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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
    1. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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).
  5. 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.


  • Pingback: Everyday sexism: the tale of two boys | Wine and Marble | This is Important()

  • Kristi Scott

    You’re in my head, girl. This is something I see in dating all the
    time. Granted, I’ve felt a lot like your parking garage date
    before…the entitlement part. Like I deserve a man because I followed
    all the rules. (Most being of the evangelical variety.)

    I was talking to
    a friend about all the dating bullshit games you’re expected to play
    and I said,”I’m opting out and if that means I’m single forever, so be
    it.” Scary but liberating words for someone who has dreamed of a husband
    and kids since before she can remember. But I’m happier now when I give
    myself permission not to play games.

    Here’s to keeping our boundaries and
    reminding everyone that Respect should be at the top of the notoriously ambiguous “dating rules.”

  • Wonderfully written. Thanks for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and publishing, despite how hard it was to hit that button.

  • Briana Meade

    This is fascinating, thanks for sharing the current dating culture with us. I couldn’t help but be reminded of being a single/young girl and the experiences I similarly had, but didn’t have the wherewithal (at the time) to interpret through a intellectual lens. Bravo. More girls should read these thoughts.

  • Sebastian Faust

    This… “And I’m tired of seeing emotional and relational codependency and false gender roles treated like they are healthy benchmarks of normal relationships.” Thank you for putting into words what I have had a hard time giving form to. And thank you for your openness and vulnerability in sharing this.

    I have the feeling that this IS the accepted normal, and I think that we absolutely need to work to change it. I think it’s a systematic problem deeply embedded in our culture. And one of the problems that it causes, I think, is that our understanding of gender roles in the sphere of dating then creates unhealthy and far-reaching consequences for the rest of our social interactions.

  • Bam. Thank you for this, friend.

  • Debbie Jane

    hey-oh.

    • Debbie Jane

      (aka: beautiful post, darling.)

  • My best friend was dating a guy a couple months ago that she met online, and the scenario you described with guy #2 above is exactly what their relationship was like, only worse. They had been only been a couple dates when he asked whether she was “ever going to have sex” with him, and she told him that she wasn’t willing to go there until their relationship was much more established. He said he respected her choice, but it became a central source of frustration between them. He saw sex as a literal commodity; if he took her on a nice date or bought her flowers, etc., she would have to put out as repayment. And he was royally pissed when he realized the system didn’t work that way, and that her “no” belonged to her. He actually threatened to sleep with his ex and was shocked when she was like “K BYE.” It was really eye-opening for me to hear this story, having never really experienced that with any of the guys I dated. You describe it so well here: “the needs of men are fixed points and the comfort zones of women are not.”

    I know it hurts to put yourself in a place of vulnerability and open-heartedness, only to be met with patriarchal bullshit. You are so brave, not only for establishing your autonomy, but for processing your experiences here for us.

  • Tim

    I’m so glad there was no second date with either of them. But I’m also glad I read your post on how you handled it all. Well written, very well written.

  • Abigail

    Thank you for posting this. spot on. I wish there was a way we could set up a forum to speak about this stuff at GCC because while they have incredible academics, on this topic? they are lacking. Very well written and thought out.

  • Rutskarn

    I get a lot of people who won’t read feminist material because–to be fair–a lot of it is written, consciously or unconsciously, for people with a background in feminism. They’re seeing the last step in an algebra problem wherein the values of a half-dozen variables were painstakingly determined. But since they didn’t see the variables determined themselves, the post itself looks like it’s coming from nowhere. A patient reading would probably give the reader the tools to determine those variables themselves, but it’s not much incentive for people to read further when they feel (often unjustifiably, but that’s another story) attacked.

    The point I am laboriously swinging around to is that these post are a great starting point for laypersons. I’m involved in this movement only because of people like you who could get through to the defensive, clueless me several years ago. There is no reason you HAVE to be as calm and even-handed and thorough in your explanations and quick to give credit where it’s due, especially given all you’ve been through…but I think the fact that you are might just help a lot of people.

    Thanks for doing what you do.

  • This is such a good way of explaining things without being rage-y about it. Sometimes I have trouble not getting angry when I have experiences with sexism, and I’m impressed that you’re able to see the men’s side even after your difficult upbringing.

  • Stefanzi

    I must say women reading through the three stories that I could not see how they held together with one overarching point. Once reading your summary it was very clear, the communication balancing act required to make all the situations resolved in the best way for all involved would be very tricky, particularly based around the different personalities, yours and your sister’s, your dates and the high school couples.

    Your sister’s probably struck me as the oddest. I don’t know what happened when these guys started dating their new girlfriend’s or if any of them where friends prior to the relationships, though it seems likely, but why were the girls seemingly okay with their current squeeze flirtatiously contracting a girl whom they knew would turn (and had!) turn them down. What sort of relationships were these? If they knew that their new girls where going to physically harm someone they were, and in all likelihood still are, attracted to then what is the justification? I feel sorry for all involved, your sister the most, but far, the other kids seem to have gotten all relationship advice from bad US sit-com’s, where I constantly seen the word ‘exclusive’ thrown around where it needs to be specifically stated that one in a relationship can date others unless they are exclusive. My wife and a few mates have discussed this, we would all be appalled if someone we were seeing was seeing someone else; worse still that they might not see anything wrong with it.

    For guy number one if I were him and interested in you I would be delighted to receive a text declaring how you felt. In the past I have had no idea if a girl likes me or just wants a friend, it would be fantastic (I can’t think of an adjective powerful enough to explain how it would feel to KNOW rather than trying to piece together every conversation/contact into a does she/doesn’t she list while staring at the ceiling every night). In that case he could have let you know he didn’t feel this way instead of being too careful. Of course, people almost always avoid being upfront for fear it may be seen as being to needy or desperate.

    As for number 2, what a horrible way to phase something vulgar. A single date, though a nice one and his expectation of being ‘owed’ something is creepy and thinking of a woman as an object as you said. What I find strangest of all is that this all happened in a single day- how often does he do this? Eye contact with a stranger, ask her out, put on a big show and then sex. I hope this is not the case, it makes it seem more like some kind of predator scenario. I always try to see good in people and I hope you are right about him being contrite but it just sounded so, well, rapey. Poor communication again.

    Anyway, a fine read all around and I hope there have been plenty of other dates that have been unremarkable for the right reasons. After reading some of your other entries you deserve better after having suffered through fundamentalism in all its wretched glory. Remarkable how a group of people can think themselves so pious, upstanding and righteous and be so wrong, hypocritical and yet so unaware of all of it. The Biblical literalists are the worst, the world was created less than 10,000 years ago and fossils are a conspiracy or God testing our faith or some other nonsense. Oh, and the Apocalypse in just around the corner, constantly. Sorry for going off on a tangent but I simply don’t understand the motivation behind it all, throwing out logic, rationality and critical thinking just to feel like part of a group.