The Sexist

Establishing a Feminist Dating Litmus Test

Last week, I interviewed Jaclyn Friedman about fucking while feminist and the tangled web feminists weave when we try to bring a relationship partner into our down-with-the-patriarchy worlds. In the interview, Friedman expressed the desire to establish a dating litmus test that feminists can use to weed out incompatible matches early on in the relationship. Friedman used to screen guys who professed a love for Fight Club, but she abandoned that particular test after she "learned that a lot of smart, progressive, even feminist guy like Fight Club." Is there any shortcut that feminists can use to ensure they're not wasting their time on misogynists? After Friedman bared her dating dilemmas, the feminist blogosphere exploded with insight on the idea of the feminist fucking litmus test. But first, I'll share my own litmus test:

Mine is pretty simple. I don't require people I date to identify as feminist, or be aware of what "male privilege" is, or watch porn with a critical eye, or give even the tiniest shit about gender roles in Superbowl commercials. Of course, I've got some idiosyncratic deal-breakers unrelated to feminism (if you have ever changed your handle or IP address in order to comment multiple times on a blog post, it is probably not going to work out). My dating litmus test is the same one that many have used to consider candidates for the United States Supreme Court: If you don't support a woman's right to abortion, then we can't have sex, ever.

Jill Filipovic at Feministe suggests that it's a lot easier to suggest litmus tests for other feminists to follow than to actually weed out men based solely on principle:

Even getting to the point of “this is a person worth dating in the first place” is… not easy. Any relationship requires compromise and flexibility, sure; but how and where to compromise on the feminism thing is particularly difficult because we aren’t talking about a political issue here, we’re talking about a way of seeing the world. I also watch a lot of women date men who are, to be kind, Not Great, but they want to date someone and Not Great Guy is there I guess. I remember being at one feminist conference or another, and an audience member who identified as a feminist asked a panel of feminist writers what they do about the men in their lives who joke about sexism — she was engaged, she said, and her fiance and her dad love to joke about how she should get in the kitchen and make them a sandwich, ha ha ha, and she told them a bunch of times that it bothers her but that they still do it. And all I could think was, “Oh sister they are not joking, dump that dude and dump him now.” But I’m pretty sure I could have said that and she would not have dumped that dude, now or otherwise. And then I remembered that I once dated a dude who sat me down to watch an episode of Tough Love (“I know you’re skeptical, but he totally helps these girls!”) where host-man tells one of the contestants that she’s so slutty she’s going to get herself raped. I voiced my disgust and he was basically like, “But host-man is kind of right, don’t you think?” And I didn’t dump that dude on the spot either, even though I felt so gut-punched I could barely talk.

Point being, it’s awfully easy to look at other feminist women and think that they are making obviously terrible choices with their love lives; it is much harder to actually find someone who meets all the requirements of a feminist litmus test, and is single and is someone you’re attracted to and is also attacted to you and is someone who you want to discuss things other than feminism with and is in the right place at the right time. So if you want a relationship — and I think that most people really do want relationships — you have to be able to put some things aside. Where and how you put your feminism aside is, for me, significantly harder than he likes cats and I’m more of a dog person.

Andrea Grimes at Heartless Doll doesn't cop to a particular litmus test, but she does say that her feminism has greatly improved her love life. At some point, her standards shifted in imperceptible ways, and it resulted in a quality-over-quantity change to her dating roster:

I didn't self-identify as feminist until a couple of years ago. It was a long process of consciousness-raising through blog-reading, book-buying and news consumption before I finally, at the age of 24, decided that feminism was the way to go. And I definitely did a whole hell of a lot more dating–casual and serious–before I was 24. Is feminism to "blame"? Hard to say. Being in college, and being young generally, put me in a bigger dating pool. I was less jaded, willing to put up with all kinds of shit and fairly serious about seeing what the world had to offer me in the way of dick.

. . . As I've gotten older, I find it much, much more difficult to even crush on anyone. The allure of the deadbeat rock-star-bartender is gone. I no longer want to sleep with a guy just because he looks like Dan Radcliffe. I'm not gazing longingly at every writer under age 70 with a Rolling Stone byline. Having had several long-term relationships and experienced the good and the bad that comes with, I'm much, much less personally invested in finding one again and far more comfortable and happy with myself overall. I fantasize about weddings, not marriage. (I  need to upgrade my Hello Kitty toaster, anyway.)

But while my dating quantity has gone down as I identified as a feminist, the quality of dating has gone way, way up. If I never again talked to most of the guys I slept with before I was 24, I would not much be bothered. But the guys I've met and loved and screwed since will, I hope, remain my friends to some degree or another.

I think being a feminist has made me a better girlfriend, a better dater, a better lover, a better person generally. What's not to like? (Apart from the functional alcoholism and cat obsession.) Indeed, I polled guys I've dated since my feminist awakening, and none of them seem to take much issue with my fierce-ladyness. In fact, it seems to be something they're into. I asked them whether my feminism was a problem, and whether they're more or less attracted to feminists generally.

Merrit Martin from Heartless Doll says forearms first, feminism later:

... when I was dating, I would look for someone interested in learning about the feminist ideals and women's issues I believe in . . . though, to be honest, I'd do that after the first chit-chat and "do I even like his voice, forearms, hair, etc." part. I have to be honest—the physical part is important. I may be fairly traditional in terms of waiting a while before doing the deed, but if I can't even comprehend his P in my V (or at least Frenching a little), there's no point in finding out how he feels about Margaret Sanger.

Natalia Antonova keeps her feminism in perspective:

When I first meet someone, and decide that I adore them, I don’t really consider their politics at first. And while I usually mention that I’m a feminist, I do it in a flirtatious way—“yeah, I’m a feminist. A hardcore one.” . . . I don’t mind being anyone’s challenge, not initially, probably because I believe that initial attraction is always pretty superficial. I don’t even care if a guy offends me at first, because I’ll argue with him, and maybe he’ll argue back, and maybe we’ll discover that we actually have more in common than we realize, or else even less in common than previously thought. I’ve made my peace with the fact that “feminist” tends to be a loaded term, and when it provokes a reaction, I just deal with it, and move on. I don’t even think about it much anymore. It’s a little like being on autopilot.

Whenever I sacrifice my feminism for a man, I do it while remembering that it’s feminism that allows me that choice in the first place.

Viv at Finally, a Feminism 101 Blog has got a litmus test that works on the very first date:

In terms of feminist dating litmus tests, it’s nearly 20 years since I last dated, and perhaps this one isn’t so uncommon now as it was then, but one of my litmus tests was: is he OK about me thinking of something we could go see together, me ringing him up to invite him, and then me organising and paying for the tickets plus paying for the meal beforehand? My experience was that some men found this reversal of stereotypical dating roles confronting. Most were surprised, definitely. My partner of the last nearly 20 years hardly turned a hair (this doesn’t mean that we haven’t had our “why can’t you see this is a problem?” moments at times, but it was a damn good start).

Some Sexist commenters offered up their own guidelines. bellacoker looks for men who have been capable of change:

I have a litmus test, but not about feminism particularly. If the topic comes up in conversation I pay close attention to how potential partners discuss their previous partners, how those relationships ended and how they distribute the blame.

Super bonus points for being able to analyze personal situations critically and admit and learn from their own imperfections. Complete deal breaker for references to how their ex’s are any kind of “crazy,” unless diagnosed by an actual mental health professional in a clinical setting.

Amber looks for men who treat her as an individual:

In my current relationship with a very good man I have taken an incremental approach to explaining what feminism is and how it relates to his life. When we hear a story about “corrective rape” in South Africa on NPR that can become a conversation about the rape culture here. When we see an ad that sexualizes rape, I try to explain how these images normalize violence against women. Why “Law and Order SVU” sucks. Point being, I’ve tried to show him the world through my eyes. There are compromises; the gender roles are a little more traditional than I would like but he passes my personal litmus test of seeing me as an individual rather than filling the role as an archetype for their personal narrative. I’ll take it.

And DB's litmus test sounds awkward:

Potential litmus #1:

his last girlfriend isn’t an idiot (ask for references)

Photo by L Marie, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

  • Liz

    I definitely agree with bellacoker - along with how he talks about his past relationships, I look at how he talks about his family (particularly Mom). It's that age-old adage that still rings true - a person who doesn't respect the people closest to her/him won't respect you.

    Also, if I find a guy I like who truly respects me 100 percent, I'm satisfied. My own opinions and personal brand of feminism can be discussed as we go, since I know he'll respect me enough to listen and value my opinions.

  • Amanda

    Noticed that all of these examples are from women who date men...I know your original (and awesome) interview was with a queer woman, but that litmus test discussion also focused on the men she currently dates.

    Just wanted to note that some women who date women hold such internalized (and then externalized!) sexism and homophobia that they can't pass my feminist litmus test. Lesbians who are pro-choice but don't consider themselves feminists, and/or who discriminate against trans or bi people can be frequently found in this city and, were I single, would certainly be 'off my list.'

  • Alex

    I've always gone by a rather general litmus test of observing (candidly if possible) his reactions to:
    1) an(other) attractive woman
    2) a small child and
    3) a flat car-tyre.

    That will, most of the time, give you a measure of the man.

  • rebekah manning

    my litmus test is probably a lot different than other people's because I am a college student and I don't "date" a lot more as its hooking up or friends with benefits. I have very different rules for each.
    Hooking up is the lightest of them since it could be as simple as a one night stand. Before I jump into bed with them I don't tell them that I am infertile and instead ask that if bc fails what would they want me to do. If they freak out about abortion, they are a no go. If they aren't really forth coming or give me the "well it's your problem" line than it is also a no go. Other than that it's fair game
    I'm a little bit more stringent with friends with benefits, because I'm actually friends with this person and I don't want to ruin our friendship over sex. Most of them already know that I can't have kids so the what would happen if thing doesn't apply. However, I wouldn't sleep with someone who isn't prochoice because of the principle of the matter, that is a bodily autonomy issue and I think that if a person can't respect your decision about whether you want a parasite growing inside of you, then they are not going to respect your "no" or "stop" if you tell them that. They also have to agree that women are their equal, even if they don't quite yet embrace feminism
    When dating someone my first litmus is that they identify as a feminist. They have to fully believe in bodily autonomy, accept that my body belongs to me and no one else, not make rape jokes, point out rape culture to their guy friends, accept that they have a certain level of privilege over women and fight to fix that. Oh, they can't be fans of movies like "superbad" "nacho libre" "borat" "idiocracy" etc because they are so sexist and so fail it's not even funny. I like horror movies for the social commentary, but I also like to dissect the undertoning messages of "don't be a slut or you are going to get killed by a serial killer" so they have to be able to listen to the criticism. They have to understand that I am my own person and will not put up with clingy, whiny " you never call me back" "you never come over" stuff. I don't deal with that.
    I've figured out that I would rather be single and have a constant stream of hook ups with guys who actually respect me, than a relationship with a guy who is a jerk. I've dated enough of the jerks to know that they are not even worth a second glance and I am better off being single than with them. I'm picky, and I realize that. I also happen to think that I'm worthy of a guy who meets my requirements, and I truthfully think that most women are too.

  • Em

    Damn. I guess I'm lucky my current relationship turned out as well as it did because my litmus test is so simplistic. All I ever looked for was someone who was respectful and wanted an egalitarian relationship--a teammate, not someone to control. Of course, being in a very evangelical Christian community, I strangely did not find many of those people!

    My current SO would probably not identify himself as feminist but that's largely denial. He became prochoice after I explained to him why I'm prochoice (female body autonomy, we don't live in a theocracy, etc. etc.), we started going dutch after our third date, and he pretty much encourages me to do whatever I want even if it makes us long-distance for a bit. He even didn't kneel when he proposed a few months ago because he didn't think it was appropriate for a marriage between equals. I don't know, he makes my feminist heart melt, but I should add that on top of being a feminist, I am a TOTAL sap. So maybe that shit wouldn't work on everyone.

  • Phira

    Hm, I don't think I have a litmus test, or at least I never had one that was necessarily easy to explain. I made the decision to put on online dating profiles that I majored in Women's Studies, and that I'm a feminist. That way, The only messages/IMs I get on dating sites are either from obvious idiots who didn't even skim my profile (they're pretty obvious), or from guys who did and who aren't automatically scared off (+1 point for them). That helps narrow things down.

    My "litmus test," I guess, is how these guys talk about feminism, which almost always comes up, either because of a conversational topic, or because I decide I'm going to bring it up to see how they respond. And I usually get what I call the "suck-up" response:

    "Yeah, all the women I know are all smarter than the men I know! Oh, yeah, I definitely think it's unfair that women still get paid less than men do. I took a women's studies class once!"

    People ask me how I can tell the difference between a suck-up and an real, live feminist/progressive man. I just can. And how could I tell that my current boyfriend was feminist/progressive based on his first message? Well, based on the fact that I had put on my profile that I was into politics and not that pleased with how things were going in the Obama Administration, he had messaged me about how he was really frustrated about DADT specifically, and how he was getting impatient with how women were getting thrown under the bus with regards to healthcare (this was a while ago, I think right around Stupak-Pitts). He then went into depth about when he was a clinic escort, and how it was already difficult enough to get an abortion with all of the rules and protesters, and how having to pay out of pocket was going to make it all worse.


    And I knew he was definitely not sucking up when, on our first date, Avatar came out, and without me saying anything, he said that he was frustrated with people saying the movie was a little racist ... because it was a LOT racist.

    All this got me to go out on the first few dates with him, and after he asked for consent when we started fooling around, that pretty much sealed the deal.

    So, I don't have a strict litmus test. But being able to tell the difference between a suck-up and the real deal was, obviously, something that kept me from a lot of bad dates.

  • Esme

    I have a very distinct set of criteria of men I will not have sex with or date.
    -I do not sleep with men who vote Republican
    -I do not sleep with men who are not pro-choice
    -I do not sleep with men who do not vote
    -I do not sleep with men who engage in rape apologia
    -I do not sleep with men who take issue with my identification as a feminist
    -I do not sleep with men who engage in unsafe sexual behavior, or who take drugs associated with unsafe sexual behavior or disease (ecstasy, or IV drug use)
    -I do not sleep with men who refuse to wear condoms

    I've met men who feel the need to argue this kind of thing with me, to whom I must explain that my vagina is not regulated by the EEOC, and that I retain the right to refuse service to anyone. I consider the above list as a form of self-defense, against STIs, rape, or the potential for unwanted pregnancy. I always talk politics on the first date, ignoring social scripts that dictate such conversation as a bad idea. I have a number of other indicators that I look for to identify dangerous men, such as the way they talk about their exes, their mothers, their female coworkers, and people on the LGBTQIA spectrum.

  • Former Staffer

    I don't date women who don't listen to Pavement, Jawbreaker, or Yo La Tengo.

  • Shinobi

    I am my own feminist litmus test.

    It just always works out, guys who like me are usually pretty feminist. Non feminist guys don't like me because I'm outspoken, opinionated, abraisive etc. While their opinions on some issues may differ from mine in substantive ways, what is important is that they can accept me as a full equal and partner in the relationship. After they do that I find that a lot of the other stuff comes with time. (i.e. Assuming my girlfriend is a full and equal individual I have no right to make xyz decisions for her.)

  • MissaA

    In my vast dating experience (3 guys!) I would say that openness to feminist ideas in general is key. One guy I went out with, when I brought up feminism, asked me, "do you think feminism is really necessary today?" Dealbreaker. My SO was not familiar with feminist critiques and theories when we started going out, but was not phased when I brought them up, and actively engaged with the ideas that challenged his worldview. He now actively utilizes feminist analyses in his daily life.

  • b-bop

    When I was seven I kicked a boy in the balls for saying that girls can't hurt boys...he thought wrong.

    While violence is never the answer, I did learn to never passively accept untruths about my gender.

  • b-bop

    Oh, and he asked me to 'kick him anywhere' and that's honestly where it landed.

  • Ophelia

    I never really thought about having a litmus test...I mean, I'm thirteen, I've dated all of one guy, still dating him for that matter, and shall probably marry him and have his children because no one else will ever love me. I think I can kind of be my own filter, because I'm really not that good looking, I don't wear makeup ever, I'm taller than most guys (four inches taller than my boyfriend, yes!) I'm very intelligent, strong (stronger than aforementioned boyfriend, yes!) fiercely independent and radically feminist, my personality is also very abrasive, and I'm not afraid at all to speak what I'm thinking, so anyone with male superiority issues stays away--anyone with any sort of gender prejudice at all won't even get close enough to touch me with a ten foot pole, so I know that he's got to be pretty darn feminist in order to not be afraid of me, even though he doesn't self-identify as a feminist. He's pro-choice, Democratic, etc., as am I, and we're really very similair, he jokes about my feminism a lot, but in a really good-natured way, he realized that I actually really care and don't yell at people just to annoy them after the fifth time I had to bite his head off for marginalizing and comedifying my feminist viewpoint--he was just kidding, but will probably never do so again. Although we are definitely on an equal standing, he's got a healthy dollop of fear for me when I'm provoked or angry, which translates into respect when I'm not. And at least I know for sure he doesn't want me just for my body, because my body's not really worth wanting. Neither of us is really that good-looking, and even though our physical relationship has gone farther than that of most people our age--kissing only, I personally am a supporter of abstinence-until-marriage, as is he, so at least he won't pressure me there--the physical part of it is not the most important, and we both know that. But I get that I'm really incredibly lucky to have a guy who respects my autonomy and will stop kissing me if I pull away, and will get that if I go sit in a chair across the room I don't want him to come sit in my lap, I want to be left alone for a bit, because it was too much--my autism is high-functioning, thank God, but the sensory overload aspect does get annoying.

  • heidrun

    this is such a great, interesting post and comments. thank you.
    i totally agree with viv. there have been many dates, hook-ups and affairs in my life, but the 4 guys i was really interested in in these years didn't show one sign of surprise when i bought them a drink (often enough the very first one). some others didn't bother at all, either, to be fair. (which makes me think again about differences between the US and germany regarding equal treatment. i have the impression that we have lots of structural discrimination here, of women, (and also, OT, of blacks, arabs and turks) especially, but my personal everyday experience with guys is generally not very bad, regarding feminist issues. of course, there's the occasional jerk, and i've been to bed with too many beautiful but super-shallow men, but there were enough that didn't make the one joke about girls or feminism or whatever that would turn me off immediately.
    when my current boyfriend (who is the first one with whom it's really serious - after having been single basically all my life and having just gotten 30, i totally wasn't expecting someone with whom there would be almost no compromises necessary (or none worth mentioning) spent the first night at my place, he was totally content with not having sex, and after breakfast, when he left, he took my trashbag that was much too full as usual and took it out without a word. and he's smaller than me, and he doesn't have any problem with sitting on my lap in public, and and and.... but he is never submissive. i'm pretty sure i won the lottery.
    but i would really rather have stayed single than having a relationship with someone who i had to be ashamed of or angry at or offended by because of his jokes and /or opinions. i see many women who obviously think different, but i couldn't stand it. my compromises would have been of other nature (good looks, cleanliness, place where he lives, working hours, or whatever would lead to not seeing each other alot, no householding skills, stuff like that)