Dating men: yet another challenge to my feminist identity

Amanda Hess’ recent interview with Jaclyn Friedman “Fucking While Feminist” has opened the floodgates for honest discussion about the challenges of dating while feminist. It’s important to note that most of this discussion has focused on heterosexual dating from the woman’s point of view. I would love to hear someone talk about how feminism works in other dating contexts, but as a straight woman who is actively dating, I so relate to the challenges of balancing one’s feminist ideology with traditional hetero dating codes, traditions, and expectations.

I was chatting with a boy I met on the internet the other day and happened to mention that I was a feminist blogger. (Surprise!) I don’t always reveal that tidbit up front, but sometimes it just comes up in conversation, you know how it is … Anyway, he made a joke about how I should write a post called “How to date a feminist.”

The thing is, a lot of the discussion that came out of “Fucking While Feminist” is just that – discussion of how to find men who can “handle” discussions about rape culture over dinner, how to find men who wont be offended if you don’t let them pay, etc. While those are valid concerns, they aren’t what I have found to be most difficult about dating while feminist. For me, the difficulty is not so much about the guy and whether he can “handle” feminism/me, but how my sexuality and dating proclivities challenge my own identity as a feminist.

As online dating becomes more and more commonplace, we are leaving “hook up” culture behind and oddly enough reverting back to a more traditional blind date model. And since most of us are bumbling idiots when it comes to the art of the blind date, we must rely on our traditional frame of reference in order to know how to conduct ourselves and interpret signals. (He holds the door, pays for dinner, she orders a salad, strokes his ego.) Unfortunately, these traditional codes of conduct come from a much more sexist time, and participating in the old-fashioned ritual can feel pretty uncomfortable for a feminist like me, and especially confusing when I find myself wanting to participate. Not only that, I am acutely aware of all the cardinal sins of feminism I, myself, commit. Here are some examples of what I mean.

Engaging in “isms”

When I look through profiles of potential dates, I am shocked by my own criteria. I rule out one guy because he has a blue collar job, another because he went to community college. I am judging and rejecting men based on their background, school, job, income level, bad grammar or reprehensible taste in television. I can’t help but feel like my selectivity makes me elitist, classist, and maybe even a little bit racist. And as a feminist, I’m super against those things.

Fetishizing the other

Getting back to the “little bit racist” concept, dating people outside my own ethnic group leads to another feminist dilemma. Fetishizing based on one’s race or ethnicity is dehumanizing, and I get angry when this happens to Asian, black, Jewish, and other women. So, when I find myself enjoying a date’s “exotic” facial features or skin tone I catch myself, feel guilty, and think: “Note to self: stop fetishizing the other.”

Chivalry? Or sexism?

Dates tell me “your money is no good here” and offer to buy drinks, dinner, coffee, movie tickets. They offer to pick me up, bring me home. What’s a girl to do? It’s romantic, and more and more often I find myself obliging. Except when I’m not interested in the guy. If that’s the case, I feel completely guilty accepting the freebie because I know I’m never going to call him again, aka, he wont be getting any return on his investment … aka, I feel like I owe the guy something if I let him pay. It’s disgusting, I know. And even if I don’t let him pay, I expect him to at least offer.

I want to avoid using the phrase “bad feminist,” but this acute awareness of my own feminist pitfalls makes dating a little confusing. If I wrote an article called “How to date a feminist” and another called “How to date me” they would probably be very different. Does this mean that I, myself, don’t fit the idea of “a feminist” I have in my own head? Do I need to work on reconciling my beliefs with my actions, or could it be that there is more than one way to be “a feminist?”

I am inclined to believe that all of us feminist women are different, especially in regards to our dating styles and sexual proclivities. The simple conclusion is that there is no right way to date a feminist. The more confusing question is: Is it wrong to engage in few anti-feminist thoughts and behaviors when dating men?

Girls & Cars: a Feminist’s Dilemma

I couldn't resist this ridiculous photo.

In my day to day life, I feel like a good feminist.  I support myself, I work for a women’s organization, and I always split the check on a date.  However, there are some times when I question myself — when I feel like a hypocrite — and all of those times involve my car.

A few weeks ago, someone hit my car and knocked off my front license plate.  I have been meaning to buy a replacement mount and reattach it.  I also needed new windshield wipers. The minute I walked into Autozone a friendly guy named Mike came over to help me.  I was instantly aware of the fact that I was a woman.  Not only a woman, but a young woman.  Did he come to help me because he assumed I knew nothing about cars, or does everyone get the same treatment at Autozone?

He helped me pick out some wiper blades, and then offered to install them for me.  Again, I found myself wondering if every Autozone customer was treated to this service.  I agreed, but asked him to teach me how to do it myself.  There was one of those awkward (or adorable?) moments when he stood behind me and helped me slip the blade into place.  Uh oh.  Now I was not only aware of my gender, but my sexuality too. At this point in the story, it is important to know that I was not interested in this guy.  He was certainly nice, and helpful, but I still had no interest in dating him.

He said, “This is the sort of thing your boyfriend should do for ya,” which was a devious way of asking if I was single. Once that was out in the open, it was no holds barred. He commented on my pretty smile, and I found myself wondering if I should make sure not to smile next time I went to an Autozone, or maybe if this sticky situation was my fault because I was too smiley.”  Even while I was thinking those thoughts, I was aware of how messed up they sounded.  The feminist in me knows that unwanted attention is NEVER a woman’s fault, no matter how she is dressed or how much she smiles.  Yet, I found myself thinking those thoughts at Autozone.

As I was paying for the supplies, he joked about giving me his employee discount in exchange for my number.  And he kept offering to reattach my license plate for me.  At this point I was stuck.  I knew I could reattach my license plate by myself; I had the tools at home.  But at the same time, I would rather have him do it because he would probably do a better job (and also because I’m lazy).  But he was flirting with me, and if I let him fix my license plate, did that mean I was flirting back?  Did I owe him my number in exchange?

I find it extremely hard to rebuff someone while remaining polite and friendly.  And so eventually I gave in.  I let him fix my license plate, and I let him give me his number.  I thought that would be enough, but ah no!  He had me call his number so that my number would be saved on his phone.  Crap.  I gave the Autozone guy my phone number in exchange for fixing my car.  And you call yourself a feminist!

The ugly truth is that I have intentionally used both my gender and my sexuality in the past.  I have been pulled over for speeding numerous times, but have not gotten tickets because either a) the cop liked me, or b) I cried.  I once got a gas station attendant to put air in my tires by saying that I didn’t know how (I did) and flashing my smile.  The other example that comes to mind happened when I was living in Europe, and the guy from the bike shop gave me a tune up and a free bike lock just for batting my eyelashes.  (Okay, so that one isn’t a car story, but it’s still transportation.)

I don’t buy into the idea that centuries of oppression makes it fair for women to leverage our gender and sexuality to get ahead. So where does this leave me?  Am I a “bad feminist?”  Am I a hypocrite?  I am conflicted, but not sure these “indiscretions” outweigh all the positive work I do.

I wonder if there is something about Autozone and car maintenance that lends itself to this situation. Today women are present and competitive in many fields, but apparently not the automotive and auto maintenance industries. When I walk into an Autozone it is almost guaranteed that the staff will be male, that my experience will be gendered, and the interaction unbalanced.  Whether a woman flirts her way to a free oil change, or a male clerk uses his advanced knowledge and/or skills to get her number, there is something suspect about gender dynamics and the art of automobile maintenance.