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June 28, 2004

Competitive Dating

Leveraging her perspective as a coastal, urban, lawyer, Christian woman, Kimberly of IrishLaw has taken up the online conversation concerning what women want in men (and why they aren't finding it). One issue that Kimberly notes as false is the notion of competition: "If men embody traditionally masculine virtues, that must threaten women's ability to also be successful, independent, and strong." This dynamic within the job marketplace nicely encapsulates a matter of society-wide self-deception: if masculine qualities are thought to make for success, those qualities must be suppressed as a factor among men and encouraged among women.

One of my wife's friends, arguably the most attractive among them, considers herself to be in competition with men to a sometimes ridiculous degree. A running half-joke between us, for a few years, was that she intended to beat me in an arm wrestle. For that to have ever been possible, either I would have had to deteriorate beyond recognition, or she would have had to take extreme biological measures, destroying much of what is feminine in her physique. (She claimed to have beaten sturdy men in the past, but she blushed when I wondered aloud how many had asked for her phone number afterwards.) It may be harder to admit, because it's easier to deny, but surely this general difference isn't limited to physical attributes.

My anecdote isn't meant to suggest that men don't exist whom my wife's friend couldn't best palm-to-palm, nor that there aren't women who could beat me. Similarly, most careers don't lend themselves exclusively to one gender or another. However, they may require qualities that come more naturally to men or to women. We've grown accustomed to wincing at the notion that our sex or gender might affect who we are in ways that, in turn, limit some choices, but what we seem to have overlooked in inculcating this reflex is that limiting choices can mean expanding others.

In reverse, the more-constructive question isn't whether women can out-male men, but whether womanhood can be made an asset. As Kimberly writes:

Women can be feminine and still be strong and independent; men can be masculine and not threaten the success of others... Was there a way to just be successful women and not act like men? Is there a way for men not to fall into the stereotypes of promiscuity, or the faux confidence of the metrosexual, and be good men?

It's a matter of developing ourselves as who we are, rather than redefining who we ought to be. Therefore, Kimberly puts her finger directly on the problem with an insight that didn't occur to me in this context (whether because of gender or personality is up for debate):

The difficulty, of course, anymore is that it's hard to find the right models for how to be confident women and honorable men. Children who grow up without fathers desperately lack role models for how to become real men, and no matter how loving mothers are or how hard they work, it's hard for women to provide that model.

Mothers and fathers can, through effort, diminish the detrimental effects of a child's lacking a parental mirror, but at parents' incalculably subtle degree of influence, women aren't as naturally suited to the occupation of fatherhood, and vice versa. And it is this very subtlety — indescribable, but detectable — that seems to be the certain something that the questing singles have been at a loss to articulate. In other words, dating and its shifting difficulties, although often portrayed as frivolous, connect with our individual and collective essences.

Hugo Schwyzer, whose thoughts I found via Marriage Debate blog, adds another piece toward comprehension of these tumbling matters of gender, parenthood, friendship, competition, and attraction:

Opposite sex friendships are especially appealing to the young, and not merely because they often offer the "spice" of sexual attraction. What is most appealing is the freedom from the competition and the judgment that so many young men and women feel in the presence of their same-gender peers. But invariably, those who have no close friends of their own sex feel at a loss at certain critical life points. In order to lead healthy lives, we have to work to overcome our own fears about being judged by those of our same sex. We're going to need folks beside us who know what it is like to live incarnate as a man or a woman. What makes me a man is more than my Y chromosome and my genitalia -- it is a thousand thoughts, feelings, experiences that so many of my brothers know so well. Men need each other, desperately.

And if there is one thing I have come to know with near-certainty, it is that men who have other men (not just boys) in their lives to love them and hold them accountable make much better husbands and lovers, fathers and brothers to the women around them.

In that respect, one might justifiably suggest that Kimberly's (and my) appeal to Christ as a male role model is partly, or especially, necessary in a world of androgynous wishful thinking in the service of lust and egos. Far from diminishing the Divine Role Model to a sort of second best, this observation provides some explanation for why there is so much overlap between traditional and religious. If we follow our roles — our callings — to the fullest extent, we will naturally complement each other, and our material world will naturally complement the spiritual one to which we've been so busy building barriers. We deny this, as we have for decades, at our peril.

Posted by Justin Katz at June 28, 2004 4:02 PM

Gosh, thanks for the link -- I'm glad in return that I've found you and this larger conversation.

Two cheers for complementarity.

Posted by: Hugo at June 28, 2004 7:30 PM

Am i alone in thinking that homosexual feelings often arise from these same dynamics, among others? The overwhelming sexual pressure that our culture places on teens, plus the competitiveness of our peers, and our own insecurities and expectations regarding gender and role modeling cannot help but create a world of confusion for those of us who are not good looking type-A personalties. Who can blame anyone for (consciously or unconsciously) refusing to play that game!

It's a deep thought, i know, and have yet to figure out how to adequately explain it. The pressure of being forced into a game where the rules keep changing will always result in a few who see no other option but take their ball and go home.

Posted by: Marty at June 29, 2004 12:01 PM

Marty, maybe you're right the homosexuality is a response to a decline in societal rules for courtship and mating.

Only 50 years ago, young men and young women regularly attended social dances. (These were real dances with names, not the standing seizures that pass for dancing today.) It was a wonderful system for getting hormonal young people close to each other and engaged in a common activity with full societal approval. It's fascinating to watch old movies in which men and women could interact safely and confidently within an accepted social framework, of which dancing was a significant part. Young people today don't have anything like that, so far as I can tell.

If you're right, Marty, then wouldn't the push to normalize homosexuality only make things worse? Shouldn't we instead try to fix the underlying cause by creating new courtship rituals for young people (or bring back old ones), so that the rules of the game won't change quite so often?

Posted by: Ben Bateman at June 29, 2004 1:41 PM

In the day and age of hookups, free amateur porn, voyeurism tv, and a generally pornographic culture, who can blame kids for being confused about the roles mother nature expects them to play? The many people who call me a bigot are missing the point -- the rise of homosexuality is merely a symptom of a larger disease, and all too many of us -- gay and straight -- are suffering from addiction and an overdose of sexuality that is far out of proportion to it's humanistic value.

Posted by: Marty at June 29, 2004 3:10 PM

To my mind, women are competing with men as a result of sexual discrimination. Yup, in the era of feminism discrimination is still not eliminated. Anyway, it is a very psycho topic... and interesting as well. Thanks to everybody for the thoughts!

Posted by: Helen at September 3, 2004 12:35 AM