I have a question that only a man can answer. But the man can't be any man -- he must be a man who is willing to ponder a seemingly ludicrous question. Thus, I have come to you.
I am a divorced woman in my 40s who is a member of the hugely popular dating site eHarmony. The site purports to match you with people who share 29 dimensions of compatibility -- or something like that.
The most intriguing part of the process is the part where you select 10 prewritten "must haves" and 10 "can't stands" from a list that eHarmony has provided. You send these "must haves" and "can't stands" to your prospective date after mutual interest has been expressed. At this point in the process, neither party has been able to communicate with the other via e-mail.
The "must haves" read as you'd expect: "I must have a partner who is bright and can share my understanding of the world as well as enjoy discussing important issues." "I must have a partner who is emotionally healthy, and able to share a stable life with someone else."
But the "can't stands" are much more interesting. In addition to standard dislikes such as "I can't stand someone who has a devious nature and is mean to others" and "I can't stand someone who sees material items as a measure of success," either party can choose: "I can't stand someone who is not clean."
For some unknown reason, and this is why I'm here, about 60 percent of the men include "I can't stand someone who is not clean" in their "can't stand" list. Many of them pass up lying, cheating, excessive alcohol consumption and racism for this particular "can't stand."
I have a visceral reaction when I read that my potential date "can't stand someone who is not clean." The reaction is: Bleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeecch.
When you're looking for a partner, you're hoping you'll meet someone with whom you'd like to have sex, possibly for many years. In my mind, choosing "I can't stand someone who is not clean" over "can't stands" involving someone's basic character means one thing: "I can't stand performing oral sex on a woman." I generally close the match when the guy selects the "must be clean" option.
Who in this day and age of running water and indoor showers is not "clean"? I doubt that 60 percent of the guys I've communicated with have dated the same "unclean" woman.
Given that millions of people have tried eHarmony, I bet that hundreds of your readers will know exactly what I'm talking about.
I love the smell of a guy; I love the smell of a lover. I love the smell of perspiration. Don't men like this, too? Maybe these clean people find one another and live happily ever after? Cary, would you choose "I can't stand someone who is not clean" if you were dating via eHarmony? Why do so many men choose "clean" over character?
Showered This Morning
I am happy to be known as a man who will reliably ponder the seemingly ludicrous. I do indeed walk around day to day convinced that underneath the seemingly ludicrous lie dearly held truths. I do not think anything is too ludicrous to ponder.
For instance, ponder this question: "Is wetness a hargashah?"
When such odd little things strike us with particular force -- things that in other contexts might seem innocuous -- it is useful to consider whether our unease is not just about the phenomenon itself but has some source outside our immediate awareness: perhaps the rich social and religious history of the Judeo-Christian West, or our own infantile memories and unconscious fears and beliefs.
In this case, one possible reason this bit about being "not clean" strikes you with such force is that we carry in our minds the idea of the "unclean woman." We have superb sanitary and hygienic facilities in the West, particularly in America -- I mean, we're all pretty darned clean these days! -- but that does not mean that the anxiety that gave rise to our concern (some would say obsession) with cleanliness is gone. It is still there, in our attitudes toward the homeless, for instance, who do not have access to showers. And it is there in our fears about the link between being unclean and catching disease.
And most of us probably carry infantile memories of being "unclean," i.e. having a dirty diaper, stinking, being dirty and undesirable. It can be deeply shameful to be so dirty that we are shunned. In fact, when you think about the enormous power of declaring someone "unclean," it seems likely that it has such power precisely because it replicates an earlier infantile shame and helplessness.
I'm not sure if you're planning to keep going with the eHarmony thing. But maybe if you are, you should show up to meet a man with a big black smudge of grease across your cheek. "Oh, I'm sorry," you could say, "I forgot, you wanted a clean woman!"
And then, maybe you could have a laugh about it.
Better yet, what if you waited until the relationship was quite far along, and when you took your dress off it turned out that your panties were full of leaves and twigs? That would be really odd, wouldn't it? Wouldn't it remind us, too, of our connection to the soil, to the earth -- a troubled connection these days?
As far as what this means, it may be partially just a cluster effect, the odd, random clustering of similar phenomena that gives rise, in our brains, to significance because we are so finely attuned to pattern recognition. That is a typical male answer, is it not? But there is also probably at work the fact that if you offer a person a choice, a certain number will take it -- and the offering of the choice gives rise to its possibility. For instance, if you put a question on there, like, "Ax murdering: I can't stand it when people are ax murderers," a certain percentage would choose it because, well, if that's a possibility, you certainly want to rule it out.
So who knows. I can speculate about why these men would choose that "not clean" thing. Indeed, I am happy to ponder the seemingly ludicrous. But I don't pretend to understand men just because I am one. They are as mysterious to me as they are to you and to one another.
What? You want more?