“Why don’t you date?”
My therapist’s comment took me aback. After a difficult relationship, why didn’t I put myself back out there? After all, meeting new people would be a healthy distraction, enrich my social life, and build up my confidence by reminding me how ridiculously charming and attractive I am.
Okay, maybe I don’t have a problem with confidence.
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I have never been shy or reluctant to meet new people. But the idea of dating left me exhausted. More sexist men, more risk of sexual violence, more worrying that — Cat Person-style — a seemingly innocuous date would reveal a shock of coercion under his charm.
The Many Complications of Dating as a Woman
I’d experienced it all before — and I’m not alone. As the #MeToo movement has shown, dating can be a complicated, even traumatic experience for women. It’s not just the risk of severe forms of violence, though Margaret Atwood’s classic quote “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them,” remains an omnipresent fear.
It’s also the fear of daily tensions, the sexist comments, the fear that our date won’t listen to our “no,” or will slut shame us if we say yes. Not to mention the double standards: The pressure to be likeable, to open up, and embrace intimacy on one hand; and the message that women should always be on the lookout for our own safety, on the other.
While the intimacy we gain from dating is an important force keeping us happy and healthy, constantly having to look out for our safety takes a real toll on our mental health. Faced with so many different kinds of pressure, what’s a girl to do?
We deserve to live in a world where all we have to worry about on a date is choosing a restaurant, not preventing sexual assault. Until we get there, here are some strategies to keep ourselves healthy while we navigate the sometimes-tricky terrain of intimacy.
Trust Your Instincts
With so many contradictory messages about dating, it can be hard to hear our own internal voice over the noise. But we all do have that voice in our heads which tells us when things just don’t feel right, and we can learn to trust it.
As we heard from many women during #MeToo, it can be easy to doubt ourselves and our own estimation of a situation. Dates may pressure us or dismiss our feelings. Maybe our date is telling us to “loosen up” and “have fun,” even though our inner voice is telling us we don’t want to have sex. Maybe we don’t want to get in that guy’s car, but we are afraid of seeming rude.
In these cases, remember: Trust yourself! You know your own boundaries and comfort level. You know when something feels creepy. You have decades of experience as a woman, constantly navigating tricky issues of gender and safety. Don’t let anyone devalue your own internal voice.
Remember, you can always say no. It doesn’t matter if your date bought you dinner. It doesn’t matter if they think you’re rude. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had sex ten times previously or if your clothes are currently on the floor. The only thing that matters is your own comfort and safety.
If you’re feeling unsure, it’s always okay to take a break and check in with yourself — or with a friend whose judgement you trust. Have a trusted BFF on call and feel free to text for any on-date discomforts.
Forget societal standards
On which date should you sleep with someone? Date one? Date three? After the wedding? Trick question: You should sleep with someone whenever both of you feel comfortable.
From women’s magazines, to movies to our own family and friends, we get a ton of contradictory messages about “proper” sexual behavior. We may worry that if we get sexual with someone too soon, they’ll stereotype us as “easy” — but if we wait too long, they’ll lose interest.
Of course, this is a total double standard, based on the idea that a woman’s worth somehow depends on her sexuality. This constant fear of judgement can take a real toll on our mental health, causing us to police our own behavior and blame ourselves if something goes wrong.
Your sexuality does not dictate your worth: Your worth is intrinsic. And the sexual choices you make are totally okay, and totally yours. If a partner judges you for sleeping with them “too soon” or “too late,” they’re not the right partner for you.
It’s hard to forget about social standards that have been drummed into our heads from childhood, especially if we’re afraid of being judged by those around us. But seeing through these double standards and embracing our own desires and needs is the first step to finding real, sustainable love.
The best way to forget the haters and build your own confidence? Surround yourself with loving, supportive friends and trusted family members who won’t judge.
Be kind to yourself
If you’re stressing, remember you’re not alone: Dating is hard for everyone! No one, of any gender, has it all figured out — no matter how much they may pretend. And for women, the normal heart break, vulnerability, and thrill of dating comes with the added risk of sexual violence. It can all take a toll.
With all this pressure and judgement on us, the least we can do is stop putting added pressure on ourselves. Treat yourself with the compassion and kindness you’d give to your best friend. It’s only when you appreciate your own value that you can find partners who will love you for the hilarious, charming, beautiful, and yes, even sometimes insecure person you are.