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Earlier this year, a man called “West Elm Caleb” went viral on TikTok. The New York-based 25-year-old furniture designer had dated a bunch of women at around the same time, showered them with affection, and then promptly “ghosted” them. Women on TikTok began making videos about their bad experiences with a guy called Caleb who worked for West Elm; Eventually, the videos piled up and they connected the dots. The result? A seeing online dogpile.
I’m usually the last person to jump to the defense of a man who has mistreated a woman, but as this drama unfolded, I couldn’t help but feel a bit sorry for Caleb. I have been a dick, for sure. But the rage directed towards him seemed disproportionate to his crimes. He had been flattened into a cartoon villain, the living embodiment of everything that is wrong with heterosexual men.
Though I disagree with the scale of the vitriol aimed at Caleb—who, at the end of the day, is an actual person—I also understand the strength of feeling towards him. For straight women, heterosexuality is often dissatisfying. Swiping through dating apps looking for that diamond in the rough can feel like a Sisyphean pursuit, and once you are in a committed relationship, things don’t necessarily get better. Women do more housework than men and rates of domestic violence remain depressingly high. It’s telling that studies suggest unmarried, childless women are the happiest subgroup in the population.
With all this in mind, it’s somewhat cheering to witness women embrace the “single positivity” movement. In recent years, we’ve seen Emma Watson describe herself as “self-partnered” and journalist Francesca Specter coin a new term—“alonement”—to describe “celebrating and valuing the time you spend alone.” Feminist influencer Florence Given’s bestselling book, Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, implored young women to “know their worth” and dump their mediocre boyfriends. Gen Z are also having less sex than previous generations, indicative of this new shift towards consciously opting out of dating.
Gen Z are the loneliest living generation
But sometimes I worry that we are becoming a little too uncompromising— Gen Z are also the loneliest living generation. A quick glance at social media illustrates the pervasiveness of what writer Asa Seresin calls “heteropessimism”: cynical displays of hopelessness about the heterosexual experience. For example, on online forums like Reddit, women are encouraged to dump their partners for the most innocuous offences, like having female friends or leaving the toilet seat up once. On TikTok, users reel off totally inconsequential things that give them the “ick” (an unshakeable, sudden, and often irrational sense of revulsion towards a partner, triggered by something as inoffensive as seeing them tie their shoelaces).
In Women Don’t Owe You Pretty, Given uses cake as a metaphor for love. “You must live your life as if no one is ever going to make you a cake. Don’t sit around waiting for someone to give you the cake. Bake it yourself,” she says. “This is how you refuse to settle for less than you deserve! You ensure that you could have everything you possibly need, supplied to and from yourself.”
Given has helped countless young women to let go of the need for male validation. But I disagree with her sentiments about her here. Humans are social creatures: I don’t have “everything I possibly need, supplied to and from myself.” I like to do some things on my own—reading and cooking, for example—but the best bit is still asking my friends what they think about Sally Rooney’s new book, or seeing my boyfriend appreciate my signature pasta dish.
Women should not “settle” for or stay in abusive or harmful relationships. But, as Seresin argues in “On Heteropessimism,” we shouldn’t lose sight of the real issue: misogyny. “If ‘heterosexuality’ becomes shorthand for misogyny, the proper object of criticism falls from view,” she writes. “To be permanently, pre-emptively disappointed in heterosexuality is to refuse the possibility of changing straight culture for the better.”
Dating is about growing in tandem with another person, after all. Your partner won’t ever be perfect—just as you won’t ever be perfect, either. All we can do is keep trying, and learning, and muddling through.