybe he will die alone. Sex and love aren’t prizes, I am not a catch, and there is no way he’s going to ever be happy in a relationship if he can’t see women as independent and autonomous and whole creatures. And falling in love is a sham unless you are willing to let the other person be fully human and accept them the way they are, not the way you want them to be.
To his credit, he really did seem to hear me and take all that seriously. He apologized, and I left.
But I still felt really shaken up by the experience and not just because he said something so utterly insensitive and frightening, or because I had to quickly respond so and with a feminist rant that required a lot of vulnerability and frankness.
What upsets me is the assumptions. What upsets me is the same thing that upsets me about what happened with my sister and the high school kids. It’s the same thing that upset me when, a few weeks back, I went to a favorite bar for mac and cheese, an amber ale, and some time to sort out my thoughts in a notebook. Once I got settled in, an old man (who was pretty drunk) sat next to me and leaned onto the bar and watched me eat with a rapt expression on his face. I was helpless to get him to stop, I couldn’t find another seat to move to, and the bartender acted like nothing was wrong. I ended up leaving because I was so uncomfortable.
The assumption common to these situations is this: the needs of men are fixed points and the comfort zones of women are not.
Men have desires, needs, comfort zones, and women are to bend and mold themselves to meet them. The problem is not that the old guy was being a pervert, or that the boyfriends were slutty, or that the one guy was bad at communication, or that the other was presumptuous and rude.
The problem is that I was the one who was supposed to defend my personal space, that the girlfriends assumed it was my sister who was the problem, that I was uncomfortable voicing my own emotions, that I had to explain sexual ethics to a guy and be responsible for being the only one attentive to my own commitment issues.
This should not be. Women are people too (which is the oddly radical definition of feminism), and the common courtesy we women are acculturated to show everyone should be something we ought to be able to expect to receive in return. Instead, women are trained to make up for the social slack that men are never made to learn, and it pits women against each other to compete for men, and it puts undue responsibility on women to keep relationships together and the communication flowing.
And then we continue to perpetuate these things and say that dudes are bad at expressing their emotions, that women are more naturally nurturing, that dudes can’t be expected to know what we’re thinking, that we should not expect much emotional attention from them.
We are constantly building our own gender role prisons. And I’m tired of seeing emotional and relational codependency and false gender roles treated like they are healthy benchmarks of normal relationships.
I should not have to apologize for my comfort zones, my needs, my feelings, or my preferences. And if that is what “normal” looks like, it needs to change.