It is a scene the UW-Madison student body is all too familiar with. As the story goes, the usual crew grabs a booth and a round of drinks. The lights are dim and music is pounding through the speakers. Jordan asks to buy Alex a drink, and Alex accepts. Inhibitions start to fade as the night gets later and the drinks settle in. Jordan brings Alex another drink and leads Alex to the dance floor. They sneak a quick kiss before their friends make it out to join them. Jordan mentions to Alex, “You look great tonight.” The singing and laughter is contagious as everyone has a good time busting a move.
As the night winds down Semisonic’s ‘90 hit “Closing time” starts streaming through the speakers. “I know who I want to take me home,” is echoing through the bar as Jordan and Alex dance intimately. They make plans for the rest of their night before parting momentarily to check with their own friends. Alex’s friends advise, “Stay safe,” while Jordan’s buddies give a nod of approval. The couple meets up again while leaving the bar. As they hold hands giggling down the street, they both know now that Jordan’s place is their final destination of the night.
Assuming while reading the aforementioned scenario you created a mental picture, what were the characters like in your version? Was Alex a straight female? How about young, thin and attractive? How was Jordan envisioned, as a tall, handsome and heterosexual male? I aim not to offend our student body, nor am I saying that I think UW-Madison students are not well-versed in diversity, because that is not the truth. I am pointing out that society places harsh rules on what dating, romance and relationships are “supposed” to look like.
Based on society’s rules, the man should be buying the drinks, giving the compliments and taking the girl home. The girl should be passively accepting the drinks and the invitations to dance. Also, by society’s standards, only girls would give their friends advice on staying safe. The rules outline the way each gender should look, act and respond in a social context. For example, women are supposed to remain sexy, but not become sexually active. Even further, girls are cherished for remaining innocent, but are annoying once they act immature. Men should be assertive, confident and able to get what they want. For boys to fit into the rules of society, they should not share their emotions frequently, especially with other male friends. Unlike the opposite gender, he should not preserve his innocence, but rather seek to rid of it as soon as possible. Women are more often punished for stepping out of line, as evident by the assortment of verbal ammunition available for if she chooses to have frequent casual sex. While men are more likely to be rewarded with words of positive connotations when they have multiple sexual partners.
Society has men and women playing in a social game, one side is seeking to gain the reward, while the other is striving to avoid the ridicule. I cannot take the credit for recognizing the realities of these gendered rules in society. Much of the concepts presented here are adopted from the ideas of Jaclyn Friedman, Jessica Valenti, and other well-educated authors and activists who have taken a stand and dared to ask the tough questions pertaining to our society. What they have taught me is that the proof of these rules can be found all around us.
It is easier to envision Alex as being young thin and attractive when it is not often that a female model in a magazine appears over the age of 30. Nor are there many commercials on television where the actress is overweight with blemishes. We are more likely to make Jordan a burly, tall guy, when it is difficult to find a short or slender man making the front cover of a men’s magazine. Weddings are never seen advertised as “happily ever after” when there are two grooms, or two brides to be wed. Few states approve of homosexual marriage anyway. The rules were reinforced when we watched as the entertainment industry was outraged when innocent and passive Taylor Swift was merely interrupted by a man on stage, but people were skeptical about what the tough and sexualized Rihanna must have done to make Chris Brown choose to hit her.
So the reality remains that society picks out the rules for how we are supposed to appear and behave. Ultimately, these rules are reflected in the encounters we have while creating relationships with other people, especially romantically. The single men and women on campus are no exception to the rules of our society. However, the goal should not be to have every man and every woman playing the exact same rules anyway, because not only is that making stiff and heteronormative generalizations, but it also puts everyone at risk of complying to actions he or she may not feel comfortable with.
What the ultimate goal should be is to have every individual playing by his or her own rules, and finding a partner who plays by the same ones. If that means you choose to hold off until marriage, then power to you. But the same goes for students who prefer to have multiple casual sexual partners in one weekend. While these issues are embedded deeply into our everyday lives, there is still hope for change. Taking a step in the right direction can be fairly easy. It involves communicating more and assuming less. It means taking the time to realize that there is no one simple rule, and those who play by different rules than you are not worse off.
In the end, do that which makes you and your partner feel secure, comfortable and satisfied. If all parties involved are enjoying themselves, while freely giving their consent, then the rules that society gives us to follow should no longer matter.
Kirsten is the winner of The Daily Cardinal 1000 Words for $1000 contest. Congratulations Kirsten!