Quill as Trench Coat: Writing as a Way to Uncover Secrets about Dating, Men & Myself

Mea Culpa about the delay…Happy 2020 tho :); it feels like a good year, a good beginning. I was working on a story for publication last month, trying to get a handle on what to focus on. To help, the editor asked me a few questions about my process and some of the emotional and writerly outcomes associated with the auto-biographical work I do. Although things didn’t transpire with this particular story, my answers to her questions are good and I wanted to share them!

What is it like to be a spy (anthropologist-writer) who goes on dates and then tells the tale? 

Observing people, environments, and making sense of conversations overheard is essential to my craft as an anthropologist and a writer. However, writing about dating can generate emotions and moral quandaries that don’t surface in my academic work. These feelings are connected to the far reaches I make into the thoughts and flesh that men share with me as we create experiences together.

Is it a violation of these intimacies if I write about them?

Which ones make it to the page and which ones don’t? How do I ‘turn nothin’ to somethin’, to quote Bruce Springsteen, in ways that balance privacy, respect for the men I meet, and allow me to reveal some of the fascinating things I learn along the way? My journey through the tunnel of love has been messy and exciting!

Writing about dating means writing about the contours of my life as a woman seeking sex and greater insights into sexuality, gender, and intimacy in our digital age.  I decided early on to use my own name, not a pseudonym as more than one person suggested.

My rationale was three-fold:

  1. Being myself is essential to who I am
  2. My solid professional reputation can buttress the critiques
  3. If I’m doing this work, I want the credit.

Does this mean that I don’t give things like my reputation a second thought or don’t care what people say about this work? No! I give it much thought and care greatly, but these concerns won’t stop me writing in an open, honest way. It’s too important and interesting. And, it’s part of my responsibility as a woman with a good mind and useful experiences to share my work.

I don’t write about every man or encounter because that would be exhausting and they’re not always that interesting! When I first began writing, like two years ago when I was using Bumble, I was reluctant to say anything to my dates because I felt like a spy.

Actually, I didn’t feel like a spy but I didn’t want them to think that’s what I was up to. Until I had a handle on what I was doing with the words I was recording– a memoir – I often remained quiet. However, since becoming more confident about the project I regularly share it with the men I meet.

Do men ever ask you not to write about them?

When men learn about my blog or my other dating-related publications they usually ask if I’ve written about them and if our date is material for my book. Sometimes I cringe when they pose these questions because I don’t want them to feel like they are only ‘data’ or that they are unsafe with me. I also don’t want them to disappear! Given the prevalence of ghosting and other feats of cowardly abandon in digital dating, these are very real concerns.

I would never lie to make a man ‘stay’ with me.  I answer them honestly and If I have written about them, I say yes. I also let them know that I change certain details (i.e., their appearance, what we did on our date) so that it would be hard for people to identify them. Once we have the discussion most men say they’re ok with me writing about them, which is reassuring.

A couple of men have asked me to not write about them and I respect this 100%. Their integrity and my own is far more important than any specific detail or insight gleaned from a romantic encounter.

Do you feel like you regain a sense of agency-power via writing since we’re dating under patriarchy?

Yes! Writing against and about the disturbing, exciting aspects of modern dating is central to destabilizing long-held ideologies about gender, sexuality, and whose experiences get to be heard and whose do not. I don’t have all the answers or write the most beautifully, but that’s not the point! My aim in this work is to pull back the curtain on dating experiences in a way that combines smart observation, honesty, humour, and empathy.

Why? To connect with the millions of other people who go through similar encounters and have equally interesting questions about what it means to have sex, develop relationships, and think about ourselves in these complex times. Dating apps have been around for many years, online dating even longer, yet we have remarkably few meaningful resources or voices to listen to when learning how to find our way through these complicated, sexy circuitries.

The more we connect about things that we share, the less freakish or deficient or alone we feel. Being able to contribute even a little to this important human task is powerful and rewarding.

What do you discover about yourself and your relationship to intimacy in your dating adventures?

One of the most instructive things I have discovered is that sexuality is a profound site of power. Power is expressed in many ways, including the kinds of men I am able to attract. As a woman in my late 40s, I regularly date men 10-15 years younger than myself. I’ve always liked younger men because they tend to have more energy, be in better physical shape, and many of the wise ones are into older women who have their shit together. Being desired by attractive young men also reminds me that the narrative about older women losing their social and sexual power is far from true.

Intimacy is harder for me, stemming from the absence of healthy love and relationships during my early life. Letting certain men in and certain aspects of myself out as I develop my own sense of intimacy is a process. I view it as part of my larger healing journey and try to trust myself more and remind myself that I’m loved, loveable, and safe. This can be hard to do when things are hard or don’t go quite as planned, but it’s central to the task of creating intimacy with other people and, most of all, inside myself.

What do you discover when you write about those experiences?

Writing about these experiences has made me extend my creativity and adapt my writing style. Opening up the margins for my own feelings and embodied encounters is exciting and hard, and it’s immensely rewarding when people connect to this work. The main response I hear is “it’s so relatable”, referring to the material I share but also the way I write.

I am myself and that means being vulnerable, curious, and trying to think through my encounters with the people who read my work. I love writing for a more general audience versus the select few who read my academic publications. It feels more democratic and meaningful in a way, and it makes me proud of myself too. I love writing and the more I do it the more connected I feel to the lineage of artists and thinkers who have paved the way for me with their courage, beauty, and hard work. That is a powerful resource that I draw upon regularly because, let’s face it, writing is tough.

How does your identity as a sexuality scholar affect your relationship to intimacy-dating- sex?

Being a sexuality scholar means I am always thinking about how various things relate to sex, dating, gender, and how we develop intimacy as individuals and social actors. North America is a confusing place sexually, especially for women who are subjected to all sorts of problematic binaries: slut/wifey; bad/good; Madonna/whore.

Sometimes I wonder how to be a sexual woman with dignity as well as desire, and how to write about it in ways that reflect my reality. It’s not an easy feat. There’s also #MeToo and its backlash, which reveals the contested and productive role women – and others- are playing in the destabilization of the harmful patriarchal order. This doesn’t mean that I’m only or always thinking as a scholar when I’m on a date or having sex. I have no problem removing my thinking cap!

4 thoughts on “Quill as Trench Coat: Writing as a Way to Uncover Secrets about Dating, Men & Myself

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