The Lesbi-can Standoff

People...I like women. I mean, I like women. But also, I am a woman. This wicked combo puts me in a unique position. Aside from having to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out whether I have a crush on a woman or whether I just want to become her, it also makes dating quite difficult. I’m often attempting to date people that, like myself, have been socialised to be passive when it comes to romantic entanglements. What does that actually mean? I’m glad you asked! I thought I’d share some of my experiences and observations with you, just on the off chance that it’s something you can relate to.

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As much as we might like to think otherwise, most of us are, at least in part, a product of our environment. We’re influenced by the media we consume, by the people we socialise with, by our parents’ opinions and a whole host of other things. All of this helps to shape the way we engage with the world on a daily basis. If your parents raise you with a certain set of ethics or values, you’re that much more likely to have those values as part of your identity. If you’re raised on Disney, it’s more likely that you’re going to grow up with the social script that tells you to find a heterosexual life partner, get married, have children and grow old together.

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So for women who are attracted to other women, a huge proportion of us were raised with hetero-romantic media, values, and standards. The movies we watched showed us how a man should woo a woman. The pop songs we listened to taught us about what happened when we were loved by a man (and then cheated on by him). Chances are most of the books we read that featured romance were going to be between a man and a woman. And for each of those movies, TV shows, books, songs, comic books, etc it was so much more likely that it was the man making the first move.

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Hetero-romantic narratives predominantly show men as the sexual initiators. Hundreds of years of western romance teach us about chivalry and etiquette and how it’s the shy, coquettish young ladies who are most admired. Many narratives rely on women playing tricks or mind games to get a man to notice her, to finally ask her out. Why can’t she just walk up to him, announce her attraction and tell him to get back to her if he’s interested? You might be asking what any of this has to do with women dating women? Well it’s simple - when every reference point for romance tells us that women need to wait for the other person to make the first move, what do you think happens when there’s two women sitting across from each other?

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The Lesbi-can Standoff. It’s like a Mexican standoff, but with less hats and guns, and more lipstick and high collared shirts. Two women go on a date. But maybe they’re not sure if it’s a date. Maybe it’s just a friends thing...two gals being pals? Did she say the word ‘date’ when she made the invitation? At the end of dinner they linger, talking about this and that. Both of them are thinking “I really want to kiss her” but neither of them do, because they’re waiting for the other person to make the first move. Because maybe this is one sided. Maybe she just likes me as a person. Maybe she’s straight. Or maybe after three hours of my company she’s realised she’s not physically attracted to me? Maybe she just wants to be friends? Maybe that casual hand hold halfway through dinner was just an accident?

The Lesbi-can Standoff is when you both suspect you’re into each other, but neither of you does anything about it, because neither of you have a reference point for what two women who are into each other should do. So you both just wait. Because someone else has to make the first move.

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In online queer culture there’s a “useless lesbian” trope that gets referenced every time a woman is hilariously hopeless in her attempts at love.

They often look like comedy through hyperbole; things that don’t truly happen in real life. But I can very confidently tell you that it does.

A few years ago I had the fortunate experience of dating a young woman who looked like a character from Game of Thrones (Sansa Stark if you need a visual cue). Not only did she literally look like someone out of a fantasy series, but she was also far more intelligent than I could ever pretended to be. On our first date she got a concussion, so when I said goodnight to her, after the paramedics had departed, I knew it would be unethical to even think of kissing her. Concussions do not equal consent.

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Fortunately Sansa Stark was the rare breed of woman who actually took control and openly stated what she wanted. She asked me out on a second date, in which we snuck vodka into an X-Men movie, and then she invited me back to her house, but probably just so we could keep talking. Then she invited me into her bedroom, but probably just so she could show me her linen collection. When she invited me to undress I was pretty sure I knew what was happening, but by the time I’d buried my face between her legs, logic kicked back in and my brain suggested that “maybe she does this with all her friends...”

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There’s a dating app created solely for lesbian, queer, bisexual and bicurious women. Ignoring the many UX issues, it’s commonly known as a place to go and match with attractive people that you have absolutely no intention of ever talking to. The app is a digital embodiment of the Lesbi-can Standoff. Each person on the app knows that the other person won’t make the first move, so no one feels comfortable being the person who actually does. What should have been a uniquely useful and safe space for women is instead a hilariously useless exercise in frustration. On the odd occasion that you grow bold enough to send that first message, you will more often than not receive nothing but radio silence in return.

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The easy conclusion to draw here is that it’s best to avoid online dating and stick to organic scenarios where you meet queer women in the wild, and can tell you’ve both hit it off and mutually agree to a date. Great idea. Now good fucking luck figuring out which women are queer, and which ones are just super friendly.

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The natural dialogue between women is kind of flirty, and it turns up to 11 when you add alcohol. Every time I have a conversation with a straight woman, I am inherently aware of each time she compliments me, each time she touches me, each time she laughs at my truly terrible jokes. All the things that, from a man, would be cumulative evidence of his attraction to me. But from a woman, could mean we just met in the bathroom of a restaurant and she wants to know where I got my shoes.

One of the reasons so many queer women wear badges, lanyards, jewellery, or style themselves in conventionally ‘queer’ ways is because it’s a quick and easy way to start a conversation with other ladies who like ladies. And it’s less problematic than all of us wearing pink triangles.

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I’m not the spokeswoman for all the ladies who love ladies, so I can’t presume to say that this is the case for everyone, but I suspect that a small part of the Lesbi-can Standoff equation comes down to internalised homophobia.

Speaking for myself, I spent my formative sexual development at a co-ed boarding school. I’m sure they’re much more accepting places now, but when I was there the homophobia was tangible. Living in dorm rooms where adolescent girls were regularly walking around naked, students seemed to be constantly aware of anyone who spent too long not making direct eye contact. Such people became social pariahs, ridiculed and ostracised. The overwhelming consensus being that they were ‘gross’ but with undertones that maybe they were also predatory.

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All of this has resulted in me having a wonderful internal narrative whenever I’m around attractive women that more or less goes “Oh my god, don’t look at anything, don’t touch them, don’t smile for too long, oh god bad things are going to happen.”

When you grow up learning that girls are actively disgusted by your attraction to them, it can be hard to incentivise yourself to make the first move. You’ve learned to fear not just rejection, but ridicule, ostracism and revulsion.

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The other factor that potentially plays a role is an overdeveloped sense of consent and personal boundaries. Most women have been on the receiving end of behaviour, predominantly from men, that’s made them feel uncomfortable. Most women know how it feels to be put in a position where they don’t feel comfortable saying no. They know what it’s like to be in a situation they want to escape from, but are unable to do so in a socially pleasing way. So when these same women are in a position where they’re expected to be the sexual aggressors, they’re hyper aware of not creating a similar situation.

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For me this intersects particularly with my physical appearance. I tend to be attracted to women who are slimmer, or shorter, or in some way more petite than I am. So when I’m thinking about making a move, I’m acutely aware of the physical threat that I might pose. I can recall the times where I’ve been propositioned by people who physically intimidated me. Because the last thing I want to do to another woman is to make her feel unsafe; I err on the side of caution, and leave it up to physically smaller person to make the first move.

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We’ve all heard dating horror stories from heterosexual encounters. The truly horrific ones usually make headlines, but the ones that we share with our friends, and on social media, often include someone who appears to be hilariously ignorant of socially acceptable behaviour. For many of my friends, this behaviour has often included men making comments about what they do and don’t find acceptable in women.

“Oh, you’re really tall...I prefer women whose height makes me feel like I can physically intimidate them.”

“You’re how old? Yeah, I only date women who I could have fathered.”

“I see you’re a woman of significant proportions. Well despite being the approximate dimensions of the Hindenburg, I believe that any woman larger than a size 4 is an abomination.”

Men in the dating scene seem to labour under the mistaken impression that their approval of us is our desired outcome from a date. It’s really not.

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But the point is, every woman has been judged on her appearance. Every woman has had someone comment on the way she looks. We all know the uniquely hurtful frustration of being told we’re not good enough for a standard we’re not supposed to care about, but that we are constantly measured up to.

So, as a woman, when I date other women, I am terrified of perpetuating this. If I go on a date with a woman, and I’m just not physically attracted to her, I have no idea how to tell her this. While I personally am so used to being rejected that someone has to really go out of their way to effectively insult me, I tend to assume that other women aren’t as inured to it.

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To deal with this I make a pre-emptive strike; I tend to say that I’m more interested in friendship, but that I’m open to seeing where things go. This is a lie. I have lots of friends. Most of whom I already don’t have sex with. That’s not a problem I’m looking to solve. But it’s easier for me to tell a woman that I’d rather just be friends than to tell her that I’m outright not interested in her physically or socially. The real kicker though is that this works both ways.

I go on dates with women, and then find that without ever discussing the possibility of sleeping together, we both just silently relegate ourselves to the gal pal zone. It’s as though we approach the Lesbi-can Standoff and both silently realise that we don’t have the energy for it, so we just assume the other person is only interested in a friendship.

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Don’t get me wrong; I don’t regret forming these friendships! But it does mean that I now have more friendships than I have time in my life to maintain them. One for every failed date. And there have been a lot of failed dates.

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At the end of the day, most of these experiences represent personal baggage that I will eventually need to discuss with my therapist when she has a spare 20 years. But I also know that I’m not alone with these experiences. I know that I am one among many, many “useless lesbians”.

I think we need to get better representation of homo-romantic narratives. We need to continue to challenge homophobia particularly in institutions that provide formative experiences for young people. We need sex education that addresses different sexualities, and provides comprehensive education around consent. And we need to continue to challenge gender roles in romance (and everywhere else). But until we do all of that, a lot of women are going to continue to find themselves in Lesbi-can Standoffs.

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That is all.

You may go now.