Is Dating Ruining Your Love Life?
So, I just finished reading Samhita Mukhopadhyay’s book, Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life. The title was the book’s first point of intervention: is dating ruining my love life? The thought honestly had never even crossed my mind. Could people actually opt out of this weird, murky, sometimes craptacular ritual and live to tell the tale? Would I become a cat lady if I read this book? And, if yes, would that be so bad? Just a few weeks ago – on a day particularly filled with the kind of exasperated romantic capitulation that makes me chatty – I was talking with a friend about the merits of cat ladyhood, as I saw them. Cats are soft and yet slightly bitchy, a combination of cuddles and scratches – much like life. And I’d have all the time in the world to hang out with other awesome cat ladies and make cat purses and bedazzle sweaters and hang out in our cat lady palace with a hot tub. Because I wouldn’t go down the path of cat lady least resistance. No. Whatever’s at the end of Love Road for me, I’m going all out.
I figured for this post I would tell you a little about my dating history and talk about what I learned from Outdated.
I didn’t know what to expect when I got the book, but I knew I was pretty excited about the amazingness I was about to delve into. So, the author identifies as a feminist, single, a woman of color and a fat girl. All things I identify as too. Spoiler alert: Samhita actually does not advocate that we boycott dating and sequester ourselves into a cat palace (but I’m sure she would be totally pro-cat palace). She actually strikes me as a bit of a fan of The Love. What she’s advocating is the end of dating as we know it. Didn’t that sound so ominous? It did in my head. Anyway, she wants us to forget what we’ve learned about love and dating and romance from The Little Mermaid and The Bachelor and Jem & The Hollograms and start something new, different, and a little more anti-racist.
The book is also a defense of feminism, which has been increasingly scapegoated as of late for “ruining” things such as (but not limited to) chivalry, marriage, love, masculinity, femininity, child birth, childhood, meaningful sex, and probably some presidential elections. As Outdated points out, even writers who identify as liberals decry feminism as the reason for love lives everywhere being ruined. In light of all of this Samhita asks an important question: Really?
It takes some fairly spectacular reasoning to look at the 1950s and say: that was it! That was the pinnacle of models of romance to which we should aspire. And yet, that’s what lots of very popular books are kind of saying: we need to return to a time when women were more demure, less talkative, had limited financial freedom and commoditized their vaginas to end up in life-long marriages with men who were “manly” and in control all the time. Samhita points out that beyond the terrifying ramifications of returning to a pre-Women’s Liberation reality, these kinds of narratives leave no room for queers, brown people and non-monogamous folks.
Ok. It’s time for a little dating history (but I promise we’ll get back to the wise words of Outdated sooner than you can spell “heteropatriachy”): I went to a good school, and I dated a couple of great guys. But I had too many feelings, too many hard complicated thoughts to settle down. At twenty-one I met my first real boyfriend (after a string of fake boyfriends). He was in graduate school and after 8 years of attending Berkeley he hadn’t met any women. He said it was because he lived in what he called “the cave.” His office was in the basement of the darkest building on the darker side of campus, where all the science and math people were sequestered. That building had the morbidly prestigious honor of having seen more suicides in the 100 years it had existed than any other building at the university. He had moved from a hard-to-pronounce country at the age of 5, and was the only kid in Palo Alto whose name wasn’t Tyler or Stephen or Connor. He developed a complex and now whenever we ordered coffee at Starbucks he would say his name was Joe, which it decidedly wasn’t His name was pretty much the opposite of all that the name Joe symbolizes and is.
And then we broke up.
My second boyfriend, Sam, is still my best friend. Things with him got way more serious than they did with un-Joe. One of the first questions he ever asked me was if I would marry him. Through a series of strange and fortuitous events I was working in radio at the time. He lived in New Zealand. One day he was chopping wood (yes, they still do that in New Zealand), and was finding his usual ritual of listening to Democracy Now until he was just about to commit suicide was just a little too much that day. He decided to listen to something a little “lighter.” His iTunes recommended the show I had been producing for this skinny lady. Sam heard the show and thought I was the host. After some very committed searching he found my blog and then he found my email address. He wrote me this long, long letter about how much he liked the show and the things I said. He told me he loved me “in a Bruce Springsteen kind of way” (I still don’t know what that means), and that even though he’d never meet me or laugh with me or cry with me that he’d always be there, in New Zealand, loving me.
Well, like any girl whose notions of romance were influenced by serious childhood exposure to a singing Disney mermaid (and a love of sexy, Britishy accents), I thought, “New Zealand isn’t that far.” Eighteen months after the Bruce Springsteen love letter, I quit my job and moved Down Under. Life with him was amazing and special and beautiful. We kissed 10,000 times a day. We had mandated cuddle times every morning. We would shame-eat 7-11 hot dogs smothered in plastic cheese and “chili” together at 1am. We watched every movie about hillbilly cannibals we could get our hands on. We went to Costa Rica and Australia and Texas together. He bought me my first Magic Wand. He took my temperature when I was sick and rubbed hand sanitizer all over the tiny scrape I got in Costa Rica when I fell through a plank trying to take a picture of an iguana. We went to Joshua Tree and to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concerts and we even pooped in front of each other.
And then we broke up.
Now the “and then we broke up” part seems to be the part we (and my mother) have been programmed to respond to with concerned sighs, cheesecake offerings, and the million dollar question: “But why?” And here is where Samhita’s words come in again and encourage us to rethink the idea of a relationship’s end as equivalent to its failure: “Longevity is not the only litmus test for a successful relationship.” (p. 221)
Lots of fantastic things end, and that doesn’t mean that they stopped being fantastic. That doesn’t mean that that relationship wasn’t a success. Like remember when that Captain EO 3D experience theater was at Disneyland and then that ended? That was super sad, but it didn’t take away any of the literally thousands of amazing moments that you and Captain EO had shared, right? It didn’t make Captain EO an asshole. He just wasn’t part of your life in the same way anymore. Outdated encourages us to rethink what relationship success looks like and feels like to us.
Sex was the buzzword for the section entitled “Naughty Girls Need Love Too.” I’m a woman who has had always had difficulties reconciling my desire to explore my sexuality and the shame and guilt I’ve been programmed to feel when I do. Samhita points out the culture at large is quick to chastise sexual experimentation in a move she calls “antisex fearmongering,” which feminine folks get a considerably greater dose of than masculine folks. She talked about being wary of conflating “casual” with sexist/disrespectful. She says she found that hook-ups didn’t get tiring, sexism – i.e., the way that men are taught to treat women who have sex outside of a committed, monogamous relationship — did. As she points out on page 181: “Enjoying casual sex on your own terms in a sexist world can be challenging.” She goes onto talk about what it means to have casual sex as a woman of color. I found these words incredibly relieving, exciting and just fist-pumpingly righteous:
“Today’s conversation around freedom of sexual expression is very much dominated by white conceptions of sexuality. In white circles (especially liberated, feminist circles) sexuality is considered liberating and freeing, and yet, for working-class women, immigrants and women of color it is considered (and projected onto us as) highly problematic behavior… Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Jill Nelson, Alice Walker, Leti Volpp, Saidiya Hartman, and countless other feminists of color have either directly or indirectly brought up the idea that the social consequences of sex are greater for women of color… women of color face a unique set of circumstances where they have been historically hypersexualized and then held to white standards of purity… the bodies of women of color are for consumption and therefore they are always ready and willing to have sex… being a woman of color who’s in touch with her sexuality is an act of a resistance… (and) no small feat.”
There’s plenty of advice for men – and for women who want to rethink masculinity – in the book. This book is so full of amazing, wonderful little bits of analysis and points of consideration I could go on for another 4 pages, but I’m going to have to wrap it up because I have to give a sex and dating seminar tomorrow morning.
Outdated encourages us to look beyond the dating reality we know (and hate?), and rethink what it means to be part of the “romantic industrial complex,” as Samhita calls it. The way that most of learned about dating – through media representations that get reinterpreted through the relationships around us – doesn’t leave much room for non-normative understandings and experiences of connection and love. Ask yourself if your dating life – as you know it – is making you happy. And if it isn’t then imagine a totally, radically, unapologetically different way of dating and then make it happen.