Lessons in Love and the Desires of Women

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After a string of rejections, Andy Bodle searches through everything from books, to women’s magazines, to dating profiles to find out what women really want in a man.

We were in a cab on the way home from a party when she dropped the bombshell. “Andy, I don’t think this is working.” “Huh? Why?” “I … I’m just not very comfortable going out with someone who earns less than me.”

It wasn’t the first time my dealings with the opposite sex had left me nonplussed. In 25 years of dating, I had been dumped or rejected for being too short, for being too nice, for not being homophobic enough, for not being assertive enough with a waiter and, on one especially bewildering occasion, for not being sadistic enough. But getting my P45 from a sweet-natured, Oxford- educated feminist for earning £2,000 a year less than her took the biscuit.

I’m not stupid. I’m not, to borrow a female friend’s delicate phrasing, a “complete paper-bag job.” At 5 ft 9 in, I’m not even particularly short (although I am now incontestably bald). Yet I’d never been married or engaged and, unless you counted an ill-advised fling with a mad French flatmate in 1993, I hadn’t even lived with anyone. The inescapable truth was that women were as alien to me at 38 as they had been at 13.

After this latest kick in the teeth, I was ready to give up. Clearly, for whatever reason, I just wasn’t boyfriend material. But before I resigned myself to a life of meals for one and single-room supplements, of being Uncle Andy instead of Dad, there were some questions I wanted answered. Had I been unlucky? Or was there something fundamentally wrong with me? What, as Sigmund Freud asked in 1925, do women want?

(Before I go any further, I’d like to pre-empt some objections. It’s nonsensical, some of you are thinking, to ask, “What do women want?”, as if all women want the same thing. Of course it is. People are individuals, different strokes for different folks, blah di blah. But some qualities are more prized than others. Any Indian restaurateur, for example, will tell you that spicier curries sell better than bland ones. What I wanted to know was: was there anything I could have done to make myself a little less balti and a little more jalfrezi?)

♦◊♦

My first port of call was the feminism section of the local library. Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique was published seven years before I was born; Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch six months after. Who had done more to shape the attitudes and aspirations of the women I’d grown up with than these fearless, radical thinkers?

I found, to my surprise, that these feminist chaps were not only eminently reasonable, but also quite likeable (apart from Andrea Dworkin). But while they had passionate opinions about how the role and status of women should change, none of them proposed what this would entail for men (apart from Andrea Dworkin). Presumably, if the system of patriarchy were to end, men would have to become less dominant, less aggressive — like the New Men and metrosexuals that emerged in the 1990s. But nowhere was this explicitly spelled out.

I needed a more contemporary source. Women’s magazines are read in their millions and are revered as style bibles. Were they also setting the trends in men?

At my local supermarket, I picked up one copy of everything on the rack — Vogue, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Glamour, Grazia, Reveal, Heat, Good Housekeeping, Woman, Woman’s Weekly, Woman’s Own, The Lady, and Sugar (I wanted to cover every demographic) — and sheepishly mumbled something to the cashier about needing them for a sick friend.

The first thing that struck me was the unrelentingly breathless tone: everything was “hot”, or “cool”, and peppered with more exclamation marks than a Justin Bieber lyric. The second thing was how few men there were. Sure, there were a few male-model types in the ads — tousled dark hair, smarmy grin, expensive watch — and the odd interview with the likes of Daniel Craig. And every few issues, there would be a hyperventilating feature on the undying appeal of bad boys: Colin Farrell, Shia LeBeouf, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. (Of the few men depicted, incidentally, not one was losing his hair.) But for all the lurid boasts of SEX! on the cover, the glossies’ main concerns seemed to be female celebs with relationship problems, and stuff: clothes, accessories, jewellery, beauty products. It would have been more honest if they’d daubed plaster the cover with the words MOISTURISER! and HANDBAGS!.

♦◊♦

What about women’s fiction? I had no idea what was going on between those funkily typeset day-glo covers. Perhaps “chick lit” held the key to the female mindset. So I went to my local bookshop and chose 10 titles at random, deflecting the sideways glances of my fellow browsers with a mumble about my sister starting up a book club.

Now we were talking. Chick lit was chock-a-block with blokes. In fact, the male characters were often more fleshed out than the female protagonists, who all seemed to be self-deprecating, ditzy 20-somethings on the lower rungs of the publishing industry. From a male perspective, though, it made for depressing reading. The love interests, all called Jackson, Quinn and Sebastian, were rock stars, movie stars, surgeons, bosses; and they were all impossibly rich. If there were any nice, normal guys, they tended to be wimpy best friends who came out as gay in the final chapter. (And the few chrome-domes I found were all lecherous losers.) Clearly, these books were not aimed at the modern, liberated woman.

Sex and the City, on the other hand, was a byword for modernity and liberation. Six seasons, two successful films, worshipped by women the world over. I borrowed the boxed set from my friend and strapped myself in for 47 hours of mojitos, Manolos, and New York dating no-nos.

It was bold. It was brassy. It was sassy. But for a heterosexual British male, it was an experience on a par with flossing your teeth with barbed wire. The girls — short-sighted, selfish and shallow — never had the faintest idea what they wanted, but usually ended up going for looks and unspeakable wealth. It was just about permissible to date a nice, ordinary guy (Miranda’s Steve), but only if you treated him like dirt. (On the plus side, the cute one, Charlotte, ended up with a cue-ball.)

But as a female friend pointed out, magazines, chick lit and Sex and the City are the female equivalent of pornography: the stuff of fantasy rather than reality.

Next, I tried sex surveys. In just a few days, I dug up dozens of polls in magazines, newspapers, and online that asked questions along the lines of, “What do you look for in a man?” The trouble was, they all contradicted each other. Some gave confidence as the top answer, some height, others money. Three surveys in particular stood out. One said what women want is a sense of humour; another said manners; another, good teeth. The first poll was commissioned for a book called How To Be Funny, the second by Debrett’s, and the third by an electric toothbrush manufacturer. Surveys, obviously, were not the objective source of information I had hoped for. (I did also carry out an audit of my own, the results of which you can see here.)

♦◊♦

At this point, I had a brainwave. Most dating websites work by asking you to describe yourself and to describe your ideal partner. So I stumped up the £70 fee, and started working my way through more than 1,000 personal profiles.

In some ways, it was a revelation. For the first time, I was hearing real women’s voices: “Waiting for my Mr Darcy”; “Someone who can save me from spiders!”; “Must have own hair and teeth”. However, the usual suspects – money, height, chemistry – cropped up a lot, and I could count the occurrences of the words “nice” or “kind” on the fingers of one hand.

But as my friend pointed out, this, too, was an artificial realm. In the public domain, people don’t always say what they think; moreover, they’re not always honest with themselves about what they want. There was only one way to get to the cold, hard truth of the matter: science.

Obviously, Freud wasn’t going to be much use. But as luck would have it, there had recently been a surge of interest in exactly the right area: there were hundreds of brand-new studies on the evolutionary origins of mating behaviour, and what influences our choice of partner.

Over the next year, I collected enough fascinating sex trivia to last a lifetime. Did you know, for example, that you have twice as many female ancestors as male ones? Or that women prefer different types of men at different times of the month?

On the whole, the science seemed to back up what I’d learned from the magazines, books, TV shows and surveys: that while women’s position in society has changed beyond recognition over the past 40 years, their tastes haven’t changed much at all. The New Man and the metrosexual seem to have been failed experiments. For all the cries of “I’ve had it with bastards”, most women are still gaga for swagger.

At last, I had my answer. But by this point, I’d stopped asking the question, because in the course of my research, I met someone. (Yes, it was through the dating site. And she approached me!)

No, reader, I didn’t marry her. Sadly, we split up, very amicably, last year. But the wonderful three and a half years we had together taught me more about women than the 5 million-plus words I read. They taught me that I wasn’t a hopeless case after all; that it is possible to find a beautiful, intelligent woman who you fancy and you fancies you back, even if you’re not a chest-thumping, wallet-waving alpha male.

And if you can find love once, you can find it again. Right?

 

Read more of Andy’s findings at www.womanology.co.uk.
Twitter: @_Womanology_

Photo credit: Flickr / Julie Rashelle.

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About Andy Bodle

Andy Bodle is a journalist, scriptwriter and blogger who has written for the Guardian, the Times, the BBC, and ABC. He lives in mortal fear that his greatest achievement will remain winning Channel 4's Countdown in 1993. You can read more on his blog, Womanology, and follow him on Twitter: @_Womanology_.

Comments

  1. Hi Andy
    You say:
    ✺”And if you can find love once, you can find it again. Right?”✺
    And you are right .
    Never give up on love.

    I enjoyed reading your article. Last weekend I did like you, tried to figure out want men want. I read hundreds of men’s profiles on Soulmates without looking at the photos. The impression I got was that many men want a funny woman,one that laughs a lot. (preferably a slim lady with a good sense of humor). That was a surprise to me,but I confess like them I
    do not look for a depressed partner.

    Maybe we look for the same,somebody that lifts us up and makes us feel good ,and not one that drags us down.

    Why you are single is a mystery to me.

    • Andy,

      “The New Man and the metrosexual seem to have been failed experiments. For all the cries of “I’ve had it with bastards”, most women are still gaga for swagger.”

      Now you get it. What women say and what they actually do are very different.

  2. OirishM says:

    Nice article Andy.

    Yes, women can be shallow too. But I found this passage interesting.

    But as a female friend pointed out, magazines, chick lit and Sex and the City are the female equivalent of pornography: the stuff of fantasy rather than reality.

    It is funny how female pornography and shallowness is condemned less than male pornography and shallowness, it would seem.

    • Female pornography as described above may be equally as shallow, set unrealistic expectations on the opposite sex and sometimes insult the male demographic as a whole. Unlike male porn it isn’t physically/psychologically addictive, it doesn’t depict men as vacuous childlike creatures only good for sex, not does it contain a potentially slippery slope leading to increasingly hardcore material such as staged/’consensual’ rape and torture, real rape and torture or, if one goes down that path, child rape and torture.

      • OirishM says:

        Of course it can be addictive. Anything can be, potentially. As for depictions, I think you might need to reread Andy’s précis of chick lit, where the men are basically wallets to have sex with, which is scarcely any better.

        The slippery slope is entirely of your own imposition. And you should have a dig around online for some of the really creepy fanfic/fetish writing written. Many of the writers and consumers are female. Visual porn for the most part stays within its limits as do the consumers of it. Written pornography is not bound by those same limits.

        I get that not everyone is wild about depiction of certain male fantasies, but arguments against it will actually need to be consistent with other forms of erotica that aren’t crusaded against in the same way. We’ll have our fantasies, you have yours. That said, even calling it “male pornography” is a bit of a misnomer. Many women enjoy that sort of pornography too.

  3. I enjoyed this article. And hey, you really rock the bald look so for some women this could be a plus.

    As a social worker, I understand the income issue – but I love what I do. It’s interesting that women such as Maureen Dowd at the New York Times complain men won’t date women who earn more, but of course we know we’ll be rejected so we don’t bother asking?

    Women today have more flexible gender roles because they’ve demanded it. Men in the aggregate have not. So the question for me is what we as men can do to create more male gender role flexibility.

    • “So the question for me is what we as men can do to create more male gender role flexibility.”

      Men have to develop the same mind set as women: become serial daters and serial monogamists. Neither is for me. But, I think this would work best for men, in the aggregate.

  4. PursuitAce says:

    Andy I applaud your attempts at understanding. As someone who has had a similar curiosity I’ve come to the conclusion that I should have stayed with astrophysics in college. That way I could have been working on something simpler, like unified field theory.
    My only conclusion about the whole question of what do women want is this. They want security camouflaged as danger and excitement.
    And to tag on to what Jules posted. My experience is that a man who’s an alpha or who can come across as an alpha can write his own ticket. Of course in so doing he often condemns the rest of us to a lifetime of living in an apologetic state for his behavior. Here’s a couple of scoops on alphas. First off you can’t tell them anything unless you’re another alpha. They just don’t give a @#$%. Which is part of their attraction and also leads to the damage that follows. And secondly the rest of us dislike them quite a bit, for reasons that are both pure and impure. So if you could, keep this in mind and give the rest of us a break when the inevitable “all men suck” conversation gets rolling. How about some men suck and we already know who they are.

  5. Megan Sailsbury says:

    Seems to me that you, as well as most of the people commenting so far, ignore your own caveat: “It’s nonsensical, some of you are thinking, to ask, “What do women want?”, as if all women want the same thing. Of course it is. People are individuals.”

    As you say, people are individuals, and women are actually people. Do women report popularity for certain traits? Of course. But that only matters if you want to end up married to “most women” instead of a woman. Furthermore, I guarantee you that a gamer chick isn’t attracted to the same traits as a New York socialite.

    What I’m getting at is that there are no rules of attraction. Just because something polls well doesn’t mean the woman you actually want gives a shit about it.

  6. James Stanuszek says:

    I am coming out of a marriage (only just a year) primarily due to a partner who couldn’t decide what she wanted from our relationship… at the base was her want to have security and companionship. But that turned out to not be enough.

    Being our second marriage each, we still had lots of baggage to resolve from our previous relationships. An unwillingness to express her wants and needs in a sharing manner vs a demanding manner set a tone of discord that she was resigned to “get over” rather than bond over…

    That being said, what women want is going to be as diverse as there are women. Just as men have varied interested and desires as to whom they find to be a perfect woman…

    Perhaps we need to ask different questions… as were really need to get different answers…

    Hmmm. might consider determining the Zen aspects of playing Chinese checkers.

  7. Fun essay!

    I think Cynthia Nixon (the actress who play Miranda) has voiced the same disenchantment with the in-your-face materialism and shoes/clothes obsession depicted on SATC…on a closer watching, the spiffy eye candy is often a symbol of something else much deeper….I have to confess: I loved the show (and Cynthia Nixon!)

  8. “And if you can find love once, you can find it again. Right?”

    Yes, yes, and yes!

  9. As a man who used the Alpha male qualities women were attracted to much to my benefit for years in obtaining the attention and desire of women I have found it increasingly difficult becoming the Shepherd type man I have always wanted to be. As opposed to more of a Wolf personality, which seems far more attractive to women.
    One of us needs to write a book on this issue I believe

  10. Donald Dysart says:

    I agree with you Chris. Alpha qualities are like a drug to women and vulnerability is like poison. I learned this after a breakup and I didn’t even want to talk to women, and they were very attracted to that attitude. Women can’t handle a man being vulnerable and men are most afraid of being perceived as weak. so being strong and manly is rewarded and reinforced. Brene Brown sums it up well in her interview with Krista Tippet http://www.onbeing.org you can listen to the show or read the transcript there. Here’s a quote that describes what she says.
    “You know, and so, I’ve come to this belief that, if you show me a woman who can sit with a man in real vulnerability, in deep fear, and be with him in it, I will show you a woman who, A, has done her work and, B, does not derive her power from that man.”

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