I’ve always felt uncomfortable with gender expectations.
The idea that I should be a certain way because I have a Y chromosome never sat well with me. Do I enjoy doing typical “male” things like fixing problems and opening stuck jars? Sure I do, but there’s a world of difference between being asked to do something and being expected to do it.
I’m also a big believer that we need to make up our own rules when it comes to relationships. The “typical” relationship today is not anything to write home about, because our current model is weighed down by outdated beliefs about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and why rigidly defining that at all is problematic.
So let’s roll up our sleeves, or stockings, or both — cause we’re gonna talk about gender, but first we need to talk about how we were raised.
Barbies and Firetrucks
We are conditioned from birth to act according to the gender that is traditionally associated with our biological sex.
While I believe it’s true that men and women “come standard” with a certain set of behaviors that are matched with our sex at birth, I also believe that most of the behavior we associate with each gender was fabricated and reinforced by culture.
Note: This discussion is incredibly nuanced, and while I’ll do my best to make this as accurate as possible, I know I won’t be able to cover everything. For more on this I recommend this diagram and this TEDx Talk.
Since birth, kids are given toys and assigned preferences based on their sex. Boys play with firetrucks, girls play with barbie dolls. Boys play war, girls play house. Boys learn to build, girls learn to cook.
Now, you might be thinking — but don’t most boys prefer firetrucks and most girls prefer barbies?
Yes, but this is worth examining further. Is our preference the product of conditioning or inherent to our sex at birth? Is gender expression nature or nurture? Is it neither and a conscious choice? There are cases to be made for all of it, but what’s undeniable is that some boys like barbies, and some girls like firetrucks, so it’s definitely not black and white.
The reason this is important is now that we’re adults we can choose to opt-in or out of traditional gender roles instead of do them by default.
Dating Beyond Gender
One of the things I look for in the people I date is someone who has let go of the need for traditional gender roles. That means they have the ability to see me as a complex and unique human, instead of a man who should do all the things that a man is supposed to do.
To do this, it takes both the courage to be non-conforming and the wisdom to have deconstructed the current system to see what’s been conditioned into us through culture.
Every relationship will ultimately have roles to play, but instead of dividing those up by gender, I prefer they are based on skill and enthusiasm. Gay and lesbian couples already do this, because for them it’s not as obvious who does what, since they are the same gender.1
While it’s almost impossible to start with a blank slate, the relationships I want to be in are the ones where very little is assumed when it comes to gender roles.
Some of the best advice I’ve heard when it comes to gender is to not assume, but ask. What pro-nouns do you use? How do you identify? The conversation about gender and identity is endless, so we’ll never actually know how to best relate to other people until we ask them.
It’s the same in relationships. If we want to give our partners (and ourselves) the freedom to express themselves fully we have to let go of traditional gender roles and adopt what works for us, even if that ultimately looks traditional.
This is an important point, because a lot of people see their preferences as “normal” and ask “why question all this if we’ll end up doing the same thing that culture tells us to do”?
I say, do it because that’s what having an intentional relationship is all about. It’s about knowing that you’ve chosen what works for you, not just what society handed you in the form of social conditioning. It’s not about questioning things for the sake of being a rebel, it’s about questioning them so that you can find out what really, ultimately works for you.