I have something uncomfortable to admit: one of the biggest things that I struggle with in my dating life is my need for male validation. Ugh, I feel gross even having to write that. Honestly, if another woman had said this to me a few years ago, I would have rolled my eyes and told her to read some intersectional feminist literature.
However, I’ve recently begun to understand that this is something I’ve unconsciously been navigating for decades. Often, I’ve been puzzled that my dating history includes a few ‘what was that all about?’ guys – some men who, despite being conventionally attractive, weren’t at all my cup of tea.
One big awakening I’ve had during this year of Covid-induced reflection has been about my desire. Specifically, the difference between the people I’m genuinely physically attracted to and some of the men I’ve hooked up with (and even dated). To be clear – there are men I’m deeply attracted to and thoroughly enjoy having sex with. I’m not talking about those guys. I’m talking about the ones who I wasn’t that into.
The realisation that these connections have had very little to do with my desire for them but rather my enjoyment of their desire for me has been a big eye-opener. How have I not understood this sooner? Am I the only woman who struggles with this? Does this mean that I’m intensely insecure? Am I starved of attention? Or simply a little bit daft?
Thankfully, after a quick bit of Googling, I discovered that struggling with male validation isn’t uncommon, and many women (especially us queer ones) are particularly aware of this. So, I decided that it was time to take matters into my own hands (figuratively and erm, literally) and start owning my desire.
Content warning: the following article contains a discussion about porn, sexual arousal and masturbation.
In a nutshell, male validation is where women value the opinions – especially praise and sexual attention – of men more than they respect their perspectives or those of other women or non-binary people. A simplistic example would be seeing a compliment from a man as being more valid than one from a woman – even if she is a partner, friend or relative.
Of course, most of us enjoy consensual attention from time to time, no matter what our gender is. Straight and bi/pan guys actively seek out women’s attention too, and a few male friends have confessed to being hooked on these flirtations and connections, even when they’ve been in monogamous relationships.
Male validation is specifically problematic for women because we live in a patriarchal society, where more time, space, and value are given to men’s opinions. It isn’t something that starts happening when we join the workplace or start dating but from childhood. It’s deeply ingrained to such an extent that everyone (men, women and non-binary people) often struggle to realise when we are doing this.
This validation means women often end up placing more value on the opinions of men, seeing themselves and the world from a male perspective. Take the male gaze, for example. So much of art, photography and cinema is dominated by straight male artists, so women have learnt to see themselves through the eyes of men. Our perception of our beauty and sexuality has traditionally been dictated by how men have presented them to us.
Why this can cause me to struggle with my desire
“Why am I going on this date?”
I recently asked myself this as I headed off to meet a guy I’d connected with on a dating app.
I’d talked about this man to my friends at length, whipping out my phone to show photos of how conventionally attractive he is. Watching with delight as others swooned a little while scrolling through his Instagram, impressed not only by his good looks but his creative and athletic prowess.
Yet, despite the on-paper appeal, this guy was not my type at all. He was pretty much the opposite, so why had I connected with him, chatted to him and agreed to meet up? Why would I waste not only my time but this guy’s time as well? It makes no sense.
The thing is, I already knew why. During winter lockdown, as I swiped through dating apps without seeing or connecting with anyone I was attracted to, I’d unconsciously filled the space of my lust for others with the desire others have for me. Even though I’d already become aware of my struggle with male validation, this substitution had still occurred without me initially being aware of it.
For me, male validation only rears its ugly head when there is an absence of desire in myself. I’m someone who often struggles to find other people attractive – not that it doesn’t happen at all; it just seems to happen a little less for me than it does in others.
I find this struggle with attraction quite dull and frustrating as I’m fascinated by desire, sex and connection. I want to be enjoying these things, but I’m often missing people to fancy. So, in the absence of my desire, I have historically filled it with lust from others.
Sadly, this is a little too easy for me to do because of my gender. Women are so accustomed to being objectified that we often don’t make space for our desires. Sometimes, I feel like a walking blank canvas for other people to project their desires onto, rather than a sexually fulfilled person.
For me, understanding male validation is about recognising the murky area where my desire ends, and the lust of others starts. The thing is, this shouldn’t be a grey area. It should be obvious and distinct, something I’m always clearly aware of. But it isn’t.
This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy receiving attention. Like most people, I genuinely enjoy being fancied. I get off on it a lot – and this isn’t something that happens solely with men. I adore feeling palpably desired by people of all genders. Perhaps this is why it has been so easy for me to mistake this pleasure with actual attraction.
I’ve had to try and find a way to separate my enjoyment of attention from my actual physical desire for a person. In the ideal scenario, these two aspects would overlap in the perfect Venn diagram, but often they don’t. So, my challenge is to actively recognise this distinction and respond to these different experiences separately.
Why queer women can struggle with male validation
I’ve listened to podcasts and read online forums with lesbians pondering why they spent so many years dating men before realising that they were, in fact, only genuinely attracted to women. It’s a popular topic among late-blooming lesbians on Reddit, as they try and debunk how they spent so many years having sex with men when they didn’t genuinely feel attraction for them.
It’s funny how growing up in a heteronormative society that is so structured around male desire can make you sublimate it for your own. You actively seek out the attention and validation of people you aren’t sexually attracted to. You have sexual experiences that please this need for validation but don’t nourish or satisfy you – like always eating a cheap, tasteless chocolate bar that you’ve been told you will enjoy instead of enjoying a proper meal.
This is why being a queer woman is quite a radical way of being. Experiencing desire and pleasure in a wholly unrelated way to men while living in a patriarchal society isn’t easy when you’ve learned to define your worth and success in relation to male adoration.
Look at the way our toxic straight male culture has tried to exert some form of ownership over the sexuality of queer women: encouraging women to kiss for male pleasure (or trying to force them and assaulting those who refuse); creating an abundance of ‘lesbian’ porn which is explicitly made for a male audience.
Even though I have felt ashamed of my struggle with male validation, I’m not surprised by it. Trying to hold space for your desire as a woman is incredibly tough. There’s so much to navigate with sex and connection in our society, especially as a woman, and even more so as a queer one.
Say hello to the wank test
In my attempt to own my desire, I’ve recently tried taking matters into my own hands (a terrible pun, sorry).
Firstly, I’ve started trying to be more assertive with people I desire. To own my attraction and make space for it by being upfront about it. Like most things, this can be scary at first but gets easier the more you do it. Even just simply saying to someone that you fancy them is a great place to start – and be ready to hear a no and accept that with good grace.
Secondly, when I’ve found myself in the grey area with a guy I’m not completely sure about, I’ve made myself try and wank over them. This may sound strange if this isn’t something you struggle with, but checking in with yourself physically is a very effective way to pay attention to your desire and arousal.
The best approach I find with this is to alternate between the guy in question and someone you know you are very sexually attracted to. Create a comparison by actively switching between these two people as you pleasure yourself and be present with how your body responds.
Do you experience a similar sense of arousal when you think about having sex with both of these people? Or does the test subject leave you feeling a little cold in comparison? For me, it’s important that I focus on that person physically, their body and the way I engage with them in my fantasy as opposed to picturing them touching me and showering me with attention and pleasure, as the latter could be a way of feeling pleasure from validation.
If all of this resonates with you, I want you to know that your desire has value. Let it take up space. Luxuriate in it. Seek out pleasures that work for you instead of reshaping yourself to fit the lust of others. Give yourself over to the cravings that make your body light up. Indulge. Make it all about you. Let your desires run wild.