I had a conversation a few months ago that I found somewhat frustrating and unsettling, so much so that I feel the need to write a post about it. This is maybe my first explicitly feminist post, the one I’ve been promising for ages.
So. Here we go.
It started when I made a flippant comment that I could never date anyone who is a fan of Lars Von Trier. A couple of men I was with at the time registered their surprise at this. A discussion ensued about why that might be the case. (I don’t want to bore people with my LVT rants, the short version is that even if he thinks he’s a feminist, his films show a lot of graphic violence perpetrated against women, over and over, and I find that at best oblivious on his part and at worst a sinister slight of hand to excuse yet more portrayals of something that will obviously unsettle and perhaps trigger half of his audience. But I digress.)
Finally, I said something like, well if someone was anti-choice, obviously you’d understand why I couldn’t be with them? He considered this, but expressed a worry that such a standpoint might be somewhat ‘intolerant’, wondering if I also wouldn’t be able to be friends with someone who was anti-choice. I didn’t know what to say to this, and so in the moment I replied that romantic relationships are different, and he conceded that point, saying something about how they are allowed to be ‘irrational’ choices.
But I’m not entirely satisfied with my response there, because it’s more complicated than that. And so here I am, writing this post. The guy I was speaking to is a completely thoughtful and kind person, he wasn’t intending to be offensive, and yet if someone like that can be confused about the issue, then we still have a lot to talk about.
Let me rewind a bit. Lately I’ve been thinking about my online dating instincts. Ok Cupid is a site I’ve been on for years, and between the photos, profile prompt questions, other match questions, the match percentage that the site tallies up for you, and the personality tests, there is quite a lot of info to work with. I usually have an excellent sense if someone is at least a viable first date, especially after a few exchanges. I don’t have a formula for this or anything, I just get an intuitive sense. And not always, but usually, my intuition is pretty accurate.
With Tinder and now Bumble and other similar apps, there are a lot more snap judgements you have to make when deciding to swipe right or left. People barely write a blurb sometimes. More often it’s a name, an age, and a series of pics. No picture? Swipe left. Abs only? Swipe left. Swipe left. Swipe left. Investment banker? Swipe left.
Now, there are times when I do get a kind of existential anxiety that I’m sending potential loves of my life, people with whom I could actually have sailed off happily into the sunset, down the NOPE tube at breakneck speed as I continue to swipe left twenty, thirty, forty times. I worry that, sometimes, I am being too judgemental, or that my judgements are superficial or arbitrary.
Of course, there is a certain amount of personal taste that goes into these sorts of choices. That in itself is a bit anxiety inducing, because there’s such a limited amount of information you get online. I have a distinct physical type, it’s true. I often go for the tall, skinny men. The ‘pointy’ men as they have often been called by a friend of mine. And yet, I’ve gone outside that type frequently enough to know that while it’s a mode in my romantic statistics, it certainly isn’t an inevitability. But who outside that type might appeal to me, and why, and what the pattern is there still eludes me. I just kind of, well, know it when I see it. It’s possible I’ve swiped left on more than one person who could have fit into this category if I’d met them in a context in real life.
And so there is a certain level of contingent, arbitrary preference. And sometimes that does rule out certain people for reasons I cannot justify in a robust sense. Like, either I like them or I don’t. And I don’t have a huge amount of control over that, to be honest. And also? It’s perfectly fucking fine to have these preferences, as we all do.
But there is another level here too. Arbitrary preferences aside, I’m looking for someone who on some level shares my values. I am an intellectual, an academic, a feminist. A lot of what I do on a daily basis situates itself as a critique of mainstream capitalist patriarchal culture. If you are an investment banker, or an insurance agent, or something like that, chances just are that you are probably at least somewhat invested in the status quo in a way that I find kind of unsettling. Our lifestyles, probably, are pretty opposed.
Now, of course, in theory it is possible that I could fall in love with an investment banker. But unless there is something else on your profile that balances out the assumptions I’m going to make about you based on your job, then I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. This is what I like about OK Cupid – maybe you have a bunch of really interesting books and movies, your sense of humour is apparent, maybe you have some nod to the fact that being an investment banker is how you pay the bills but in reality you are a stealth anarchist trying to take down The Man from the inside.
But in all likelihood, you aren’t.And the more time you spend online, the more you date, the older you get, the pickier you get. Or maybe I should speak for myself. The pickier I get. I’d like to end up on dates with people who might actually be potential life partners. Or at least compatible enough to end up on a second date with. That would be nice. And if I’m on Tinder, where there is very little else I know about you, if this is combined with a bunch of pics of you drinking beers with your buddies, some ab shots, and a fuzzy selfie, well… swipe left. I don’t have time to meet everyone, nor do I owe that to strangers on the internet. I’ve only got so much time, and I have shit to do.
And there is still yet another level. There is a difference between arbitrary preferences, judgements about values matching up, and what we might think of as ‘dealbreakers’. These are a bit different from arbitrary preferences and values, as they are qualities or conditions that I might more consciously impose on a relationship or dating situation. Like, ‘I won’t put up with x.’
Which brings me back to this idea about ‘tolerance’. Now look, of course whoever I end up dating next will have some qualities, some preferences or whatever that I might not get, or even always like very much. People have different takes on things, and I might not always agree. So sure, this is inevitable and it’s part of what it is to have relationships and a certain amount of disagreement should be tolerated. Life is a rich tapestry, etcetera.
But this is not just about abstract political values and political structures. I am a woman. And I’m not just looking for what would be a good match. In fact, the match stuff is even somewhat secondary to something else: a basic fucking level of respect.
On Ok Cupid, when I think I like someone, I’ll head right to the questions section, and look up ‘unacceptable answers’. Sure, I care if you think the Earth is bigger than the Sun (yikes), but also: do you think women are obligated to shave their legs? Do you think that No is sometimes a Yes in disguise? (Uh there is a disturbingly high percentage of men who think this.) Do you think it’s okay to be gay? Do you think that abortion is an option in the case of unwanted pregnancy?
Beliefs are not atomic, they often come clumped with other beliefs, and, sometimes, an entire world view. Someone who thinks that abortion should be illegal is not just someone who has a particular stance on the metaphysical personhood of the fetus, not someone who happens to have ‘a religious belief’ – this is also someone who believes on at least one level that I do not have complete autonomy over my own body.
If someone doesn’t think that I have autonomy over my own body, what does that entail for other sorts of situations? Sexual situations? His sense of jealousy or possession over me and my body? How will he act towards my male friends?
And in a relationship – in a situation in which I’m trusting this person with my most intimate self – with my BODY – this is not acceptable. And this isn’t intolerant. And it’s not arbitrary, or ‘just’ emotional. It is perfectly, entirely, completely fucking rational.
Are we on the same page yet?
Of course, there will also be levels. So I’m not willing to date someone who isn’t on board with my right to make choices about my body, but would I be willing to date someone who considered themselves a feminist but was kind of stuck in second-wave feminism? Well, maybe. But maybe not. And guess what, that’s my decision, regardless of whether it is arbitrary. Because maybe bodily autonomy is a kind of baseline, but it’s also okay if my baseline is higher. Like, for example, if I want the kind of dude who can take my point about Lars Von Trier.
Thus I also want to get a sense of how open-minded you are. Of how often you think of things from other perspectives. Got a list of only white male authors on your ‘faves’ list? Yeah that seems unlikely then. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are sexist, but it does mean that when called upon to list books/movies/whatever the things that first come to mind are things that only reflect the perspective of one demographic and also that this very fact – that you are only listing white, male, cis dudes – doesn’t occur to you as even a problem. In other words, when you make your profile you should be trying to represent yourself, but maybe consider the perspective of the person LOOKING at the profile too. It might be important to us that we know whether you try to branch out, if you are able to find interest in a wide range of perspectives. If you aren’t, that’s a bad sign already for your powers of imagination, conversation, etc. I need my partner to have a robust imagination, and be generous to my perspective when I might suggest things that don’t strike him as ‘true’ in his (quite narrow) experience. (File under: I don’t want to have to teach my partner all about feminism. Again.)
And to be honest, the qualities I look for in my good friends are basically the same qualities I look for in romantic partners. I might have a slightly higher standard for a partner, but not by much. And a lot of those standards are going to include the value of open-mindedness and tolerance, sure, but not tolerance at the expense of someone’s humanity. No one should tolerate that.