Today I'm talking to the women out there. This topic is loaded with gender politics so, even though men experience feeling disposable too, that will be for a different post. A lot of this is about women in relationships with men, though certainly any woman who's grown up in this society will be able to relate to what we're talking about.
One of the big, BIG themes in my work with women -- which has surprised me but maybe shouldn't have -- is how many of us feel as though our sexuality and affection and companionship and very personhood are disposable to our partners. That we are replaceable.
A young woman is cautious of putting too much effort and vulnerability into her relationship for fear that her husband will only "trade her in" for a "younger model" down the line. A lovely and successful and adventurous woman is plagued by feeling that she's "not enough" for her more experienced partner, that he will find her lacking and find someone who pleases him more. A woman who wants more communication during sex does so because otherwise she feels like her partner "could be with anyone." I could go on and on with examples and I could certainly tell you about times in my own life when I've felt all these things. I can totally relate.
And I feel so sad about all of this. There's a quiet epidemic of women feeling devalued in our sexual relationships. Where does this come from? I could point to the pervasive use of women as "accessories" or supporting characters to male leads for decades and decades of popular media. I could point to the phenomenon of older men being perceived and portrayed as sexually attractive way more often than older women, sending the implicit message that men retain "mate value" as they get older, while women lose it. We could talk about the centuries and centuries of women being denied full access and participation in political and economic systems around the world. We could talk about how that still happens today! I could point to rap lyrics and male privilege and wage gaps and sexual stereotypes that disempower women and favor male choice and agency.... And I suppose the answer is, all of it. The quiet epidemic comes from all of it.
So what do we do? It pains me to think that so many women out there experience this feeling of doubt and replaceability. Here are some guideposts that might be helpful in grappling with this.
- Notice it. Are there times that you feel this way, or times that other women you know express these feelings? How often? When does it happen? How does it feel and what do you do with it?
- Put "insecurity" in context. When you feel disposable there is a profound sense of interpersonal insecurity. How often do we chide ourselves or others for being "insecure?" Instead could we take a look at the reasons for the insecurity? If we are told in consistent, subtle and overt ways over and over again that we not valuable, of course we feel insecure sometimes. We can try to understand the context in which insecurity occurs, rather than talking about it as purely an individual flaw.
- Challenge it. There are thousands of ways to notice and challenge how we feel about ourselves and other women. What makes a person valuable? Unique? Is it looks or youth or sexual "perfection," whatever that is? Or is it about personality and emotional intelligence and fun and curiosity and the other many and varied qualities a person can have? And is it true that a human being could ever be "disposable" or not worthwhile, sexually or otherwise? We have to question this.
- Forget about "the one;" embrace the many. Part of our story about romantic love is that we have to be the only one who ever catches our partner's eye (and vice versa), or it means we're not special enough, we're not valuable. I believe this is not actually how humans operate. We're wired to be attracted to many different people in our lives, and can experience this attraction without diminishing our love or desire for existing partners. In some ways, the stereotype of male sexuality as craving variety and multiple partners is perhaps more accurate for everyone than the stereotype of female sexuality as craving connection with just one person. Except in our cultural storyline, only men get to enjoy and explore and experience that interest in variety. Which can leave women feeling confused and devalued. But what if we all enjoyed a little variety? I'm not saying you have to go out and act on it, but what if we allowed ourselves a thought experiment about what or whom we might like, rather than worrying about who likes us? What if we were the seekers instead of the sought? How would that change things?
This is an ongoing conversation in my work and my mind. Please chime in if you have anything to add, and we can all enlighten each other.