In the past few years, I’ve noticed a lot of blogs and articles talking about 21st century dating, particularly focused on the qualms of feminist heterosexual females. Conservative women bemoan feminism and the death of the traditional relationship while feminists offer alternative dating models and insist that dating isn’t dead. Both of these sides, however, tend to dismiss queer women and queer people generally by specifying that their arguments apply to heterosexual dating only.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, I’d like to examine some of these messages and ask whether queer daters can glean anything from them–or if not, what are some feminism-based dating and relationship messages that do apply to queers?
Feminist Messages on Heterosexual Dating
From lingerie, to expensive getaways, to candy to cars, flowers, all of these things work together to create a specific romantic experience that has almost replaced the actual authentic experience. Like when someone gets engaged, the first thing you ask them is to see their ring. Everyone says that, “can I see the ring.” It’s become this materialistic marker of progression in your relationship as opposed to this more special moment.
–Samhita Mukhopadhyay, interviewed on her book Outdated
Point being, it’s awfully easy to look at other feminist women and think that they are making obviously terrible choices with their love lives; it is much harder to actually find someone who meets all the requirements of a feminist litmus test, and is single and is someone you’re attracted to and is also attacted to you and is someone who you want to discuss things other than feminism with and is in the right place at the right time. So if you want a relationship — and I think that most people really do want relationships — you have to be able to put some things aside. Where and how you put your feminism aside is, for me, significantly harder than he likes cats and I’m more of a dog person.
–Jill Filipovich on dating while feminist
But while my dating quantity has gone down as I identified as a feminist, the quality of dating has gone way, way up. If I never again talked to most of the guys I slept with before I was 24, I would not much be bothered. But the guys I’ve met and loved and screwed since will, I hope, remain my friends to some degree or another.
–Andrea Grimes at Heartless Doll
When I first meet someone, and decide that I adore them, I don’t really consider their politics at first. And while I usually mention that I’m a feminist, I do it in a flirtatious way—“yeah, I’m a feminist. A hardcore one.” . . . I don’t mind being anyone’s challenge, not initially, probably because I believe that initial attraction is always pretty superficial. I don’t even care if a guy offends me at first, because I’ll argue with him, and maybe he’ll argue back, and maybe we’ll discover that we actually have more in common than we realize, or else even less in common than previously thought. I’ve made my peace with the fact that “feminist” tends to be a loaded term, and when it provokes a reaction, I just deal with it, and move on. I don’t even think about it much anymore. It’s a little like being on autopilot.
Whenever I sacrifice my feminism for a man, I do it while remembering that it’s feminism that allows me that choice in the first place.
–Natalia Antonova on falling in and out of love while feminist
What happens to me that drives me up a tree is this: The guys who respond to me and are like, ‘You’re awesome. You’re kind of a hellcat.” They think it’s cool and kind of bad-ass that I’m outspoken and passionate about things. They think that’s really hot. They’re into it. But then when that outspokenness gets applied back to them, it’s suddenly game-over. You know the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl? She’s light, and quirky, and she has no inner life of her own, and just there to serve our hero’s development and erotic interests. I sort of feel that I get cast in these dudes’ narratives as the Hellcat Dream Girl, there to prove how bad-ass they are because they’re dating such a bad-ass woman. They think it’s cute or sexy. But when I use that smart, outspoken bad-assery to challenge their own perspectives, it’s suddenly not sexy at all. It happens when they say something that I disagree with, and I act like a person and not someone that is playing out their particular fantasies.
It’s happened to me a million times . . . they want it as a trophy. “Hey, look at my bad-ass girl.” They don’t want to deal with me as a person. It follows this pattern where it usually comes from a person who seeks me out. They try to seduce me. They think I would be an accomplishment to conquer or something. They seek me out and try to get me interested in them, and then I am, and then they flee. . . . I feel like the same thing happened with the guy I dated for two years. He liked the idea of being a guy who would be with someone like me, but ultimately it turned out that he wanted someone who wouldn’t challenge him as much, a person who was easier and quicker to sweep away. I got evidence of that when, within three months of breaking up with me, he was dating a 23 year old who lists her political views on Facebook as “moderate.”
–Jaclyn Friedman on Fucking While Feminist
So What About the Queers?
As I was reminded in a recent panel on heteronormativity in pop culture, you don’t have to be heterosexual to be heteronormative. While the questions about who pays for dinner and the fear of the strong woman don’t necessarily come up as much in queer dating, feminist principles of negotiation, communication, consent, and shaking up power relations can certainly be applied to queer dating.
It’s not uncommon for a modern queer relationship to start or continue more-or-less along the lines established by heteronormative pop culture. When queer characters do show up on TV, they’re often following those same dating scripts. If we want to truly queer the dating experience, we can do so with ideas borrowed from feminism.
Mukhopadhyay’s point about the “romantic-industrial complex” is a particularly good one, as queers are by no mean immune. In fact, a huge complex has sprung up around queer dating, offering queer-focused jewelery, all manner of rainbow paraphernalia, gay travel packages, gay hotel stays, you name it. A queer Valentine’s Day doesn’t have to completely espouse romance, but it might not be a bad idea to wake up to the way the romance industry tries to exploit us like everyone else. There are certainly better ways to express our love for our partners, and for our communities.
Several of these quotations focus on the difficulty of identifying as a feminist while dating men–when to disclose and whether to do so, whether feminists will be seen as a dating challenge, whether it’s worth it to compromise on feminist ideals. Of course, these fears are largely based on the model of feminist woman, reluctant man, and theoretically don’t apply to queer dating. I would argue that they can, certainly, but the difficulty in a queer relationship is less likely to be convincing a partner that it’s okay for you to be a strong person or a feminist and more likely to come down to internalized gender norms or heteronormative patterns.
Many of us are socialized into queer communities to fit a particular type, so while female strength isn’t necessarily seen as a bad thing, there are examples of queer partners seeming to “go against type.” Butch/femme may not be so prevalent as it was in the 1950s, but there is a theme of types, from lipstick lesbians to masculine gay men to androgynous genderqueers. If we tend to be perceived as a particular type, part of the dating challenge may be expressing oneself as more than meets the eye, or avoiding being dating-typecast.
I particularly like Friedman’s commentary on the Hellcat Dream Girl, because I do think this kind of behavior is fairly common in queer communities. There’s a tendency to fetishize, whether it’s beefy gay male gym rats, young punky androgynes, or tough femmes. If we fall into a type that’s often fetishized in our communities, then we may find ourselves trying to live up to it. If we do not, the queer dating scene may be more like a nightmare.
What these applications of feminist messages to queer dating seem to boil down to is that whether heterosexual or not, heternormativity isn’t doing anyone favors. The dating scripts we learn both from traditional stories and from more modern twists are flawed and inflexible. They rely on relatively rigid gender norms or at the very least, gendered tropes. They de-emphasize communication and negotiation, and over-emphasize the idea of a sought-after character, an experience for which the rules are already written and everyone knows their parts.
Anyone who’s ever had good sex can tell you that this cultural framework is heading for a landslide, big time.
So how do we make queer sex and dating a positive experience, feminist-style?
Know thyself. Self-care is a hot topic in the feminist blogosphere lately, but self-care isn’t all about lotion and massages and masturbation. It’s also about taking time with yourself to ask some tough questions. The more you know, the more honest and comfortable you’ll be in conversation, whether looking for a hookup or a long-term relationship.
Talk that talk to me all night. I can’t resist a Rihanna lyric, but it’s good advice. Talk when you meet, talk when you’re considering hooking up, talk in bed, talk about your relationship. Anti-feminists like to make talk sound unromantic, boring, and repetitive, but a silent relationship is almost never a good thing. When we’re silent, we operate on assumptions. There’s no way of knowing if those assumptions align, and we can save ourselves many embarrassing moments and uncomfortable encounters by verbalizing what we want, need, and prefer.
Enthusiastic consent. This is another one that has a lot of naysayers. “Oh my God, how unsexy! You have to ask every time you touch someone?” Yes, but that can in fact be pretty hot. It doesn’t have to be a big deal–if you don’t want a litany of questions, you can talk about your interests and limits upfront. Or you can simply ask “is it okay if I touch you here?” Either way, asking for consent gives you a chance to hear out any uncertain or negative cues and be a supportive partner if it’s time to take a break or switch gears.