It’s an interesting question: Who needs men? Over the past few years I have been asking single friends — and myself — this question or ones like it. And the answers I’ve received have ranged from the poetic to the perfunctory.
Said one friend, “I need the deep groundedness of their bass and tenor voices in my life … it helps me catch the tune of my own feminine voice.” Another honestly reflected, “You know, as independent, capable, self-sufficient, driven, and butterfly-ish as I am, I definitely need men. Or at least, I feel like I need one man.” Still another wrote, “I do not need a man.” Her tenor wasn’t harsh, just direct. She continued, “I have built a life for myself that involves some close girlfriends and a large circle of acquaintances, and I have a job I love and think I’m pretty good at. It pretty much allows me a lifestyle that is comfortable and has quite a number of perks.” Another self-revealing friend responded, “I don’t need them to pay my rent, change my oil in my car, move furniture or mow the lawn (although all that would be nice). [But] I feel most like a woman when I’m with a man.”
In most of the single women I know, there is a residual sense of needing men, at least on some level. And yet in practice, there’s a lot of life — like paying rent and changing oil and cutting grass — that can be lived without them. As a result, I’ve seen in many 20- and 30-something single women a strange ambivalence around this question: Who needs men?
Sometimes I wonder if it is, in part, a problem of the words we use. While I’ve not found anyone who thinks it’s wrong or abnormal to desire a man — or the company of men — there is often an unspoken caveat. It is fine to desire from a place of internal strength, but when it is desire that’s born of need, somehow, well … that’s just a little sketchy. Maybe it’s some of the circles I’ve run in or into, but somehow needing a man seems to quietly connote an undue weakness or potential desperation (i.e., being sort of needy).
Citing the best-selling book The Rules, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead offers a picture of the new ideal single woman: “You are a very fulfilled person — stable, functional, and happy — with a career, friends, and hobbies … you are perfectly capable of living with or without him. You are not an empty vessel waiting for him to fill you up, support you, or give you life.” No, this is not a woman with evident needs.
A leader whom I respect tremendously once commented, “You know, nothing scares men away like a needy or desperate woman.” So, as there’s this very fine (to the point of being almost invisible) line between needing and being needy, I see many friends conclude that perhaps the best thing a woman can do is to cultivate an air of detachment around the whole topic of needing men. “While a man in my life would be nice for a couple of reasons, I can do it on my own.” Any deeper or more potent desire for a special man, let alone men in general, gets swallowed. Perhaps, in fairness, this is because the question of what to do with such a desire is swamped in ambiguity. You can’t purchase the love of your life, and you can’t make your male friends or colleagues come around you in the ways you need. So wisdom seems to dictate holding your cards close to your chest until, well, until they disappear.
The unfortunate irony, however, is that in my world I hear numerous comments from men bemoaning women’s self-sufficiency. I have heard many males utter some form of the phrase, “Women don’t need us anymore; we’ve become obsolete.” Have you heard this, too? And is it true? Have men become obsolete from your vantage point?
Honestly, for many of us, the need deficit is a reality. For example, do we need men for financial provision? We might like it, but it’s not crucial. Do we need men for physical protection? Perhaps when walking to a car late at night, but generally we live in a world governed by the rule of law, and that’s enough. How about social status? Of course, no one wants to be excluded from dinner parties because she lacks a man, but at least in metropolitan areas, social opportunities decidedly exist for single women. How about emotional connection? Don’t we expect our girlfriends to fill a lot of these gaps? Kids? We can adopt or be artificially inseminated. The only obvious thing left is sex, which some women are content to live without or embrace in such a way that no meaningful, lasting relationship with a man is necessary. In short, men on the whole aren’t really needed any longer, at least not in the clear-cut ways of previous generations.
With exceptions, the previous generation’s blueprints for dating, marriage and simple opposite-sex relating seem to fit fewer single people’s life experience today. And now that more of us can bring home our personal bacon and fry it up in a pan, and since intimacy seems elusive, the question for single women returns. Do women genuinely need men?
Perhaps because of the culture of privilege that characterizes much of the United States, my first memory of experiencing a real and objective need for men — a need deeper than just a vague ache, a flash of desire or an impulse for social normalcy — came at age 31, in another country. I was on a train in India. Being led to my destination by a Hindi-speaking male who communicated via warm nods and animated body language, I was traveling in the coed train car. (There were “women only” train cars in Bombay, but not knowing when to get off the train, I had to stick with my guide.)
As we rode in that all-male-except-for-me train car, I found myself standing a head above a sea of Indian men whose bodies were smashed up against mine. Not convinced that the rule of law had any particular power in these men’s lives, I suddenly found myself profoundly grateful to be with my guide. Though he was half a foot shorter than I, his presence next to me communicated, “Do not bother this woman.” The glances he shot in the direction of those who leered hungrily in my direction felt like arrows shot on my behalf. At that moment, I could not contemplate being without him; I knew I needed him.
Likewise, when my younger brother arrived in India a week later from his home in the Middle East, something that was unwittingly clenched in me exhaled. One of the friends I’d made in the interim said to me, “Your face is much more relaxed now that your brother is here.” Though something within me flinched at his words (my illusion of self-sufficiency had taken a blow), my face told the real story: at a reflex level, my brother’s presence, like that of the guide but with a further and deeper reach, carried with it the power to bring me to a place of rest which, at least in that culture, I couldn’t get to on my own. I genuinely needed his presence.
Over the past decade, I’ve been looking for moments reminiscent of those Indian experiences. I have found a few; the closest ones have been primarily physical in nature. Having moved four times, I’ve needed muscles to lift pianos, sofa beds and endless boxes of books. Short on cash and replete with girlfriends who would rather help pack, I’ve needed the men in my life to step up. And a few times, when I’ve just been too weary for more confrontation, different men have, sometimes at their initiative and sometimes at my invitation, stepped in and fought for me (with the computer manufacturer, the car mechanic, etc.). Still, I theoretically could have hired someone to do these things or simply found more girlfriends with greater upper-body strength.
Plus, something about my brother’s presence was different from simply the presence of a bodyguard or a beloved sister with biceps. Something less tangible, but decidedly peace giving.
In the mid-’90s, Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett starred in the movie Waiting to Exhale. “Four friends,” the trailer says, “are determined to face reality.” Inevitably, facing reality means facing their relationships with men. While the movie ultimately champions the strength gained from female friendships and highlights the capacity of men to create real problems, what caught my attention were the few brief “good men” moments. When Savannah (Houston) slow dances with a man, she is for that moment able to let go, to stop being “on.” Later in the movie, Bernadine (Bassett) falls asleep in the comforting presence of a man who simply cares for her well at the right time (admittedly, the audience does have to suspend some disbelief). Through small glimmers in the movie, something in each of these moments is reminiscent of that same mysterious gift I tasted in India. One glimpses men enabling the women to exhale.
A few years ago I attended a Valentine’s Day dinner at the home of a friend I affectionately call Bald Harry (he shaves his head). The men who organized the event did the inviting, setting up, cooking and serving. Dinner concluded with Harry’s brave recitation (brave because of the slightly bemused snickers of the other men, which actually seemed to embolden him) from Longfellow’s 19th-century epic poem “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Interestingly, it is a tale of a man who has no language for the deepest part of his heart. The poem lingered in the air a few moments — perhaps many of us, men and women alike, have lost language for our deepest longings — and then, after a short, Harry-led prayer, the men transformed the dining area into a dance floor, and most of us made our way onto it.
There was no budding romance for me that evening. Nor was I in any danger from which I needed protection. And even the physical labor that needed doing wasn’t much — with so many hands at work, a group of women easily could have knocked it out. But nevertheless, that same “India thing” transpired. That evening, I found myself exhaling. Somehow in their planning, serving, risking and engaging, that motley crew of men helped my omnicompetence find a temporary shelf. It wasn’t a starry or dreamy night, but I left with the gift of rest, mysteriously provided by the presence of this hodgepodge of brothers.
Could I have lived without that Valentine’s dinner? Yes. Did I decidedly need those men that night? No, not really. Honestly, I’ve lived through a lot of single Valentine’s Day dinners and have had both lonely and laugh-ridden times with friends. But nevertheless, those men’s offerings and simple presence touched something in me, and it was good. I left wondering, What exactly is that thing that men have that we need? Honestly, it’s hard to define, but you know it when you smell it.
Taken from Revelations of a Single Woman by Connally Gilliam. Copyright © 2006 by Connally Gilliam. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.