(iStock/Lily illustration)

This is part of a series about love in the #MeToo era.

As the pain grew intolerable in my right hip, I treated myself to a professional massage. I am a single mom and busy professional. Luxury items don’t happen often. I expected to feel relief from a chronic sports injury. Instead, I was flooded with grief.

“I can see that you’re flinching when I press here. Is that where it hurts?” she asked.

“Yes. Yes, that’s where it hurts.” I said trying to hide the lump growing in my throat.

While the kind and patient masseuse pressed her hands into my muscles, I wept into the face holster. It wasn’t her kneading the persistent pain in my right hip that brought me to stifled tears. It was the sudden realization of how very long it had been since someone had touched my body with such care and attention.

As a middle-aged, single, heterosexual feminist living through this volatile time, when relationship norms are unclear and constantly shifting, the divide between men and women has never felt so wide. And I have never been so lonely. Men can’t seem to get it right, even when they publicly shout their support for women. Case in point: Aziz Ansari.

Single parenting is a lot of work. I also have a career and hobbies that keep me busy. But after my spontaneous sob fest with Laura at Palm Beach Massage, I had to acknowledge that I am also human. I’d really like to have sex with a man every now and again, and feel good about it. So I weighed my options.

I tossed out a feeler for a “friends with benefits” situation with an ex-boyfriend. This type of arrangement has sustained me for the better part of the four years since my divorce. He is the kind of man who only does something when he feels like it, and at that moment, he wasn’t available, and I was glad. While I would have been perfectly safe scratching an itch with a trusted friend, I’d have to live with the knowledge that he got to have me whenever he wanted, and without risking anything. His sense of entitlement is the reason we broke up in the first place. Friends with benefits can be nice, but it’s not the kind of intimacy I’m looking for anymore. This feminist wants more equitable sex. I want some emotional “skin in the game,” as they say.

That same week as the massage, I went on a three-hour, first date to a museum with a supremely sweet gentleman. He opened doors, spoke carefully and softly while asking follow-up questions. I touched his arm when we sat having organic smoothies. I laughed and smiled a lot. At some point I asked where he wanted to eat lunch and he said, “Whatever you’re comfortable with.” Over the course of three hours, that line became his mantra, but then he’d promptly forget what I told him I was comfortable with. When it was time to part ways, I was comfortable giving him a platonic hug. It was not sexy being the one in the driver’s seat for three hours. I’m always in the driver’s seat. I want to salsa with a partner, not be their puppeteer.

Before my divorce four years ago, all my previous dating happened in the 1990s, and those old ways aren’t working anymore while the new ways are still being mapped out. In my experience, the days of using sex appeal to begin a relationship are over. Because if that’s all there is, it’s dehumanizing. It leads to shallow intimacy, being objectification or coercion. Either party as the dominant decision-maker, particularly the man, is also a glaring red flag. Women desire more autonomy these days, but we also want to be a part of a duo. Where do we find this new balance of shifting gender stereotypes? How do we seduce one another without falling into the old traps or ending up on an Aziz Ansari date?

For one, I don’t need a man to ask permission for every move he makes. We shouldn’t let the battle cry of consent translate into boring sex. Sometimes spontaneity is what makes sex passionate, particularly sex with someone you don’t know well. But men, please, check your entitlement at the door. Intentions are important, and everyone’s intentions during sex should be of care, healing and relief, not of personal appetite and blind conquest.

But this will require men to do something they are infamous for not doing … paying close attention. The trite wisdom of the late 1990s, early 2000s — that men are from Mars and women are from Venus — allowed men a pass; they weren’t expected to learn the nuance of nonverbal communication. Women were coached to spell out their desires because male brains just “don’t work” at picking up subtleties of feminine persuasion. Men were positioned as needing to be hit over the head with a big stick like a cave man to understand the more emotional female brain.

Well, I’m calling foul play. We are all humans, and we can all pay closer attention to each other’s desires without having to write it in the sky for male clarity. This is called empathy, and women aren’t the only ones capable of cultivating it. 

Seduction should include a bit of mystery, collaboration, intuitiveness, innuendo and nuance. Otherwise it’s not seduction, it’s a business deal. Like a partnered dance, you have to be in tune to the other person’s moves without needing verbal guidance every step of the way. Is it too much to ask a man to pay close attention to what my eyes are saying without having to spell it out? Sometimes there aren’t words for what I’m trying to say. It’s called nonverbal communication, and it takes intentional awareness to understand it.

If a man misreads the signs and puts his hand on my knee without asking — and I remove it — can’t he simply say he’s sorry without having his ego shattered into a thousand shards of blame? I’ve been taking risks and perfecting these communication skills my whole life out of necessity. I’ve been apologizing for myself for decades. It’s time for the men I date to meet me halfway.

Nothing turns a woman on faster than when a man pays attention to the little things, even if it’s the things she doesn’t like. If I find that man who pays close attention to me, whose ego isn’t made of egg shells, then I’m likely to reward him tenfold. That’s how women work, our fecundity is more than just maternal. But until then I’m not rewarding anything else. And I’m signing up for Laura’s winter special: two massages for $89.99.

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