For better or worse I’ve ended up having way too many conversations about romance/sex/etc advice recently, so I thought I might as well collect my thoughts in one place (and just in time for Valentine’s Day too, sometimes coincidences are fun). It’s a good time for it anyway; the mainstream culture is always so terrible about these sort of things, and I think it’s especially important to push back against that in this age of the Sexual-Predator-in-Chief.
This is a serious post despite the snark.
I’m afraid this may feel disjointed in places, as it’s mainly a collection of things I’ve found myself saying or wishing I had said in response to things people have said to or around me, but so be it. I’m fairly certain the core ideas should still come through just fine. That said, I’m not entirely sure who the target audience is here: I’ve tried to keep this mostly at 101-level for accessibility but I’m not sure I entirely succeeded, and also I’ve tried to address various different stages here so it’s unlikely it all is likely to be applicable to everybody.
(And as this excellent piece I encountered the other day points out, patriarchal relationship norms aren’t good for men either. I think it’s always a worthy effort to undermine them.)
[I likely won’t have much to add, but I’m here agreeing with these points.]
1: Reconfigure your priorities, and learn to be comfortable with yourself and with being single.
That sounds a bit flippant but it’s actually serious advice, and works on multiple dimensions. For one thing, nobody is in a relationship all the time, so it’s best to be capable of existing by yourself, and build a life you can enjoy whether or not you’re sharing it with anyone. Nobody was ever helped by feeling desperate and pining after partnered status. Alone does not inevitably imply lonely, but even then, neither does unpartnered imply alone.
(The universe does not owe you a relationship, so don’t act like it does.)
A corollary to that is to have higher standards for yourself. It is not true that any partner is always better than none. A lot of heterosexual men especially seem to struggle with this (especially when viewing relationships through mainstream cultural narratives) and have very minimal requirements for people they’d consider being with, and I don’t think that’s particularly healthy.
Relationships are easier to stumble into than to search for.
If you absolutely must have a self-interested reason, try this one: in addition to not feeling very good, desperation is also very unattractive and very obvious. Believe me, people can sense desperation and they tend to find it creepy. Nobody likes being thought of in terms of a potential acquisition, and that’s how it comes across when you look at every encounter with a person you’re attracted to as “hmm, could I get this one?”. When you aren’t viewing every interaction through that lens, it lowers the stakes and allows you to act more naturally. So don’t be a predator and don’t approach relationships as if you’re hunting.
“Blue balls”, to the extent that that’s a real thing, is your own fucking problem. Other people do not owe you sexual gratification, so learn to fucking masturbate and get over yourself (okay, I’ll cut you a bit of slack if you have a physical disability, but if you have working hands you have absolutely no excuse). They also make sex toys for everyone, yes, even men; there might still be more social stigma attached to toys for men than women weirdly (I suspect it’s just because a dildo is a simpler thing to make than various silicone-sleeve-things) but again I can only say just get the fuck over it. Once again, it’s a lot easier to see things clearly when you don’t have other factors feeding those feelings of desperation, so don’t let hormones be one of those factors.
2: Women are people. Full stop.
(More broadly, to extend this beyond heteronormativity, that subset of people to whom you’re attracted are still people.) Any way you’d go about meeting people who share your interests is a good way to meet women who do so. Women are a subset of people, there are a lot of them in the world and all the laws of probability suggest there exist a further subset that share your interests.
Don’t try to over-generalise, there are no cheat codes and there are no shortcuts. Asking “What do women want?” is as nonsensical as asking “What do human beings want?” so don’t ask that shit. Forget about Mars and Venus; there’s an extent to which there may be some variation in averages, and that gendered socialisation affects all of us, but people exist everywhere on the spectrum across genders and whatever generalisations you have in mind almost certainly don’t all apply to the same person. So don’t try to shove people into moulds and then engage with the mould, engage with people as they actually are.
Don’t try to date people you don’t like. This shouldn’t fucking need to be said but apparently it’s not obvious so I have to fucking say it. If you wouldn’t spend time around a person but for the prospect of sexual gratification, you’ve no business trying to have any kind of relationship with them. Even if you weren’t necessarily friends beforehand, your partner should be your friend. (And since someone will probably make me clarify this if I don’t, I don’t necessarily mean long-standing friendships either; the Westermarck effect is a real thing, for one, and also we change enough over the course of our lives that it’s not necessarily a benefit to be with someone who knew you as an idiot teenager. I’m talking about genuinely liking someone as a person and wanting to spend time with them.)
(And as a corollary: don’t date people who don’t like and respect you. That shouldn’t really need to be said but apparently it’s a thing. Mutual respect should be a bare minimum.)
3: Learn to communicate.
You can learn from BDSM negotiation techniques even if you aren’t kinky; you can learn from the poly community even if you aren’t poly. By dint of being outside the mainstream, people in these groups have had to learn to communicate their desires more explicitly because they don’t have universalised cultural shortcuts (like the “relationship escalator“) available to them. That’s a good skill to have and it’s one worth developing; it will serve you well outside romantic/sexual contexts also.
It is easy to misunderstand this as demanding “notarised forms signed in triplicate” or some such nonsense (a common strawman), but that’s not what this is about. It’s not about formal or legal requirements; it’s about making sure everyone is actually on the same page, capable of articulating their needs and their boundaries, and working out how best to accommodate them. Your partner(s) and potential partners are fellow human beings, so treat them as such.
[People are not psychic. They cannot guess what you want or why you’re behaving in a certain way. Use your words. Likewise, ask others to use their words to you.]
4: Don’t present a false persona.
(I’ve written about this a bit previously in “On the Loathsome Dating Construct” a few years ago.) All that does is create inevitable disappointments later on, when people realise their partners are different from their first impressions and almost always not in a good way. “Be yourself” may be cliché advice, but you can’t expect someone to like your real self if you’re hiding it from them.
A corollary to this is that you shouldn’t be doing things solely because they are socially expected. There is nothing wrong with doing them, but you should do so after putting in some considered thought and deciding you want to. (Why hello there Valentine’s Day, just for one obvious salient example.)
[And speaking of Valentine’s Day, let’s mention romantic gestures. By all means do them IF they are something you genuinely want to do and IF the gesture in question does not make the recipient feel uncomfortable, guilty or obligated. Don’t do them because you think you should/because your peers are judging you, don’t do them in order to press for favours later, don’t do them to make up for bad behaviour and don’t do them to try and buy your way into someone’s affections. Save it for an established relationship and only if you genuinely want to for an innocent reason. (For the record Mitchell and I don’t bother, but I’m sure nobody is surprised since we are two of the least romantic individuals on the planet.)
And if your partner pitches a fit over it – I’ve heard multiple instances of people comparing received gifts and being bitter if their significant other didn’t spend enough – then talk about it. If they’re genuinely that materialistic then walk away, but chances are they’ve just been indoctrinated to believe that a small gift or no gift is proof that you don’t care enough.
On a related note, absolutely do not go for big public surprises. Just don’t. Marriage proposals are the obvious one and they always make me cringe, but it applies to the smaller things too. It’s not about how you appear to everyone else, it’s about the two of you, and making it public is showing off as well as pressuring your partner to react in a socially acceptable way instead of showing how they really feel about it.]
5: “No” is a complete sentence.
More explicitly: understand and respect the “soft no” (either learn to recognise it, or stop pretending not to be able to recognise it). This is not just about sex, either, but is especially important where sex is concerned: don’t err on the side of rape, or you are admitting you’re the kind of person who is okay with being a rapist. If you care about someone, you shouldn’t want to do things with them they don’t want; even outside of sex, it makes you an asshole, but where sex is concerned it makes you a rapist.
Likewise, forget everything mainstream culture and those fucking romcoms told you about “persistence”. Persistence is not attractive or sexy or anything remotely of the kind. Wearing someone down is emotional abuse. Persistence in the face of rejection is harassment and stalking. This is not the way to get someone to want to spend time with you, it’s the way to make someone hate you so much they try to get you arrested so they don’t have to worry about ever having to see you again.
Our culture seems to know that desperation, clinginess, and stalking are bad when women do them (see, e.g., mockery of the “overly attached girlfriend” meme and so on and so forth, the way it’s portrayed as pathetic in television and film, etc), so if you absolutely have to, imagine it being done to you until you can see the problem with it.
It really isn’t that hard to tell when someone actually wants to spend time with you. If you’re not good at it, that’s something you can practise and get better at. You shouldn’t want to be with someone who doesn’t want to be with you if you’re a decent person.
“Enthusiastic consent”, “crystal clear consent” and the such like are at their most important when meeting new people, in the early stages, etc. Whatever nuance there may be (e.g. “I’m not too keen on X activity but I enjoy making my partner happy”) comes later, for established relationships where there’s already some degree of trust in place. This is not optional. This is not something you take risks with. You do not gamble for personal gain while betting other people’s well-being.
6: Relationships have no value in themselves, only in the benefits they bring to the people in them.
If a relationship is no longer conferring those benefits, if it is no longer improving the lives of the people in it, it has no continued reason to exist. Despite everything our culture tells us, being paired off is not an inherently superior state to being single.
Sometimes people do grow apart. Sometimes even people who love each other realise that they’re not compatible, and that being together makes their lives mutually worse (or even just worse for one of them; that’s enough). A relationship that’s not working for even one of the people in it is probably best ended; at the very least, it’s not worth preserving for its own sake at that person’s expense. (This is one of the problems that can manifest with so-called “marriage counselling”, for instance, which tends to prioritise the preservation of the marriage over the needs of the people in it.)
A relationship that ends is not the same thing as a failed relationship. Breaking up is not an admission of failure; it’s a thing that needs to happen sometimes. (If you’re dying slowly of a disease that can be treated by surgery, do you consider that surgery an evil and refuse it because it might be a bit painful?)
I find this rather reminiscent of the problem of afterlife-fixation in religion, when people prioritise some imagined future state at the expense of the now. Even if that existed it wouldn’t make the present meaningless, nor justify subjecting yourself to a state of misery for its sake. So it is with relationships also. It’s all well and good to be goal-oriented and think of the future, but that by its lonesome can be a dangerous and harmful mindset.
7. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else.
You don’t owe it to the people around you or to society as a whole to follow prescribed structures. A relationship is about and for the people in it, and nobody else.
(To throw a personal example in here, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had people tell me that my relationship with Loten can’t possibly be real or satisfying or whatever because we’re long distance and rarely get to see each other in person. I’ve taken to telling them “it works for us and that’s all that matters”. And that only because “fuck off with your universalised prescriptivist bullshit” doesn’t go over quite so well. I’ve no problem with somebody saying to me “that sort of long distance wouldn’t work for me”, because that’s about them and we’re all different: it’s when they add to it “therefore I refuse to believe it works for you” that it becomes rage-inducing.)
[For my part this is why I very seldom bother trying to explain anything about us to people around me. It’s really not worth the effort of trying to make them understand.]
Once again, this goes back to the escalator as mentioned earlier: your relationship does not have to follow a culturally-prescribed structure in order to be valid or worth recognising. Different people have different needs and preferences, and what works for some people is not going to work for others; trying to force everyone onto a universal script doesn’t work.
At the same time, if people who care about you have concerns, don’t reflexively dismiss them out of hand in service to this principle. Being too close to a situation, especially where strong emotions are involved, can blind us to things we’d be better off not ignoring (and things which might otherwise be obvious to us, if we were looking at them from outside). This is not to contradict or invalidate my prior point, or mean you cannot dismiss such a criticism after giving it some thought. By dint of your closer involvement, you do have information to work from that is inaccessible to an outside observer.
I do hesitate a bit here, because “you’re the only one who understands” and so on and so forth is a very common tactic by which abusers isolate and gaslight their victims, and that can sound very similar to this advice. This is why I say it’s important to listen to the concerns of people who know you, because they might see abuse before you do.
8. Expand your perspective. (To an extent this goes hand in hand with #1 and #3.) Captain Awkward often addresses this advice to heterosexual men as “read books and consume media written by women”, but I want to generalise it a bit further to “things by people not like you who are also not white cishet men”.
In addition to being worthwhile for its own sake, this is a good way to learn empathy by considering other people’s perspectives, and that’s always important when you’re trying to improve your ability to interact with other people. This also helps make you a more interesting person and gives you things to talk about (something people generally find desirable in a conversation partner). While I hesitate to even mention PUA bullshit here, they’re not entirely wrong when they encourage people looking for romance to become better conversationalists: it’s just that you can’t do that by memorising stupid canned routines and magic tricks and so on. It’s not really something you can fake, so the best solution is to educate yourself and actually have things to say.
(And there’s also an extent to which you want to date e.g. women or members of some other subset of humanity, it’s important to understand their perspective on the world/society/etc to the extent that there is a common one. As an obvious example, you should know about things like Schroedinger’s Rapist.)
9, Slut-shaming and Madonna-whore thinking isn’t good for anyone.
Don’t be a fucking hypocrite (literally or figuratively). I would say “don’t say anything about your past/current/future partners you wouldn’t want said about you”, but that could potentially backfire given certain potential kinks (just as “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” can go horribly wrong if ‘you’ are a masochist).
Think about what you’re actually saying when you support these kind of double standards. If you would not look down on yourself (or members of your own sex/gender) for certain behaviours, don’t shame others for them.
(I don’t want to ever hear the word ‘hoe’ again unless you’re talking about farm tools.)
More to the point, it can’t hurt to remember and keep in mind that sex acts require (at least) two people; even looking at it self-interestedly, it is not good strategy to create artificial deterrents for half the population to participate. And making the argument that way deliberately ignores the moral dimension, in the hope of making it easier to get through thick male skulls. (On the other hand, if you can’t think of better than self-interested reasons for behaving like a decent human being, you should probably not be interacting with other people, let alone trying to romance them.)
I suppose it’s worth addressing the question which would inevitably be asked: who am I to write something like this, and why on earth should anyone listen to me? What credibility do I have on the subject?
It may actually surprise our readers (Loten didn’t believe me when I first told her) to learn that I was not always a feminist and actually held a lot of unpleasant views prior to the age of eighteen-nineteen or so; I had to learn a lot of these lessons the hard way. And for the record, anyone who knew me before then has every right to point and laugh at the very notion of me dispensing such advice. But regardless, what I’ve learned over the years is that in many ways the growing pains of development in this area are inflicted on other people rather than ourselves, and can cause quite a lot of serious emotional damage. So in a way I claim the mantle of experience: I’ve seen how badly these things can go wrong. And where I don’t have personal experience, at the very least I have eyes and I use them.
If anyone at all reads this and learns from it, that’s fewer people being hurt. Our culture really does have a problem with teaching men to be insensitive and predatory towards women, and that causes a lot of harm to a lot of people. There ought to be a Hippocratic Oath equivalent for romance and the like, but in order for that to be possible we need to be able to understand the kinds of harms that can result and the behaviours most likely to lead to them, so that they can be avoided.
Happy fucking Valentine’s Day, fuckwits.
[I want to clarify that he is not talking to you, our readers. I’m pretty sure you guys are smart enough to not be the target audience of this post. He gets angry about this sort of thing!]
Yes, obviously that was primarily directed at the people and attitudes that inspired me to write this in the first place! If you’re here reading this and made it to the end of the post, you’re already at least one step ahead of them.
[Also, HP has been delayed due to us both having some form of plague.]