Gender roles — a foray into the hetero mainstream

Now that the move is over, I’m back to blogging somewhat more frequently. Probably much more frequently, until I get a job. So that’s why there was a sudden dearth of updates, followed by three in 24 hours. Enjoy it while it lasts!

This week I went to a human sexuality discussion group in my new hometown. It was a nice group, very mixed in both age and gender, and somewhat mixed in class as well. It was a little refreshing to be in a group and see myself as a sexual outlier again — I tend to do my discussing of sexuality among queers, sluts, and kinksters, so it was a nice change to look around and think, “I could probably shock, or at least surprise, someone here.” It’s also good for me to get in touch with slightly more mainstream sensibilities. This post is going to be chock-full of those sensibilities, so I’m not even going to try to avoid heteronormative language… heteronormativity, and other ghastly cultural baggage, is kind of the point.

The topic of the day’s discussion was gender roles in dating. We talked about age, wealth, and attractiveness, and the different balances of power those three factors create. Some interesting and appalling things came up.

We talked for a while about situations where an older, wealthier person develops a relationship with a young hottie, with some manner of financial benefit transferring to the young hottie. Everything from a full-on sugar-daddy relationship to certain vacation spots where evidently it’s common for the local lads to be picked up by wealthy older ladies who shower them with gifts. What’s fascinating to me about these scenarios is the different ways they play out depending on whether the older partner is male or female. A rich older man can have a sugar-baby or trophy wife pretty much openly within our culture. If we see a hot young thing on the arm of a wealthy fifty-year-old, we all know (or presume we know) what’s going on, and both parties are seen in some way to be doing well for themselves.

When the genders are reversed, however, you don’t see this kind of thing publicly in our culture. It’s more likely to be a vacation fling, something done discreetly away from home. If an older woman has an extended relationship with a younger man, he’s more likely to have his own career, and be fairly successful at it. (Like the perenial Demi/Ashton example.) And I don’t know about you, but when I imagine a bejeweled fifty-year-old woman having a friendly sexual/quasi-financial relationship with a young man, the woman I picture is white and the man is olive-skinned with an accent — probably Latino or Mediterranean. Either an island local on some vacation spot, or the pool boy, you know? Which speaks loads about my assumptions about race, gender, and power. A young American-born man, in my mind, is career-oriented and upwardly mobile. If he mows a rich lady’s lawn or cleans her pool, he’s doing it in order to put himself through college, and he’s not interested in a relationship with her… he dates women of his own age and class, women that he’s socially and financially equal to. For me to envision a male sugar-baby, he’s got to be from a different culture.

(I’m kind of embarrassed to admit all that. I think of myself as pretty enlightened and progressive-minded, but I have a lot of troubling cultural baggage in my head. You probably do too, and I think it’s better to acknowledge it, and acknowledge how twisted it is, than sweep it away in embarrassment.)

So in these sugar-daddy/momma relationships, my mind has to do some mental gymnastics to make it work when the young, hot, economically disadvantaged partner is male. Either he’s not economically disadvantaged after all, like Ashton Kutcher, or he’s from a different culture, and not subject to the same rules I apply to American-born men. I have a hard time, you see, constructing a hetero relationship where the male is not financially successful. Imagine, say, Barbara Walters in a Hugh Hefner-like position, surrounded by blond boy-toys. It’s just a very weird idea, socially (and my mind immediately does a lateral slide and makes them Danish or Norwegian or something… different cultures still, you see. And they still have accents.) A male of my culture has to be financially successful, or aiming for financial success, in order to be credible in a sexual context.

The flip side, of course, is that the female in the arrangement, whether she’s younger or older, has to be attractive. The wealthy American trolling for island boys is slim, fit, manicured, and coiffed. She may be older but she’s still sexy. An ugly woman, no matter how wealthy, is not a credible player in a sexual context any more than a broke and unambitious man.

There are people who will claim that this disparity is evolutionarily based per se: men are “hard-wired” to look for fertility signals, which somehow correspond to the contemporary beauty standard, and women are “hard-wired” to look for success as an indicator of his ability to provide for her offspring. I think that’s largely BS; I think mostly what we’re “hard-wired” to do is absorb cultural dictates, and our culture has been saying for millenia that a woman’s appeal is in her body while a man’s is in his pocketbook.

Near the end of the discussion, after many digressions, we hit on one problematic consequence of this split: if a man’s appeal is based on his financial success, what happens when women, on average, are as financially successful as men? Being close to that point now, we are seeing what happens, and based on the personal experiences of this discussion group, what happens is that men are increasingly insecure and confused about their role. Between us we had anecdotes of four relationships that broke up because the woman was more successful than the man (some initiated by the man’s discomfort with the situation, some by the woman’s). Half the men in the group expressed anxiety and uncertainty about what they had to offer in a relationship, if the woman was making as much or more money. And someone dropped the question on the table: if a woman can support herself, and even a potential child or two, why does she need a man?

This question was taken seriously by more than half the group. I caught eyes with one member who seemed as baffled as I was by it: judging from appearances and a few comments, he, like me, was a young hippie-alternative type. But for most of the rest of the group, it was a problematic question. No one needed to ask why a man needs a woman: for sex, of course, and also for emotional support and maybe to do his laundry. Women, you see, are the attractive sex, and also the emotionally mature/nurturing sex, and also the domestically skilled sex. Men are the money-makers; if women can do that, too, then why do we need men?

We have a huge problem, y’all. Our mainstream archetypes right now are Caveman and Superwoman: fat, slobbish, insensitive sitcom dads and beautiful, mature, professional women who work 9-5 and then come home and take care of the housework and children. Of course we’re asking why a woman needs a man… in this universe, men are useless, and likely to be an additional burden on the already overworked (but still beautiful!) women. Especially if they have the gall to ask for sex after she’s worked a 15-hour day.

That’s the imaginary archetypal world, of course. In the real world, men have more to offer than occasionally being funny and burping on the couch. Men are sexy, men are caring, men are known to cook and clean (in our household, my man does the majority of both), men are capable of feeding and entertaining their children. A woman doesn’t need a man, of course, but she has a lot of good reasons to want one. Provided he’s a good one. And why someone would ever bind her life to one of the not-good ones… just so she can say she’s married?… is a mystery to me.

We need to reshape our culture, away from the assumption that men’s worth is in their wallets and women’s is in their bodies. In my queer-as-fuck world, those assumptions don’t really touch me, but a lot of people in the mainstream world still labor under them, and that creates nasty social currents that cause problems for us all.

One thought on “Gender roles — a foray into the hetero mainstream

  1. I was just thinking about y’all this weekend. I went to Birmingham to serve in a good friend’s wedding, and I was wondering how I could sneak over to GA to visit w/ y’all for a bit. Obviously I am a bit tardy to the party ;P Glad y’all had an (obvious) safe trip, tho!


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