I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other night about sexual - I was going to say politics, but I really mean expectations and behavior.
I can only speak for myself, but I was raised in a relatively conservative household. About my parents' marriage, the less said the better, but they stayed in it for a long time because...I don't even know why, but it seemed to me that a large part of it was an inability to visualize an alternative, inertia and a belief that you were supposed to. And that supposed to is a powerful thing.
I was a sport, a natural liberal, resistant, if passive, and I have spent a lifetime undoing those assumptions of supposed to. I keep finding new layers - fewer these days, but I do still stumble over these automatic beliefs.
I suppose it is on my mind partly because I kissed a boy, and partly because of the recent public discussion of Supreme Court Nominee Alito's apparent position that a woman is really the same as a child, and partly because of that conversation I mentioned and partly because of Maureen Dowd - but here I am 36, self-supporting, single, independent, not particularly shy in general, and yet I feel in some ways as if I have spent my whole life waiting to be noticed, waiting to be asked, waiting for someone to make the first move. Passive still.
Because that's what nice girls do, is wait. Because men are dogs, or sexually predatious, or they won't respect you if you have desire of your own, or they'll be put off if you don't let them be the aggressor, and for god's blessed sake, be smart enough to not be too smart, too verbal, to aggressive with who you are because you'll intimidate and that will make you a slut, cheap, a spinster, a freak, alone and oh yes, a failed woman. Oh, and take off some weight. No one will marry you if you're fat.
It's a lot to keep track of.
No wonder the critical roar in my head sometimes drowns out the desires of my body and the impulses of my heart.
So I had dinner with this friend and filled her in on the trip to Boston, and we got to talking about some of the men I've dated and the patterns of initiation that are emerging and I realized something - the ones I've known who fall into the pattern I was raised to wait for - the sexual aggressor - are usually the ones who are less experienced (not that it is a crime to not have gotten a lot of play, but the correlation is.....interesting). And if not less experienced, I would say that many have also been a little immature, less sensitive to the human being on the other end of their groping hand, less aware in general as people. It's the chicken of experience and the egg of an approach without nuance.
I hear a female voice in my head saying that's just the way men are. Is it a friend? my mother? But I don't agree. I mean, I've been less experienced, less mature, less sensitive at times in my life too. I'm not trying to make a global condemnation.
I was raised to think that if I asked for something sexually - asked someone to date me, asked someone to kiss me, asked someone to sleep with me - I had lost somehow, lost desirability points, lost status as a woman, that it meant I wasn't really wanted. But what I've experienced in the past few years is that that isn't right - or true. The men I've really enjoyed the company of, whom I've cared for, remained interested in - the ones I still respect after knowing them a while - are the ones who hang back a little bit, not remotely, not setting up a game of pursuit, but in an engaged way, sometimes explicitly asking for a go ahead, sometimes looking for the non-verbal cue.
You know when someone is attracted to you - there is awareness, the touch on an arm or shoulder, a way of holding your eyes; these are real things, a true measure of attraction and desire. And in an exchange of equals, potential partners, there is a delicate subtext that makes these conventional tired ideas of object and aggressor particularly useless and foolish and obsolete. I know nothing turns me off more than being backed into a corner - physically or figuratively. You have to court these things carefully, not fuck them to death.
I asked one of these men about a year ago whether this hanging back was characteristic - he said yes, it was his natural inclination, but that he had noticed that if you gave women room to set the pace themselves generally it worked better, and they stayed glad to see you longer than if you pulled out the full court press. The men I know who get the most play all seem to follow this pattern. The men I know whom I've enjoyed the company of the most, whom I like the most, all follow this pattern.
When I first began to encounter this, I was confused by it. I thought that they weren't that interested. But if they aren't that interested what ARE we doing here in bed together? But, you say, men will do anything for sex. There's that female voice again. But, well, yes and no. I think this goes back to maturity and immaturity again. The thing is, so will women. Some men and some women. Or all men and women under some circumstances.
I've gotten used to it - if someone is hanging around in my life, but not making big moves, sometimes I will. And look - I'm not less attractive. Or less anything else. Except maybe less unhappy. I haven't been struck by lightning. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't. How is that different from the rest of life?
But you have to know what you want to ask for it. You have to admit you want in order to act on it. And that means you have to give away the secret princess in a tower moral refuge of the passive participant. I know a lot of women who want the equality of feminism in the workplace, in politics, under law, but who still have trouble accepting this scary stuff, the responsibility of knowing their own desires and acting on them.
We can't have it both ways. And I think I'm finally at a point where it isn't just something I'm used to. I like it. I like the potential between people treating each other as peers, and I no longer know how to be that nice girl, with the pretending and the subterfuge and the detachment from an active role. Really, she's just as immature as the back-you-into-a-corner guys, two sides of a coin, and a relic of an old way of thinking.