The word agentic—derived from agency—has been floating around in my head after reading Hugo Schwyzer’s recent piece at Jezebel arguing against a couple of blog posts published on the websites In Mala Fide and Heartiste (full disclosure: both guys are on my blogroll).
Schwyzer decries the arguments put forth at those sites suggesting that women like assholes, bad boys, and jerks:
Never mind that the research on what heterosexual women actually want doesn’t bear this out. For years, studies have shown that women do rate kindness as a particularly attractive quality in a man. Along with humor and intelligence, generosity is a particularly valuable trait; as one study showed earlier this month, guys become more selfless (read: less assholish) when in the presence of women they find attractive.
Seems to me that everyone is right; it just depends on the starting point. Instead of fostering the trope that women like bad boys, jerks, and gangsters to the detriment of nice guys; I tend to believe that women, on average, prefer agentic men—men who act. All else being equal, women prefer men who act in a positive direction. But maybe we should put some stock in that common cultural trope attributed to women: “All the good ones are taken.” Women prefer agentic nice guys, but maybe all of them are taken.
Agentic men are straight-forward, assertive, goal-oriented, and principled. They could be perfectly friendly, emotionally available, altruistic, and presentable to parents, but in a society where assertive behavior and competition are watched with a discerning eye, men with end-games outside social norms are more willing to employ their assertiveness.
Being direct, being unafraid to ask for something, taking what you want: these are all qualities that women find attractive – even when it involves the man’s expressions of sexual desire. For a majority of women, their choice of mate is directly related to the resources that mate can provide, and what a man can provide is a function of his action. A nice guy who has access to resources brings two things to the table: he can get “stuff”, and he’s likely to share a lot of that “stuff” with his partner. An agentic bad boy has at least one Ace in his hand: he can get “stuff.” Being more self-centered, he’s more likely to keep a larger proportion for himself, but his woman indirectly benefits from a larger pie. Since women want resources, it would make sense that if given the choice, women would choose the nicest guy possible—as long as the nice guy has access to resources. The problem is that lines don’t form so neatly.
It would be instructive to drill down and look at general examples of the various groups of men. We can compartmentalize men into 5 camps in order from most desired by women to least, and I’ll provide examples of each type:
1. The Nice Guy You Know. Example: George Clooney. Agentic Nice guys. The male equivalent of the Platinum Preferred American Express. Their assertiveness pushes them into traditional alpha male territory which increases their attractiveness, and they are generally in control of most situations. Agentic nice guys smile and exude confidence because they are actually happy and confident. They are altruistic and good-natured towards women because they want to be, not because they feel a sense of shame for not providing. They are internally-driven.
2. The Dick You Know. Example: Don Draper. Pimps. Drug Dealers. Charlie Sheen. Roissy. Agentic Bad Boys. These men fall into the asshole and jerk category, but they’re real and their women know what they’re getting. Agentic bad boys are assertive and exude confidence and high status. Like the group above, these guys are usually in control of the situation. But they often work outside the confines of polite society to get what they want. For the most part, they don’t lie about what they’re doing or who they’re doing it with. In extreme cases, these men behave viciously and possibly abuse their women, but the women come back for more because they at least know what to expect from their man and many enjoy the drama.
3. The Dick You Don’t Know. Example: Tiger Woods. Opportunistic Bad Boys. These guys are the douchebags of the world. The narcissism that begets their douchebaggery oxidizes as confidence and high status helping their attractiveness to women—although situational control begins to erode at this altitude. Their drawback is that they are afraid to expose their true nature for fear that they won’t be accepted by women. Their outward displays of narcissism overshadow their internal wish to do good leading to a convoluted self-image. When the mask is removed, women become bitter because they thought they knew their Dick.
4. The Nice Guy You Don’t Know. Example: Tiger Woods if he weren’t a billionaire. George Costanza as presented on ‘Seinfeld’. Supplicating nice guys. These guys have been trademarked by some; they are the ones who have received 100 “You are such a nice guy” remarks for every peck on their rosy red cheek. Everything they do with regards to women is a reaction to what they think they should be doing and not what they actually want to do; control is out of their hands. Since they aren’t in control, their desires aren’t manifested. This particular type of guy has fleeced himself of his sexuality because he thinks that’s what he should do. They lie to themselves about what they actually want. They tell themselves they do nice things because they are nice and not because they want to move towards a sexual relationship.
Tony Clink, who offers dating advice:
It’s not because women like jerks. Women prefer polite over rude, and attentive over distracted. The problem is the way nice guys present these positive characteristics. In order to appear friendly and romantic, these ‘nice guys’ think they have to turn off their sexuality. They hide their desires in order not to offend, presenting an androgynous, asexual persona. The first impression they give is one of emasculation, weakness, and lack of desire. At best, they confuse the woman as to whether they even find her attractive. That’s what jerks offer women that nice guys don’t: they’re not afraid to be sexual.
5. The Dick You Don’t Care to Know. Example: George Costanza if he weren’t made-for-TV. When you get this far down the list it doesn’t really matter what’s going on. My main purpose in putting this here is to at least give NGYDK some assurance that they aren’t the dregs. This last group are men who are negative, foul-spirited, and lacking in confidence. “Sour” is a good word to describe them. “Hater” is another. They are petty and don’t at least offer a smile while behaving that way. They seek to tear people down at every turn—not out of some strategy for their own upward mobility, but because they seek company.
Women don’t want bad boys if given a choice. But agentic nice guys sell out quickly, and they usually go to the highest bidders. There are also fewer of these types of guys because our society places curbs on their manufacture—in fact, it punishes agentic behavior early on. The men best poised to capitalize are the men who aren’t opposed to ruffling society’s feathers a little bit in the first place. And nice guys—or the 80% of them who finish last—fall down the ladder because they aren’t willing to compete.
Read Jonatan Bäckelie’s response to this post:
—Photo Jon Åslund/Flickr