Don’t mention your relationship–it’s “real-life feminist theory.”

This example of “feminist theory at work” comes from a blog post by Alecia Eberhardt called Stop Saying “I Have A Boyfriend”. Like similar not-even-half-assed feminist analyses of minor cultural phenomena, my first mental reaction was, “Well… I suppose that’s… wait a minute, what the hell?”

The argument goes like this: Eberhardt enjoys “going out” (yes, in quotes) to bars and clubs, and there she often meets single males looking for romantic interactions. While she generously concedes that not every man who strikes up a conversation is looking for sex, often it becomes necessary for the woman to indicate she is not interested or does not appreciate this attention. So far so good.

Out of a desire to avoid this kind unwanted attention, many women are inclined to tell their male interlocutors that they are in a relationship. This seems reasonable, but Eberhardt is righteously outraged by the suggestion. I could also think of a few plausible objections to this excuse, particularly if it isn’t true, but her argument misses the “plausible” threshold by a good ten feet and face-plants in the wall of the absurd:

The idea that a woman should only be left alone if she is “taken” or “spoken for” (terms that make my brain twitch) completely removes the level of respect that should be expected toward that woman. It completely removes the agency of the woman, her ability to speak for herself and make her own decisions regarding when and where the conversation begins or ends. It is basically a real-life example of feminist theory at work–women (along with women’s choices, desires, etc.) being considered supplemental to or secondary to men, be it the man with whom she is interacting or the man to whom she “belongs”… And the worst part of the whole situation is that we’re doing this to ourselves.

Let’s play the “what’s more likely?” game here. Telling a man hitting on you that you have a boyfriend is either A) meant to convince him that his efforts are pointless, because you are in a committed relationship and not interested his companionship, or B) part of some primitive, patriarchal, submissive, deeply-rooted self-hatred in which a woman makes her interests subsidiary to male interests. Maybe my privilege is showing, but B seems to be baseless, condescending pseudo-intellectual crap.

My privilege, checked as of 5/5/14.

Is it possible that B has ever been true in any instance in any country at any time? Maybe, and that’s apparently all it takes to validate her speculation. But is it likely that this the primary reason women say this? No. It would indeed be disrespectful if it assumed that “a woman should only be left alone if she is ‘taken’ or ‘spoken for,'” but it does no such thing.

This consistent refusal to use common sense and take people’s own explanations for their choices at face value–instead postulating convoluted, ad hoc psychological programming–is characteristic of  this kind of shallow pop-feminist theorizing.

So what about the “I’m in a relationship” response to being hit on? Men often use the same line, with the result that sometimes their friends mock them for being whipped. If I used the same level of analysis that Eberhardt relies on, I could write 1000 words based on this one generic anecdote to prove men are oppressed and our interests are “supplemental, secondary, and subsidiary” to women. But since I’m not insane, absent evidence to the contrary, I just would assume that the man loved his girlfriend and didn’t want to hurt her or violate the terms of their relationship.

So why do some women rely on the “boyfriend excuse”? The first thing I’d do is listen to them, rather than making grandiose claims about the structure of society based on my ignorance. It seems that men who can’t take a hint make women uncomfortable, and people in general want to avoid direct confrontation. By making clear that they are romantically committed, women can signal they aren’t available without having to say something like “get lost, creep” or elaborate on why they aren’t interested in them. No shit, you say. Well, yes shit, and that shit is apparently news to some feminists.

Mutual knowledge and plausible deniability are important concepts in human psychology. Steven Pinker often uses the example of a man inviting a woman up to his apartment by asking, “Would you like to see my etchings?” or “Would you like some coffee?” It’s obvious that the man is talking about sex, and she knows it, but by using innuendo, they can negotiate the treacherous terrain of sex without jeopardizing their friendship. She might indirectly decline the indirect invitation by saying, “No thanks, I have to get up early tomorrow.” 

As long as the man doesn’t make a direct proposition, and the woman does not explicitly shoot it down, there is no mutual knowledge, and hence less awkwardness and lower stakes. On the other hand, if she accepts, they both gain something without risking awkwardness. Innuendo, euphemism, or other polite indirect communication are often the rational and expedient choice when the status of your relationship is uncertain or when you’re seeking to avoid confrontation.

This kind of indirect communication is not optimal in every situation (especially when one party fails to read between the lines, as when a man ignores subtle hints to back off), but it is an integral part of our daily lives when navigating uncertain social waters.

I would say that the “boyfriend excuse” is problematic only when it becomes a way to avoid standing up for yourself in the face of unwelcome pressure, which might well be a problem. But it by no means abases women or makes them “subject to male interests” to brush off men this way, and pseudo-freudians who shame the women who do are being arrogant, condescending, and, worse, portraying females as helpless drones. Sometimes a boyfriend is just a boyfriend, not the patriarchy.