In which The Author considers one of psychology’s great unanswered questions
It’s said that Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, once wrote in his notebook, ‘What does a woman want?’ I’ve been asking myself the same thing for years. When I was in my first year, we had to address this very issue in a seminar one morning (see Fool’s Mate
). Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it for a while recently, following some of the observations I initially made in Not Born Beautiful
. There’s no formal evidence on which I’ve based my theory, as usual. It’s just a set of empirical data, leading me inexorably towards my conclusion.
And here it is: What I suspect is that what women really want is to get involved with the person least likely to meet with their parents’ approval.
I don’t know why they do it. Maybe it’s just in their nature to be as provocative, contrary and inflammatory as possible. I’m going to quote several examples here, from personal observation, to illustrate my point.
Case History A
Sam, my ex, apparently went out with a Rastafarian guy when she first moved up to London. That was the first part of my theory – that girls who wanted to shock or outrage their parents used to get into mixed-race relationships. Her parents definitely wouldn’t have approved of an unemployed dope-smoking Underground busker.
I’ve seen a number of my women friends go for black or Asian guys over the years. I don’t have any problem with that – I’d be happy to get into a mixed-race relationship myself – but as far as Aberdare is concerned, it used to be beyond the pale. It’s a little more common nowadays, but twenty years ago the piano player used to stop when such a couple walked into the pub. John Cooper Clarke hit the nail on the head in 1978:
Case History B
H— is another old friend of mine from the Carpenters days, only a few years younger than me. A single mother of two, she’s had a succession of abusive and/or controlling boyfriends over the years. When she eventually met a chap who seemed genuine it was no wonder that she jumped at the chance. He seemed decent enough as well, and the kids liked him. He treated them well, and I was shocked when she rang me one day, wanting to talk to me in confidence. It turned out that he’d been raping her daughter for some time, and H— wanted to tell me before it hit the papers (which it did, not long afterwards). He was last heard of in Middlesbrough or somewhere in that neck of the woods. I don’t know what the state of play is with the legal case. In the meantime, he’s listed on various paedophile newsgroups in case he rears his head again.
Case History C
Gema went through a succession of boyfriends, each calculated to piss her parents off to a greater degree than the previous one, until she finally decided to become a lesbian. She’d been on the fringe of Aberdare’s lesbian crowd for ages anyway, so it was probably only a question of time. I think she felt that any sex was better than none at all. She had two fairly long-term gay relationships in succession before getting it where she could. She’s single at the moment, after her last boyfriend killed himself between Xmas and New Year.
Case History D
When I was 26, and had just started work in Dillons, I met a girl in the Carpenters Arms. I was with a mate of mine who had also recently begun a new job in Cardiff, so we’d been on a bit of a spending spree with our first salary cheques – books, CDs, t-shirts and so forth. The girl in question was tall, curvy, dark-haired, very pretty, and (unknown to us) under age for the pub. And for just about anything else, come to that! Anyway, she approached us and asked if either of us had a light. Neither of us smoked, but she asked if she could join us anyway.
K— and I struck up a conversation, and it led to a friendship which has lasted to this day, nearly twenty years later. K— and her mother were planning a trip to Cardiff at about that time, and she promised to come into the shop to say hello when they were passing. It was the time when Madonna unleashed her infamous self-destructive book Sex. So, after a couple of drinks, we worked out a little double entendre which she could use when they got to the counter:
K—: Excuse me, do you have Sex?
Me: Not while I’m working, but it’s very civil of you to enquire.
(On the day, we decided against saying the lines. The shop was rammed, Laurie was stressed to bursting point, and I was still in my probationary period. It didn’t seem like the ideal opportunity.)
Anyway, her mother insisted on buying us lunch. Shortly after that, I got invited to their house for tea, and did the whole ‘meet the parents’ thing. One evening, we were in the Carpenters when I realised I’d left my cashpoint card at home. We jumped on the next bus to Llwydcoed, called briefly into Dad’s flat (where I was living at the time) and caught the same bus on its return trip. When I got home later that night, Dad was still awake, and rather impressed with my new friend. He asked where we’d met, and I said we’d met in the pub. He asked if she was a student.
‘Yeah, she’s in full-time education,’ I told him. It was true. K— was in full-time education. She was due to sit her GCSEs the following summer. It was, as Alan Clark said, a case of being economical with the verité. I was eleven years older than her, but I had a decent(-ish) job, so her parents didn’t seem to mind that we were spending time together. Nothing had happened between us, after all. And nothing ever did.
Instead, K— got involved with a series of guys a bit older than her, until she ended up living with a junkie. The inevitable happened, of course, and she ended up using smack as well. I’ve seen a photo of her from that period of her life – drawn, gaunt, and pathetic. But a series of events unfolded which would make a good soap opera storyline. He went to prison for dealing, and she went back to her parents, where they kept her under very close surveillance. He came out of prison and I spoke to him at a band night in Cwmaman shortly afterwards. He seemed to have sorted himself out. I think I was wrong, though. He died a little while back.
I found her parents’ phone number some years ago, just after Xmas, and rang to see whether K— fancied a drink and a catch-up. Her father was very wary at first, but when he realised who I was, he and her mother agreed that she’d be safe in my hands. Now she’s involved with a sensible guy, having been through the dark times and emerging relatively unscathed. There are plenty of people in Aberdare who are still living in the dark times. I don’t know any of them, and that’s the way it’s going to stay.
And so it seems that women continue to actively pursue wholly unsuitable men whenever possible. I’ve seen a photo of a guy who’s in a new relationship with one of my female friends. If someone had taken a photo like that of me, I wouldn’t even dream of putting it on Facebook, much less using it as a profile picture. It looks more like a mugshot you’d see on Crimewatch than in a frame on someone’s mantelpiece. I’m just waiting for the whole thing to go tits up. I really hope it won’t, for her sake, but given her track record I’ve got a bad feeling about it.
C— has just been into the pub to say hello, displaying Unexplained Drunken Injuries from last night’s festivities. She’s gone somewhere else now. I don’t go in that particular pub anyway, so I’ve left her to it. I don’t know who she’s meeting, but I bet he’s one of the extras from Not Born Beautiful
I’m not involved with anyone, so I can’t get hurt. I just get to act as a shoulder to cry on whenever things go wrong for the women I’ve mentioned already. But I don’t know why they come to me for moral support. I’m really not equipped to offer relationship advice. What I know about psychology has been gleaned from a few textbooks, TV and radio documentaries, two modules during my first year, and a whole lot of observation over the past three decades.
It’s a hell of a lot less than Sigmund Freud knew – and if he couldn’t answer the question ‘what does a woman want?’, I’ve got no fucking chance!