Popular culture can give you the feeling that dating rests entirely on ladies doing (and not doing) a laundry list of things in order to snag and keep a man. Even the updated version of The Rules is severely outdated, a book-turned-movie was based on the premise that He’s Just Not That Into You, and self-help programs are sold with titles like, Have Him at Hello: Confessions From 1,000 Guys About What Makes Them Fall In Love ... Or Never Call Back.
It can be tricky for feminists to navigate their casual and serious personal relationships, given that we aren’t typically fans of being told what to do — especially when the advice perpetuates a system that assumes that we need to be provided for, and that our life’s happiness can only be achieved by "finding a man."
Here’s some general advice that has worked for me (full disclosure: I’m happily single) in my crazy quest to go on dates while being a feminist.
1. Have a Feminist Litmus Test
Whether I'm responding to questions about what I do, or simply giving further insight into who I am, the fact that I am a feminist inevitably comes up on a first date (if it hasn’t already). While I certainly don’t quiz my dates on gender theory or go through a checklist of their political views, I like to gauge my date’s reaction to the idea that I'm a feminist, as a measure for whether or not I could go out with them again. If their immediate response is offensive or misogynistic, it's a red flag. If it’s respectful, and in the realm of curiosity, I’m a happy camper. If it’s fully informed and equally feminist, it’s game on.
Your litmus test can be whatever you want it to be, but I find Jacklyn Friedman’s advice to be a pretty good assessment:
"Right now, my basic litmus test is this: Is he interested in feminist issues when I bring them up? And can he talk about them in ways that express curiosity and engagement and respect, instead of defensiveness, or dismissiveness, or attachment to stereotypes? If we can talk about this stuff in ways that are interesting and productive, I can work with it most of the time."
2. Date a Feminist
Before you scour the internet for feminist-only dating sites (they apparently exist?) you should keep one thing in mind: just because someone doesn't identify as a feminist, it doesn’t mean they aren’t one, and it certainly doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth dating.
It works to our benefit to be flexible on this. If we all sat around and waited for our own, real-life Feminist Ryan Gosling to appear, we’d never go out on dates, and, more importantly, we’d be closing ourselves off to a world of opportunity. We aren’t responsible for providing everyone, or anyone, we date with their very own feminist awakening, but we can at least give them a chance to express and explain their views. So long as they are a feminist on some basic level (whatever you determine that to be), they may be worth giving a shot.
3. Invest Equally
A new and not-so-shocking sociological study found that men want women to pay their share on dates, but are afraid to ask. I’m not going to dictate that you must always go dutch, but in order for a partnership to be equal, both parties should invest equally, right?
Anytime I’ve let someone pay for me on date, it’s been more of a symptom of how broke I am than a display of chivalry. If I want to see someone again, or if I was the one to ask someone out in the first place (gasp!), then I usually make the plans and fund the date.
The same goes for the time and energy invested in a relationship. If you leave all communication up to one person, or one person is expected to make time to accommodate the other's schedule, it’s bound to lead to a bumpy road. Yet most dating advice suggests that we, “don’t text them first,” and, “don’t accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday.” When it comes to dating, etiquette shouldn't be based on pop culture advice, but on honesty and respect.
4. Try Not to Play Games
The “thrill of the chase” is so deeply ingrained into our dating practices that we sometimes don’t even realize that we’re buying into it. Or we find it fun and exciting, and therefore difficult to abandon. Playing games can appear to be the norm, and straying from them make us seem at best strange, and, at worst, psycho.
Whenever I find that I’ve waited a while before texting someone back, more often than not, it’s because I’m actually not that into them, and they’ve fallen off my radar. When I realize this, I try to let them know that I’m not interested, and do so as politely as possible. However, when I do like someone, I’m often tempted to follow these dumb rules, so that I don’t appear overeager and scare him away. When I realize that that’s what I’m doing, I try to come clean about how I feel, and just do what feels right. It stops me from wasting my time on someone who isn’t really interested in me, isn’t looking for the same thing as I am, or is intimidated by someone who knows how they feel and what they want.
As the Vagenda so brilliantly put it:
“The modern feminist wants to be honest and straight-talking. Playing distant games indulges this bizarre patriarchal idea that women must be ethereal, mysterious creatures. Like fairies. But we’re not fairies, because fairies don’t have tits or pubic hair or human-sized thighs.”
5. Know What You Want Versus What is Expected of You ...
This is, by far, the best and most challenging dating advice I’ve ever heard. It comes from none other than the executive editor of Feministing.com and the author of Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life, Samhita Mukhopadhyay. In her book, Mukhopadhyay explains that, “people have so bought into the romantic fairytale story that deviating from it is almost impossible to imagine.” It is this lack of an alternative romantic story that allows these outdated rules and ideals to continue to permeate society.
Mukhopadhyay suggest that we should create supportive communities that don’t rely on couples, in order to transform the “culturally dictated need for a romantic partner.” It's an interesting idea, but for those of us who aren’t willing to fully abandon the idea of a relationship she offers the following:
"The most radical approach to love is not having an approach, but, instead, a solid recognition of exactly what you want for yourself. Feminism can help you decipher the difference between something you want and something that is expected of you, which is an invaluable exercise not just in dating, but in life. It’s not always easy, but, ultimately, will make you happier if you do end up in a relationship, because you are more likely to enter it on your own terms."
6. ... But Sometimes They're the Same Thing, and That is Totally OK
While Mukhopadhyay’s advice is invaluable, it can be incredibly difficult to, “unlearn the systemic trajectory that says our lives should follow a certain path — college, job, marriage, babies — in order for us to be happy or successful or valuable,” as Alicia Sowisdral put it. And sometimes, you may not want to try.
You may already know that you want a big white wedding, a long happy marriage, and babies, and nothing about that is necessarily anti-feminist. You may want some or none of those things. Or you may have absolutely no idea what you want.
Regardless, feminism gives you a lens that can help you view dating in a new and liberating light. Dating shouldn't be a race down the aisle, a reflection of your self-worth, or a measure of your success. Dating is fun and hard, and awkward and exciting, and as long as you do it on your own terms, it can be a great way to get to know new people and to learn new things about yourself. Applying a feminist approach to dating will allow you to figure out what you actually want, which is the first step to actually getting it — whatever it may be.