A lot of guys lament the fact that they have to be the ones to initiate with women… Dr. NerdLove examines whether that’s true, and why.
One of the most recurring complaints that I hear from men, both here and in my columns at Kotaku, is that women don’t approach enough. Many, many guys, especially ones who are more socially inexperienced or who deal with acute approach anxiety, regularly lament the fact that men are expected to do all the hard work when it comes to trying to start a relationship and wish women would help out by being willing to make the first move.
Of course, all too often this goes from simply wishing that women would approach more to folks explaining ((By which I mean: people making shit up)) that women are the sexual gatekeepers – especially in the short-term – and generally like being in charge, thus feel no need to go out and be the initiators like they should. Moreover – so the complaint goes – women have the power to not just shut down but ruin someone by unfairly labeling him “creepy” and insist that women need to be more considerate of the feelings of the men they’re rejecting… maybe even stopping to give him lessons in how to get her to like him so he can do better next time.
The thing is: women do approach guys. All the time in fact. Women frequently message guys they’re interested in when it comes to online dating; it just seems less significant compared to the many men who will shotgun out messages. Other times they get brushed off by the men because they’re not the women those men want to approach them. Then, there are the times when guys don’t recognize that someone is trying to make the first move. More often than not the way women approach men they’re interested in doesn’t match up with how they picture the approach going. She may use proximity and body language to try to catch his attention and signal that she wants to talk to him, she makes an observation about something or finds an excuse to talk with him about, say, a class they have in common, as a way of breaking the ice.
If some of these sound familiar, they should… these are many of the ways men approach women. Most forms of indirect openers and indirect “game” from PUA circles are variations of techniques that women have used to signal interest without being too overt.
But the fact of the matter is, more men make the approach than women do. However, once you understand the social dynamics of why women don’t approach, it becomes much easier to create an environment where women feel empowered to make the first move, too.
Many Women Aren’t Comfortable Making The First Move
Quick virtual show of hands. How many of the men reading this have had to deal with approach anxiety? If you’re like me – and I know I am – then you’re intimately familiar with the heart palpitations, the sweaty palms, the dry mouth and the infinite variations of “What’s Going To Go Wrong” that flash through your head when you’re trying to psych yourself up to make the approach.
Guess what? Women feel the exact same way.
Guys often get too caught up in the idea of “woman as gatekeeper”, where women “control” the market on sex because they want it less than men do and therefore can afford to be pickier. Because they perceive women as the ones who ultimately control access to sex, they tend to miss out on a very fundamental issue: women hate getting rejected too.
One of the insidious issues of the idea that women are somehow in charge of dating and have it so much easier than men do is that it invalidates and erases every woman who’s ever been rejected by somebody she’s attracted to. When guys insist that any woman could go out and get laid if she wanted, this actually makes it harder for women to make the first move by increasing the potential fear of rejection; after all, if any woman can get laid and she can’t get a guy to go out to dinner with her, what does that say about her?
Moreover, in order to make the first approach, women have to overcome generations of social programming that insist that women never make the first move. Everything in our culture drills “men make the first move” into women’s heads. The traditional gender roles of man-as-aggressor are continually reinforced by our culture and society; witness the slut-shaming that Miley Cyrus gets for being an active – rather than passive – sexual performer. Even in this day and age, the sexually-aggressive woman is a figure of ridicule (especially if she’s played by Rebel Wilson rather than Kim Cattrall) . The Rules may seem like a quaint relic of the 90s, but Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider have published a new version just last year, which is doing well for itself over at Amazon.
So not only do women have your garden variety approach anxiety, but also have the specter of generations of socialization and gender roles that says “men don’t like girls who are too forward” and “if you make the first move, they’ll think you’re a slut” being dropped on top of that like a 400 lb weight on a balloon full of shit. And recognizing that fact just makes it even morefrustrating because theoretically they should be better than that.
But gender roles, no matter how outdated, are damned hard to overcome. Don’t forget: guys freak out over something as innocuous as braiding hair. But as it turns out, women have a good reason to be extra nervous about flaunting gender roles because…
Some Men React Badly To Being Approached
A lot of what makes us react one way or another to somebody is unconscious. When we see somebody, we instinctively process many, many non-verbal clues as to the person’s inner character from the way they walk, the way they smell and the way they interact with other people. One of the benefits of being approached, rather than being the approacher, is that you have more time to get a read on somebody. The manner in which they approach you tells you a lot about their personality and their level of confidence or social intelligence1; this can make the difference between being attracted to someone or having them set off your creeper-sense.
When you’re making the approach, unless you’ve been scoping them for a while, you’ve got considerably less info to work with. And that lack of info can be especially important for women. Remember what I said about how some guys freak out over overturned gender roles? This includes when women do the approaching. There are many men who are profoundly uncomfortable with any sort of non-traditional forms of gender-expression whether it’s through looks or behavior, and by trying to make an overt move, women risk stepping squarely on that particular emotional landmine.
On the low end of the spectrum, some men will be profoundly turned off by a woman approaching them. They have issues with aggressive or strong women – women who don’t conform to the “traditional values” of being meek and subservient, and a woman who flouts convention in that way will repulse them. Yes, finding out early that a guy is threatened by assertive women is generally a good thing – it means he’s self-selected out of that woman’s dating pool and good riddance. However, those guys rarely do so quietly. For all the times guys have worried about the “eww no” reaction from women that they approach, women are more likely to be insulted loudly and very publicly. If they’re lucky. Because at the other end of the spectrum are the guys who will feel like she’s a pushy bitch who needs to be taught her place. Sometimes physically.
The “bad reaction” isn’t just about potential physical threats. Because women generally don’t approach men, there will be plenty of men who will assume that the woman has far moresexual interest than she actually does. After all, since the cultural narrative is that women don’t make the first move, she must be really into him by coming up to him. Or maybe she’s just extra slutty. Either way, they’ll take her being forward as license to be even moreaggressive than they might be otherwise.
Amongst the less socially experienced, there are plenty of well-intentioned men who will assume that a woman who made the approach is in love with them – or something very close to it – and up attaching themselves onto her like a lost gosling. Less physically threatening but still painfully uncomfortable under the best of circumstances.
Now, are all guys like this? No. Are you like this? Hopefully not. Here’s the thing though: women can’t tell this from just looking at you. Not every Brohemian is a collar-popping date rapist and not every quiet geeky wallflower is a shy Prince Charming waiting to be discovered. Sometimes the bro is really cool. Sometimes the geek is the one who you have to be worried about. So on top of the cultural baggage and the approach anxiety, a woman who may want to approach a man has to roll on the singles bar random encounters table2 and hope she doesn’t roll low.
Let’s be honest: if every time a man approached a woman there was a not-insignificant chance that she was actually a gorgon, men would be a lot less likely to approach strangers.
(Well, with the exception of that one freakin’ munchkin min-maxer who’d be pulling the Monty Hall probability stunt every time. But I digress…)
They Often Don’t Know How
Another issue that women often face when it comes to being the one to make the first move: they often don’t know how. Just like guys don’t.
Being female isn’t proof against social awkwardness, and trying to figure out how to “get a relationship” doesn’t get any easier just because you’re a woman. Just ask my friend Arden Leigh, whose job is all about teaching women how to embrace their inner Catwoman and find the relationship they’ve been looking for.
“But why can’t she just come up and say ‘hi’?” I hear some of you ask. Well… for the exact same reasons a lot of socially awkward guys don’t, but with the added benefit of social expectations working against them. Not only does she have to figure out how to get over her own approach anxiety, but she has to convey her interest without seeming slutty or being too interested and coming across as a potential Overly Attached Girlfriend ((Incidentally, Laina Morris, the face of OAG is actually pretty damn cool).
Let’s not forget, if it was so easy for people to just make the first move and meet awesome single people, Match wouldn’t exist, Cosmo would lose half its pages and I wouldn’t have a job.
Now, one of the things I’ve mentioned before is that women have more of a societally accepted support system for getting better at dating than men do (a reason why I write this blog). However, many of the flirting techniques women are taught and encouraged to use are to encourage men to approach them without being overt about it; approaching a guy is about as overt as it gets short of pouncing on them from a tree like a horny leopard, and very little of it is helpful when you’re taking the initiative. Just like many PUA techniques, women’s flirting advice is designed for a specific type of interaction; just as dating advice for picking up club girls doesn’t map to everyday life, knowing how to send approach invitations doesn’t help when you’re the one trying to do the approaching.
So the next time you’re sullenly wishing that women would do the work for you, remember that they’re having the same issues you are.
It’s Not About Who Has It Harder
Here’s something to keep in mind: dating and approaching isn’t about taking home the gold medal in the Who Has It Worse Olympics. It’s not about “women have it worse, so suck it up and make the move”, nor is it about whose “responsibility” it is for being the aggressor. It’s about understanding the reasons why more women don’t approach. Whether or not you agree that those issues are valid is ultimately irrelevant; the fact of the matter is that these are the pressures that women feel that discourage them from being more proactive on the dating scene. Yes, things are getting better as society slowly crawls towards greater social equality, but those pressures are still there.
Understanding these pressures makes it easier to relate, and when you’re not treating dating as an antagonistic process of gatekeepers and supplicants, you’ll find far more success… and in fact, this will help you learn how to create an environment where women do feel more empowered to approach as well.
(In fact… well, check back soon for more.)
New! Read Dr. NerdLove’s follow-up, How to Get Women to Approach You
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove
Photo: Flickr/Rob Boudon