The last few times I’ve read comments under feminist articles on CIF and the New Statesman, I’ve seen the misogynistic old chestnut raise its hoary head again that women choose sexual partners based on social status whereas men choose sexual partners based on whether they think they’re hot. I can’t remember where I read these comments now, which is annoying. But I promise you they exist.
I am so tired of this really stupid and – yes – misogynistic and homophobic and biphobic argument (hmm, Word not recognising biphobic as a real word. Bad biphobic Microsoft!).
Firstly, I think it is vital to understand that it is completely fine for a woman to choose a partner based on status. Some women won’t and that’s ok too. Is there anyone in the whole wide world that is attracted to the same qualities as someone else? We don’t know and cannot assume what leads to one person choosing to be with another. Not all women fancy Brad Pitt, and not all men lust after Angelina Jolie. Just as I will go on to argue that it’s ok for a woman to find the physicality of a partner attractive, it’s also ok to find the status of that person the key definer of what’s attractive about them. But what we must understand, and what is problematic about the view that women choose a male partner because of status, is that this is not the only thing women can, do and should find attractive. To argue, as some do, that women are only after status is to ignore and silence the multiplicities of women’s sexuality in a way that is offensive and, potentially, dangerous.
Anyway. I’ll focus on the homophobia and biphobia first. Basically, the argument that women as a homogenous group who choose to partner with high status men (and by high status these comments tend to mean “choosing a mate” who has money and can provide for a family) renders gay and bi women invisible. It’s making a generalisation that all women want one man who can provide for them and their children. As we all know, not all women want a man. Not all women – straight, gay or bi – want to have children. It frustrates me that this trope of what women supposedly want is so heteronormative and focused on an old-fashioned idea of what men and women are and what men and women do. It’s lazy and it’s offensive.
The homophobia and biphobia overlaps with the sexism of this idea too.
Whereas our culture allows and accepts the idea that men fancy their sexual partners, the myth that women choose their partners based on socio-economic reasons suggests the opposite for us. It completely ignores and devalues the idea that women might feel sexual desire, that we might choose to have sex with someone simply because we think that person is hot. I think this is what we mean when we say the gaze is male. We are comfortable with the idea that men might be visually attracted to a partner in a way that we are not for women. It’s why we say that ‘men are visual’ and women are ‘about feelings’. Again, women can be all about the feelings but we can also be about the visual too. And sometimes we can be both. Or we can be about the visual, feelings, senses, status and everything in between all at once. No woman is the same, no human sexuality is the same. How can we pretend we all find the same element attractive based on our chromosomes? It’s absurd.
This whole trope is, to me, based on an old and sexist fear of female sexuality. From Jezebel and Potiphar’s wife, to witch hunts and slut shaming, the idea that women feel sexual desire for another person has been criticised, repressed and used to persecute ‘wayward’ women down the centuries. Millenia even. The idea that a woman might just simply see another person of whatever gender and fancy them, feel desire, agree consent and go to bed with that person is used to judge women in a way that it has never been used to judge men. It’s the whole, he’s a stud, she’s a slut thing.
Of course we all know that women fancy other people. Of course we do. But because the gaze is male, the idea of a woman gazing at a man is seen as somehow subversive. Far easier to say that women choose partner based on credit card size than allow us to have our own autonomous, subjective sexuality.
This idea that women are interested in just one thing suggests that women aren’t allowed to feel that undefinable, unintelligible spark of meeting someone and knowing, just knowing, that you want them. It filters women’s wanting through a prism of what society thinks women should want – security – and what society thinks men should want – sex. But individual men and woman want so many different and varied things – for themselves and for their relationships. Not only is it offensive to women, but it’s hugely offensive to men to suggest otherwise. So why do we do it?
Further, it presents sex as a bargaining tool as opposed to something a woman might engage in because she wants to. It suggests that for women, sex is something they give in exchange for security and status rather than something they want, desire, consent to or take pleasure in. This clearly has dangerous implications to what we mean by consent. It also silences women’s bodies – saying that women can’t feel desire without material ulterior motives.
Sexuality and attraction isn’t something that can be put into boxes labelled ‘men like looking at women who look like X’ and ‘women like to know that a man is respected in society’. Human sexuality is, as Shakespeare would say, a many splendored thing. It really bothers me that misogyny, homophobia and biphobia still conspire together to silence women’s desires in order to maintain a single minded and potentially repressive impression of what women might or might not want.
It’s important to understand as well that when online commenters write that women are only attracted to status, they are usually doing so to slag us off. It’s generally within the context that women are selfish and shallow, that we just want men to buy us stuff and, most importantly, are not interested in men like them. So not only is it, perhaps unintentionally, misogynistic by refusing to recognise that women have varied and interesting and valid sexualities, it’s also intentionally misogynistic in that it suggests women just want to gold dig.
Finally I would argue that in a world where poverty has a female face and where women are frequently left holding the baby and never see a penny from their ex-partner, no woman can be or should be judged for choosing a partner based on status and security.
I want this offensive trope to end. I want a world where women’s sexuality and desire isn’t silenced and where we no longer make ridiculous, single statements about what women and men want from sex. We’re all too different, human sexuality is too varied, for you ever to look like anything but a ignorant numpty on the internet when you say women choose men based on status, when they truth is we might just really fancy someone.