As I’m walking back from the gym with my friend one humid March afternoon, our conversation about which boys we think are cute leads to a startling confession; my friend admits that she often feels pressured to perform oral sex to avoid doing anything more serious with a partner. When I question her further, she tells me that this act is never reciprocated and only expected from her.
The poll quickly traveled to other girls in our friend group, and the results were mostly the same. Unwilling to have intercourse, many of my friends have resorted to participating in oral sex for nothing in return. As I reflect on this observation, I come to one conclusion: frequently, this pressure is not explicitly coming from the men they hook up with; it’s coming from an internal desire to please that has been instilled in women for generations and manifests itself in many aspects of a woman’s social life.
It’s almost too easy to blame the girls who make the same “mistakes” with men without addressing the internalized pressure placed upon women to please without reciprocation. Instead of dissecting this, though, people frequently feed into the discourse of blaming women for being either too desperate or not confident enough.
I refuse to believe that the naivety of these women explains the constant fear and uneasiness that come with sexual encounters, especially when voicing their own concerns. Still, from an early age, the world around me has taught me to both sympathize with boys who rely on manipulation and only applaud the women who refuse to participate.
The media paints a picture of good men who can’t love until they find a girl who is the perfect balance of willing and hard to get, opinionated but not too outspoken, a feminist but not a man-hater and sweet but not a pushover. The women he consistently takes advantage of in the process bear the brunt of the fault for any failure to maintain this balance. As I fell for the love story being fed to us, I began to accept the fact that maybe some women simply are the more desperate ones.
In the process, we contribute to a complicated system that, whether a woman gets labeled as desperate or not, she still ends up feeling isolated and ashamed of her experiences. I’ve been taught as a young woman that when other women get played, they should have known better — which is just a nicer way of blaming them for something that was not their fault. When she believes the lies a romantic partner tells her, I instinctively question why she allowed herself to be treated that way instead of recognizing she was simply trying to fit into a box that is impossible to conform to.
Ever so sneakily, we are taught to validate men who play women and condemn the same women for not being able to strike the perfect balance of what their partner supposedly wants. As a result, you have women who believe that the only solution to these feelings of alienation is to keep giving with the hope that eventually, maybe, the system will work out for them.
I’ve learned to stop judging myself and others when things don’t work out. Not all men are out to play, but that doesn’t make feeling disrespected or belittled by a player any less hurtful; recognize that your feelings are valid, and that despite living in a world where you will consistently be blamed for emotional distress, these feelings are not your fault. It’s up to you to rewrite your own narrative.
The advice I’ve gathered from my friends and own experiences has led me to focus on making decisions based on what I want, not what I think others want — and that applies to any gender, any time, any relationship. However, desires aren’t neutral, inevitable things; the system teaches us what to want, and we have to interrogate our own internalized pressures to know what we truly hope for. It’s okay to be a little selfish and ask yourself what you want out of any kind of relationship — whether it’s for one night or two years.
Changing a harmful mindset takes time and patience, but it is possible. Throughout this column, I want to share my own experiences and mistakes as a way to either guide you or, at the very least, remind you that you’re not alone in struggling to achieve the so-called “perfect balance” in all aspects of life.
Nicole Marion is a sophomore in the College. Becoming U will appear in print and online every other Friday.