The year is 2016. I’m twenty-four and finishing up my third year of graduate school in a not-that-large city in Louisiana. I am very single, in between busy periods of schoolwork, and extremely not opposed to some casual mingling in the meantime. It’s a formula that all but demands a turn to Tinder, but because it’s a smaller city and because I’m not that much older than the undergraduate students I teach, I choose to forego any dating apps. If this itch is getting scratched, it’ll be because I meet someone the old fashioned, IRL way. In other words, a fool’s errand.
Until I do meet someone at a friend’s party. There’s chemistry, there’s flirting, there’s a Facebook message, and there’s a first date, and then another, and so on and so forth until we have a pretty steady routine: once or twice a week, we go out, drink, end up back at his place, stay in bed for hours. My friends joke about the regular sexcations that they only know I’m on because I temporarily seem to go off the grid, missing brunches at an unprecedented rate. But who needs brunch when I’ve got no-strings-attached sex?
All signs point to it being a mutually casual situation, which is ideal from a timing perspective. I leave to spend the summer in Pennsylvania at my parents’ home reading and preparing for my general exams. We text a little, but not much, and when I come back for the fall semester, I expect a nearly seamless fade-out. I explain that I don’t think we’ll be able to spend time together anymore. I’ll be too busy with work, I say, and that has to be my priority right now. He takes it more personally than I expected, but ultimately insists that while he’s bummed, he gets it.
Until, I guess, he doesn’t. Until he texts me to tell me “I guess I never really knew you anyway. The picture I painted in my mind was much nicer than reality. I’ll delete all the contact info.” Until he follows that text up a few days later, at 10:30 PM on a Monday night, with “In my defense, my attachment to you is all ego, I have girls much cuter :P Hehehe”
1,000 replies ran through my head, ranging from “clearly you don’t because you’re sending me neggy texts late on a Monday night?” and “you’re thirty, grow up” and “oh my god, it’s about your ego?!” I don’t reply because ultimately it’s not worth it. And the whole thing turns into a mostly funny story I tell people about the dating mistakes I made when I was a little bit younger.
But lurking behind that funny story is a whole set of really toxic stereotypes and expectations about young women and the choices they make in heteronormative relationships. Across mainstream culture there are myriad received ideas about women being somehow essentially wired to “catch feelings,” wanting to turn any relationship into a committed monogamous one.
Consider the long standing “joke” about young women who go to college to get an MRS degree, a.k.a. find a guy to marry, or the way the media has generally discussed Taylor Swift’s dating life as: girl meets boy, girl gets way too invested, way too quickly, girl just needs to chill with the feelings. The idea that a young woman could simply be interested in fun, casual sex seems still to be anathema to much of mainstream culture and many straight men out there in the wide, wild world of dating.
Whereas young men’s sexual exploits are treated as run-of-the-mill (think of how the phrases “boys will be boys” and “locker room talk” are used to explain both benign and not-so-benign behavior for men of all ages), women who engage in casual sex are too often painted with a different brush — look at The Bachelorette star Kaitlyn Bristowe. She has received an alarming amount of vitriol from both viewers and contestants alike for, gasp, having sex with a contestant before they were in love. “Sex for fun is for men; sex for love is for women,” conventional wisdom seems to say.
And so while I had a relatively easy time walking away from this particular partner, it seemed to turn up a 404 Error in his brain. That’s not something women do, he seemed to suggest. The picture he’d painted in his mind, the one so much nicer than the reality, was of a woman who couldn’t possibly have not wanted something more out of the relationship.
That his last word to me was a suggestion that he didn’t care about me in particular, and that he was himself playing the field underscores this totally absurd double standard. You’re just a sex object to me, but I am also deeply hurt that you seem to have only thought of me as a sex object.
Second, and just as insidious, is the total befuddlement he seemed faced with when considering that a woman might be more interested in succeeding in her professional life than in spending her mental and emotional energy on a sexual or romantic partner. I was at a time in my life when spending one or two nights in a regular sexcation routine was no longer realistic. My immediate goals at work and school had changed. Even though this was initially met with understanding, the refusal to accept that a woman wanted to focus on her work instead of his emotional needs shows that he never took my work seriously — either he thought that “work” was an excuse to let him down easy or he thought that work wasn’t a thing I’d possibly want to focus on.
As more women like Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris occupy high-profile positions of power and influence, the stereotype that women shouldn’t care about their career is fading. But the fact that some still talk about those same successful women as “power-hungry” or “too career-focused” indicates that this guy’s bafflement at my choices isn’t his own archaic holdover from a long-forgotten time.
Even though we live in a post-Lean In world and even though we have a preponderance of television shows like Broad City, Insecure, Fleabag, and Sex Education that celebrate the freedom women have to pursue casual sex, pursue no sex, pursue whatever they want in healthy and unfettered ways, we have a long way to go. The idea that a woman is, at her core, a thing to be had (please note the possessive verbiage in that final text: he has girls way cuter than me!) rather than an autonomous individual who can choose any variety of things in her life at any variety of different times is both pervasive and persistent.
But spoiler alert: we are all individuals who can want a career, who can want pleasure, who can be ambitious and desiring and whole people outside of the narrow shapes that received wisdom say we ought to fit. And it’s worth saying that as loud and as often as we can.
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