Single and conceiving through a sperm donor, Lori Gottlieb, the author of the controversial self-help book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, lamented having applied “feminist ideals” to her dating life.
Like countless writers in the screeching pink dating-book genre, Ms. Gottlieb pitted feminism against romance, a manufactured rivalry now explored in Outdated: Why Dating is Ruining Your Love Life. U.S. author Samhita Mukhopadhyay writes that an “unchecked industry” of dating tomes blames a “bastardized exaggeration” of feminism for boosting women’s careers while nuking romance, chivalry and even masculine men.
“Feminism is considered ‘icky’ … an unattractive choice that will never get you laid,” writes Ms. Mukhopadhyay, a 33-year-old speaker, lecturer and editor of the blog Feministing.com.
She argues that books such as He’s Just Not That Into You, Don’t Be That Girl, The Man Whisperer and Marry Him play on women’s insecurities, pushing antiquated gender roles and impossible expectations. Why are dating books all geared to women? Because women are still viewed as the party most invested in relationships: “Women always want more and men always want less,” Ms. Mukhopadhyay writes.
Her dating guide for feminists attempts to debunk myths peddled by the mainstream dating industry: that men are simple and women are complex; that women aren’t hardwired to have sex like men, and that women who make more money than their romantic prospects may be out of luck.
The author ultimately hazards that feminists are actually better primed for relationships than other women: They have better sex because they like their bodies; they know what they want, ask for it and walk away when their partners aren’t accountable; and they don’t define their self-worth through couplehood, which can make for softer breakups.
Ms. Mukhopadhyay spoke to The Globe and Mail from Brooklyn.
How many crappy dating books did you have to read in preparation for this?
I probably read nine or 10. I was never really into those books, but I had a friend who gave me a copy of Why Men Love Bitches by Sherry Argov. I was frustrated that an intelligent, independent woman was getting her advice from a book like that. There are also plenty of books written by men about dating for women. [Travis L. Stork’s] Don’t Be That Girl was probably the most appalling book I’ve ever read. Each chapter was a caricature of a woman – Busy Girl, Needy Girl, Whiny Girl – and advice on how not to be that girl, including, “Don’t talk about your job too much” and “Don’t ask when he’s going to call.” These dating books fall into a long tradition of men diagnosing women and their nervousness.
Your argument is that the dating self-help industry, not feminism, is ruining women’s love lives.
The idea that feminism hurts your love life is a really regressive idea. Basically the advice is: Don’t brag about your career, don’t make a man feel emasculated, make sure he asks you out because you don’t want to upset the gender dynamics. They say feminists hate men, but I think that’s a very negative caricature of men, suggesting that men are so fragile and sensitive that if you ask them out you will ruin society as we know it. I think a lot of women get confused.
Dating books often warn about the perils of the loss of men’s breadwinner status. But author Stephanie Coontz argues this isn’t the first crisis in masculinity: In the fifties it was the housewife making hubby work too many hours for her domestic accoutrements. Now she doesn’t need him at all, and that’s a problem.
In the last 10 years, we’ve had this supposed crisis of masculinity. On a statistical level, it’s true: Men’s and women’s lives have changed. Women go to college and have jobs. You don’t see many households that could survive off just one salary. It’s not necessarily a crisis, it’s a change.
If men are not the primary breadwinners, then what does it mean to be a man? Where are they getting their self-esteem? But I don’t see it as a crisis of masculinity. I think the crisis is in our inability to let go of this traditional idea of masculinity.There are men who get intimidated by really successful women, but I don’t think the solution is hiding your success. I think it’s dating guys who aren’t insecure.
How do dating books for women harm men?
They put really unfair expectations on men: They’re expected to still pay for the date, to ask the woman out. They always have to be the “man.” The men writing dating books say men care about two things: having sex and eating with you. I find men to be rather complicated emotional creatures. These books reduce the experience of being a guy.
You defend ‘man boys’ – those perpetual adolescents. You suggest that media and psychologists who slam man boys are like the dating book authors who berate single women.
I think it’s a really problematic caricature, but it is loosely based on reality. I think it’s partly a result of living in an economy where few of us have money to buy houses and have kids.
At the same time, you describe the “Great Sacrifice” of feminist dating, which is that many young women are loathe to sound “needy,” meaning they don’t ask for anything in their relationships. The result is that they often don’t get anything they actually want.
This internalized idea of this Desperate Girl is a sexist caricature. Women end up frustrated because they feel they have to have sex with the guy because that’s the only way they can get his attention, and then pretend they’re ok with just having sex. But really they’re not, they want to be in a relationship. We’re in this experimental phase. I think it is important for women who want to express themselves sexually but don’t want a relationship – that does happen, especially among college-age women. They really, genuinely, just want to have sex and don’t feel like they have to be in a serious relationship or get married.
Many in society, including the authors of the mainstream dating books you rail against, have a hard time accepting that women might want to have sex just as much as men. Why is that?
It pushes against the notion that women are super emotional about sex and that the only reason a woman should have sex is to try and keep a man. You lie back blindly and hope that by morning he will have thought to propose. That’s basically the idea of female sexuality they’re building these arguments off of. The other part that’s missing here is that men are emotional about sex.
You write about your casual-sex 20s, ‘It felt like a legitimate way to fight patriarchy and heteronormativity, one delicious experience after another.’ Eventually the exercise becomes unpleasant. Why?
I was wanting more accountability, but the language we have to talk about sex didn’t allow it. There was this assumption that if you were casual you could also be disrespectful. It could be part of the bratty, childish sexuality of the early 20s, because as I’m in my 30s I’m finding more people that are respectful and communicative in casual relationships.
You personally don’t want tradition but more ‘accountability in your relationships.’ Feminists you knew wanted ‘emotional accountability from men without being cast as needy.’ What do you mean?
Being accountable to yourself and owning up to the things that you need, that’s what I had to do when I concluded that casual sex wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. And then finding partners who are accountable to your needs. We excuse behaviour. That’s not just the way a guy is, it’s that he’s being unaccountable.
You agitate for a ‘radical and compassionate approach to dating.’ What does that entail?
Dating books are like dieting books: One approach isn’t really going to work. The radical approach is being really introspective about the things you need, and accepting yourself for the things you need, and then going out to look for it – or not going out to look for it and being okay with that. The most radical approach is not having an approach.
Can you see how your suggestion that feminists ultimately have better sex lives and relationships could turn people off?
It’s not necessarily that being feminist makes your relationship better; it’s being confident, knowing what you want and recognizing that your identity does not rely on the success of your romantic relationships. You don’t have to embrace feminism to recognize that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.