Dear Dr. NerdLove:
I’ve been thinking about an idea that appeals to me, and wondering if there are some deeper lessons that can be learned from it. I would appreciate a qualified second opinion on the matter, and so I would like to hear your advice, if that is alright.
Background details (to let you know what position I’m approaching this from)
I grew up under an abusive sister. I didn’t know it at the time, but my father sexually abused her as a child and she would take it out on me. Even now my sister has a very intense male-oriented madonna-whore complex, and she needed me to be a madonna in contrast to my father’s whore, as it were. If I failed in any way to live up to this image of perfection she had of me, my sister would scream and curse at me.
In recent years I’ve gone to therapy, I’ve had difficult conversations/confrontations with my sister and family, and I’m in a much healthier and safer place now than I was as a kid. I’ve started to put myself out there with online dating, and while I haven’t had much success yet, I’m learning from each failure, and I feel better putting myself out there and getting rejected than if I just stayed at home feeling sorry for myself.
My approach to dating has been to present my unvarnished self from the get-go; to be the best me that I can be, and to be so unashamedly. Maybe who I am isn’t what women want, and that’s fine, but I won’t box myself into some untrue image just to please someone else. I’d rather be alone because of who I am than be with someone while pretending to be something I’m not.
On the question of “What would I provide in a relationship?” (because I know that will come up), I am intelligent and I enjoy discussing and learning about new things and new people. All my friends and family say that I would make a good professor, and if it weren’t for all the student debt and low chance for employment, I’d honestly be pursuing a PhD now. I have no idea if that’s something women would find attractive, but my ideal goal for a relationship is that we get on well with each other and we are attracted to each other. There are extra things that I would like to have, like us sharing common interests or hobbies, but those are the two things I need and the two things I am aiming for.
So here’s my thought:
I really like cosplay models, and I’ve noticed myself sometimes thinking that it would be nice if I were to date one. I’m not sure if “fantasy” is the right term for this, because it’s not so much something I have an intense longing for as it is something where when it crosses my mind I sigh like a schoolboy and think “Yeah, that’d be nice.” I’ve thought about it for a while and the reasons I enjoy the idea are threefold:
Simple shared interests. I grew up thinking that my geeky hobbies were something I would have to hide from a girlfriend, or something she would only tolerate. The idea of “Wow, you like this nerdy piece of media too? That’s awesome!” really appeals to me then. I don’t often cosplay myself, but I do have some costumes in my closet, and whenever I’ve met cosplayers I’ve always enjoyed talking about it with them.
This is going to sound weird, but to bring it back to madonna-whore complexes, somehow the idea of dating someone with a public “madonna” persona and being able to see her human idiosyncrasies is really attractive to me. Like, everyone thinks she’s this always-perfect-and-hot goddess, but have they ever seen her when she’s just got out of bed, with her ruffled hair, morning breath, and grumbling for coffee while she farts? I know it’s weird, but I’m really attracted to that idea of “Everyone sees you as some perfect idol, but I know you’re just a human being and I love you for that.”
My sister doesn’t have a very high opinion of women who use their bodies for a job. At best it’s like “Oh, you’re hot, so you don’t have real problems” and at worst it’s like “Filthy, filthy whores!” So then, the idea of dating someone who also doesn’t live up to my sister’s ideas of perfection, but seeing that they’re really a good person and someone I love and respect, it’s like living, objective proof that my sister’s MWC is bullshit. Like, I can’t be a perfect paragon, and neither can my girlfriend, but that’s okay. We can both just be human, and even if we don’t get a perfect, Hollywood romance, we can make a lasting relationship together and that’s awesome.
So, thinking about all this, I have two questions:
When it comes to things we want but don’t need in a relationship, how do we differentiate between things that we don’t need but still aim for, and things that we don’t need, don’t try to obtain, but would love if we found someone with those qualities? Like, I know I’m never going to actually date a cosplay model. I have absolutely no idea how I would go about meeting one, and even if I did, there are so many other factors that go into a relationship. It’s precisely because they’re human beings that even if I were to meet a cosplay model, we could easily just be incompatible because of our lifestyles, worldviews, or any number of other things. And it’s entirely possible that everything I’ve just said about my idea is really disrespectful and fetishizing towards cosplay models. If that’s the case, I’d appreciate clear-headed advice on how to shake such a toxic mindset. But even unrelated to my case, surely we all have things we’d like to have in a relationship that aren’t strictly necessary, like our ideal partner being a doctor or a redhead or whatnot. Should we still aim for those things, or just be appreciative if they happen? How do we determine that?
If our ideal of a relationship is a rejection of abuse we faced, does that signal us getting over the abuse or the abuse still controlling us? I am attracted to a living rejection of the madonna-whore complex because I was a victim of the male version of it as a child, but does that mean I’ve got my own, different complex that I need to work on? I know my sister abused me because she wanted to reject the idea of all men being like my father. And even though I’m confident I can break the cycle, I know it’s possible to make different, but equally terrible, mistakes in our desire to avoid the mistakes of our abusers. How can we check ourselves to make sure that won’t happen?
I hope this message wasn’t too long, and I hope that there’s something deeper that other people can learn from my own, specific situation. Again, if I’ve said something disrespectful or fetishizing, don’t hesitate to tell me. Even if I’m in the wrong, that just means I have to learn from that wrongness and do better. In the meantime, I hope you are staying safe and healthy, what with the viral situation, and I hope you have a great day.
-Eager to Learn
I’m so sorry for what you and your sister have gone through. Familial abuse, especially sexual abuse is horrific and can leave some intense scars. Part of what’s so insidious about abuse are the after-effects, where people adopt coping mechanisms to deal with the trauma… but those coping mechanisms are intensely unhealthy, either for the survivor, or for the people in their lives. While your sister may have been trying to help you, what she did was abusive and traumatic to you. So it’s good that you’ve confronted both her, your father and your trauma and have gone to a therapist. That is a huge, huge step in the right direction and you should be proud of everything you’ve accomplished and how far you’ve come.
Now let’s dig in because, honestly, there’s a lot to unpack here.
Let’s start with what you want in a relationship and what you bring to the table. This is actually the first place you run into trouble because… well, honestly, most of what you lay out — both in terms of what you bring to the table and what you want from a partner — are standard issue. Intellectual curiosity and enjoying discussing things are a nice start, but there’s not much else there. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have other qualities that people would want in a partner, but it does sound like you’re selling yourself short. Really short. While good conversation can be an important part of attraction, it’s not the only thing. A lot of what triggers attraction and builds the connection that leads to romance are about how you make people feel. So conversation’s a nice place to start, but it’s going to be important that you think a little more broadly about the ways you can connect with someone and make them feel amazing.
And in fairness, this could be a lot of different things. You could make someone laugh like nobody else does. You might be a great dancer or take them on unexpected and exciting dates because you know all the hidden and overlooked corners of your city. You might have a way with words or be insightful, seeing things in her that nobody else recognizes. It’s a matter of finding those things that make you uniquely you that help you connect with someone and elicit all those amazing feelings from them.
By that same token, the only thing you list as being what you must have in a relationship is… mutual attraction and getting along with each other. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, but that’s also like saying that what you want most in a car is that it has wheels and an engine. That’s literally the baseline to what makes it a car; they’re vital for the basic operation of the vehicle. You’ve set your expectation for “comes standard with every model.” Honestly, I think you can do a little better than that when it comes to what you would want in a partner.
So I think you should spend a little time thinking about what you would want in a potential girlfriend — more than just looks or “likes me”. What kind of personality would your ideal partner have, what kind of interests and hobbies? Having a better idea of what you want over all makes it much easier to figure out what are your “must haves” (besides, again, the baseline) and value-adds.
It’s going to be pretty important to put some thought into this because if I’m perfectly honest… you kind of go off in the wrong direction almost immediately after that when you bring up cosplay models.
So I get that you — like a lot of geeky guys — grew up with the idea that being a geek was the pinnacle in unsexiness and that there were no geeky girls nor girls who dug geeky things. And the truth is that this hasn’t been true since… well, pretty much ever. Women have been deeply embedded in geek culture since the jump. Whether we’re talking about the women who functionally invented costumed heroes (The Scarlet Pimpernel — Baroness Orczy), science fiction (Frankenstein — Mary Shelly) or modern fandom (Star Trek — Lucille Ball, Jean Lorrah and Jaqueline Lichtenberg, Bjo Trimble, Joan Winston and Elyse Rosenstein), women have always been into geeky shit. The only reason why we think of geekdom as a “guy” thing is because marketers made a conscious decision to exclude women from it.
So the fact that you’re a geek or like geeky shit doesn’t disqualify you or make you unattractive. And while I get that dating a cosplayer would mean finding a girlfriend who’s very visible about her geeky interests… honestly man, I think that’s more about you than it is about her. It sounds like at some level, you see dating a cosplayer, especially one who’s conventionally hot or has a large following on Instagram as a sort of trophy: look at how good this guy is at being a geek, he’s unlocked the ultimate nerd achievement! It’s less about her than it is about how it reflects on you.
I don’t think you realize this, because you dip straight into it when you mention the part about “everyone thinks she’s perfect but ONLY I get to see the human side of you”. Which, yeah, I get that can sound romantic, but really only until you think about it for a half second. Again that’s straight into it being about you than her; “everyone else thinks you’re a goddess but I am so special that I can see through it all and see the human beneath!” That’s not really about the whole Madonna-Whore complex, that’s about being the ONE GUY who’s able to look past the (incredibly hot) surface. Except it’s literally the surface that interests you; she is quite literally wearing her geeky interest on her shirtsleeves.
And straight talk man: I’m lucky enough to be friends with some amazing and beautiful women who are in all sorts of beauty-oriented careers and industries, from dancers to lingerie models. Pretty much none of them like the whole “but I see the REAL you” thing because… well, that kind of implies that they’re somehow less real when they’re made up or dressed to the nines. Which honestly is kind of its own Madonna-Whore issue.
Just as importantly though, while, again, I get where you’re coming from, dating someone because it’d be like giving your sister the double-bird with “fuck this, fuck that and fuck you in particular” sprinkles isn’t rejecting her or her abuse of you. In a very real way, it’s actually tacitly accepting her frame. All you’re doing is saying “oh this is bad? Well I’m gonna GO DO THE BAD THING EVEN HARDER BECAUSE SCREW YOU AND EVERYTHING YOU STAND FOR,” while still agreeing that this is bad. The key to breaking this cycle and not letting her abuse control you is to reject the frame entirely. That doesn’t mean going and doing the opposite of what she was trying to instill in you, it means moving past her and living the life you want without her influence at all. Maybe you’ll date someone who’s looks are a part of her career. Maybe you won’t. But it doesn’t matter because it’s not about your sister, it’s about you and the person you connect with.
Now I know all of this sounds pretty harsh and that I’m telling you that you’re an awful, shallow person for having these ideas. I’m really not. I think you’re someone who’s lived an incredibly hard life, who’s been dragged through the fires of Hell and has the ashes to prove it. I think that since you’ve started working through your trauma, you’re able to start thinking more about relationships and the kinds of people you want to date… you’re just coming to this from a place of inexperience. A lot of what you’re thinking about and trying to figure out are things that many folks went through at a younger age because they didn’t have to live through the shit and the pain that you did.
And I think your biggest issue is that ultimately, this is all theory. What you need more than anything else is to get some experience under your belt. You need a little less thought exercise and a bit more getting out and meeting people, flirting with them, vibing with them and just seeing where things go.
So here’s what I suggest: put the cosplayer thing aside and just focus on meeting people. I realize that feels daunting right about now — what with a global pandemic, quarantining and social distancing and all — but just putting yourself out there, finding your community, getting to know people and yes, going on dates is your best choice. Put up a couple dating profiles, start having some video dates and maybe — maybe — see about having some dates in person. Obviously it’s going to all be contingent on COVID safety and precautions. But the more you take this out of the realm of the theoretical and into the lived experience, the more I think you’ll start to break out of this mindset you’ve got going on.
Don’t date because it’ll piss off your sister; that’s not going to refute the abuse she heaped on you. Don’t date people because you think you need proof that being a geek can be sexy. And don’t date people because you want to prove you “see past their exterior”.
Date people because they make you smile, because they turn you on and because you have so many awesome things in common. Date them because they’re incredible people who make you feel like you’re the sexiest motherfucker ever to stride the planet. And date them because they’re so special to you that you look back and wonder how you never knew this was what you needed in your life.
Live a good life full of joy, compassion and understanding — for yourself and the people in your life. That’s how you break that mindset and break the cycle.
And write back to let us know how you’re doing.