Monday, March 27, 2006

Claire Harvey: A successful young woman with a feminist dilemma

My friend Eliza (not, obviously, her real name, but chosen because real girls with practical names like Eliza are probably far too tough and sassy to get stuck in this kind of pickle) has a lying, cheating boyfriend.

He admits to lying and cheating, this boyfriend. When he was away recently for a business trip, he slept with a prostitute. Without using a condom.

Then he came home to the Asian city where he and Eliza are living as expats, and slept with Eliza. Without using a condom.

Eliza had no idea what he had done until he showed up on the doorstep one Friday night, sobbing, to say that he had been diagnosed with syphilis.

He said he was also, naturally, worried that he had other sexually transmitted diseases, like Hepatitis C or (although neither of them mentioned this little acronym) HIV, but would not know his final test results for several weeks.

Through his tears of shame, guilt, self-pity and who knows what else, the whole story came out, as he stood there on the doorstep and she leant her forehead on the open door, one hand up to her mouth.

He was, he says, drunk and alone in Hong Kong when he somehow ended up paying some girl for an hour's pleasure.

"There ain't nothing like the kisses from a jaded Chinese princess," sang Jimmy Barnes once, about doing exactly this in Hong Kong one sweaty night - but Eliza's boyfriend says he can't even remember if he enjoyed it.

After a week of sleepless nights he went to a doctor to be tested. So here they are, both waiting for their test results, to find out if she also has syphilis, to find out if they both have HIV.

Eliza is 29, and a model of 21st-century feminine success. She has two university degrees, a good job, adoring parents, enough money, and beauty more serious than just the freshness of young skin and clear eyes.

Now the initial shock is gone, Eliza says she is not really considering a break-up.

She's angry, but she says she loves him, and everyone makes mistakes, and he has told her the truth now, and of course he has sworn on Bibles and grandmothers and Cub's Honour that it will never happen again.

And there's another big reason they're staying together: she's already been through half a dozen relationships and breakups. She has had other men apologise to her for infidelities or inattentions or just indifference, and she has been guilty of the same offences.

She wants children and happily ever after, and she thinks this relationship is her best bet yet, despite the problems.

To her friends, even to Eliza, it sounds so compromised and 1950s, so far from the liberated glow of do-anything womanhood we were raised to expect.

Growing up, many of our generation rejected even the title "feminist", with its aura of hairiness and misandry, because sexism just didn't seem to happen in any overt way any more. We all studied what we liked, got the jobs we wanted, shared the flatmate vacuuming roster equally and still waxed our legs, even while older women complained how ungrateful we were for all they'd achieved.

Feminist author Kathy Lette said last week in Auckland that any young woman who calls herself a post-feminist has "kept her Wonderbra and burned her brain ... feminism is not the ultimate f-word, and all the things we have won could so easily be lost."

But when it comes to Generation Y gender relations, the cold truth is that many young women don't feel like the empowered, bra-less, independent warrior queens we were supposed to be.

Many of today's 20-somethings, no matter how many credit cards, are just as afraid of loneliness and spinsterhood as any Jane Austen heroine, and deeply unsure of whether they are supposed to still be manning (or, indeed, personning) the gender-war barricades.

As a society, we're always hearing about the dilemma of modern manhood, how men are confused about whether they're supposed to open doors or jam-jars for women, or if they'll get attacked as chauvinist pigs for offering to change a tyre.

"The problem with young girls is they've kicked the pedestal out from underneath themselves, love," my beloved 95-year-old friend Reg said once.

But the dilemma for young women is just as tricky - is it all right for someone like Eliza to admit she's desperate to have a baby, even if it means compromising her values?

Is it un-feminist to forgive infidelity for the sake of family? Is it her duty to kick him out, roaring like Helen Reddy as she slams the door? Would Virginia Woolf be horrified by the sight of smart city girls embracing pole-dancing classes and plastic surgery?

Eliza truly wants to forgive him, to make it work - but her own expectations are making her miserable, making her decision to stay with him feel like a failure of feminism, like she is not strong enough to live up to the expectations of the women who struggled for the very freedom of choice which makes her so unsure.

The feminist revolution might have baffled the blokes - but if it's any consolation, fellas, we are as confused as you are.


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