Making them work for it: Overcoming the patriarchy of the dating game

While on vacation recently with a good friend, I asked an intelligent and thoughtful guy we’d recently met if he would think less of a woman if she had sex with him on the first date.  Without hesitation he responded, “I expect [women] to make me work for it.”

While I wish I could say I was surprised, I really wasn’t. His response reminded me of the advice I’d received as a teen about avoiding a “reputation” and validated the dating strategy I used through my 20s.  I tried to follow certain rules that I thought would convey the right image of myself to help me find the right guy, mainly:

  1. Wait for him to ask me out.
  2. Don’t have sex on the first date.
  3. Don’t call him, let him call you.

I’m certainly not alone.  I have had countless conversations with friends about the right dating strategies for women and more than a few about strategies for men.  If my (admittedly non-representative) peer group is any indication, the general rules listed above still govern many women’s behavior, even among the most liberal and gender-conscious.  Of course, the traditional dating paradigm of a guy asking a girl out to dinner and a movie doesn’t really reflect the dating reality anymore, particularly among younger people.  The oft-lamented “hook-up” culture, whether you like it or not, is a particularly important part of dating in college and even in adulthood.  Meeting people online as opposed to in a bar is commonplace, if not the norm. However, similar dating rules are usually applied to these situations, just with updated language.   (Wait for him to message you; don’t have sex during the first hook-up; don’t be the first to text him afterwards). 

While these “rules” certainly have much older roots, they were described in popular culture through Charlotte York’s (Sex and the City) dating practices and continue to be echoed in movies and television.  The foundational philosophy seems to be that men prefer to play the more aggressive role and will react more positively to women who proceed cautiously and set (mainly sexual) boundaries within relationships.  Women who make them work for it, in other words.

Both men and women attempt to prove their value to their potential partner while dating or hooking-up, whether it’s delaying a call or a text or letting them know they have other options.  This is essentially a “mating dance,” and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it.  Women, however, are expected to prove an additional layer of value, a layer I’ll call their “virtue”.  What do I mean by virtue? Well, the definition has changed overtime and varies by location and among different social groups.  At one time, virtue meant virginity, and still does in some parts of the world.  Today in much of the U.S., virtue tends to mean having a low number of past sexual partners, not having casual sex, waiting for a certain number of dates before having sex, or some combination of the three.

In a new dating situation, many women who are interested in a relationship attempt to prove that they are worthy of men’s commitment (read: virtuous) by allowing men to take the reins to organize the first date and communicate afterwards. Perhaps most importantly, women display their virtue by not having sex with men “too soon” out of fear of being labeled “not relationship material” or “just a hook-up.” To complicate matters, many men who judge women based on these criteria are still more than willing to have sex with their date, only to subsequently decide (consciously or unconsciously) that she is unworthy of commitment simply because she acted on the same sexual desire that he did.

But, how are these expectations learned and perpetuated? As tempting as it may be to blame men for imposing these expectations on women, the reality is much more complicated.  Boys and girls are inundated with messages from religion, family and the media about appropriate behavior for each gender and these roles are translated into dating practices by pop culture.  By adulthood, both women and men have so internalized these ideas of female virtue that they are difficult to identify and recognize for what they are: patriarchy.

Thus, many women are judged, and submit themselves to be judged, based on their virtue as defined by perceived sexual boundaries, rather than who they are as people, sexual desire, experience and all.  This is not to say that all women (or men, for that matter) should immediately have sex with everyone they are interested in, but rather that they should have sex when they want to and feel comfortable, and not make decisions about sex based on antiquated notions of female value.

Men are certainly not immune to these gendered expectations, nor do they necessarily benefit from them.  Many of my guy friends describe the stress of being expected to call women and ask them out all the time.  Men, like women, fear rejection and sometimes feel too embarrassed to approach women. Some men would love it if women were less concerned about seeming “too forward” and expressed their interest through taking the initiative early in a relationship. Moreover, not every man wants to play the sexually aggressive role in a relationship.  These gendered expectations in dating put men in a box, too, defining their value based on traditional notions of masculinity, regardless of what they really want.

Many of these judgments are subconscious.  Some women have trouble even identifying what they want from a relationship and when because these ideas of female value are so deeply engrained that it’s difficult to distinguish them from their actual desires. Even some of the most empowered women secretly wonder if challenging the patriarchy in their dating decisions will leave them without a partner.

So what’s the solution? I say we make them work for it.  We demand that men rise above regressive ideas about female virtue and judge potential female partners based on their intelligence and character.  If they don’t, they’re not worth it.  Women, in turn, need to stop perpetuating the patriarchy of dating by not judging themselves or other women based on their adherence to “acceptable” sexual boundaries rather than their own personal values.

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