Andrew Smiler says flexibility is the key to minimizing the influence of gender on first dates.
It’s not possible to have a completely gender neutral date. Gender, our cultural and personal notions of how people should act based on their biological sex, influences too many aspects of our behavior to be completely neutralized. In the dating context, gender roles provide an outline of how things “should” work. But in a day and age where equality is the expectation, why stick to a rigid outline based on your genitalia?
I’m trying to write this guide to apply across all genders, masculine, feminine, trans*, etc. If I’ve missed or something is very wrong, I have faith someone will let me know in the comments. I’m also writing based on my own American background and referring primarily to gender roles as they currently exist in the US. Depending on where you’re from, you may have grown up with this approach or you may find it completely foreign.
When it comes to the first date, the masculine or “butch” or “dom” role is generally defined by taking the lead. The butch asks some version of “I’d like to take you out to dinner, a movie, coffee, etc.,” does all the logistical work to make that date happen, initiates physical/sexual contact, and is responsible for starting conversation the next day if “he” wants the relationship to continue. Hetrerosexual American guys assume they’ll pay for the first date, regardless of whether they endorse traditional or egalitarian gender roles.
The female or “femme” or “sub” role is generally defined by sending subtle, mostly non-verbal messages of interest and responding to the butch’s lead. This role means the femme becomes the “sexual gatekeeper” because “she” is the one who accepts or rejects the butch’s sexual advances.
Very little of this requires sexually dimorphic genitalia. Talking to someone, kissing and groping, and asking to see someone again (or not), requires a heart, a brain, a mouth, and the ability to communicate. Your genitalia—and your partner’s genitalia—are only relevant if you prefer some types of genitalia over others.
To minimize the impact of gender roles, you’ll need to think about this now so you know what you want to do before you start doing it. It’s important to be prepared. Remember that you are not required to maintain one role the entire time; you can switch anytime you like.
Overcoming Your Training. Before you can do something new, you’ll need to get past the messages that have been beaten into your head by American culture. One part of this is learning to adopt the other role, at least at times. Given how many times most guys hear some version of “don’t act like a girl,” that may not be the easiest way to approach it. Instead, think about being asked out as someone paying you a complement and offering to buy you dinner in exchange for the chance to get to know you better.
Another part is learning not to make blanket assumptions. One of the central tenets of the gender minimized date is that you can switch roles as you please. That means that being the lead doesn’t have any implications beyond having being the one to initiate that particular aspect of the first date. If a woman asks a man out or puts the sexual moves on him, it doesn’t mean she’s a slut (and it never did), it just means that she was ready for those things to happen before he was. Or more willing to take the risk of starting something and potentially getting turned down. If a guy doesn’t initiate, it doesn’t mean he’s a wimp. He might be shy. Or maybe he doesn’t trust his ability to read your nonverbal messages and has adopted a “better safe than sorry” approach.
In any dating scenario, you’ll need to decide if and how much sexual contact you want to have with this person at this time. Remember, guys are allowed to refuse, even if you’ve never heard one admit doing so. And that decision may need to be made quickly: your partner is allowed to make the first move. If you’re not sure, you can always say something like “I’m not ready to [fill in the blank] yet. Can we go back to what we were doing?”
You’ll also need to remember that someone can be in the leading role for one part of this thing called a first date, like asking out, and then move into the responsive role for another part, such as responding to the first sexual move. In other words, don’t assume that you or your partner will stay in one role for the entire first date. Or the entire relationship, for that matter.
Flirting and Checking Someone Out: For the most part, we don’t ask out random people that we’ve never said hello to. We flirt. We talk to the person we’re interested, learning about some of their interests and getting a sense of their personality.
You’re letting that person know that you’re interested in them and trying to figure out if they’re interested in you. You’re also trying to determine if they’re in a monogamous relationship and thus unavailable. Some of this is inevitably influenced by those gender scripts we’ve all learned, including the ways we show off our bodies (or not) and the interests we share. If you want to get out of gender-land quickly, share some of your “gender atypical” interests. Or, if you’re really bold, talk about the fact that you don’t really (or only partially) buy into gender stereotypes. Heck, you could even send the link for this article.
Ultimately, one of you will need to ask the other person out. Most people find this incredibly stressful, including Harry Potter. For all his bravery fighting Voldemort and his willingness to break the rules at Hogwarts, it took him about 2 years and eight million pages to finally ask Cho Chang out. The reason? When someone turns you down for a first date, it’s a rejection of you. You might not get a job because you had a bad interview or because someone else is genuinely better qualified, but those reasons don’t work when it’s about dating. Getting rejected sucks. But not asking and never knowing also suck. Be brave and ask someone out.
Asking Someone Out: When you ask someone on a date, it means you make all the plans. Start by selecting an activity (e.g., dinner, bowling, movie) and asking your partner if they’re ok with that choice. You’ll also need to choose the time, arrange transportation, and allow enough time to get there without rushing.
I firmly believe that whoever does the asking is also responsible for paying. That can be a little tricky, especially if you believe in equality. Instead of splitting costs 50-50, I prefer taking turns so I pay for the first date (if I’ve asked) and my date pays for the next date. This allows folks to plan a date that’s within their budget and it also creates a (small) social expectation that there will be a next time. When I’ve initiated a date, the bill comes, and my date has asked to split the cost, I’ll usually just say “why don’t you pay next time?” But if it’s going poorly and I don’t want there to be a next time, I will accept that offer to split the cost. If I’ve asked someone out, I never ask them to pay for half, even if it’s going poorly. I asked, so I pay.
The First Date: You’ll need to get ready before the first date. That means getting dressed in a way that shows who you are and may—or may not—mean emphasizing the parts of your body that are sexually desirable. Given that our standards of attractiveness are closely connected to gender, this is one place where you probably want to get all gendered up. Then again, “getting all gendered up” might be confusing if you’re mostly not following the standard gender script.
Then follow the plan that was set up when the date was proposed. If you asked the other person out, it’s on you to make sure y’all follow the plan. If you were asked out, then it’s your job to let the other person do what they said the two of you would be doing. Beyond this, there’s no formula. You can maintain one roll (leading or following) or you can switch around. If you go out for a meal, you could even order for each other.
Regardless of the role you’re playing, you need to be prepared to maintain a conversation. Some people are more outgoing than others and some people are better at small talk than others. You know some of your dating partner’s interests from flirting, so that’s always a good place to start. If you need to, prepare a list of topics in advance and memorize it.
Although it can be awkward, I recommend having at least a little conversation about gender roles—especially as they apply to dating and sex—during the first date. That is, if you haven’t had that conversation already. Lots of folks say you should avoid difficult topics like politics, religion, and sex during the first date, but that never made sense to me. If you 1) have a disagreement about one of these topics and 2) it’s a topic that you both feel strongly about, it may be a sign that you’re not supposed to be with the person. Personally, I’d rather know sooner than later. If the two of you are able to find common ground and resolve that difference, that’s also good to know.
The Follow Up: If you’ve been leading the whole time, then momentum says it’s your job to follow up. And if you’ve been responding the whole time, then it’s probably safe to assume your job is to wait by the phone, email, whatever. Then again, in the gender-minimized world, you’re allowed to switch roles as you please, so there’s no need to wait.
If you didn’t enjoy the first date and don’t want a second date, follow up is pretty straightforward. Don’t call, text, email, whatever. If your date gets in touch, I’m partial to ending things quickly, although it can come off as kind of mean. I say something like “I’m sorry, but I’m not interested in seeing you again.” Other people prefer not to respond or make up an excuse for saying no, hoping the other person will get the hint. I think that’s mean because it takes a week or two (or never) before the other person figures out that you’re not interested.
If you enjoyed the first date, tell the other person; odds are they already know. Although some folks say you should wait a few days, I’ve never understood the purpose of that, especially given all the ways we have to communicate. I usually wait until the next day, then get back in touch. From here, it’s back to flirting and you’ll need to make a decision if you’re going to initiate the second date or wait for your partner to do it.
And that’s it. The key here is that you don’t need to stick to a set of gender-based rules that are older than you are. You and your partner can structure your romantic and sexual life—who is responsible for what and when—any way you like. Keep an open mind, be honest with yourself and your partner, and pay attention to what you like and what your dating partner likes so you know what to keep (or avoid) doing. And if this works for you, go ahead and extend it to Valentine’s Day and your wedding.
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Photo credit: Mr T in DC/flickr