Here's Why Dating Women Improved My Relationships With Men
As I shed my shirt for the first time mid-makeout session, a guy I've been seeing recently did a double take. "You have hairy armpits!" he observed. "I like it," he went on, smiling.
Good news, since my axillary adornments aren't going anywhere. Even better news: I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have cared even if he weren't into it.
After more than a decade of quiet bisexuality during which I, a cisgender woman, dated only cis men, I dove fully into my queer identity about a year and a half ago. At one point, I even thought I was done with men altogether.
Although I was wrong about that, I now find I'm navigating my so-called "straight" relationships with considerably more moxie. I've donated my last pair of heels and regularly show up for dates in Chacos, wearing nothing but a smudge of eyeliner, if I wear makeup at all. When we eat together, I actually eat. I eat bread.
Of course, plenty of straight women don't own a single tube of lipstick. And plenty of very feminine women feel comfortable ripping into a cheeseburger on their first date. But for me, queer dating offered an opportunity to see what life was like outside of the traditional gender norms I'd grown up with in my conservative family—the kind where the men always sat on the couch watching football while the women cleaned up the Thanksgiving dinner dishes. Now that I'm dating straight men again, I'm no longer trying to curtail myself down to an appropriately feminine, straight-man-size bite.
I'm not the only person who's noticed this kind of shift after a queer dating experience. Writer Britany Robinson, also a cis woman, didn't start dating women until she was 30. "My first queer relationship revealed to me how many cultural scripts I had been leaning on in my straight relationships," she said. "Suddenly, there were no rules."
The "rules" she's talking about? The heteronormative expectations sewn into the fabric of American culture—the ones that define who picks up the check after dinner or initiates that date in the first place. These messages have been passed down through rom-coms and Cosmopolitan articles, fairy tales and parental examples. And research shows that behaviors like holding open doors and paying for dates are seen as more desirable in men than in women. According to a 2016 study published in Sex Roles, these "dating double standards" were "positively related" to the consumption of popular media, and were "strongly associated with benevolent sexism (among women and men) and with hostile sexism (among men)."
Now that I'm dating straight men again, I'm no longer trying to curtail myself down to an appropriately feminine, straight-man-size bite.
It starts early: Most children have a stable sense of their gender identity by age 4, according to pediatrician and child psychiatrist Jason Rafferty of the American Academy of Pediatrics, including an understanding of what types of things boys and girls "are supposed to" do. (Transgender kids may also have a firm sense of their gender by this age, according to a 2019 study published in PNAS.)
So what does this have to do with queer dating? Well, when relationship roles aren't defined by who has which genitals, there's a lot more room for negotiation. Without prefabricated scripts to fall back on, queer people have to make up the rules as they go, which involves learning how to communicate desires and expectations, and set firm boundaries. Those are key ingredients for a healthy relationship, no matter who's in it. And while queer experience isn't a requirement for finding your voice in a relationship, it can be a real eye-opener after a lifetime of traditional dating.
"My first queer relationships felt like a more honest way to approach relationships than I ever knew to look for," Robinson said. "Now that I'm with a man again, I feel a lot more freedom to define our relationship on our own terms."
In a "straight" relationship, that can look like a woman with fuzzy armpits and a face bare of makeup—but more important, it can look like open and ongoing communication. It can look like sharing housework or cooking responsibilities fairly or negotiating ethical nonmonogamy. It can look like a man checking in about consent multiple times throughout a sexual encounter. (True story: The first time we got physical, that same guy paused to say, "I just wanted to acknowledge that we're grinding. Is that okay?")
Dating can look however you want it to, the genders of your partners notwithstanding. All you've got to do is show up and be you. All of you. For real.