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Why Are Men Always Expected to Make the First Move in Sex and Relationships?

Everything we do romantically is shaped by gendered scripts; in American scripts, men are usually handed the responsibility of initiating dates or sexual encounters.

Being rejected sucks. Let me tell you about my first experience with it. Like me, the object of my desire was 13 years old, and he was the hottest thing ever -- a geek who loved the natural sciences. He seemed like an awesome match for an Internet-obsessed nerd girl with weird pets. Sadly, he responded to my overture by saying that I could shove one of my pets up my ass. I can laugh about this now, but it sure sucked in my teens, and gave me a complex about asking guys out that lasted through my 20s. Like just about everyone in the world, I know about the pain of rejection.

But I know how the receiving end can get, too. I grew up into a woman who -- like many women -- routinely manages unwanted advances from men. Some of those advances are not made with good intent, like the guys who shout gross comments at me in the street. Yet at the same time as that kind of deliberately invasive behavior is going on, there are also people of all genders trying to initiate real, mutual romantic relationships -- often misstepping even when their partner is receptive, and often experiencing very sad rejections.

Everything we do romantically is shaped by gendered scripts; in American scripts, men are usually handed the social responsibility of initiating dates or sexual encounters, while women usually get the social responsibility of appearing attractive and open enough to convince a man to say something. The awesome data-crunching blog for the dating site OKCupid notes that men send nearly four times as many introductory messages as women. Dr. Debby Herbenick, a research scientist at Indiana University and author of Because It Feels Good: A Woman's Guide to Sexual Pleasure and Satisfaction, told me that “While for male-female interactions it appears that men do much of the initiating, it's really a certain type of initiating -- maybe saying hello first or asking the woman on a date.”

In other words, women often work hard to send approachable signals first, but it’s men who are expected to express overt interest. Herbenick adds, “I think it's more often when people step out of their gender roles -- such as when women don't just settle for nonverbal initiation but walk up to a man and ask him out -- is when things get tricky in many (but fortunately not all) instances.”

In my middle-school case, I don't think that Natural Sciences Boy rejected me because I was the one to initiate; I think he wouldn't have been interested no matter what, because that's the fate of 13-year-old nerd girls. But now that I've grown up, I've generally found that it's strange and difficult to be a woman who initiates. Don't get me wrong -- I like it when guys ask me out; I really don't ever want to be in a position where I'm taking all the sexual initiative -- but I often find that I start the conversation, offer my number or ask for his, suggest dinner, suggest that we go home together, etc. And I often find that guys don't react well.

Part of the problem may be that straightforward women are often seen as “sluts.” In the blunt words of Derek L., cofounder of a San Francisco-based company called Social Savant that claims to help men improve their romantic lives: “I'm not surprised that women don't make the first move. They have so much to lose. There's judgment from their girlfriends ('Oh my God, she's such a slut to hit on that guy’). And she risks judgment from the guy she approaches (‘Oh my God, she approached me, must be a slut, I'll just fuck her and dump her’).”