The questions of how and why people decide to ‘couple up’ have always interested me. In Sociology we do not consider ‘love’ to be the ultimate determining factor. So if it's not love, why do we seek a mate in our Western society? When reading, observing the media, and talking to people around me, a pattern started to emerge. Even though more than four decades have passed since the beginning of the sexual revolution, finding a partner still seems to be significantly more important for women than men who generally seem to enjoy being single more than women do.
Self-help books and movies constantly send out paradoxical messages to women: while making finding a man seem like the ultimate goal in life, they strongly discourage women to let this desire show and claim that women must ‘play hard to get’ so that men can pursue them. Perhaps there are an increasing number of movies with independent and successful women protagonists. In No Strings Attached, Emma is a hard-working doctor who does not want a relationship. In Sex and the City, Miranda is a highly accomplished lawyer whose number one priority is her job, and Samantha is a successful PR woman who enjoys having casual sex.
Yet even in these movies a man still comes in at the end and sweeps these independent women off their feet, making them realise that their lives had been empty and only love could bring them true happiness. Only men can have an active role in mate seeking - do the ‘chasing’, the ‘hunting’, and the ‘conquering’ – while women, as desperate for a relationship as they may be, must remain passive, cold and unattached on the surface in order to attract a man.
While finding a boyfriend is often the most important ‘project’ for my female friends and sometimes the only thing they can talk about, I have never once heard any of my male friends say that they are actively looking for a girlfriend. Some of my friends, between the ages of 20 and 25, are already worried about finding a serious boyfriend before they ‘run out of time’. I often witness single women of 30 receiving looks of pity from people. At the same time, 30 year old men are happily dating casually without any social pressure on them to settle down as they have ‘all the time in the world’.
I sometimes get the impression that while a woman must be attractive, intelligent and interesting to make a man want her, all a man needs to be is willing to commit. When I ask my friends and family why they think women get so 'desperate' for a boyfriend so soon while men are so much more relaxed about having a relationship I always get the same answer: it is biology. While a woman should give birth before the age of 35 for various health reasons, a man is able to have children throughout his whole life.
As a Sociology student, I refuse to accept the explanation that biology determines the way we live in society. Are there deeper social forces behind this phenomenon? Sociologist Jeffrey Weeks argues that sex is “a focus of struggles over power, one of the prime sites in truth where domination and subordination are defined and expressed.” Accepting the argument that heterosexual relationships are often an expression of power, who benefits from, and who is disadvantaged by, the above described gender belief in society? And exactly how are gender, sexuality and power linked anyway?
Academic Willard Waller coined the term ‘principle of least interest’ while researching the dating habits of university students in the United States in the 1930s. Basically the person with the least interest in starting or continuing the relationship holds all of the power or has the upper hand. We can apply this principle to the gendered belief that women need to find a partner and start a family sooner than men do. It is thus reasonable to assume that as long as greater social pressure makes women more desperate for a relationship, men will always have more power in choosing their mate and negotiating the terms of their relationship. On the flip-side, women may be more likely to lower their expectations.
It seems to me that men continue to hold the power in mate seeking both in the ‘hook up’ culture of university and in the dating culture that follows. Since women are interested in pursuing a serious relationship sooner than men, the ‘principle of least interest’ fundamentally shifts power to the advantage of men. However, an even more important question begs to be asked.
Do women really get desperate for a relationship sooner and if so, why? Is it biologically determined? Human sexuality is characterised by overwhelmingly symbolic, culturally constructed, non-procreative plasticity. Biological differences between men and women are not sufficiently great to account for our form of social organisation. So perhaps the ‘rules’ of mate seeking are not set in stone (or biology).
There are men with a strong desire to get married, have children and form a family. They might not give birth, but they may want to be young and strong when having kids so they have the energy to play with or look after them. Moreover, we often hear stories about celebrities who get pregnant at 40- or
50-something. It might not be biologically ideal, but in the 21st century where technology is breaking down more frontiers than ever before, we are shifting increasingly further away from what is biologically determined. Women can freeze their eggs and have babies later, go to a sperm bank if they're single and want a child, or use in vitro fertilisation if they're unable to conceive. At least for the affluent, today’s gender beliefs are clearly the remnants of a social construction based on the still persisting fusion between gender and sexuality. It is a belief that evidently gives more power to men in mate seeking.
What is the solution, then? Shere Hite argues that sexuality and sexual relationships can be surrogates for, or obscure our need for, a more satisfying relationship with the larger world. In other words, women would be better off finding something they are passionate about, something that makes them happy and makes them an active contributing member of society, instead of desperately looking for a relationship. Just like men have been doing for centuries. It would not only lead to a happier life but would also restore the power balance between men and women according to the ‘principle of least interest’.