This is the 2nd post in a series on selfless dating.
The last post talked about the pervasive idea that men’s and women’s mating desires are incompatible, that the only way for either to get what they want is to eke out political concessions from the other’s grasp. In this view a heterosexual relationship is at worst antagonistic, at best a matter of lawyerly negotiation.
This mindset is self-fulfilling. A guy who believes that men want sex and women want resource commitment will act like it’s true, signaling in more or less explicit ways that e.g. expensive dates are conditional on intercourse. His girlfriend will sense this, and start withholding sex even if she wants it to make sure she can get whatever else she needs.
People who are used to negotiation-based relationships and who see this view echoed everywhere in discourse on sex and romance take it entirely for granted, unable to imagine an alternative.
Amia Srinivasan is a feminist philosopher who was also quoted in the NYT op-ed I discussed last time. She articulates this paradigm of heterosexual relationships eloquently when talking about the framework of consent that forms the core moral plank of sex-positivity™:
When you say to someone, “Well, imagine sexual interaction without the ritual of consent-giving and consent-asking,” they just imagine sexual violation.
But think about all of the times you interact with — I don’t know — a really old friend. Your old high school or college buddy loses a child, and you put your arm around them, and you console them […] You don’t ask for that consent to be able to put your arm around your buddy.
The reason is because the nature of your relationship as friends involves a fine attunement to your friend’s desires and needs and wants. You don’t go into that interaction with the friend thinking, “I want something that they might not want.” There isn’t a kind of implicit presupposed mismatch of desires or wants. It’s not a contractual exchange. It’s not a negotiation.
The very fact that we have such an emphasis on consent when it comes to sexual relations, I think, reveals a certain set of background conditions about how we interact sexually, which is to say, there are lots and lots of cases where one party basically wants to have something that the other person doesn’t really want, in some sense, to give, where there is a misalliance.
Srinivasan says that “the ritual of consent becomes necessary” in this world of mismatched desires which she blames on the patriarchy. She’s missing, or refusing to entertain, a different and provocative possibility. Namely, that the centrality of consent is partly a cause, and not just a consequence, of the presumption of romance-as-negotiation.
In an excellent thread about the same NYT article, P. Yeerk observes as I do that sex-positivity™ declares by fiat that all sex is “natural” and thus inarguably good. Negative sexual experiences, ranging from insecurity to ambivalent desire to physical inadequacy, cannot be blamed on “nature” (which men and women could unite in the face of) but only on misdeeds by other people. All the ways in which sex can be bad are shoehorned into “lack of consent”.
To accommodate the myriad complexities of sexual misery the consent framework has to keep accumulating epicycles like “original consent”, “enthusiastic consent”, and “grooming”. Since consent lends itself to judgment by outside moral authorities, these authorities promote it to the exclusion of discussion of the squishy and nebulous sides of sexuality.
Once consent becomes the only value by which an individual can assess sex to be good or bad and justify their assessment to their partner or anyone else, all that’s left of seduction is contract negotiation fueled by whatever mix of horniness and loneliness brought the two parties together.
There’s an alternative. As Srinivasan herself suggested, to treat any romantic partner like your oldest friend. Fine attunement to your partner’s wants and needs, a willingness to place them at least on par with your own, and giving your partner the benefit of the doubt that they are doing the same. Since your partner doesn’t want their consent violated that part is a given, but it’s not the main focus or a sufficient condition.
To most people perhaps this will sound completely impossible. This skepticism is understandable. They have no experience of this in their own lives, or the lives of friends or parents, or on TV. People used to write stories and poems about selfless, devoted love, but those have fallen out of fashion since the ascendancy of sex-positivity™.
Of course, this approach is not for someone you met at a bar an hour ago — in that case I would agree with the mainstream suggestion of consent negotiation + low expectations.
The good news: I am fairly certain that this possible and, like the antagonistic mindset, is also self-reinforcing. In my wedding announcement I joked about “averaging utility functions” but that’s roughly the ethos that Terese and I attempt to cultivate. Four years later we have four more years of data that informs each of our models of what the other wants, and four more years of evidence that the other is trying to do the same.
The bad news: if you try to make this sort of relationship happen it may not work with your current partner, and it may not work for a long time, and until it does dating will suck worse than if you negotiated your basic needs and enforced the contract.
I don’t know how much luck, effort, and fixed traits play into this. I put more effort than most and have my share of dating fails, but I was a decently attractive prospect when I met Terese at age 28 and very lucky to have met her when I did.
But I do know that no one stumbles into this sort of relationship if they believe only in negotiating opposed desires. These last two posts hopefully served to shake the foundations of this belief if you had it, to set you up for the hard work ahead.