So there’s been a little bit of conversation in the blogosphere about this article by Kay S. Hymowitz called “Love in the Time of Darwinism”.  It’s basically a piece about how the rules of relationships have changed, and how tough it is for men.

Today, though, there is no standard scenario for meeting and mating, or even relating. For one thing, men face a situation—and I’m not exaggerating here—new to human history. Never before have men wooed women who are, at least theoretically, their equals—socially, professionally, and sexually.

Hymowitz then goes on to explain the confusion felt by men attempting to date in this new world, where the parameters of relationships can be fuzzy:

Sure, girls can—and do—ask guys out for dinner and pick up the check without missing a beat. But that doesn’t clarify matters, men complain. Women can take a Chinese-menu approach to gender roles. They can be all “Let me pay for the movie tickets” on Friday night and “A single rose? That’s it?” on Valentine’s Day. This isn’t equality, say the male-contents; it’s a ratification of female privilege and, worse, caprice. “Women seemingly have decided that they want it all (and deserve it, too),” Kevin from Ann Arbor writes. “They want to compete equally, and have the privileges of their mother’s generation. They want the executive position, AND the ability to stay home with children and come back into the workplace at or beyond the position at which they left. They want the bad boy and the metrosexual.”

Actually, Will Wilkinson’s summary of the article is far better than anything I could hope to write, so here it is:

This is, as far as I can tell, Hymowitz’s argument about gender relations in the post-feminist era. Women attaining something like social equality with men has created not so much liberation as a kind of toxic confusion. When women are free to be individuals, free to want different things than other women, men can’t be sure what any particular women might want from him. To open the door for her or not!? To pick up the check or not!? To be a nice guy like she says she wants or a bad boy like she really wants?! These unresolved and unresolvable questions have led inevitably to the contemporary condition in which men are either unlovable whining sad sacks or misogynist assholes who cite a cartoon version of Darwinism to justify treating a woman as little more than an upgrade from Jergens and a sock. If we don’t like it, we only have feminism to blame. Or something like that.

Then Wilkinson responded, in an excellent article that distills the argument but acknowledged its major flaw: it fails the weight the benefits of social progress against the cost.

Look, the phenomenon Hymowitz describes is real enough. Rapid social change inevitably makes it harder to coordinate expectations. If it is a change worth having, then the pains of adjustment are worth it. Period. That doesn’t mean those pains are unimportant. Guys do suffer uncertainty about whether or not to open doors or pick up checks. It really can be frustrating for the sensitive guy to find out he’d be more generally attractive if he learned to be a bit more of a dick.

But annoyances and disappointments suffered in the process of realizing fundamental conditions of a decent society don’t call into question the desirability of those conditions. All this vexation is a very, very small price to pay for equality. For men, it is a very, very small price to pay for the opportunity to share a life with a peer, a full partner, rather than with a woman limited by convention and straitened opportunity to a more circumscribed and subordinate role in life. Sexual equality has created the possibility of greater exactness and complementarity in matching women to men. That is, in my book, a huge gain to men. But equality does raise expectations for love and marriage. The prospect of finding a true partner, rather than someone to satisfactorily perform the generic role of husband or wife, leaves many of us single and searching for a good long time. But this isn’t about delaying adulthood, it’s about meeting higher standards for what marriage and family should be.

It’s well worth reading.  And then read responses by Matthew Yglesias, and Conor Friederdorf.

But I have another thing to add.  The article fails to acknowledge that women are confused too.

Maybe not all women, but I certainly am, and I think many of my friends are too.  Absent the set of social norms regarding dating that only, really, disappeared very recently, it’s every bit as hard for a woman to figure out how to navigate this topic as it is a man.  What is described in the article as fussiness or flightiness could just as easily be understood as similar confusion.

Are we supposed to make the move now?   How do we signal interest? How do we know if he’s interested? Am I allowed to let him pay? Who initiates a second date? Who initiates “the talk”?

It’s not that I’m uncomfortable taking a leadership role: I’m not.  I can do that.  It’s not fun, but I can do it.  But what if that offends him?  Or worse, what if he’s not done it because he’s not particularly interested and I’m mistaking lack of interest for lack of initiative?

I love my wonderful, independent life, but it does make this particular issue tricky.  Rules are constricting, certainly, but goodness they make things easier to understand.  When you have guides on the appropriate way to act, understanding divergence from that is a little easier too.

I suppose, just like the men in the article, I bemoan the fact I truly don’t know how to act.

Ultimately, though, I agree with Yglesias, who says:

As Will says, this phenomenon is real enough and it’s worth taking seriously the fact that it bothers people. But it’s really not worth taking seriously the idea that this cost outweighs the benefits, both the benefits in terms of justice and the benefits in terms of drastically enhancing the scope of opportunity available to both men and women. At any rate, Hymowitz by just really going on at length manages to lay out the underlying logic of a lot of contemporary social conservative anxiety in a way that you rarely see set out.

It’s worth it, but dammit it’s confusing.

3 Responses

  1. I think what you are saying must be true. I mean that it is a near certainty that if men are confused then women must be too.

    Your point about leadership is a nice one. The feminine approach to leadership is, as we are now realising, often more effective and I think there is no reason why people should be forced into behaving unnaturally in pursuit of some one-dimensional idea of equality. The postfeminist situation may be confusing but I think it has also been full of opportunity, as men and women creatively experiment with their relationships.

    The idea that manipulative, nasty behaviour is attractive is an odd one. Of course, the behaviour is as old as the hills, but that intelligent people should think it is a route to stable happiness is a strange one.

    Your honesty is refreshing.

  2. “How do we signal interest?”
    Ah, contemporary social conservative anxiety – my constant friend. This is a really good topic, Erin! If you find any answers, can you let me know?

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