Women put up with a lot.
They live in a world run by men where they are dominated economically, often physically, sometimes sexually, and have known little else for hundreds of years. That’s before we get to inherent physiological inequalities like childbirth, a process in which a tiny human is incubated over a period of nine months in the stomach causing immense pain and discomfort only for it to rip them apart on the way out. Think about that for a second, men.
The fate of humanity rests in their ovaries yet how are they rewarded for it? Beatings, rape, less pay, and ultimately less say in how this world is run. Raised by a single mother who was beaten by a number of men in her life, I’ve seen what this looks like up close. The consequences for children born into these relationships can also be catastrophic and in turn, send waves of violence rippling out through the remainder of society. It’s up to the individual to stop the cycle. So in the interest of that, I’ve spent much of my conscious life reading and racking my brain for ways to end and avoid violence against women. Here’s one I’ve never seen discussed: why don’t women hit on men?
Our current dating and mating convention sees men required to do everything from initiating contact to asking women out and ultimately pursuing them until they agree to sexual contact and/or a relationship. When it comes time to marry, once again, it is the man who is expected to drop the knee and propose.
Added together this amounts to a remarkable inequality, and yet it underpins nearly every relationship in the western democratic world. Women have long had the freedom to be the agents of change in this most fundamental interaction between the sexes, yet have not. That’s understandable. Men run the world, they have all the money and power and control in a financial and political sense, why shouldn’t they have to prove their worth by jumping through a series of hoops and emotionally over-extending themselves for the opportunity to date, mate and impregnate a woman?
But I can’t help wonder whether this inequality is having an unintended consequence. Whether men, because they have been made to “work for it,” which basically means risk rejection and humiliation every step of the way in order to make a relationship stick, that they eventually come to resent women; lack respect for women; and ultimately develop a sense of entitlement to women based on all the “work” they’ve put in to make the relationship even exist.
Raised by a working-class feminist who was both mother and father to me, the idea of gender roles never existed in my mind. Women could do everything men could do. Yet this is not the case in the real world. Women can, but overwhelmingly choose not to, hit on men. Statistics also tell us that men overwhelmingly fail to respect and take care of women, the manifestations of which often include violence, rape and murder.
Are these two things linked? I was desperate to find out.
Karen Willis is the executive officer of Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia. She campaigned against violence against women for over 30 years and immediately shot down my theory that the lopsided nature of mating, dating and courting was linked to domestic and sexual violence.
“No, the problem is gender inequity… gender inequity is the absolute underlying cause,” she replies immediately, listing a series of studies by OUR Watch, the World Health Organisation and the United Nations examining the causes of domestic and sexual violence.
But what would you call our current dating and mating construct if not unequal? Summoning the courage to approach a complete stranger can be torture, especially if you’re not the archetypal, well-raised, confident male (of which there are approx. hundreds of millions).
Nerves make it hard to be yourself. There’s at least one freshly baked memory of doing your well-mannered best only for the woman to laugh in your face. It can be even worse when you already know the person. Failure there can ripple through your entire social circle, amplifying the awkwardness and humiliation for weeks and months. It seems obvious to me that it would be healthy for women to experience this process at the very least, if not in the name of equality at least compassion. So why don’t they, I ask?
“If women make the first step then there’re all sorts of, you know, ‘they’re aggressive,’ or ‘they’re hunting for men,’ or they’re ‘nymphomaniacs’ and all those sorts of things,” says Willis.
“Yeah exactly. That’s the general concept, that men should take the lead, and women should follow. And if women don’t abide by that there are names for them, and if men don’t abide by that there are names for them,” she says.
This seems ridiculous to me. It might be my insecurities and low self-worth talking, but I couldn’t think of anything better than being hit on by women in equal measure. Would men respect women more if the roles were reversed—or at least evened out a bit?
“I can’t give a black and white answer to that. I think if the process was equal then what we would have is people respecting each other more. Because that’s what we need to get to. Not men versus women,” says Willis.
The dating and mating conventions as they exist now are relatively new. Only since the 1970s and the advent of the contraception pill have women had the opportunity to have multiple partners—or “root around,” as Willis puts it—without falling pregnant (the free love movement around the same time was another factor).
“Prior to that parents would arrange liaisons and there would be a chaperone that would go out with people—it was more prescriptive and decided. Really, the protocols we are practicing now are fairly new, which is why maybe we are getting them wrong because we’re still learning,” says Willis.
Could our current mating and dating conventions be setting men and women up as adversaries from the get-go?
“Quite possibly,” says Willis.
“Women will do things that actually feed into that (male) sense of entitlement. Men will take that sense of entitlement and not for one minute stop to think about it. The only way you undo that stuff is if you start talking about it,” she says.
As for whether this exceedingly common everyday inequality manifests itself in the inequality of violence down the track, Willis is unsure.
“I’d hate to say yes to one thing being the causation factor. It could be a factor in amongst a million others,” she says.
Okay, but would women be safer if they were calling the shots in the dating, mating and courting arena? And men were conditioned to think they could sit back and wait for Mrs Right to find them, I ask?
“There’s that old adage of power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” begins Willis.
“I would not want us to get to a situation where the power imbalance is just swapped over and that women have the power and blokes don’t. That’s not what we’re wanting here.”
“What we’re wanting is human beings to treat human beings like human beings and for us to negotiate and support each other and be consultive and be caring and consider each others needs and wants, and have conversations that allow a mutually agreed direction,” she says.