Cheryl Strayed: There isn’t anything wrong with wanting to feel desired by people who are not your partner, Attention. It’s a fairly common longing among people who are in monogamous relationships, even happy ones. But my sense of your conundrum is that it’s more complicated than that. You aren’t worried because you feel thrilled when a man finds you attractive; you’re worried because it makes you feel validated and you know such validation is false, fleeting and, as you note, tied to the “male gaze” that’s everywhere in our culture. I could’ve written this same letter when I was 24. It’s not even a little bit surprising that you’re grappling with the contradictions between your genuinely felt feminist values and your deep desire to be “every man’s dream girl.” In a culture that grants girls and women validation and power based first and foremost on their sexual appeal to men, it’s almost impossible not to want that. It’s called internalized sexism — when you and I and everyone we know unconsciously enacts sexist ideologies that we consciously reject. Your turmoil isn’t evidence to me that you’re shallow or lacking. Instead, it’s a sign that you’re ready to begin honestly examining the ways your erotic life has been informed by the culture.
SA: What Cheryl is saying — and I second her — is that we see in your letter a person bravely reckoning with her indoctrination. This doesn’t mean you can’t take pleasure in male attention. And it doesn’t mean that you’re a bad girlfriend either. It just means that you’re struggling to unlearn an ancient and pervasive lesson: that a woman’s only path to self-worth is via male regard. It might help to read books that interrogate this paradigm (“Feminism Is for Everybody” by bell hooks, “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan, “The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir) and to shift your attention away from men and toward the question of your own desires. “A consequence of female self-love is that the woman grows convinced of social worth,” Naomi Wolf writes in “The Beauty Myth.” “If the world were ours too … we would ask for more love, more sex, more money, more commitment to children, more food, more care. These sexual, emotional and physical demands would begin to extend to social demands: payment for care of the elderly, parental leave, child care, etc. The force of female desire would be so great that society would truly have to reckon with what women want, in bed and in the world.” You are a part of this larger struggle, Attention. It involves you. If you want off the hamster wheel, you’ll need to be kind to yourself, and patient, but also persistent. The patriarchy won’t die on its own. It has to be killed, one feminist at a time.
CS: So how do you neutralize these longings you have for validation via male sexual desire? First, by acknowledging that it won’t happen in a day. Change is always a process, but that’s especially true when we’re undoing ideas we’ve been steeped in all of our lives. You ask how to “block out societal expectations of women,” but I suggest you do the opposite, Attention. There is no better way to dismantle the sexist notions we’ve unknowingly internalized than by exploring them. Only then will you see them for the false stories they are — and be able to replace them with new, true ones. Undertake a journey of self-discovery. Read feminist books, discuss your feelings with friends or a therapist, journal about the values you absorbed about gender, beauty, success, self-worth and love. Practice mindfulness by consciously interrupting your thoughts when you find yourself having longings for the kind of validation from men you don’t truly desire and replace them with thoughts about the person you want to be. The more you do, the more you will become. Not the make-believe girl who is someone else’s dream, but the real woman you boldly dreamed into existence.