7 Jan 2015

Dating while feminist: Thoughts on "playing hard to get"

Recently, while seeking advice on navigating my increasingly tangled and tumultuous love life, I got told on two separate occasions that I should play more "hard to get." This advice always puts me on the defensive, for several reasons:
1) The feminist reason. The very notion that anyone, but especially women, should treat romantic interactions as a game to be played, is fraught with sexist assumptions. Such as the assumption that women are manipulative, dishonest and underhand. Or the assumption that men are big, dumb creatures who can be toyed with as long as you use sex as your weapon and make sure you have them by the penis at all times. It strikes at the notion of love and sex as an arena in which human beings view and respect each other as full and equal people, and instead constructs it as a battlefield upon which we see each other as pawns, conquests or malleable lumps of clay. It also, unfortunately, feeds into the language of rape culture. If women "play hard to get", then surely what they say can't really be trusted? A "no" must really mean "keep pushing me", a "I'm not interested" must actually translate to "I want you to pester me". I know it's not my responsibility to dismantle rape culture through my romantic actions, but I'd be lying if I said that the idea of playing games to get what you want doesn't disturb me precisely because I believe it makes it easy for rapists and abusers to excuse their actions. "Well, we all know women don't say what they mean, right?" is the underlying presumption whenever someone tries to weasel their way out of the fact they disregarded a woman's refusal of consent. Ergo, if I don't say what I really mean in my dating life - i.e. "I really like you and want to do sexy stuff with you," as opposed to "Meh, maybe I'll see you around," -  aren't I just contributing to that myth? Shitty as it is that I even have to think like that, it's a concern and I believe, a valid one.
2) The undiagnosed Asperger's reason. I'm very literal minded. I say what I mean, and I believe that this means everyone else must do too. This often leaves me confused when I realise people are joking, exaggerating or simply downright lying. I understand the concept of lying or bending the truth to save someone else's feelings, but I would generally rather avoid a subject than try and employ this skill, as I am not a good liar. I am inherently truthful, and although I'm neurotypical enough to realise that you can deliver the truth without being hurtful (or that there's times when it's best to say nowt), I generally find the socially acceptable codes of dishonesty extremely difficult to fathom. I don't like saying to someone "I'll be back in 5 minutes," if I'm more likely to be 8 minutes, and I don't like it when someone does it to me. I have a need for certainty, and find the lack thereof in every day life extremely anxiety-inducing - although I'd add that, generally I get through and force myself to be flexible, even though I will never be a "chilled" person.
But when it comes to romantic interactions, I cannot understand the point of lying or pretending. Why would I pretend I'm less interested in someone than I really am? How is that going to help anything or anyone? If someone cannot find me appealing simply because I'm showing enthusiasm about them, then aren't we kind of doomed from the start? Someone made the analogy to me of how if you have 20 chocolate bars in your cupboard, you're still more likely to go to the shop and buy the one chocolate bar you don't have, because your contrary brain will naturally want the one that's not most easily on offer. Sorry, but if someone's brain operates that way when it comes to choosing a partner, I'm not sure that's a person I want to be with. I believe that life is short, we shouldn't waste time, and if you like someone, you should tell them.
3) The non-mainstream sexual culture reason. I've spent a fair amount of time in the kink community, and while it can be a mixed bag when it comes to finding enlightened sexual attitudes, one of the things I really, really like about it is that it forces people to be honest about what they want. If you want to play with someone, you ask. You have a conversation, and if signs are good, then a negotiation. You might talk to that person's other play partners to get feedback on what they're like. Then you play, and hopefully keep talking afterwards. And, if it went well, play again. Look at that, how simple does it sound? Pleasure, fun and all because two people communicated. Crazy thought, isn't it?
This is one of the reasons I get irritated when people try to impose mainstream sexual values on me, and tell me to behave in ways that are anathema to the way I operate. I'm highly sexed, kinky, polyamorous and looking. Why the HELL would I pretend I'm not interested in someone when I am? All that's going to lead to is more frustrated nights spent self-loving and wondering why you're alone. If you play hard to get in the kink community, then you will end up exactly where logic would dictate - alone. There is no substitute for simply being an adult and approaching someone.
4) The feminist reason, again. The whole notion of "playing hard to get" particularly winds me up because I'm a very sexual woman, driven by my desires to the point where my behaviour and feelings sometimes makes me feel like "the man" in a relationship, if you'll forgive the horrendous gender stereotyping for a second. Sex is important to me, I enjoy some things that would make some people's hair curl, and I look for partners I can enjoy those things with. I am not interested in monogamy, long term couplehood, marriage or babies. I do believe in treating all my partners with respect and care, and enjoy feeling connected to the people I play with, but long-term commitment only holds boredom, depression and resentment for me. I absolutely hate the gendered stereotypes that dictate women want love, commitment, marriage and kids, while men only want no-strings attached sex and only "give in" to women's demands in order to have regular sex on tap - not least because my preferences and those of many other women I've met, fly in the face of it. Yet, the idea of "playing hard to get" insidiously feeds into this idea, because it implies women don't really like sex, but instead we just withhold it and dangle it in front of men to make them pursue us.  
Well, fuck that. I do like sex, and I'd like to enjoy it with the people I find attractive. If telling them I find them attractive and want to have sex with them is somehow going to turn them off, then it's probably just as well I find that out sooner rather than later, because they've clearly got a problem with women being honest about their desires. This idea that withholding makes one more attractive is dangerous, but it also does a massive disservice to female desire and agency. Again, life is short - why would I waste a single second pretending I'm less interested in someone than I really am, just to fulfil a toxic stereotype of the withholding woman on a pedestal?
All this said, it's hard to ignore the voices, especially when nothing in your romantic life seems to be going right. Due to reason 2, I'm not sure I would even know how to play hard to get even if I had any desire to, because I'm just not wired to be a game-player. I'm instinctively truthful, sometimes clumsily so, and any attempts I made to be 'aloof' would probably end up being like Michael Scott in The Office episode "The Negotiation" where he tries to unsettle an employee by being silent, but can't help himself from announcing "I am declining to speak first." Generally, I'm glad of this, but it can be a lonely spot to occupy when you can't be sure if anyone is returning the courtesy of your honesty, or if they're all hiding the truth from you behind barriers of subtle social codes you're unable to detect. I know they say "love the player, hate the game," but I'm not sure I can respect anyone who thinks I'm something to be toyed with, or who would find me more attractive if I toyed with them.

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