Young Women on Dating and Feminism in America

The weirdness of dating as a young feminist woman in America

Illustration: Jeannie Phan

“Dating is super weird,” Amelia*, a 25-year-old Barnard College graduate who’s partial to the phrase “men are trash,” tells me. “I loathe it, but I don’t know if I hate it because I’m looking for a specific type of person who’s not that common — because I want a feminist man — or if everyone hates it, and we’re all fighting an uphill battle.”

Dating has always been, and will forever be, weird. But dating — and life — as a young woman in America is particularly fraught; a study in extremes. On the plus side, in this era of post-third-wave or maybe fourth-wave feminism, the concepts are largely mainstream. Groundbreaking work is being done with intersectionality; there’s #MeToo and rape-culture awareness; consent is taught at many colleges; there are more women in government than ever. At the same time, a man who’s bragged about groping women holds the top office in our country, the gender pay gap persists, and abortion rights continue to be chipped away in various states.

The internet has allowed information and porn to spread on an unprecedented scale, without necessarily promoting nuance or kindness or even accuracy. Early-stage courtship rituals can be conducted without ever meeting in person, thanks to apps like Snapchat and Tinder and Hinge. Because everyone pretty much has a cell phone, you never have to call and awkwardly get your crush’s mom on the phone. You can also FaceTime, bringing your digital relationship all the more up close and personal. But eventually you’ve got to meet in person. And that brings a whole new array of weirdnesses.

How does all this trickle down to young women, and what does it mean for their dating lives? I spoke to nine women, aged 19 to 25, to find out. While feminism and ways to talk about it are more accessible than ever, love and romance remains opaque and often confusing. “It’s easy to take a feminist stance in politics and public issues,” notes feminist author and Medium columnist Jessica Valenti, “but making that work in a private life feels much harder. I’m hearing from young women that it’s not so hard to find a boyfriend who says he’s a feminist, but that’s not the same thing as finding someone who lives it.”

So, Are They Feminists?

There was no question among the young, college-educated women I talked to that being a feminist was part of their lives, something they agreed with intellectually as well as emotionally. Michelle, a 21-year-old who goes to Vanderbilt University, put it clearly: “I believe that women have historically been barred from the same privileges and opportunities that men have had, and I think that needs to change.” Those inequalities are felt throughout daily life, she explains: “Magazines screaming at you to be thinner, more beautiful, and better at sex to ‘please your man,’ advertisements on the television telling you that you have to use more products to cover up who you really are, men catcalling you on the street, assumptions about your preferences for so many things like food, lifestyle, and romantic partners because you’re a girl.”

Back in my high school, I raged against the patriarchy, but what’s happening now is more organized, more organic, and dare I say, smarter. Jennifer Mathieu, author of the young adult novel Moxie, in which a teenager kicks off a feminist revolution at her high school, is the sponsor of the feminist club at the large, diverse public high school in Houston, Texas, where she teaches. “What I see among young feminists is a far deeper understanding than I had of how systems are working, and how race and sexual orientation and how ability levels intersect,” she tells me. “I didn’t start to have those awarenesses until I was an adult, and these women are having it now.”

Zoe, a 19-year-old student at Brooklyn College, never “had to have the conversation with myself that I was a feminist, but I didn’t really know what it meant until the Beyoncé song [“Flawless”]. That let me put a name to it.” That didn’t mean everyone felt the same way: In 11th grade, some kids started wearing Meninist shirts, and Zoe was called a feminazi. There was definitely a gender component to this, and even now among young men, there’s a stigma against the word. Zoe has found “a lot of guys aren’t ready to call themselves feminists, even if they believe in it.” Michelle adds, “I have had many conversations where a guy will describe his own beliefs about women, consent, and equal rights, and they fall right in line with being a feminist. Then, when I ask them if they would consider themselves a feminist, they’d balk, saying things like ‘Feminist is just too radical of a word — it reminds me of bra burners and feminazis.’”

The women I talked to, however, don’t tend to demand feminism bona fides before going on dates or hanging out with someone. But they do talk to their partners about feminism once in a relationship.

Say the guys do identify as such: How do you know if they truly believe it, or are just saying it to get in bed with you? “Identifying as a male feminist has sexual currency,” says Valenti. The women I talked to, however, don’t tend to demand feminism bona fides before going on dates or hanging out with someone. But they do talk to their partners about feminism once in a relationship. Around the time of the Brock Turner case, Zoe showed her then-boyfriend an article about the little things women endure every day. “I could tell it changed his mind, and he asked about reading my feminist books,” she says. “I definitely think women in romantic relationships are in a special position to have those conversations,” says 20-year-old Maddie, a student at Barnard College. “It’s not a responsibility but a big opportunity.”

The Aggressions and Microaggressions

I heard some horror stories, namely about gaslighting, manipulation, and shaming. These things tended to happen more when the women I talked to were young — teens in middle school or high school just starting to date and figure themselves out.

Nora, for instance, broke up with her boyfriend the summer before ninth grade. Once they were back at school, he started harassing her. “He would follow me down the halls screaming,” she says. “He’d call me a slut for flirting with other guys. He’d make me want him again and then he’d be like, “No.’” This went on for about a year. Now 19, Nora is a student at Hunter College. She identifies as a feminist, but she’s struggled with what that looks like when you date someone. Her last relationship, which lasted three years, was eye opening: “Someone you’re with shouldn’t make you feel bad. It seems so simple but it’s not,” she explains. “I kind of still let people walk over me a little bit.”

Zoe’s precollege dating life was fodder for rumors and shaming: “In eighth grade, there was a rumor that I threw up giving my first blow job,” she says. (It wasn’t true.) “There were also anonymous Instagram accounts spreading shit about people.” She learned some valuable lessons. “I sent Snapchats in ninth grade that got saved and circulated around.” She doesn’t blame herself, exactly: “The guys should have known that wasn’t something that’s OK. But what I did… wasn’t not feminist.” Still, though some of her friends send pics, she doesn’t anymore.

Being a person of color, Diya says, dating is “a whole ‘nother ball game. It is always something that I feel I’m conscious of when I’m even just hooking up, a part of me is like, so what are your beliefs on this issue?”

Even more common is jokey behavior couched in sexism, the kind of thing that’s annoying but, to most of the women I spoke to, not worth getting angry about. Lana, a 20-year-old who goes to Hampshire College, says of her boyfriend of a little over a year, “We’re both musicians, and he’ll say, ‘you play like a girl,’ and laugh.” Almost all the women I spoke to had experiences like this, but varied on whether they found it bothersome or not. One told me that she could tell the guy was joking, because that’s not the kind of thing you’d say if you were serious.

Sadie and Diya, who both go to Vanderbilt University, note that queerness, and particularly bisexuality, still comes with a knee-jerk bro reaction: “That’s hot.” Diya, 22, adds, “I think since we talk about queerness it’s like, I can ask you anything. But that’s not how it works. This guy was like, ‘Oh, so you’re bisexual. Have you ever had threesomes?’ When you’re trying to use that as a flirting method, I’m like, this person is canceled.”

And being a person of color, she says, dating is “a whole ‘nother ball game. It is always something that I feel I’m conscious of when I’m even just hooking up, a part of me is like, so what are your beliefs on this issue? If you’re hooking up with someone who is white and in Greek life, it’s seen as, like, why are you going to do that to yourself?”

Hookups and Deal Breakers

Maybe there’s a decline in sex among young people, but the women I spoke to didn’t mention it. To the contrary, they’re interested in exploring their own sexuality as a means of empowerment — at least, up to a point. Maddie says, “I’m a junior now, and all of sophomore year I was hooking up with a lot of boys. It felt very good! It felt like, I’m capable of casual sex, I’m not this being that needs to cling on to men.” But there’s a buffet of side-questions that confuse the matter, like: Do you tell the guy you’re hooking up with other people? Are people judging you for it? Do you care? How sex positive are we, anyway? “I should have told the guy I was seeing that I was hooking up with someone else,” says Maddie. “We weren’t monogamous, and I wanted it to be something more, but he was scared of commitment. He painted it like I was clinging on, and I was like, I’ve been hooking up with someone else the whole time!”

Despite feeling that it’s more accepted that both men and women are sexual beings, there’s still a double standard at play.

Diya tells me that hookups, rather than dating and serious relationships, tend to be the norm. And despite Liza’s feeling that it’s more accepted that both men and women are sexual beings, there’s still a double standard at play. Diya says, “I think we’d all like to think that things are very sex positive and when we’re talking to our friends it’s like, do what you want, we support you, be safe.” But she’s seen people talk judgmentally about how many sexual partners others have. “I just don’t feel like we need to be having this discussion about someone else’s sex life,” she says.

The list of deal breakers I hear are long and skew toward the political, but also the obnoxious. Nora says, “I would not date someone who’s like ‘I’m not a feminist’ — I don’t need people like that.” Amelia has “a hard no Trump voters policy.” For Maddie, the red flags are “political things, when they’re really conservative, or when they talk badly about their exes. Overbearing big personalities. I had a boy mansplain libertarianism on a first date.” Lack of respect is a big one, especially physically: “I went on a date with another guy for the first time, and at the end, I went in for a hug but he tried to go for a kiss.”

All the women praised the consent awareness programs and sexual health and alcohol safety courses at their colleges. “Some people are like what a chore, but it keeps it on your radar,” says Liza.

Indeed, consent seems to be more a part of standard courtship than ever. “I’m more surprised when guys don’t ask ‘Can I kiss you?’ than when they do,” says Amelia. “A guy used to decide you were ready to make out with them, now they’re ready to use their words. It could be very impolite, but they’re still asking.” On her recent date, talk even turned to sexual assault, something she says about 40 percent of her college peers have experienced. “We didn’t have sex, we just met. I was like, we’re not gonna do that, and he said something like ‘no consent, no problem.’”

Consent seems to be more a part of standard courtship than ever. “I’m more surprised when guys don’t ask ‘Can I kiss you?’ than when they do,” says Amelia.

Conversations that I never would have been able to have as a high school student (out of sheer anxiety, or an inability to find the right words) are happening regularly, and that’s a good thing. With Maddie’s ex, she says, “I remember, we talked about what consent means and how it’s important, and making it very clear as we started to have a more physical relationship. He very much listened. I opened up about previous issues of consent I’d had with boys. I’m used to the ‘not all men’ conversation happening or guys getting defensive. This boy wasn’t like that. And he was handsome and smart, but also I felt so safe.”

Talk and action remain two different things, however. “A lot of my guy friends are like, ‘Yes, I’m a feminist,’ but I think when it comes to you’re at a party and you’re drinking and stuff is starting to happen, there’s no sense of ‘Let’s communicate,’” says Diya. “It can get messy really fast.”

Splitting the Bill and Other Old-School Norms

The more I talk to these young women, the more I realize how truly ingrained these hyper-traditional ways of thinking about romance are. Regardless of how much we espouse feminism, there’s still this creeping background ideology defining the guy as the pursuer who asks and calls and pays; the woman must be chased and convinced to have sex, often through the guy’s persistence. We may know it’s wrong and dated, and it’s certainly changing, but it dies hard, particularly when you’re young and getting your dating cues from the media.

The kids at Diya’s Omaha, Nebraska high school definitely followed the standard heteronormative rules of dating. “This is how you ask someone out, you have your first kiss on whatever number date. It was whatever you see on TV,” she says. Meanwhile, she was just getting into the idea of intersectional feminism, “but I don’t remember it playing out in interactions in real life. I was really conscious of being seen as someone who was overbearing or constantly talking about feelings or going after this guy.” This dichotomy between what you intellectually believe and what plays out in practice, in the mix of hormones and the newness of sex and romance, is echoed again and again in various ways.

Amelia says, “It’s a really old-school norm to have men pay for dates, and I’m happy to have a free drink because I’m a person. But I almost always split on a first date. It’s hard to do that, especially when it’s a bad date.” Her last date was the first to respond to her request to split by saying, “Of course, this is not a transaction,” she says. “And we hooked up, so it worked for him!”

“It’s a really old-school norm to have men pay for dates, and I’m happy to have a free drink because I’m a person. But I almost always split on a first date. It’s hard to do that, especially when it’s a bad date.”

I ask if she’s heard from her date yet, and if she would reach out to him. “I expected him to text me first, and he did,” she admits. “I think he knew to do that. I don’t know why I assumed that. I was talking to my friends about it, saying, ‘Now, I wait to see if he texts me,’ and we all agreed. I act chill even though I’m not.”

Valenti points out that young men are taught about chivalry, but it’s often couched in the idea that they do it to get things in return, “as opposed to the expectation that we’re all very nice to each other and it will all work out in the end.” But she, too, is conflicted. “When I was younger, I was like, it’s so condescending; now I’m like, everything sucks for us, maybe you should pay for my meal and everything else!”

What Happens Next?

There was a consensus among those I spoke with that men need to get on board in order for feminism to move forward, and that feminism truly needs to be intersectional. Sadie says, “Women can protest and fight all we want and that will do some good, but men are still in positions of power. They need to start promoting women, not speaking up and taking credit for our ideas. A lot of the fourth wave has to be men starting to be compassionate listeners, listening to the struggles of others.”

Amelia agrees: “To me, fourth wave feminism is less feminism and more equal rights and girls getting shit done and men letting women in. Men need to step the fuck up or there’s no hope! We can’t do it alone, we’ve tried a bunch of times.”

But young women aren’t just sitting around waiting for guys to do something. Mathieu’s high school feminist club is drafting a proposal that they’ll take to the principal to address concerns about the dress code. “These girls have the same concerns we had when we were young,” she explains. For instance, hallway harassment. “At the last meeting, some of them were talking about how in middle school, there was ‘Titty Twist Tuesday,’ or something super gross, and I told them that reminded me of ‘Flip-Up Fridays,’ when guys would try to flip up your skirt. Their faces fell as they realized this has been going on forever. They’re furious: Why hasn’t this been fixed yet? When I was in high school, yeah, we wrote angry poems, we made art. We would march, but it’s different. Now there’s that sense of, ‘Uh uh, I’m not putting up with this.’”

“I think we’ve come a long way,” says Nora. But Zoe isn’t so sure: “I think we need a revolution,” she says. “I was scared about the future of the country before, but now I really am.”

*All names have been changed.

Jen Doll is a freelance journalist as well as the author of the young adult novel Unclaimed Baggage and the memoir Save the Date.

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