Feminism is for Lovers: How Gender Equality is Improving Courtship

By: Justin R. Garcia, M.S., Ph.D.

Feminism has gone from radical to mainstream, with a tidal wave of attention currently being given to issues of women’s rights and gender equality. Celebrities, from Beyoncé to Ryan Gosling, have been cast as feminist, with a reminder that social justice issues impact people of all genders, ages, races, and socioeconomic classes. But with the spread of feminism, so too comes a bit of confusion. That’s why we decided to explore this issue further in our study of over 5,500 U.S. singles who participated in Match’s annual Singles in America Study this year.

First, let’s start with the basics. What does it even mean to be a feminist today? Well, it turns out many U.S. singles in our study don’t have a clear understanding of this. While 37% of single men and 46% of single women would define feminism as women being equal to men, 43% of singles said it means a lot of different things, and 6% said they don’t know what feminism means. That’s not entirely surprising, because feminism is not a singular theory, and scholars and activists have many different interpretations and definitions of what it means to think and act feminist. In general, however, feminism refers to examining, and dismantling, power structures around diversity and difference, such as inequality between men and women. So defining feminism as the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities is pretty spot on.

Since our Singles in America studies are largely about people’s dating attitudes and behaviors, we decided to take a look at how feminism might be affecting that particular aspect of people’s lives. For some, feminism is about equal rights, for others it’s challenging norms about femininity and masculinity, and for some it’s a threat to a traditional way of life – so how do these complex attitudes manifest in today’s dating markets? It turns out that feminism has had a positive impact on the majority of people’s dating lives. Among single men surveyed, 59% think feminism has changed dating rules for the better, reporting that they believe feminism has made dating safer (55%), more enjoyable (54%), and easier (49%). As for single women surveyed, 57% said feminism made them feel more empowered in their dating life, and 63% said it has made them pickier about potential dates.

In terms of heterosexual dating rituals, it’s often men who initiate courtship, from sending the first message on an online dating site to leaning in for the first kiss. This is a pattern true of most sexually reproducing species, actually – think of how hard those male birds work singing, dancing, and strutting, just to get the attention of an available female. And when we asked single women, few said they had initiated a first kiss (29%), initiated sexual activity for the first time (23%), or asked for a guy’s phone number (13%). But, while traditional gender norms about dating might dictate many of these behaviors, today’s single men are ready to usher in some new norms. A vast majority of single men said they were in favor of women initiating the first kiss (95%), initiating sexual activity for the first time (93%), and would be pleased if a woman asks for his phone number (95%), and equally pleased if she is the first to call after a good first date (94%). Even more, when we asked single men this year their list of turn-ons, number one on the list was women entrepreneurs (38% noted this). That’s more than 1-in-3 single men who say that women go-getters are a major turn on. And for good reason: successful entrepreneurs embody many attractive traits, as they tend to be smart, creative, ambitious, and daring. Successful women are desirable.

The benefits that come with changing gender norms in our dating lives are not without the occasional confusion, however. Women being assertive, especially in matters of courtship, is not generally part of people’s heterosexual gender role expectations for women. This means that these behaviors can sometimes be confusing for men, and intimidating to women, especially when modern norms clash with deeply ingrained dating rituals. For example, think about paying for the bill after a date. Sharing a meal or drink is a common date – in fact, food sharing during courtship is something countless mammals and birds do as they try to win over a mating partner. We often assume, in heterosexual dating, that men pay for the date; gay men and lesbian women are more likely to say whoever asked for the date should pay. But the notion that men should always pay are rooted in outdated ideas about men providing resources, and often include expectations for women to reciprocate in other ways. But today’s singles have new attitudes on the matter: 71% of men find it attractive when a woman offers to split the bill, and many note they recognize that women don’t want to be misinterpreted by accepting a meal. Further, when we asked single women why they break with this gendered custom, 47% of women said they offer to pay to be polite or to assert their independence, and 74% of women said they offer to pay because they don’t want to feel obligated for anything – a hug, a kiss, or a second date. So for those going on dates, who offers to pay and who ultimately pays for the bill can come with a variety of different expectations and meaning.

As a sex and relationship scientist, I’ll leave you with a little prediction. If you think feminism is improving courtship and various aspects of dating, well, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. As gender egalitarianism continues to shepherd in new norms for relationships between men and women, we will see improvements beyond just courtship, including heterosexual people’s dating lives, relationship function, and sexual satisfaction. With the rise of equality and distribution of responsibilities and respect, so too will come new peaks of romantic enjoyment.

By: Justin R. Garcia, M.S., Ph.D., is Scientific Advisor to Match and one of the lead investigators behind Match’s annual Singles in America study. Dr. Garcia is Ruth Halls Assistant Professor of Gender Studies and also Associate Director for Research and Education at The Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, Bloomington. His research focuses on the bio-cultural foundations of love, sex, and intimacy. He has published numerous research articles, and is co-author of Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior and co-editor of Evolution’s Empress: Darwinian Perspectives on the Nature of Women.