What You Really Really Want and Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life are anti-self-help self-help guides. They challenge the clichéd, patronising and, often, offensive advice which is usually trotted out in this genre. Katherine Wootton reviews their alternative advice, discovering it is still possible to be a feminist while navigating the minefields of dating and sex
Jaclyn Friedman’s What You Really Really Want and Samhita Mukhopadhyay’s Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life (both from Seal Press) discuss how our thoughts and feelings about sex, sexuality and romance are being influenced by the patriarchy and kyriarchy, and suggest feminist ways of thinking about and addressing this influence.
The intention is to help readers find a new narrative, in which their own needs, wants and desires are distinguished from those they are ‘supposed’ to have in order to be ‘normal’ and happy in the very limited roles and narratives which we are normally faced with.
While both Friedman and Mukhopadhyay recognise that we have to live in the world as it is, they look at tactics for challenging the culturally and socially accepted norms, while working towards a lifestyle that reflects our own values and priorities.
Friedman’s version functions as a workbook, in which the reader examines their thoughts about sex and sexuality (their own and others’). To really get the most out of the book, I think you have to devote a lot of time and thought to the exercises Friedman offers: she guides the reader very thoroughly through analysis of the sources of their views on sex, and invites them to retrospectively decide which of these received ideas are most in line with what they want to think, and then helps them choose to reinforce the positive ideas while subduing the negative.
As Friedman points out throughout the text; we receive conflicting messages all the time about who and how we should be sexually, and often we don’t have the opportunity to pass judgment on the validity of these messages before accepting them into our worldview. The goal of the book is to help the reader figure out not just what they want, but also how they can resolve some of the conflict that most of us feel about sex and sexuality because of our contradictory thoughts about it.
Friedman is a kind and encouraging voice over the course of her book’s process, and stays positive towards all forms and variations of sex and sexuality based on mutual and enthusiastic consent. She is also very good at reinforcing the idea that while there are some essential shared foundations of a satisfying and healthy sex-life (enthusiastic consent, safety, etc), there are infinite variations on what people are individually comfortable with, and these individual choices and judgments are all valid and to be respected.
I read it for review, and so did not fully immerse myself in the process that Friedman has created, but I intend to do so later. I found the exercises I did complete very helpful, as they guided me to elucidate my thoughts and feelings about sex and love, where previously I would have only had wordless inclinations and inarticulate gut reactions. This in turn means that when presented with a sexual situation I feel more confident about what I have already consciously decided is and is not OK, what my expectations are, and where my boundaries are.
Mukhopadhyay’s Outdated is a helpful partner to Friedman’s, as she looks at romantic relationships from a feminist perspective, particularly the cognitive dissonance caused by “the difference between what most of us have and what we’re taught to want”, which results in “feelings of alienation, loneliness and general unhappiness”. This book is an antidote to the shelves full of sexist and misogynistic self-help books schooling women on how to get/keep/maintain men – and serves to point out the many flaws with that particular love story, while proposing another way.
Mukhopadhyay – like Friedman – notes the ways in which we are told that there is one particular romantic narrative and, therefore, any romantic or sexual feelings we have should be shoehorned into that story. This narrative, which we see everywhere in popular media as well as in the subtle reactions of the people around us, reinforces misogynistic and patriarchal tenets, and is of course very specific. The characters in this narrative are usually heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, white, English-speaking, and middle-class or wealthy: so everyone else (most people) is already made to feel freakish and excluded from the one valid romantic way of being.
Mukhopadhyay also takes aim at, and easily deconstructs, the hypocrisy of the moral standards for sex and relationships to which no one adheres, yet are rigorously enforced by: politicians, the media, religious figures, the romance industry, the sexist myths perpetrated by self-help books, the odious NiceGuys™, pick-up artists and MRAs. She also dissects the ways in which single women in particular are excluded until they get a boyfriend and start to toe that heteronormative line.
She spends the latter part of the book looking at the difficulties of being feminist while dating. She notes the common frustration of wanting to be a confident, independent woman while still allowing oneself to have expectations within a relationship without: feeling, or being labelled, “needy”; falling into the trap of feeling that one’s worth is determined by a man; or accepting something mediocre due to the illusion of difference of choice for men and women (the supposed surplus of women and dearth of “good men”).
Freidman and Mukhopadhyay show that feminism provides a way to think about all the messages we’re sent about our sexuality, a way to communicate about what we want, and a way to walk away from something that isn’t meeting our needs.
Both books are excellent resources that, frankly, I could have done with about five years ago. They inspire you to think about, articulate and, perhaps most importantly, accept your own wants and needs. They challenge the messages we’re sent implicitly and explicitly about where our value lies within our sexual and romantic relationships with others, and throughout, both authors are accepting and supportive of wherever their reader might be in this process.