Grace, a 31-year-old copywriter from Washington, D.C., cannot understand her own compulsion to date men. “I’m bi, so I could theoretically make my life about 25 times better just by cutting out romantic interactions with men,” she tells me. “But I find men fascinating, and I feel sort of magnetized toward them, even though they’re so deeply lacking in self-awareness, lazy and often gross.” Sex is a big part of the reason she keeps coming back for more. “I love fucking them and being fucked by them, and when sex with men is good, it’s outrageously good,” she continues. “It’s just not good very often.”
Grace describes men as “universally trash,” and says that dating women feels easier — almost disconcertingly so. (“We can’t both be the adult in the relationship, can we? How does this work?”) She suspects she’ll keep dating men, even though the experience leaves her “on the brink despair and yearning for something better.” Still, she believes she must be getting something out of it, even though it’s not clear exactly what that is.
Over the past several years, there has been a growing acknowledgement among people — young women in particular — who date men of their failings, aided by social media platforms like Twitter where users come together to commiserate about their abject romantic and sexual experiences. The controversial phrase “men are trash” has become a rallying cry for those fed up with harmful, oblivious and just plain shitty male behavior, reaching a crescendo in September last year when the phrase and associated hashtag trended. The #MeToo movement has shed light on male violence and institutionalized abuses of power, and digital media platforms are increasingly willing to discuss the quotidian disappointments of dating men like the orgasm gap and burden of domestic labor. Dating men, it seems, is no picnic.
Why, then, does anyone bother? It’s a question for the ages, but in an attempt to understand this apparently masochistic impulse, I spoke to more than 50 people who date men — mostly straight and bisexual women, but also a handful of gay men and non-binary people — about why they keep coming back for more.
The answer from straight women is often a frustrated observation that they can’t choose their sexuality, and refusing to date men would mean consigning themselves to celibacy. However, for several women, abstaining from heterosexual sex isn’t necessarily out of the question. “In the past year, I’ve basically stopped dating men, and now I don’t know what to do besides just be celibate,” says Amanda, a 33-year-old writer based in New York. “I basically came to the conclusion that I couldn’t justify dating them anymore.” She says she’s settled into a voluntary celibacy that suits her for the time being — an arrangement second-wave feminists once advocated (and sex toys may now make easier). “I have a hard time imagining what any man I might realistically meet could add to my life, but if a decent one fell in my lap, I’d probably accept an invite,” she says, adding that her sex drive has been “basically nonexistent” for the past year, so celibacy is hardly onerous. “I have this recurring thought that if I did have sex, whoever I had it with would probably get more out of it than I would,” she adds. “And generosity to men? In this economy?”
Other women are unwilling to forego sex entirely, but consign their male partners to fuck buddy roles. “I still date men even though they’re mostly trash because sometimes they’ve just got some top-shelf dick,” says Stephanie, a 32-year-old teacher from Houston, adding that she compartmentalizes men into sex-only roles. “I find fulfillment in other areas of my life and just schedule dick appointments as needed.” She hasn’t given up hope that she might meet someone worth dating seriously, but part of her remains cynical. “The show Being Mary Jane captures the highs and lows pretty well, as does the oeuvre of Lil’ Kim,” she explains. “High hopes, a lot of frustration and let down and commensurate disenchantment.”
Bisexual women tend to tell me that, while they feel dating women is healthier and less stressful, it poses its own difficulties. “One of the reasons I date men is their abundance and tendency to be more forward than women,” says Addy, a 25-year-old in L.A. who identifies as bisexual/queer. “I feel like I get approached less often by women and always have moments when we’re ‘hanging out’ where I don’t know if they’re interested in me as a friend or romantic partner.” She says men have a tendency to take out the guesswork, and she find herself drawn to that transparency.
Some people are aware that they’ve been socialized to view male attraction as crucial. “I’m socially conditioned to want men to want me, and as much as I can rationalize why their opinions of me don’t matter, when a cute guy gives me attention, a flip switches in my head and I throw all rationality out of the window,” says Haley, a 22-year-old student in New York. “Also, my difficult relationship with my father and lack of male relationships growing up has caused me to be extra desperate for male attention and validation.”
Several others mention “daddy issues” of this sort, including Andrew, a 26-year-old salon supervisor in Connecticut. Andrew, who identifies as a cis, gay man, describes himself as “feminine and emotional” and says he’s attracted to stoic, emotionally illiterate men. “My mother and I have very similar personalities, and my father is a very stoic man,” he tells me. “Watching that dynamic gave me the feeling that this is how I should be complimenting myself with a partner, and I also struggle with my own femininity and feel better flanking myself with hyper-masculine male friends.”
Elise Franklin, a psychotherapist in L.A., suggests that attachment styles can help explain why people with difficult upbringings might find relationships with men harder. “If a baby attaches insecurely, then they develop into anxious (clingy) or avoidant (dismissive) partners,” she explains. “Anxious partners are the ones that get into relationships very quickly and feel concerned about losing relationships, whereas avoidants always seem to find something wrong with a partner even if they were perfect just two weeks ago in their eyes.” She says that while people with secure attachment styles partner off quickly, avoidant men and anxious women find themselves single — and bring out the worst in each other.
“When we say ‘men are trash,’ we’re often acknowledging the presence of avoidant men,” Franklin continues. “They don’t call back. They seem like they’re falling for you and then just ghost. They’re demoralizing and hurtful. They wait until 3 a.m. to text.” She thinks that traditional relationship advice adds fuel to the fire. “It says, ‘Don’t text too soon, don’t answer the phone or be too available.’ But you know who that advice would attract to you? Avoidants!”
Attachment styles aside, Alyson, a 28-year-old mental health therapy student in Arkansas, thinks some of the onus is on people who date men to hold them to higher standards. “Most men are trash because we tend to suck at holding them to boundaries,” she tells me, adding that women waste time with the wrong men. “Relationships are systems, so they function as feedback loops. If one side changes their behavior, then the other side will change.”
It’s a tempting logic, but it’s possible for this line of thinking to bleed into victim-blaming and bootstraps rhetoric (Alyson does acknowledge that “abusive situations are different”). Women and other people who date men can and should demand better treatment, but they’re constrained by certain material realities, not least among them the fact that women often still rely on men for financial security, which helps explain why women put up with creepy bosses and stay in dissatisfying, or even abusive, relationships.
Fiona Culliney, a lawyer who works closely with victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse in New Zealand, explains that many of the women she works with cite financial pressures as a reason they can’t leave abusive relationships. “Despite there being some incredible organizations set up to help women in abusive relationships, often finances, children and highly controlling environments act as too significant a barrier to leave,” she says. “To suggest ‘she should just leave’ disregards the realities of controlling and abusive relationships.”
For Gemma, a 23-year-old waitress and student in New Orleans, the prospect of being provided for means she still dates men even though she finds relationships with them dissatisfying. “I feel the need to secure a man for future stability,” she tells me. “In the sense that men want a mommy that fucks, I want a father with no sexual appetite.” She says she grew up poor and has been working hard her whole life, and now she’s ready for a man to do “this bullshit-ass survival stuff so I can ascend to the higher tiers”: “Men have kept women from independence for so long that the only form of reparations might be them working to give us a better life,” she adds.
Of course, while it’s undeniable that many men are selfish, stingy partners at best and abusive at worst, the “men are trash” premise does warrant deeper inspection. It’s a tongue-in-cheek statement meant to promote camaraderie among women, but like all totalizing statements about identity-based groups, it’s reductive and a little dehumanizing. After all, there are significant numbers of decent men making a concerted effort to be less sexist and to cede some of their power, and those men — combined with a general hope in the ability of men to improve and desire for people of all genders to coexist — make many of the people I speak to reluctant to write off the gender as a whole.
“It’s the connection to toxic masculinity that’s the problem, not the actual existence of men,” says Lily, a 19-year-old writer in Detroit. “By intentionally seeking men who are minimally toxic and willing to change harmful behaviors, I’ve managed to have some good heterosexual relationships.” Meanwhile, Maddie, a 27-year-old graphic designer in Washington, D.C., tells me that she’s always interpreted “men are trash” as shorthand for “men are unaware of their own privilege” or “men have caused me lots of trauma in the past.” As she says, “Couldn’t the average person of color say this about white people? Couldn’t I, being queer, say that about straight people? Everyone is someone’s trash.”
She has a point, but perhaps a more constructive interpretation is that, while men (and white people and straight people and so on) owe more empathy and introspection to others, no one is trash — and it’s the systems that concentrate power and resources within certain groups that we should target, not people themselves. “I hate the phrase ‘men are trash’,” says 37-year-old Harker Roslin from Philadelphia. “Men aren’t disposable. I don’t want a world with fewer or no men, I want a world with better men.”
Besides, she adds, “Shame has limited utility in changing habits of behavior.”