This piece was originally published on the author’s own blog, Nothing Mentioned Nothing Gained.
My imaginary boyfriend and I have been going out on and off for as long as I can remember. In some ways it’s a perfect relationship. He’s always there when I need him, but he makes no demands of me. There’s no insecurity, given that he’s entirely made up. Unfortunately, the sex isn’t the best, although imaginary sex is generally not the worst either. Imaginary boyfriend exists in the background regardless of whether I have a boyfriend in the real world at the time or not, and all I really know about him is that he is invariably bigger, stronger and meaner than the person I’m describing him to. He is jealous, has anger management issues, and a possible violent streak. You’d think that if you had an imaginary boyfriend he should at least make you happy. But my imaginary boyfriend was born out of sheer necessity, and he’s the kind of man I would never go near in real life.
The “Sorry, I have a boyfriend” is the go-to excuse for a lot of women when we are getting attention which for any reason we didn’t want at that time. I’ve been using it without thinking about it for years, but when you do start thinking about it you realise that maybe this harmless little white lie isn’t so harmless after all.
Firstly, why do women use this excuse so much? The easy answer is that it is just that – an easy answer. Maybe it would be more honest to just say “Sorry, I’m not interested. I don’t like men who have funny ears/a record of arson/are into JLS ,” or similar, but that’s got to sting a bit. We’ve all met some notable exceptions, but most of us don’t like to hurt or disappoint someone. It’s hard, if it’s even possible, to define what makes someone attractive to us, and often when we don’t want to take things there, it really is us not them. The imaginary boyfriend is a nice way of regretfully turning someone down without making them feel rejected. And that’s fine. But I don’t think it’s fine that the imaginary boyfriend is often a reflex rather than a thought-out plan. Why is that so? Are we so overloaded with love songs and rom-coms and so called women’s interest magazines that scream SEX and LOVE at the world in garish block capitals from every front cover that society believes that is what women are looking for – every waking moment? Do we feel, even subconsciously, that it is more “normal” for a woman to crave relationships than it is for her to be content alone that we feel we need an excuse?
A Guardian columnist last year started her Valentine’s Day special with “from the age of about 11, every girl wants to get a boyfriend.” So-called women’s interest magazines are all about men, constantly regurgitating the same features on “What he’s REALLY thinking,” “Finding Mr Right,” and “How to spice up your sex life.” Back when I was still reading Cosmo, I concluded that Mr Right was never really thinking that much or that deeply, finding and “catching” him as though boyfriends are things best procured by way of a lasso or oversize butterfly net should be my life’s main ambition, and our sex life would be greatly “spiced up” by the addition of stilettos and a protractor to make sure our 45 degree angles were an exact 45. 44.5 degrees between your body and his and you might not orgasm, which would of course render your entire life’s achievements to that point, worthless. I never tried any of Cosmo’s sexual tips myself mostly because I have a terrible sense of balance, and I couldn’t help but think that having me, a naked man, and stilettos in the one place, particularly following a few glasses of wine, might not end up very well. Circumcision by Jimmy Choo. I doubt that’s covered in anyone’s health insurance policy.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of real love. But the disproportionate focus on finding a boyfriend (not finding love) in women’s magazines and, frighteningly, magazines, books and TV programmes aimed at teenage girls can make it seem that we are expected to be constantly in a secure relationship or else desperately seeking one. “You don’t want a boyfriend? What’s wrong with you?” It can feel like the only normal, or acceptable reason to not want a boyfriend is that you already have one. And while in no way trying to diminish the progress society has made in finally recognising that women have sexual needs and desires of their own, an over-sexualised society has resulted in a lot of people feeling there’s something wrong with them if they’re not up for it all the time. The imaginary boyfriend is a handy excuse, but the truth is we really shouldn’t need an excuse.
Sometimes it’s more than an excuse. Sometimes men, accidentally or on purpose, cross the line between persistence and harassment, the line between making us feel flattered and just plain intimidated. When our imaginary cavalry is called in in these cases, is it because millennia of inequality has hard-wired it into our psyche that we need male “protectors” to keep us “safe” from other men – that we can’t do it alone?
But the real reason there are so many imaginary boyfriends around is that it does tend to work. The problem is that sometimes it’s the only thing that will work, even after we’ve already made it as clear as we can that we’re not interested. I think women need to appreciate that we are difficult, complex creatures. Maybe finding out we’re unavailable is genuinely the only way some men can tell if we’re looking to be chased or looking for them to go away. But you have to ask – do men, or at least some men, respect men more than women to the extent that they will respect boundaries with an imaginary man over respecting boundaries with a real woman?
It’s hard to shake the suspicion that for many men, even if it’s subconscious, we are still “territory” and another man’s territory can’t be encroached on. There could be a touch of the Madonna-Whore complex about it as well. I fell out with a friend last summer when he came to me for advice on his ex-girlfriend. They had broken up, they had both had short-term things with other people, and now they were both single and were met up as friends. It was clear that the old feelings were still there. He told me he still loved her, but “I think so much less of her now. I’m really not sure I want to touch her again once she’s had other guys’ dicks in her.”
At this point, I have to grudgingly admire his honesty. At the time I was furious. His ex was a really sweet girl who in no way deserved to be spoken about like that (and my friend’s own dick had been far from lonely during their separation period).
I’ve decided that my imaginary boyfriend and I will be seeing a lot less of each other from hereon in. I’ll probably still use him when it’s a simple matter of not wanting to hurt feelings. But female emancipation is a double-edged sword. We have greater rights and much more freedom, but in return for that we have to stop relying on men to get us out of trouble. I didn’t think I had ever relied on men to get me out of trouble or make my life simpler. Turns out I had – it’s just that the man I used didn’t actually exist. Is depending on an imaginary man more of an affront to feminism than depending on a real man? I’m not too sure I want that answered.
Naomi Elster is a scientist and a writer. She is currently researching more effective ways to treat breast cancer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, supported by the Irish Cancer Society. She is deputy editor of HeadSpace, a non-profit mental health magazine distributed for free to service users of psychiatric wards and mental health support centres (Naomi Elster is a scientist and a writer. She is currently researching more effective ways to treat breast cancer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, supported by the Irish Cancer Society. She is deputy editor of HeadSpace, a non-profit mental health magazine distributed for free to service users of psychiatric wards and mental health support centres. She blogs here.
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