Sex & Relationships

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 ofBecause 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’).”

This forms an interesting contrast to what men experience as initiators. I've already written about some of the romantic and sexual double binds men deal with as part of a previous AlterNet article. One of the points I made is that usually, when men initiate, they don’t have to fear being seen as “slutty” but they do have to worry about being seen as “creepy."

Some men, feeling frustrated with those anxieties, claim they would just love it if women would do all the initiating! And yet those same men will sometimes act as Derek described above -- labeling women who initiate as sluts -- or, alternatively, simply won’t know how to react to an initiating woman. As Hugo Schwyzer, a senior professor of gender and women's studies at Pasadena College in California, says: “Men often say that they have no problem with an aggressive woman, until they actually meet one -- and find themselves confused. What might seem flattering and relieving in theory becomes discombobulating in practice, as some men (by no means all) flounder without the script that gives them a clear-cut role. Many men claim that it is burdensome to have to risk rejection by always taking the initiative -- but many discover that they feel equally burdened rather than liberated by having to let go of the culturally familiar role as dominant partner.”

I’ve found that in some ways it's useful that many guys don't react well to me making the first move, because a guy who can't handle hacking our society's gendered scripts is probably not a great partner for me anyway. But even with less-traditional guys, everything seems to go better if I cede the stereotypical initiation role; if I focus more on looking cute, batting my eyelashes, not seeming too interested, and smiling really widely. It’s confusing, and I’d love to have more access to tried-and-true social strategies for how to navigate these tricky shoals. Surely there are ways for a woman to initiate that feel less threatening or confusing for men than others; I want to learn them. I’d also love it if more men in my life had access to good tactical advice on how to initiate with me. It’s not in my interest for guys who could be a great match to feel paralyzed approaching me because they’re not sure how to avoid coming off as a creep.

My relationships are a major topic of discussion with close friends, of course. That’s where a lot of my best ideas come from. It’d be nice to have access to more, though. Supposedly, there’s a whole dating advice industry that could help me with this. But as a feminist, I’m quite aware of the flaws in that industry. For women, there are awful stereotypical treatises such as The Rules, which tell us that the less genuine we are, the better. Men are served by "pickup artists" who often give misogynistic "seduction" advice. (It's worth noting that there are pickup artists who recognize and critique the most unpleasant attitudes within their subculture, and who seek to co-opt its best analysis for real, non-adversarial gender liberation. As one such pickup artist writes: “There are a lot of problems with the seduction community that feminists correctly observe, including misogyny, cynicism towards relationships, and a few tactics that are bad for consent.” Unfortunately, none of these guys have yet written their own pickup guide.)

When I Googled “feminist dating advice,” not much came up to help me. The fifth hit was probably my favorite, a one-line blog post that says very simply, “Oh, for Chrissakes -- just pick up the phone and call him.” Well ... okay, that’s funny, and it can be decent advice, sometimes, in some circumstances. Something funnier comes from the very first hit -- an article from the popular feminist site Jezebel.com that starts with a deconstruction of existing dating manuals, and ends by saying “Behold, the Jezebel Dating Guide:

“Step 1: Don't be an asshole.

“Step 2: Do whatever you want, as long as it doesn't violate Step 1.”

I don’t disagree. At the same time: what now? Where do I go from there?

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Requests for romantic advice can get complicated in feminist spaces, especially for men. Many feminists say that it's "not our job" to give positive romantic advice -- especially to men. Inasmuch as feminists have a "job" (which is a weird way to put it when referring to a multifaceted social movement, but okay), it's to look out for situations and cultural dynamics that harm women.

Of course feminism should focus on women and things that harm women. At the same time, if feminists cede the field of romantic advice, we cede it to pickup artists and The Rules. Yes, there are many very important gender issues to deal with, and perhaps some of those issues could be characterized as “more important” than how we negotiate romance. But cultural standards are not independent pillars; rather, they're a complex and interdependent web of norms and ideas. Having a positive impact in one area of gender relations will affect the rest of the web.

I think a lot of feminists also don't want to negotiate the perceived minefield of giving advice about how men can make advances, because there's a tacit fear that we could end up being misunderstood and enabling more unwanted advances on men's part. This would then put women under even more pressure in a society that's not good at teaching women how to set boundaries or teaching men to respect them. But if feminists can succeed at giving good romantic advice -- including advice for straight men -- then we'll be lessening some of the nastier gendered pressures around relationships.

The question of how heterosexual men act romantically is extremely relevant to heterosexual women; when we feminists can have a positive impact on that, then we should. There are plenty of honorable men who want to approach receptive partners but have trouble figuring out how to do so; when we feminists can have a positive impact on that, too, then we should. And after all, it’s not like we can’t include advice on how to respect boundaries alongside, perhaps, tactical advice on how to read a woman’s signals or how to approach her in a charming way.

Another common objection to the idea of feminist romantic advice is that the occasional attempts to create, say, discussion on how men can express sexual interest in a feminist way almost always seem to end up mired in nastiness -- as typical antifeminist jerks storm in and write comments like, "It seems most 'feminists' are just sexists in a thin disguise, blaming men for all the problems in society." There's got to be goodwill on both sides for feminist romantic advice to be workable, and that goodwill has been lacking for a while. But I believe that goodwill is starting to build.

It's also sometimes pointed out that feminists usually aren't as interested in advising people on how to date within current gender scripts, as we are in busting the scripts. As a feminist commented on one blog: "For many feminists, playing traditional gender roles in order to get a date is not worth it. It’s dehumanizing and annoying and frustrating." That's fair, too, and it points to one final difficulty: even if lots of feminists wanted to give widely-applicable romantic advice, we'd probably have a hard time doing it, because we so often focus on busting scripts in our own lives.

Me, for example -- I'm not sure I'd be the best source of advice for feminist women who want to date mainstream guys, because I don't tend to date mainstream guys. (It's also unclear how many mainstream guys would want to date me. Many are thrown off by my unshaven legs and discussions of privilege.) Still, notwithstanding the fact that every man is a beautiful and unique snowflake, I could isolate a number of frequently effective Clarisse Thorn Romance Tactics. Because I don't know whether those tactics work well for me due to other characteristics of mine, or because I tend to be attracted to guys who respond well to them, maybe one place to start could be with an open space for discussing romantic strategies that strive to be both feminist and ethical -- and also enjoy a high success rate. That way, I could collaborate with feminist men, feminist queers, and feminist women who like dating normative dudes to get a variety of perspectives and develop an awesomely inclusive curriculum.

And besides, implying that "traditional gender roles" stand in opposition to "feminism" -- as the feminist commenter I quoted above does -- is problematic. After all, there are feminist housewives and feminists who wear lipstick and feminists who play submissive in the bedroom. There must be ways for people of all genders to be feminist while working within -- perhaps even subversively and self-consciously playing within -- our gendered scripts. And for those who really do prefer to bust the scripts open every which way, I think there could be feminist romance curricula that focus on the most successful script-busting tactics.

As a feminist, I believe that one of the most important things feminists can do is give people of all genders more choices in how we live our lives, and how we interact with the gendered scripts that shape us. Surely, feminist romantic advice could be a powerful tool for this.