Dating is a struggle for most people hoping to make connections with other people, whether you’re looking for a partner, committed relationship or casual friends with benefits. Most young women can find dating intimidating for safety reasons, both emotional and physical, as well as the idea of allowing oneself to be vulnerable to other people in order to make genuine connections. Making genuine connections can be difficult to navigate when surrounded by the unspoken (and heavily gendered) rules of dating and fear of coming off as too scary, controlling, loud, passionate or annoying are thoughts I find racing through the minds of my close friends and I when we discuss our dating lives. Knowing where feminism lives in your dating life can be just as tricky as dating itself.
“What did you expect him to say?” I was posed this question by a close friend after a disappointing reaction from a guy I had been seeing this past January. While we were discussing the importance and arguments against religion, I mentioned a piece of feminist literature from my intro to feminist theory class from the previous semester about the power of goddess in religion and the power women can get from one another. After our third date, I texted him pictures of the piece from my textbook to which he said he skimmed it and thanked me for sharing it with him.
I’m currently an undergraduate majoring in Women’s Studies, so casually mentioning feminist literature to the people with whom I spend time with is not unusual for me. I frequently share the literature from my classes or personal reading with my friends. After sharing Carol P. Christ’s, “Why Women Need the Goddess: Phenomenological, Psychological, and Political Reflections” I was excited to see his reaction, so I was hurt that he would not engage in a conversation with me about feminism and religion and the power struggles men and women have in religion. Upon reflecting back, he absolutely did not owe me any amount of enthusiasm or conversation and he probably did not know where to start in engaging with me over feminist literature. Things between us fizzled out from there once the spring semester began again, but I learned an important lesson: Dating and Feminism are a difficult combo.
Dating men as a young woman always comes with new experiences.Though the experiences and rules of courting vary with religion, class, race and ethnicity, national origin and so on courting has traditionally been done in very public settings with the goal of marriage in the end. Many liberal and socialist feminists have analyzed the ways in which courting treats women as objects for men to exchange for social and financial gain. As argued by Gayle Rubin in “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex” women have been currency through marriage since prehistoric eras, preceding capitalism. The majority of cultural systems are patriarchal and give most of the power in the society to men.
Sarah Grimké argues in Letters on the equality of the sexes and the condition of women that courting leaves women caught up in the act of finding a husband rather than concern for her own well being. Young women are frequently socialized to obsess over their appearances, and “ seldom think that men will be allured by intellectual acquisition, because they find that where any mental superiority exists, a woman is generally shunned and regarded as stepping out of her ‘appropriate sphere’”. When women present themselves as thinking intellectual beings to the men they are dating they are generally disregarded to be radical shrews with little to no hope of being tamed.
Women who enjoy asserting their intelligence in their dating life quickly learn this world comes with its own set of gendered rules and double standards. It is true that dating has changed since the days Sarah Grimké was dating in high society, however, the ways in which women are expected to capture and hold the attention of men has not. I have made it a rule not to change the amount of feminist theory I talk about with my friends and with the men I see in a romantic capacity. Feminism, feminist theory, and feminist research are a big part of my personal and intellectual development in and outside of my formal education. Feminist theorists have used writing to come to the understandings of the standpoint of their identity in the place of structural power. As bell hooks states, “theory is liberatory practice,” she came to follow her establishment of agency in herself. Through the development of feminist theory, bell hooks was better able to come to terms with the place structural power has attempted to place her in a subordinate identity. In this piece, she created a space in which she could build herself up and maintain her own agency. Feminism is really, really important to me.
Many of the men I have dated have little understanding of feminist theory and praxis, though many make efforts to understand why feminism is important. It is not often that men who have not created their own identities as feminists find themselves engaging in discussions about feminist theory, especially when dating. I am often met with questions about what feminist theory is, why I have chosen to study it, and how I got into reading feminist theory. I also find men who try to tell me about how feminist they are or the experiences of women in their lives or why they love feminism (but no explanation as to why they won’t hold their male friends to the same standards that they expect men to treat the women with whom they are close). Sarah Grimké was not wrong in her analysis of the world of courting and forming relationships.
Including feminist discussions in my dating life is important because it allows me to get an understanding of the men I am seeing and engaging with, as well as asserting my own subjectivity into my dating life. I have many close friends who also identify as feminists but assert their subjectivity into their dating lives in different capacities. For example, one of my closest friends likes to create a space between herself and a new person she dates by not getting to know them via text or social media. She likes to engage with people with one on one time and space; she likes to engage in a quiet space and have a real, undivided conversation. She places this expectation on herself and the person with whom she is dating.
Asserting one’s own subjectivity and agency in all parts of life is the most important way women can alter the landscape of the way men understand and interact with women. Dating requires high levels of personal vulnerability and exposing one’s beliefs to strangers (and their closest friends who, if they’re good friends, expect updates about first dates). Discussing feminist theory and including feminist praxis into your life are important parts of feminist activism and, in my opinion, belong in every part of your life. Unrealistic expectations often lie upon women while dating and the unspoken rules of courtship and gender can be difficult to navigate. Roxane Gay makes a wonderful deconstruction of the expectations men and women have while dating in their young lives in Bad Feminist, to which she draws on Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and the monologue made by Amy Dunne about “The Cool Girl” citing how women have often been held to different standards than men.
The guy I went out with earlier this year taught me an important lesson about discussing and asserting my feminism into my dating life. Not everyone will respond the ways you expect, especially when you are sharing something with which you have devoted your life and energy to. If he had, I wouldn’t have felt all the more comfortable with having similar discussions and educating the men I saw in the future about the basics of feminist theory and praxis. It encouraged me to be my entire, intellectual self. Times have changed since the days of Sarah Grimké,and the men with whom I choose to allow into my life will not be intimidated by my intellectualism and passion.