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Swinging in the Rain

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In dating-dampened San Francisco, do women really need men ... or just an umbrella?

By Dara Colwell

There's this girl--let's call her Sophie (which means "wise" in Greek). It's her first date with--we'll call him Adam--an attractive young man, friend-of-a-friend sort of thing, and they're at Sophie's, spread out on a lumpy old sofa. They start inching closer as the video starts. Sophie rented Il Postino, an Italian flick, but 20 minutes into it, Adam is restless. As Sophie's wondering, Doesn't he like me? Is he bored? Adam suddenly blurts out, "What's this about?" As she explains the plot she feels her eyes slowly rolling to the back of her head--Adam can't keep up with the subtitles! She sighs out loud.

Sophie's on another date. This time she met 'Joe' at a party, and although she wasn't fabulously attracted to him, she took him up on his offer to have dinner. There are candles and wine, light conversation, the obligatory "where did yous" and "when did yous," and suddenly Joe's heart is on his sleeve. "Tell me something you've never told anyone before," he says, leaning noticeably forward. Sophie automatically leans back, sipping her wine silently. Oh puhleease! she thinks to herself. Talk about instant intimacy ...

It's the end of the week and Sophie's had enough of this dating nonsense. Her roommate's friend Mike stops by, after dropping his girlfriend off downtown, and they decide to cook dinner together. Sophie helps him shop and they somehow get to talking about guitars. After dinner she grabs her guitar and asks him to play. Mike cranks out some god-awful rendition of a Led Zeppelin song and Sophie's cringing inside while her lips twist into a tight smirk. He lunges at her and gives her the line "I'm usually not so forward ... I guess it's just you." Sure, she thinks. Sure.

This selection of men may seem like slim pickings but Sophie's not worried--she's come a long way and she's got the world at the end of her Chinoiserie-lacquered fingertips. She's off the Mommy track, bringing home the bacon, winning bread, she's self-sufficient, successful, strapped in the driver's seat cruising past obsolete stereotypes and fly-by Romeos. She's single--not unwooed, unasked, undesirable, slouching at the checkout stand buying cat food. She's not waiting; she hasn't got the time. She's single and it "just happened," that's-the-'90s-for-you. She doesn't need a man like her mother did, but it's nice to have everything. She's all about options.

She's today's twentysomething woman--actually she's three women who requested anonymity--and this is what she has to say: she wants a man, yes--only she doesn't need one, you see. At least that's the stance, but it's much easier said than done--no one likes going home to an empty house.

"I've already met, dated, mated and left just about everyone who would interest me in my field," says Sophie A, a 30-year-old working in the public media sector. "I'm kind of waiting for some full-on chemistry to jump-start me out of this place." Call her jaded or just realistic, she's not ready to trade her crack at a career or the joys of having a girls' night out for (the seemingly elusive) Mr. Right. "I've been unhappy when I've wanted a relationship and didn't have it, but I don't need a series of disappointments either," she says. And she means it.


Three men on fishing in the San Francisco dating pool.


Enormous cultural changes over the past 30 years may have put marriage on the endangered list, but they also signaled women's emancipation. Unfettered by financial dependence and wise to the equation that emotional security doesn't equal forever, single women are--and in today's unstable economy, are expected to be--independent. "I think we've redefined what's expected in relationships," says Sophie B, a 28-year-old junior executive in the music business. "Once my parents got married, my mom never worked again. But that was their generation--everyone was doing it. There's no pressure these days to settle down."

True, says Sophie C, a 33-year-old divorcee who works in public relations, but she also thinks there's a lingering idea that being successful means being married, even though married women are also independent. "Being a 'good wife' isn't number one anymore," she says. "Your ambition isn't to make someone else happy, your ambition is to make yourself happy."

So with the stigma of the old maid ground into dust, women have been free to take a want-what-I-want stance and focus on themselves. "I love being single. I'm not answerable to anyone," says Sophie B, who recently left a five-year relationship, with a broad grin. "And San Francisco is hardly the place to feel you should be in a relationship--there's so much diversity, it's hardly 'have-a-family' suburbia. The only people you see holding hands are men in the Castro! To be honest, I'm completely happy at the moment."

Completely happy? But surely there's a glitch! Is she just whistling a happy tune to mask a lonely '90s existence? With divorce rates yo-yo-ing and the odds still 40 percent that a marriage will end in divorce; with 72 million single adults in the U.S. opting to stay that way; with the increased workload (up 163 hours a year since the late 1960s) and the 24-7 rush just to make ends meet, is there even time to go looking for love? "It better be a damn good prospect before I waste my time," says Sophie C, who speaks quickly through a halo of smoke. "Time is my greatest commodity."

Between her heavy workload, projects, deadlines, meeting day-to-day needs, doing the laundry and finding time to unwind, "weeks can go by," she says. "I can only give myself in measured amounts. I generally get involved with men who are busy too, and don't need a lot of my time. I feel like a cynic, but I definitely see men as accessories, and I'm sure they wouldn't like that."

Well, that's not exactly Sophie A's take. While she hasn't done any serious dating in five years, she says she's occasionally escorted by male friends who do serve their purpose. But while she's got the Italian shoes and she's got the house--as for the guy? Well, that comes later, and if not, life goes on. What she doesn't see is a man hanging on her arm, conveniently, like a bracelet. She does admit, though, that in our consumer-oriented culture, relationships have become more and more like transactions. "It's an I-give-you, you-give-me thing," she says. "Everyone's doing the math in their head, trying to get their time's worth, and that's a hard place for relationships to evolve."

Sophie A wonders out loud how relationships even survive in today's dating world. A world where personal ads, video dating services and self-help books have become predominant, signaling an underlying anxiety about how to meet someone and how to behave once you have. An impersonal world of electronic, prearranged mating. This naturally leads her to wondering where all those eligible San Franciscan men actually are.

It used to be when a single woman started pushing 28, 29, 30, she'd settle for anything that moved, but nowadays women are choosier. Check out SF Weekly's Romance personals-- "Smart Women: Be choosy. It's YOUR call," it says in large, bold letters in the center of the page. So it's goodbye, Mr. "Slick-haired go-getter seeks sassy lady with expressive eyes." Those attractive, don't-want-commitment, eye-candy fly boys don't cut it anymore. "Who has time for it?" Sophie A says with a deep laugh. "I've done the job-training already!"

In the '90s, if caution seems to be the trend, then maybe it has something to do with that ticking hormonal clock. "Yes, we're more concerned with our careers, but we still have those primal urges to have children," says Sophie B, who didn't think she'd be playing the numbers game. "For a man, it's not like all of a sudden his sperm isn't going to work. I think men our age start freaking out because they start noticing that all the women they date want to have children; they want to settle down into a quality relationship." Maybe if the man's only contribution was biology there wouldn't be a problem, but these ladies want to invest in a long-term partner and time is snapping at their heels. Two of our Sophies want children someday; one has even considered having a child with a gay childhood friend--just in case.

If men today are experiencing anxiety--fearing commitment that might trade freedom for diapers, or at least chores--then women are suffering from disappointment, finding that independence can be lonely and their alternatives are few. "I think in five years I'll be more willing to tolerate ridiculous behavior because I'm interested in having a relationship," says Sophie C, remembering a date who bought her a used thrift-store teddy bear. She took one wide-eyed look at the bear, wondering who had cuddled and deserted it, and told her date politely to leave. But her voice betrayed her disappointment. "The choice has definitely narrowed," she says slowly. "I've dated a lot of guys, and there are many personality types where I wouldn't go there. It's a process of elimination." In the '90s, one in five mothers is a lone parent and three-quarters of divorces are initiated by wives, signaling their reluctance to put up with unhappy relationships. So where do we go from here?

There are no ready conclusions. If they are sometimes lonely, single women will tell you that it's better to be lonely without a relationship than to be lonely within one, yet they still yearn for, if not Mr. Right, Mr. Worth It. "Celibacy is way overrated!" says Sophie A. "I worry about not meeting someone. If you keep going to bars and events, how are you going to run into this random person? Does he exist?" In the absence of intimate relationships they once thought possible, women are often going it alone, wondering if love is a pardonable insanity. Their loneliness runs deep. But Sophie B appears undeterred. Her pilgrimage to independence has made her realistic. "Who knows what's going to last? I thought it would last with all my boyfriends," she says. Yet seconds later she admits, "there's not many good ones out there. That's why I'm still waiting."

As Sophie B gets out of the bath, smelling of glycerin soap, she looks for her watch lost somewhere in the pile of clothes on the floor. It's 8:20pm. He said he'd call around 8. She frowns, regretting that she'd turned down other plans--and she never does that. She decides she'll wait until 9 before venturing out. She wraps herself in a steel-blue robe, puts on a track from the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and grabs her heavy makeup bag. She hopes he'll call. But after 9, she's not waiting.

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From the May 24, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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