Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. There’s this guy. He’s like a prince, or an orphan, or kind of a loser—like an orphan-prince-loser-type guy. And then there’s this girl. And she’s hot. And then usually there’s a bad guy too. And he’s bad.
So, logically, our orphan-prince-loser-type guy has to save the hot girl, and usually does it by beating up the bad guy. He solves the super secret conspiracy to overthrow the government, or destroys the evil space ship, or has a sword fight to the death where his ear gets hacked off and he barely lives. Shit blows up. People die. The bad guy ultimately loses.
The crowd goes wild. And our former orphan-prince-loser guy is now a capital-H Hero. And what do heroes get as their reward for saving the universe? Duh. The hot girl.
What I just described to you is loosely the plot of practically every story you’ve ever been told—from Star Wars to Iron Man to Good Will Hunting to Super Mario Bros.
And, of course, every Disney movie ever made.
Sometimes there will be a wrinkle in the story too, making it “tragic.” Like the hero will even die for the hot girl (Terminator, Titanic) or the hot girl dies and the hero decides to go on a murderous rampage for love and righteousness (Braveheart, Gladiator), or the girl turns out to be batshit insane and the hero realizes he threw away his entire life for nothing (Gone with the Wind, Vertigo). And in rare instances, the hero cannot be with the hot girl for legitimate capital-H Heroic reasons and must live a life of solemn “what if?” misery (Casablanca, Shawshank Redemption, etc.).
Yes, this is practically every movie you’ve ever watched, every comic book you’ve ever read, every video game you’ve ever beaten, every story book that your parents read to your drooling face.
And it’s fucking up your love life.
These stories send messages to us as we’re growing up. Some of the messages are nice, like “Trees are good!” and “Greed is bad!” Other messages are bad. They’re messages that are hammered into our drooling faces our whole lives and they give us really screwed up expectations.
One of those bad messages is:
A man must earn the right to be with a “good” woman, and a woman isn’t “good enough” if a man isn’t trying to prove his worth to her with grand gestures of his affection.
If a man wants to be with a beautiful girl, he has to do something capital-H Heroic, he has to stand out, be someone unique and amazing and awe-inspiring. Otherwise women will never like him. He has to save the fucking world. Only then will a woman fawn over his heroic and noble acts and finally let him see her naked. That’s all he’s worth: a stamp of approval from a woman. So he better start blowing shit up.
Women end up believing that if a man isn’t trying to impress her, isn’t trying to show her how capital-H Heroic he is and how far he’ll go to win her approval (and to see her naked), then there is something deeply and horribly flawed about her.
What a fucked up way to go about finding someone to get naked with.
But it’s the storybook narrative. And in the 21st century, it really screws up our dating lives.
- Men spend their entire lives believing they’re not good enough to be with a woman. Men are taught to feel an immense pressure to impress women, to perform for them, to show off their money or their cars or how many digits of Pi they can memorize, so chicks might like them. This is needy and unattractive behavior and reinforces low self-esteem as well as sexual anxiety. There’s a reason most guys need to be hammered to even tell a girl they like her. They all feel like they’re not good enough to like her.
- Women spend their entire lives waiting for a man to do something amazing to impress her. Or, in other words, she spends her entire life waiting for her prince charming, her knight in shining armor to come “sweep her off her feet.” Women are conditioned to believe that they’re a prize that men are supposed to win through some great achievement. And when no man is saving the world or cutting off people’s heads with a badass broad sword in the name of her love, then she inevitably ends up disappointed. It sends the message that she’s not good enough. No man is killing himself for her vagina. Therefore, her vagina must be faulty in some way.
The storybook narrative instills sexual insecurity and promotes lofty standards, which, when unmet, causes both men and women to become ornery and unaccommodating to the realities of attraction and the courtship process.
When men feel like they can never be good enough to win the vagina, they decide to come up with ways to trick women into liking them. Sometimes they do it through manipulation. Sometimes they do it through overcompensation. In extreme cases, they may do it by force.
When women feel like they can never be good enough to have their vagina won from them, they try to trick men into earning it. They play hard-to-get, create a bunch of unnecessary drama, or always keep the man guessing as to what their intentions really are.
Sex as Transaction, Sex as Performance
But I’ll be real for a second: Disney isn’t actually responsible for this stuff.
The storybook narrative has been going on for most of western civilization. It’s littered throughout Shakespearean and medieval texts. Even the Trojan War in The Iliad was started because of a beef over a hottie named Helen.
The reason this narrative has existed so long is because marriage was the economic and political building block for most of the existence of civilization. In feudal societies, the way men guaranteed security to their estates was through marrying women of wealthy (and often competing) families. If you were a man of one of the underclasses, the only way to “marry up” into wealth or greater power was through accomplishing some amazing feat, usually in war. Hence, the epic tale of valiant knights saving the princess that is so often repeated.
But we live in the 21st century. Our politics and economics are no longer arranged through marriages. No one marries for political power. Women have jobs and earn their own money. We live in free-market democracies. 99.9% of us will never see a battlefield in our lives.
Years ago, sex writer Clarisse Thorn introduced me to the idea of sex as performance versus sex as transaction. The idea was originally put forth by Thomas MacAulay Millar2 in Yes Means Yes (a book that, I won’t lie, made me cringe a little the first time I read it). The idea is also backed up and expanded upon in books such as Sex at Dawn and Marriage: A History.
The idea goes something like this:
Anthropological evidence suggests that in prehistory, hunter/gatherer societies were, umm, rather “loose” with their sexual morals.3 The idea of marriage or sexual possession was (and still is) largely anathema to most of these groups.
But with the rise of agriculture, humans, for the first time in our species’ existence, had surpluses of resources. And not only did we have surpluses of resources, but men, due to their size and strength, gained a large competitive advantage at acquiring them over women.
Men began to compete against one another economically, hoarding surplus resources and then using those resources to dominate the others around them. Economic hierarchies were born. Cities/states followed. Monarchs and lords and the feudal system followed from that, as did organized warfare and the first empires.
(Famous scientist and author Jared Diamond went as far as to call agriculture “The biggest mistake in human history,”—I’m not sure I would go that far.)4
The problem with this new social structure was that men, for the first time ever, had two major concerns: 1) they needed to guarantee paternity of their own children and 2) they needed to manage their political competition through marriages, alliances and familial bonds.
Thus female chastity began to matter. Fidelity began to matter. Fertility began to matter. Sex became an economic and political transaction, and women—who were now useless for war and physical labor—became pro-creating assets for men. Women provided sex and procreation. In return, their families were given resources, dowries, political alliances, land, etc.
Men now had to earn the approval of a woman and her family. And women were now expected to be chaste and aloof yet submissive until a man finally did win her over.
And so they did, for about 7,000 years, plus or minus.
But as I mentioned earlier, times have changed. We don’t arrange our society through marriages anymore. We can will our resources to anyone of our choosing when we die. We have legal systems in place to guarantee our assets. Women have jobs and their own incomes. STD’s are no longer lethal. Women and men have birth control and can dictate their own procreation. We live in the most non-violent period of human history.5 People are living well past 80.
Treating sex as a transaction no longer makes sense. In fact, now that the economic deck has been shuffled and largely equalized, treating sex as a transaction harms the self-esteem and emotional health of both men and women.
In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we no longer need to use sex to fulfill our physiological and security needs. Now we can move on to using it to meet our needs for intimacy and esteem.
What Millar proposes—somewhat radically—is that we should treat sex as a performance, as an activity that is done for the sake of doing it, for the sake of self-expression and pleasure and intimacy.
When sex is treated as a transaction, it’s often in both men and women’s interests to hide or misdirect their intentions, creating the perception of higher value so they can earn as much as possible from the interaction. As I’ve detailed before, this leads to all sorts of unpleasant processes that make dating a pain in the ass and interferes with intimacy and self esteem.
When sex is treated as performance, then it’s in the best interest of both men and women to approach it with clear intentions, without shame, and without judgment—strategies which are proven to attract more members of the opposite sex, to create more satisfying sexual relationships, and to remove any ambiguity as to each person’s intentions.
Is it possible to ever 100% reach a model of sex as performance? Probably not. Despite contraception and medicine, women will always bear more risk for sexual behavior than men. Men and women will always have biologically different sex drives. But it’s an ideal. And as an ideal it should be strived toward even if it’s never met. For the sake of us all.
And maybe the next generation won’t have to be brainwashed by the same Disney movies we were.
- I’m being facetious here. Obviously it’s not all Disney’s fault… just mostly Disney’s fault.↵
- Millar, T. M. (2008). Toward a Performance Model of Sex. In Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape (pp. 29–42). Seal Press.↵
- Ryan, C., & Jethá, C. (2010). Sex at dawn: The prehistoric origins of modern sexuality. HarperCollins.↵
- Diamond, J. (1987). The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Discover Magazine, 64–66.↵
- Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Books.↵