Dear Doctor Amorous,
I am a cisgender woman in my late 30s. The deconstruction of romantic love and dating – The Economist quotes a book that calls the latter an economic transaction and even equates it to prostitution – is making me really confused and hurting my self-esteem.
I always thought a husband and family were what I was supposed to strive the most for, as something noble and not based on the selfishness of corporate-climbing. I am still single and stuck in a job that I feel doesn’t match my abilities. Have I been cheated? Is it too late? How do I get out of my rut?
Also, I may not even be into men, but how the hell would I know for sure, when I have no idea what I want and haven’t dared try anything else?
Lost in a Postmodern World
This sounds like a very healthy but very uncomfortable process to be in. It’s important for women to reflect critically and carefully on whether and how they want to participate in the heterosexual matrix at all. What I’m going to do here is introduce some concepts and options as tools you can have in your kit as you go forward. Figuring out what you want and how you relate to larger cultural expectations is an ongoing and highly complex process, so you’re going to need some big guns.
1. Are you even into men?
This is an excellent question and it means you are gaining some distance from what we call compulsory heterosexuality. You’re looking at the difference between the automatic, pre-paved path, and what actually happens in your own body and imagination and heart. That is the right direction to look in.
It could open up some space for you if you start from the idea proposed by Judith Butler, or maybe it was Lucy Irigaray, that heterosexual sex is not inherently pleasurable. That is clearly the case, if you look back to maybe your first time, or consider the amount of work which goes into making it seem like something we should all desire.
Eating is gorgeous, but nobody had to generate rules and norms and media and traditions to make me want to eat or to eat food and not clothes. But there are constant efforts afoot in our culture to make me believe I should want men and want them to like me: the vast majority of textual and visual culture, most religions, our girlfriends at school, old ladies asking if we have a boyfriend yet, and so on. That’s what we call the heterosexual matrix. People aren’t matching up boy-girl boy-girl because they all want to, but because we have built a system that makes them think they want to.
So if it’s not inherently pleasurable, it is no longer an automatic thing that you need to be doing.
You can do whatever you want, and you can match what you do with your own body and imagination and heart. Those are your three guiding stars.
In order to figure out what you’re into, examine your imagination. When you think about guys, do you think about their bodies, or do you think about the gratification of getting male attention or how it would feel to be treated sweetly? If the latter, then what you desire is something other than but not necessarily excluding male bodies. When you masturbate, what do you think about? That has at least something to do with what you are into.
Reflect also on your body. What is it that makes you miss a step or catch your breath or lose your concentration in the day to day? I personally have a basically debilitating passion for flat bellies and curly hair and tight hips and good hands and thighs and noses and really all sorts of things to such a degree that, given that this passion is not gender-specific, it’s a miracle I can function at all. People are different, and people like wildly varied things. Some people like a ton of body hair, or big nipples, or big behinds, or little boobies, or cute navels, or a slight dorkiness. Collect those things in a sort of personal erotic catalogue in order to get clear with yourself about what you are into.
Finally, see what is in your heart. What do you want from a partner, apart from just sticking around and being half-way responsible? What would energize you and bless you and allow you to move towards a yet unlived life? For me that’s a partner whom I respect, for whom I feel honest admiration and in whom I take pride, a person of creativity and intelligence with whom I can play and build. That seems more important than what kind of reproductive equipment the person is set up with, but they tell me there really are people who only like girls or only like boys.
2. Have you been cheated?
Yes. The ideal you describe is part of patriarchy, and patriarchy screws everybody over, but is sustained at the cost of women’s safety, mental health and livelihoods.
You were taught to treat a bodily function (sex and reproduction) as the goal of your life. That has shaped your decisions, your self-perception, and where you have invested your time and energy. Your comment reflects what bell hooks has called the man-identified state: the traditional mentality of women who are trained to shape their actions to suit men and to pave the way towards marriage, to measure themselves as acceptable or unacceptable according to the approval of men. As for example when you state that you are “still” single, as if you have failed to achieve your destiny at the appropriate time.
Men are not a destiny. The’re just people. Hooks contrasts this mindset with what she calls becoming a woman-identified woman. That means that you are on the woman team, and on your own team, that you pursue your own interests (you make some moves in your career for example), rather than hanging around waiting for men to like you.
To work out how this shift would impact your life, there are some questions to ask: Would you have wanted to do any of the things you have done or be with any of the people you’ve been with if you had not been systematically and vigorously indoctrinated with the belief that your value is contingent on your ability to “get” a man? Did the men thus gotten deliver anything that was worth the effort you put in and the risks you took? Probably not. Was the process of dating and being in relationships a worthwhile undertaking compared to other things you could have been doing with your time and energy and attention? I doubt it very much.
Consider how much time you have put in, and consider the professional skills you could have acquired or the money you could have made or the friendships you could have cultivated or the level of health and fitness you could have achieved in that time. Re-orient yourself to yourself and to your own needs, dreams and goals, and invest your time and attention accordingly.
A good therapy for straight women is to regard men and their interactions with men from a plain old cost-benefit perspective. What am I getting out of this?
If I factor out social approval and the gratification of fulfilling an expectation which did not come from my own heart, am I getting anything at all?
Which of the things that you yourself, as one specific individual, need and want are available to you in the relationship, and at what price?
The price to women of any heterosexual relationship is massive. Why? Because nine times out of ten, having a boyfriend means putting up with a lot of dysfunctional behavior and low-grade abuse, putting your health and safety on the line, risking pregnancy or STIs, having to fight for your own room to move and grow and to defend your own voice, sinking huge amounts of time into unpaid emotional and domestic labor, and struggling to withstand the constant pressures of erasure and silencing. That’s the cost to being with a straight man, even with a “nice guy,” just because we live in patriarchy. To put it in economic terms, it’s not a very good deal, so why go out of your way to try to close it?
I have not yet met the man who brings anything into my life which compensates for that.
He would have to have had proper screening and a vasectomy so that I don’t bear the burden of the health risks associated with birth control, he would have to be genius in bed and not one of the many straight men who think women’s genitals are gross or confusing (?!), and to have done the emotional and spiritual and moral work to move out of patriarchy and be able to engage with a woman as a full, three-dimensional, complex human being.
He would have to be capable of being interested in who I am as I am, not as I might gratify his wishes, and he would need to want to know what I do and care that I do it. I have not met a man yet who has that level of maturity, respect, self-awareness, and compassion; hence I am single.
On the other hand, if I were to make an effort to meet women, finding someone whose body did not inherently put me at risk sexually, who was welcoming and compassionate and curious and nurturing and able to engage with me as a full person would be fairly easy, and I could experience intimacy without having to fend off vestiges of patriarchy from my own home.
Costs, benefits. Men are not a benefit in and of themselves as straightness has caused us to believe.
Look critically at how much you put in and how much you get out. Expect more from men, and always, always, always be ready to walk away if you are not cherished and respected with great generosity and vigor.
3. Is it too late?
No. This is the joy of getting older. Young people are very conservative and don’t even know it. The older you get, the more you know who you are, the less you give a fuck about what you were taught or about society in general, and the more you are willing to shape your life in a way that suits your specific self. Which means the older you get, the better your chances of knowing how to find a person who fits with you or whether you want that at all.
Getting clear about who you are and what you want and ignoring very heartily all extraneous expectations and conventions is how you develop integrity and authenticity and get out of your rut. Match your actions to your values and your heart.
4. Now, to address your more general point about disillusionment in striving for marriage and family as something that is noble in and of itself.
Look, I know a lot of married and coupled-up people, and maybe 5% are happy and truly loving and supportive and friendly to each other, or even give the impression of really liking each other and having fun being around each other. Life is long and there are ups and downs in all relationships, but the evidence does not suggest that marriage is an agent of happiness for most women.
Statistics around physical and mental health and economic success confirm that marriage benefits men at the expense of women. I think that says everything about whether traditional heterosexual marriage is an exploitative economic transaction. YES. IT IS.
In the economics of dating and marriage, women are the serfs and the workers and men are the princes and profiteers.
But the article you mentioned from The Economist addresses itself to a very traditional and middle-class way of approaching sexuality and partnership, so it might be time for you to explore the myriad alternatives that human beings have invented to try to connect to each other in more authentic and non-exploitative ways – whether through queer communities, through looking for a different breed of men, through just being on your own without considering that a liability, or through developing a sexual life that works for you specifically and might not take the shape of marriage or partnership.
Again, although very uncomfortable, this process is also a very healthy one. You are questioning what you were taught and you are realizing that you have been lied to. It is a sad process, because the idea of winning the game of heterosexuality by getting married and being a wonderful wife and mother was extremely attractive to many of us for many years. You were offered a recipe for a good life and now you are seeing that that recipe bakes up something you’re not sure is good at all or good for you.
Keep going, keep asking questions, keep re-shaping your behavior to match your knowledge of yourself, and you will end up where you need to be.