I’m confused. I’ve been online dating for the past few years and I feel like I have come face to face with a serious contradiction between gender politics and sexual relations. How can I be angry about a woman’s sexual harassment story or sympathetic over a man’s apology for being sexist, and then later log on to an online dating site and wonder whether it’s better to pursue or be pursued? I support equal gender rights and would also like to be in a longterm intimate relationship. I don’t want to be a sex object, and yet I feel like I must be.
Scan the research and it’s clear we’re experiencing both the best and the worst of times; though women have made huge social advances, divorce is up, marriage is down, pornography is rampant, hookups are mainstream and mutual, and prostitution is embraced. Researchers say men and women alike are frustrated and lonely. And the confusion is palpable even in ordinary day-to-day experiences: Some men still open doors for women, others awkwardly hesitate. Some men might still ogle and catcall. Some women may one minute be flirtatious and the next minute get angry over sexual harassment.
All the while, those friends who disagree, or see the contradiction, stand by in silence.
The book “Cheap Sex” by Mark Regnerus explains how historically women have always controlled men’s access to sex by requiring men bring resources, commitment and fidelity to the table. But with the rapid rise in online dating and pornography, men now have easy access to sex. And because of women’s social advances, women no longer need the resources men have to offer. Sex has gotten cheap: Women have devalued themselves and have given sex away.
Regnerus also explains the link between sexual harassment and sexual intimacy. When men are pursuers and women are pursued the concept of “consent” is at play: “yes” means “yes” and “no” means “no.” Consent implies the giving and receiving of something of value. In an act of sexual harassment, the right to consent has been broken. But in an act of sexual intimacy, though technically consent hasn’t been broken, sometimes it can feel like it has. Sex can have “value” because of an erotic shared experience that approaches the meaning of existence, or sex can be bound up with brokenness, deception, cruelty, transgression, subjugation and/or humiliation, and this “something of value” becomes blurry.
There’s a flood of evidence establishing women as the gatekeepers to sex. Like it or not, a woman’s upholding of her own virtues and chastity leads men into being the best version of themselves. (Recall the famous line in the movie “As Good As it Gets” when Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt: “You make me want to be a better man.”) Likewise, a man will choose a woman to be a longterm partner if he can respect her fidelity. And a woman must value a man’s productivity and charm if we want to be esteemed and not objectified in relationships.
To understand how this might work in a committed relationship, Eli Finkel, in “The All-or-Nothing Marriage,” looks at the progression of marriages through history and finds today’s best marriage is founded on individuals seeking an authentic life and their marriage is helping to elicit this authentic self. He says many marriages will fall short, but those that succeed will be highly rewarding. The key to those high-standard marriages, though, are realistic expectations and the capacity to forgive and forget.
Healthy social change or healthy intimate relationships are at its core about a team effort that embraces each other’s imperfections. And to do that requires a lot of self-worth and a lot of forgiveness. In our national conversation over gender rights and sexual harassment, if we stay stuck on a lower level of discourse — shame, anger or blame — we’re not contributing to a team effort. Likewise, in sexual intimacy, if we don’t behave with our best interests in mind, it, too, will maintain its cheapness. In any relationship — political or intimate — regardless of how indignant, justified or needy we feel, we must always return to a place of personal responsibility: How can I help?