Why Are Men Expected to Make the First Move?

why are men expected to make the first move

Men are usually handed the responsibility of initiating dates or sexual encounters. Are we ready to move past these stereotypical roles?


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.


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, “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 … 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 … OK, 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 site Jezebel.com:

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?

Many feminists say that it’s “not our job” to give positive romantic advice—especially to men. But the question of how heterosexual men act romantically is extremely relevant to heterosexual women.

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, then we should offer to help. 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.

Personally, 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.

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.

—This is an edited version. The original first appeared on AlterNet.

—Photo Maxime Guilbot/Flickr

Why Are Men Expected to Make the First Move?

About Clarisse Thorn

Clarisse Thorn is a feminist sex writer who has given workshops all over the USA. She wrote a book about masculinity, dating dynamics, and sex theory called Confessions of a Pickup Artist Chaser; she’s also got a best-of collection called The S&M Feminist. Recently, she released an anthology about sexual assault in virtual worlds called Violation: Rape In Gaming. Clarisse has also explored fiction with short stories like The End Of An Age: A Ramayana. To stay up-to-date with Clarisse’s work, visit her blog or follow her on Twitter.


  1. Imagine a fictional situation where we’ve got two guys, Mike and Dave, who are looking for a job, with equally good resumes, interview skills, and work experience. In other words, if they each applied to the same number of jobs, they’d be equally likely to get hired. The only difference is that they’re subject to different rules. Mike is allowed to submit his resume as much as he likes wherever he likes. Dave, on the other hand, is required to sit around and hope than an employer approaches him. Although Dave has a degree in electrical engineering, he keeps getting approached by that greasy-haired manager from the local McDonalds, and nobody else. If he approaches a place where he wants to work, the potential employers reject him as being either too ‘pushy’ or too ‘desperate’ or too ‘easy’ and therefore not valuable. Who do you think is more likely to get a job they want; Mike or Dave?

    A woman’s situation in dating is like Dave’s situation in that analogy. Traditional society expects us to wait to be chosen, instead of choosing who we want. Don’t call it a privileged position. Believe me, it’s not! It’s a frustrating lack of freedom. Seriously, would you want to be in Dave’s situation? So guys, if you want a culture where women will feel comfortable making the first move, encourage every woman you know! Reassure them that there’s nothing slutty or desperate about a woman making the first approach, because every TV show we’ve ever seen and a lot of the dating advice people have given has told us the reverse.

    • Valter Viglietti says:

      @Jen, while I agree that traditional roles suck big time (and I’m all against them), your analogy doesn’t hold water at all.

      The man-woman relationship exists on a peer basis (or it should be); an employer-employee relationship is top-bottom (or even master-servant if you will). Comparing them is like comparing a hammer and a feather.
      And, of course Mike has more chances, but what’s holding Dave from approaching employers? Rejection from moronic ones? 😉

      My point is this: if you see a interesting and smart guy (and you think you’re potentially interesting to him), he will be delighted to get your attention. Hey, anybody likes being flattered!
      The instances of rejection would only be:
      1) He’s traditional and think that women approaching men are either desperate, scary or slutty.
      —> But this means he’s NOT smart, so are you still interested in him? Isn’t this a “natural selection”?
      2) He doesn’t find you interesting and/or attractive.
      —> Bummer. But your NOT approaching him wouldn’t have changed this fact; and your approaching him lets you know this, so you won’t waste your time waiting.

      @Jen: “So guys, if you want a culture where women will feel comfortable making the first move, encourage every woman you know!”
      Sure I do! 😀
      But, on your (female) part, you need to have gut, take initiative and risk rejection.
      If women really want equality, there no space for these roles (hunter and prey) anymore.

      Risking judgment is not really different from risking rejection: men suffer from rejection and judgment all the time, when they approach women. Yet they still do (because sometimes the woman is worth it 😉 ).
      Thus, “playing the game” and approaching men, for women, is just practicing the equality so many of you talk about.
      Welcome to this scary and uncomfortable arena; it was about time. 8)

    • AlekNovy says:

      99 out of a 100 men I know to encourage women to make moves. Any conversation on this subject will have the men talking about how much they would love or like for women to make moves, and the women defending the status quo.

      Even in feminist spaces with hardcore (let’s abolish all gender roles) mantras, the majority of the women defend the status quo. So this ridiculous notion that women are lazy because men don’t’ encourage them is fallacious to the core.

      We have an entire society of men BEGGING for women to start doing stuff…

    • Encourage every woman I know to feel more comfortable in approacheing men? One problem.
      Because of the “rules” of our game and the rejections, i do not know ANY. Nice try though!

  2. trollologic says:

    the author is a total slut. hot chicks will never awkwardly initiate conversation with a nerd, get over it. they dont have to. and for the record, “the first move” is eye contact, and they usually do make it. Anyways, women could totally have any guy they want. it’s sadly hilarious they dont try more often, but c’est la vie. the whole gender “scripts” explains a lot of mens hostility towards women. they make beasts of us.

    • I do not get how you could say anything about the author’s sexual life, even less sexisticly slut-shame her about it, but maybe you have psychic abilities, I don’t know.
      Women not making the first move is really TOO CRUEL and threatening to all men and their lives. I can totally see how that is one big reason for misogyny and hostility towards women, indeed.

  3. There’s never been a hint heavy enough for me to believe that a woman is interested in me, so most of the relationships I have had have begun with the woman taking the initiative. But (and this is why neither dating nor pick-up work for me; all my relationships began as friendships) before that initiative is taken there is a period of hint dropping from both parties where we steadily get more comfortable and heavier and more obvious with the hints. But it is actually a lot more to do with the “being thought a creep” thing you refer to in your other article than the fear of rejection. Particularly as, by the time I feel trusting enough of someone to not judge me and be honest in their response, I’m then so heavily into the friendship zone I think “am I now betraying trust? Or worse, does it look like I’m undervaluing our friendship by risking it in this way?” and there is another element of guilt introduced to it.

    I’m not blaming society for the way I feel, I think I may have some issues of my own, but I think women who are set on the established “scripts” find the route I take difficult to read or quickly lose interest. So I’m all in favour of women taking the initiative more often. My most recent ex, talking of Midsummer Night’s Dream shortly after we got together, said “people have it wrong when they see Hermia as the strong one and Helena as the weak one. Helena’s the one that knows what she wants and pursues her man. Hermia is just stroppy really; It’s Helena that shows real strength and passion.”

    Of course Helena is aware that she’s breaking an established social order when she does it; “Apollo flies and Daphne holds the chase… We cannot fight for love as men may do; we should be wooed and were not made to woo” and yet she bucks that trend and successfully, as it turns out. She’s years ahead of her time. She should be given far more credit.

  4. You gotta respect The Game, ladies–both the book and the idea.

    Yes, initiation is great, but that’s only the beginning of the pick up. There are several more important steps you have to take before you can verify attraction.

    First, you have to not surprise/scare your new “friend” (this is why approaching straight on is a no-no. Giving a verbal time limit to your introduction is also highly effective).

    After you’ve casually inserting yourself into this stranger’s circle, you then have to find commonality and show that you’re a fun, attractive person.

    Then you being to sell your higher qualifications (ambition, wealth, success, whatever) using subtle messaging and testimonials (testimonials from their own friends is best. This is why college was so easy to find a mate).

    After you’ve sold yourself, you then still have to make the guy do some work by being fun and at least a little bit higher status than him (nobody wants to date a loser).

    Only after all that work should you then try to make the close on him (a kiss, a phone number, whatever).


    Honestly, though, I’ve never seen a woman not be able to cold pick up a guy, though. Sometimes it feels like women are constantly doing this, too—even in non-dating environments, like work.

    For me, the whole point of The Game was to teach men the very thing that women ALWAYS seem to be able do when they want someone. It’s weird to read about a woman who doesn’t know this mating dance.

    And for any men or women experiencing the same issues as the author, I highly recommend reading the The Game in its entirety. It really helped me understand the psychology of meeting strangers and I’ve been able to put these ideas into practice at bars, at parties, at networking events, with online dating or just walking down the street in a new city or country and making new friends.

    If you follow these steps I listed above, I doubt you’ll ever be hard rejected again. And even if you do, you’ll remember that those people that reject you don’t even know you and/or they’ve got other things going on that have nothing to do with you or your approach.

    There are millions of other fish in the sea. Just keep tweaking your approaches until you start seeing eyes dilate and feet readjust to point toward you when you speak;)

    • Hi Jason
      You say :
      ✺”For me, the whole point of The Game was to teach men the very thing that women ALWAYS seem to be able do when they want someone. It’s weird to read about a woman who doesn’t know this mating dance.”✺
      This is an interesting statement .
      But do you also think women have the same contempt for men as men on PUA websites have for women?
      And do you actually mean women manipulate men into bed and have lots of strategies to weaken his defense and totally ignore his personal borders when he expresses his borders?
      PUA work hard to ignore and find ways to outmaneuver a women’s no. And you think this is women do with men all the time to get laid?

  5. Who can blame men for eschewing relatonships all together?! This is such childish bs.Oooooh,I can’t ask a man out,its too hard. BUT…they want respect and happiness and to be treated like independent beings.There is a price to be paid.

    • What’s wrong with some of you.
      Being treated with respect has nothing to do with wanting to approach someone. I know males and females that don’t make the first move – they deserve respect, they are humans beings living with their choices, independent in a lot of ways. The price to be paid is lack of respect? Come on.

      • Le masculine privilegies. You don’t make the first move (or anything wlse that men want and that is not even essential for their lives) and then men will eschew relationships all because of that, while also believe that is a good excuse to disrespected women and treated them poorly as they don’t deserve happiness. Not childish bs at all, my friends lol.

  6. Are you really experiencing people calling you a slut because you asked them out? That seems a little bit extreme. The whole thing with making the first move is that 70 percent of the time you’re apt to get shut down. It has nothing to do with if someone is a traditional guy or not. It has to do with them being into you. That’s the bottom line. If you want to make the first move, you gotta be okay with potentially getting rejected a lot.

  7. Perhaps the first step for women is to be more obvious at looking at men that interest them. Men are often described as “hard-wired” to look when they see a female they like. Why aren’t women so obvious about it too? It would make it easier for men to make the first move. Then a lot of this grief would go away without having to complain that women don’t make the first move.

    • Men should wear more appealing/revealing clothes, then. Women can’t noticed too much of men’s body type and fitness through loose shirts and pants, and that is the most essential part of initial attraction.

    • Supra deluca says:

      Women usually have great hair. Wear revealing clothes and cool accessories. Shave their bodies. Apply make-up. And also have great physical expression and gracefulness. While most men are just plain, hairy everywhere and much less physically expressive and graceful, or emotionally charming – but they still feel entitled to women that puts MUCH more effort into their looks than them.
      When men is at the same level, you could ask women to look more. In fact, you won’t even have to ask, they will be gazing into your soul.

  8. When I read something like this, I begin to wonder how much of the tone and opinion is tinged by the author’s psyche. She is clearly making an attempt to be impartial and universal in her statements, and I think she is for the most part successful and honest. Plus, in the first place, I applaud her combination of fortitude and thoughtfulness concerning the subject. However, I’m tempted to agree with Jeff’s position above when he says, “Are you really experiencing people calling you a slut because you asked them out? That seems a little bit extreme.” I could be wrong in that, because I’ve never been a woman asking out a man–hell, despite being heterosexual, I’ve barely been a man asking a woman out. But these kinds of things always make me wonder, maybe because I think it’s counterintuitive for guys (who usually want to get laid more than they do) to slut-shame women who they might otherwise be interested in if she hadn’t approached them so directly. I think if a guy finds a girl who approaches him attractive, at most he might wonder if her forwardness means she’s had a dangerous number of sexual partners and might want to find that out, but he’s probably not gonna blow his chances with her, unless he’s such a stud he can have practically anyone. So, maybe the “slut-shaming” is coming from other women, or if there are no other women to chime in, from the approacher’s psyche. Not to say that it’s entirely her fault if she feels like people her are judging her as “slutty,” because society is certainly guilty of instilling women with an unhealthy degree of unwarranted shame when it comes to sex. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t want the perception that men are more resistant to female advances than they are. I think women taking the initiative is a great thing, even if it does mean men would have to learn how to politely turn a woman down without hurting her feelings.
    I think when it comes to gender equality, women are often their own worst enemies when they discourage their own, and other women’s, freer expression of sexuality.

    • What is a dangerous number of sexual partners? 1 where you use no protection and don’t get tested or 300 where you do? You’re essentially saying that a man might be worried she’s a slut/sexually promiscuous in your defence that men don’t think women who approach are sluts? Or did you mean something else?

      As for the sluts thing, I think the author is using it as a shorthand here for women who are just into sex (plus value judgement from the guy), meaning he thinks her initiation is a sign she’s happy to be/only worth being “f*cked and dumped” as per the PUA guy’s comment. I don’t think she’s saying the last time he walked up to a guy in a bar he turned round and yelled SLUT really loudly.

      • Anonymous says:

        Maybe I wasn’t so clear. I guess I’m just trying to distinguish between a man’s concern that a woman has low moral standards (for relationship potential), and the concern that she could be, for lack of a better term, “riddled with diseases” (for sex). Because, it’s either about sex or relationship, isn’t it? I don’t think men are THAT concerned about a woman’s promiscuity for reasons of morality. I think that’s more a construct of society and religion; the “voice” calling her a slut is the voice of her own superego judging her for being so forward.

  9. Did the author step out of some time portal from 20 years ago? Since when are men STILL expected to make the first move? Sorry, but this article and the question itself confounds me.

  10. Because women who do so are seen as flirtatious whores, which is what female PUAs are. Men have to risk getting shut down while women can’t. Women are supposed to be desirable. It hurts men’s egos and masculinity when women approach even though women mistake a man’s friendliness as flirting. Women still can’t be friendly towards the opposite sex. They have to be silent, aloof, and demure. Men prefer cold ice queens over warm, friendly women.

  11. “Surely there are ways for a woman to initiate that feel less threatening or confusing for men than others”

    There is a simple an easy solution for this. Send more first messages to men on online dating sites. Instead of wading through the torrent of email cr*p that most women get from online dating, take the initiative and send the message to the man first. Of course there is a risk of being ‘rejected’ by not having the email responded to, but that is far more safe than making the first move IRL.


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