Last week, one of my local newspapers ran a story, How feminism undermined itself, gave way to the hook-up culture, written by Susan Dench, whose expertise in feminism is presumably sourced from hearsay, pop culture in general, or perhaps conservative media in particular. The article is tough to read for a lot of reasons that I’m about to dig into, and thankfully there was a bit of resistance on Alex Steed’s blog with an equally provacative, albeit amusing, title: Susan “Linkbait” Dench is trying to save women from the evils of feminism. While Steed makes some terrific points and is definitely good for a laugh, Dench’s perspective is common enough that it warrants a more serious rebuttal.
So what’s wrong with Dench’s argument? Let’s break it down into parts.
Dench starts with an anecdote: “It happened again. A guy told me he just didn’t know what women expected from him anymore. He was almost paralyzed by fear, wondering if he should do something that he thought would be gentlemanly but which he feared might actually offend the fairer sex. Oh, we women have so much to answer for.”
Right out of the gate, we’ve hit a problem. Dench’s friend, likely well meaning, is worried about the expectations and wishes of women he’s interested in dating. Fundamentally, there isn’t much of a problem tthere. First of all, the cornerstone of every relationship should be mutual respect, right? Second, we all want the people we like to like us back. Humans are social creatures. That’s kind of our thing. However, Dench’s assessment of the situation is where the trouble comes. She conceptualizes her friend’s concern as “near paralysis” and implies that this is evidence that women, as a collective, have wronged him somehow.
As far as I can tell, this is what we did “wrong”: we managed to impress upon this man that women are not all the same and that we don’t all want the same things from the men we date. Awesome! How terrific would it be if every time two people got together, they both started considering the other person’s individual thoughts, needs, feelings, and preferences? Frankly, our culture around romantic relationships has been polluted with a lot of silly rules that don’t make much sense.
Despite the fact that men and women vary wildly in terms of personality and background, we’re generally sold the idea that there’s one “right way” to pursue romantic relationships. That one “right way” can vary depending on who is selling the ideology. For someone like Dench, the right way likely involves men making first moves and opening doors, while women giggle demurely and pretend to be fascinated by her date’s authority and intellect regarding all matters. Members of my generation are more likely to defer to the sociopathic theories of “pick-up artists” who attempt to manipulate women using tactics like “negging” – aka insulting women to make them feel insecure and more likely to accept sexual advances. There are some rules that seem timeless, like waiting three dates before having sex if you want a guy to respect you, or x number of days to call after getting someone’s phone number. Honestly, they’re all kind of stupid and arbitrary. Even if they work some of the time, they certainly won’t work all of the time.
In reality, the right way to act with a potential romantic partner depends on who that potential romantic partner is. This involves getting to know someone before diving in headfirst. If you have an idea and you’re not sure how well it would go over, you have a couple of options: you can either ask that person whether they like this particular action in a relationship, or if that feels weird, you can hold off for now and wait for the object of your affection to voice some opinion on the topic in natural conversation. If the two of you are a good match, there will be plenty of opportunities to open doors or buy flowers or cook a steak dinner or whatever it is that you wanted to do. Or, I suppose, there is a third option: you just follow your intuition and make the gesture you wanted to make. If this turns out to be something that your date doesn’t like and she subsequently loses interest, that’s a bummer, but at least now you know that the two of you are incompatible. Move on. Date someone new. Or stay single. It’s going to be fine either way.
It gets worse, as she writes: “In the traditional world, women brought out the best in their men, who subsumed their more base instincts as they fought hard to earn and win the respect of the women they loved.”
Whoa, whoa, whoa. “The traditional world”? The world is an awfully big place and we have plenty of evidence that men happily indulged their sexual desires outside of wedlock in ancient Greece, Rome, Japan, and India, just to give a few examples. However, by “traditional world” I think it’s safe to assume that Dench is referring specifically to the Victorian era and post-Victorian United States. I think that we’re all pretty familiar with the dominant narrative that these were fairly sexually repressive times in this particular society (although even that’s contentious: see Foucault’s History of Sexuality for criticism of the “repressive hypothesis”).
Setting Dench’s ethnocentric approach to human sexuality aside, there is also a really unconscionable statement being made about men. By giving women the primary responsibility for controlling the sexual behavior of men, Dench airs her disturbing view that men are unable to control themselves. I don’t know what kind of men Dench is hanging around with, but my social circle is filled to the brim with compassionate, thoughtful, (even feminist!) men. Sexual relationships are not cat and mouse games for them. Any man worth your time is going to want to limit his sexual partners to people who want the same things that he wants. They can and do say “Thanks but no thanks,” to potential partners who are looking for something different than they are. Remember that part earlier where I mentioned that, as individuals, we all have our own preferences and desires where relationships are concerned? That applies here, too.
Realistically, there are members of all sexes, at this very moment, who just want casual sex partners. This isn’t some kind of braindead strategy that women have concocted to trick unsuspecting men into marriage. Later on down the road, most of these people will likely want something different. If/when that happens, they will likely change their vetting process for new partners to find someone who has similar relationship goals. That being said, are there jerks out there who will lie and manipulate in attempts to bed or wed an incompatible person? Sadly, yes. But the only person responsible for that kind of behavior is the person who is lying and manipulating. Period.
Dench drives her point further into the ground, elaborating: “Talk about irony: Men have taken advantage of casual sex on demand and ended up with even more power as they asked themselves, ‘Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?’ and wriggled out of monogamous dating, commitment, marriage and responsibility.”
Again, Dench is espousing a really toxic, reductionist viewpoint on men and masculinity. “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?” Why do you think that people get married? Men, just like women, find their lives enriched by loving relationships. When you argue that men only enter romantic partnerships in pursuit of sex, what you’re really saying is that men don’t experience the full range of human emotions and are unable to enjoy intimacy. Further, companionship and sexuality are not commodities to be bought and sold. A healthy romantic relationship isn’t about “I’ll give you this if you give me that.” It’s about “We both want this. We both want that.” I feel truly sad for anyone in a relationship that reduces love and sex to bartering chips.
All of that being said, maybe this is truly the way that Dench has experienced relationships throughout her life. Maybe she was burned by casual relationships that she secretly wanted to blossom into something more. Maybe her own romantic partnerships are plagued by a gauche economic framework of exchanging rather than sharing love and sex. Or, perhaps, she has seen this sad arrangement play out for friends and family. Even if that is the case, it does not excuse her attempts to pass her truth as everyone’s truth. Quite certainly, it does not excuse the broad character assassination she has levied at men in her article.
Woven throughout her attack on men, Dench also illustrates quite clearly that she doesn’t exactly know what feminism is or who feminists are. I think a lot of people are in the same boat as Dench, and unfortunately will hear the views of one feminist and assume that all of us automatically share those views. “Feminism” is more accurately described as multiple feminisms that represent varied, sometimes contradictory theories and ideologies. Feminism has served as an umbrella term for many sequential as well as parallel movements. Personally, I tend to find intersectional and post-modern feminist frameworks to be the most accurate and useful. I’m frequently opposed to other feminist ideologies, particularly many (but of course, not all) of those associated with feminism’s second wave in general and radical feminism in particular. While the nuances of separate feminisms are the subject of a much longer discussion than is appropriate for this format, they are bound by at least one common thread: we all believe that men are not the only people on this planet who are worthy of dignity and respect. We believe that women are fundamentally valuable, not simply as the servants or supporters of men, but as autonomous individuals.
The next time Susan Dench feels compelled to launch into a diatribe against feminism, I hope that she will take a moment to ruminate on the idea that she matters, with or without a man. If she can agree with that sentiment, feminism is not an appropriate target for her anger. If she can’t agree to that premise, the hook-up culture of Gen Y is the least of her worries.