It’s all getting mixed up in my mind, to tell you the truth: that pathetic guy playing the piano on a sidewalk in England and swearing not to stop until his ex took him back, along with scuzzy old Harvey Weinstein and hundreds of other scuzzy old (and young) guys who think that just because they want a woman, they’re somehow going to get her in the end, even if she says, clearly: No. This is not what I want.
In the end, it’s what he wants that matters, and he’ll get it, whether that involves grabbing her by … whatever body part, I guess, and taking her by force, or persisting until he wears away her resistance she finally says yes … or playing the piano until she takes him back just to MAKE IT STOP.
Because that’s the cultural myth, isn’t it? Faint heart never won fair lady; right back to the days of courtly love and probably before that, you assume that her resistance is token, put on for the sake of propriety, but that of course she really wants you. Or she will want you eventually, especially if you give her no choice
We no longer live in the Age of Courtly Love; we are starting, I hope, to live in the Age of Consent, the Age of No-Means-No, the age of recognizing that a woman is not a trophy to be won nor a reward for good behavior, but a human being who has her own opinions and desires, her own right to say Yes and No. It’s to be hoped that someday, in our daughters’ or granddaughters’ time, if the world and civilized society lasts, we will see an end to these stories. Someday we’ll have no more of these importunate men who think they can either cajole or force unwilling women into bed or into marriage or into the supply closet with them. May that day come quickly, amen.
But when it comes, will we also see the end of wooing?
I come to this, you see, from the perspective of a woman who was wooed and won. When my now-husband started asking me out, twenty-mumble years ago, I liked him. I was attracted to him. I was also sort of hopelessly in love with someone else, someone I knew I could never be with. Jason, nice as he was, did not fit my mental template of The Man I Was Going to Marry.
So I didn’t say No, no, no exactly, but I didn’t say Yes either. I said OK, but this is not serious, don’t think this is going to end in marriage; I’m moving away in a few months and we can date till then, but then it’s going to end, because I don’t see this being a permanent thing.
He did see it as a permanent thing. We dated for a few months till I moved away; then we dated long distance even though I assured him that long distance relationships never worked out, and then we dated when I moved back home. We went out for five years, and then we got married and have been married for twenty-two years, and I can honestly say: so far, so good.
He was right about the long-term potential of this relationship, and I was wrong. He was persistent, though never pushy. I certainly never felt imposed on, or threatened. I felt that this was someone who loved me more, at the time, than I was capable of loving him; someone steady and reliable who was always going to care about me and care for me, if I would let him. I let him a little bit, and ended up letting him long-term, and have been unreservedly happy with the results.
Does respecting a woman’s right to say No mean that in an ideal world, there would be no stories like ours? No “I chased her until she caught me?” No slowly-dawning realization that your devoted good friend is actually more than a friend, and you like it that way? No waking to the idea that your short-term, casual fun fling, has the potential to be more?
I want consent. I want the right to say no. But I have to say, I also liked being pursued. I liked being wooed and won. I think the world would be a poorer place if there were no love stories like ours.
How many love stories, after all, begin with, “We both knew, from the moment we met, that this was The One…” and progress smoothly on to, “…and we lived happily ever after”? Isn’t there, is most couples, someone who was interested first, or was more interested, or who wanted to make the relationship work when the other person was ready to give up on it? Aren’t there thousands of love stories like mine, and possibly yours – where someone’s persistence, or dedication, paid off?
I firmly believe wooing can be a beautiful thing, and that there should always be a place, in love stories, for someone to be pursued, to be won over by someone else’s steady and dedicated love and kindness.
There are two big problems with our cultural depictions of romance, I think, which complicate this question of wooing.
First is the fact that there’s such a huge gender imbalance in the way it works out. While in real life I think it’s just as likely to be a woman who is first attracted to a man and works to win his regard, the cultural narratives are all in favour of the man pursing the reluctant (or apparently-reluctant) woman. The knight wins the hand of the fair lady, never the other way around.
There are a whole bunch of other cultural tropes for a woman who pursues a man, and most of them are unflattering and the stories do not end happily. This is so interesting to me that I’m going to write a whole other blog post about it in a couple of days, I promise, and we will talk about The Little Mermaid and Eponine and Helena and others of their ilk. But for now, trust me when I say: our cultural stories generally make it OK for men to pursue women, but not the other way around, and this is a problem.
The other problem is that our cultural stories don’t always make the boundary between wooing and harassment clear, or teach young men that No really does mean No, whereas “I can’t see this becoming a long-term thing right now,” may very well mean “Hang in there and keep trying.” These things can be very nuanced and individual.
That being said, it doesn’t take a huge degree of nuance to recognize that if she says, “No, thanks,” you shouldn’t follow her home or keep calling or go on the internet and whine about how she doesn’t like Nice Guys like you (here’s a clue: genuinely nice guys never do this).
There are so many mixed-up and confused cultural messages around Yes and No and pursuit and wooing that I think the pathetic English piano-player may genuinely have thought he was making a grand romantic gesture that would win his ex-girlfriend back, rather than just being an ass (until the whole internet told him he was being an ass, at which point he put down the piano lid and went home of out it, and good riddance).
I do believe there is, and always should be, room in a healthy relationship to try to persuade the other person that you see a future they don’t see, or that you’re really in it for the long haul even if they have doubts. I think a lot of beautiful relationships, including my own marriage, would never happen if we didn’t have that space. But that space can only exist in a culture of respect, where people recognize each other’s boundaries and listen to a clear No and don’t pretend it’s really a Yes in disguise. (I say “people” because I’ve been talking out of my own framework, of heterosexual relationships, but of course the dynamic of one person falling in love first, or more intensely, happens in same-sex relationships too, and respect and consent are just as important there).
How exactly we figure out where those boundaries are and how to communicate around them – that’s a delicate and challenging space to navigate. Our romantic stories don’t give us a road-map for this, because they nearly all grow out of this patriarchal history where women are at once a precious Grail to be pursued and cherished, and at the same time an inanimate object that, like the Grail, cannot object to all that pursuit and cherishing.
What does courtship, wooing, romance look like in a world where men and women are both fully human, capable of saying both Yes and No and having that heard? I don’t know. I know how it felt for me. When Jason said, “I think we could be good together in the long term,” I never felt disrespected or pressured, even though at the time I was saying, “I don’t see how that could work.” I know how it worked in the microcosm of my own relationship, but I don’t know, exactly, how it can work in the larger context of culture trying to emerge from millennia of patriarchy, or what kind of love stories we can tell in the Age of Consent.
I sort of look forward to finding out,though.