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Is “dating down” a thing for sapphics? 

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Nov 20, 2023

Is “dating down” a thing for sapphics? 
  • In the sapphic dating scene, I would argue the concept of “dating down” or being “out of her league” doesn’t exactly translate. 

    In my petty gay mind, I see a straight couple, and 99% of the time, I immediately think,

    “Oh, she’s out of his league.”

    Catherine Henderson

    I see a gay couple on the street, and all I can say is — no notes. Their existence is a radical act of queer love. They make each other hotter.  Equilibrium achieved. 

    Okay, maybe I’m being a bit hyperbolic. Let me take a step back from my utopian queer vision for a second. 

    It’s important to consider balance in any relationship. I find the language of “dating down” to be a condescending way to describe this. As a society, we are obsessed with evaluating the success or failure of relationships along the axes of relative beauty, class, power, and influence. It’s icky! Still, these dynamics are also facts of our society that do inform how we date, and queer people are not exempt from upholding these systems. To ignore them altogether would also be naive. 

    Okay, bear with me — I’m almost done with my sociology lesson.  This is why queer people don’t get dating columns in Cosmopolitan. 

    So, do I think “dating down” exists in the sapphic scene? Yes — queer women and nonbinary people can be just as obsessed with beauty and class as straight people. But we have an opportunity to use queer relationships and dating as a tool to interrogate these assumptions and propose better alternatives for finding balance in our relationships that go beyond norms about status that are almost always sexist, classist, racist, and, yes, homophobic

    Simply put, in the words of PJ from the 2023 sapphic comedy Bottoms,

    “All women are hot to me.”


    There are no leagues, just gorgeous girls, gays, and theys. 

    Rachel Sennott in Bottoms, dir. Emma Seligman

    Source: Twitter

    What is dating down?

    According to Urban Dictionary, dating down is “dating someone of a much lower caliber than you have in the past or are worthy of.” Ouch. 

    Paige DeSorbo of Bravo’s Summer House — one of my favorite straight girlies on reality TV who teaches me the ways of the straight world — put it this way:

    “I’m better than you, and everyone knows it, and so it’s uncomfortable for both of us.”

    Paige DeSorbo

    I love Paige for being a hot, straight woman who literally hates men. But damn, that’s savage. 

    Sometimes, a petty part of us needs to “win” the relationship, and viewing our partner as inferior gives us a measure of security that we will be “the one that got away.” We all get caught in these narratives, but they’re pretty harsh toward the person we’re with. When we can spot this type of thinking and course correct, our relationships will be better off. 

    Dating down: money and power 

    Generally, “dating down” as a concept is even more limited to material things than being “out of someone’s league.” It’s about salary, beauty, education, and class. 

    I don’t think of my relationships in terms of dating up or dating down, but I also know class is often an inescapable fact. I have been on either end of this dynamic in my past two relationships. In my most recent relationship, when we first started dating, we were making the same amount of money, and about three months in, I got promoted, and she went back to school. In college, my partner came from extreme wealth, and the amount of money they spent on gifts became a point of contention in our relationship. 

    In both situations, all I can say is I wish I did a better job of talking about these things. Where were there opportunities to find activities that are free? When could we have addressed money more directly instead of letting it become resentment? 

    One of the main things I disagree with about “dating down” is that it boils down relationships to power and control. The influence of money and power in our society is inescapable, but using your beauty or your six-figure salary to keep someone in a relationship is toxic. It can also be abusive. 

    And these dynamics absolutely do play out in sapphic relationships. It reminds me of Carmen Maria Machado’s book In the Dream House, which describes an abusive relationship that turns violent, in part because of status markers as two writers: “the idea that queer does not equal good or pure or right. It is simply a state of being.” 

    Mostly, “dating down” is a silly societal construct from straight people, but the more you think about it, the more insidious it becomes. 

    Self-expansion theory 

    Lesbian couple running on a mountain at sunset

    Self-expansion theory provides a more optimistic lens to consider how we choose our partner in relationships. This social psychology model provides a framework for understanding our close relationships. Self-expansion theory argues that we choose our relationships based on our need to learn, grow, and improve. According to psychologist Gary Lewandoski,

    “today’s modern couples hold high expectations for a partner’s role in our own self-development.” 

    Gary Lewandoski

    In self-expansion theory, your relationship helps you become a better person. You support each other’s goals and ambitions rather than competing against each other for success. You try new things because of them. You consider new perspectives based on your conversations. You learn about new things that they are interested in. These are all green flags in a relationship. 

    According to Lewandowski, people who report more self-expansion in their relationships also report more passionate love, relationship satisfaction, and commitment. (None of these studies had any queer couples in their sample. Do better, field of psychology!) 

    One of the things I love about my current relationship is how we introduce each other to new things. Without her, I would never have joined a running club in my neighborhood. Since we started dating, she’s fallen in love with reading for fun again, and I give her many book recommendations. We support each other’s goals. We enjoy a lively conversation about our intersecting interests. She makes me feel like the best version of myself. 

    Does this mean she’s out of my league? Sometimes I think so! But what I love most about our relationship is the respect we have for each other. It isn’t about who’s “better” at all. 

    Maybe self-expansion theory is a better way to evaluate balance and growth in relationships, with an important caveat.  The language of “self-optimization” is something that always gives me pause. We are not products — we are people.  Life is not an upward climb toward our “final form.” Self-expansion theory verges into this unforgiving territory. We do not need to “actualize” ourselves through our relationships. We just need to love (This was a recent epiphany I had after watching Love Island while stoned.) 

    Also, we know the kiss of death for romantic relationships is trying to change someone. Us queers are just as guilty of this. I hate to say it, but I’ve been there. I was out here telling my friends,

    “She says she doesn’t see herself dating women to other people in front of me, but when it’s just us, she says we have something special.”

    Catherine Henderson

    Oh I was down sooooo bad. 

    Finding balance in your relationship 

    Trans couple kisses at sunset

    Source: Pinterest

    So how do we find balance in relationships and navigate all these societal ideas about beauty, class, and status? 

    First, talk about these things with your partner. Poke holes in the foundation of these heteropatriarchal assumptions about who should be in control of the money or what it means to be a beautiful woman. Imagine queer futures together where you are fighting for the liberation of all oppressed people, not just the hot ones. 

    This is how gay relationships are — we love to discourse! It’s hilarious and beautiful. Tell me why my brother was at a gay bar on Halloween, opening up the discourse about cisnormativity on the dance floor. It’s how queer people bond sometimes. 

    In these conversations with a partner, be specific about how these dynamics play out in your own relationship. I mentioned this above, but it’s my biggest regret in my past relationships that I allowed my anxieties about money to fester instead of bringing it up and finding solutions together.  

    As for balance, finding the right dynamic in a relationship takes time and practice. It requires good instincts, constantly checking in with yourself, and flexibility. Relationships aren’t static — what we’re really going for here is equilibrium. There are times when we can step up for our partner or when we need them to return the favor. How can you be kinder to each other and make your relationship a little nest to shelter from the world? 


    Dating down? Dating up? At HER, we aren’t here for the binaries. Queer dating is expansive. We date in all directions. We are all tangled up in each other’s experiences and identities. It’s a complete mess, and it’s beautiful. 

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    Catherine Henderson is a journalist based in Chicago. She has worked at a wide variety of newsrooms, including The Denver Post, Chalkbeat, Business Insider and In These Times, covering education, career development and culture. Catherine holds a master’s and bachelor’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University. Outside of work, she enjoys traveling, exploring Chicago, reading LGBTQ lit, and analyzing internet trends.

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