This post is going to be more navel-gazey than is normal for this blog. That’s not a disclaimer of apology, just a ‘heads up’. This piece is also very much rooted in gender binary language, and that is a disclaimer of apology. I am speaking most often from my own experience. As a mono cis hetero guy, my romantic experience falls along a gender binary with a single partner. This is not to elevate or normalize mono cishet relationships above others, but I don’t want to speak too far out of my own depth. I am sure that relationships between queer and poly people have dimensions that I simply cannot address, and I don’t want to do it hamfistedly. I am very interested to hear what parts of this post do and don’t resonate with your own experiences, particularly if they are different from my own.
I am sure that I’ve made oblique reference to this before, perhaps even on this blog, but my sexual and dating history are perhaps a bit atypical. I say ‘perhaps’ because a pretty decent argument can be made that everyone’s dating history is atypical. However, from the standpoint that the average age at which people in Canada have their first sexual encounter is some time in their teens, my history is slightly to noticably atypical. This has a lot of explanations, some of which I am capable of explaining in some detail; others that I am still puzzled over. I’ve talked a bit about this process in a post I wrote a couple of years ago:
After a year spent in a different doomed-to-fail relationship in my first year of undergraduate (this time I ended things, and for what at the time seemed like noble reasons), I embarked on a long journey into my own bruised psyche to try and figure out what it was about me that made me so undesirable while everyone else had girlfriends (author’s note: most of my friends at the time were single). It was an endless pattern: I’d meet someone, we’d hit it off, I’d eventually work up the courage to ask her out, and then I’d get rejected. In my feelings of dejected misery and frustration and need for self-affirmation, and because there was a whole intellectual institution created around it, I embraced the “nice guys don’t get laid” myth wholeheartedly.
So, I didn’t get laid a lot. That “endless pattern” lasted, for the most part, for around 8 years. After I broke up with Jane (not her real name) in fall of 2004, I didn’t enter into another committed relationship until spring of 2012. During that intervening period, I had a small handful of flings with women, but nothing that lasted longer than 6 weeks or so. None of this did anything to disabuse me of the notion that I was, at some deep, fundamental level, incapable of being loved or having a lasting, meaningful relationship. It wasn’t all bad, as I’ll discuss further down the page, but there were a lot of pretty despondent nights.
Why was I single?
In discussions of male entitlement, the “Friend Zone”, and topics related to Forever Alone guys, there will invariably be someone who quips “the reason women don’t like you is that you’re an asshole” or some variant thereof. Sometimes it is directed at an individual who is, at that moment, acting like an asshole. Often, though, it’s directed at any guy who believes that the Friend Zone is a real thing (or some other belief that is indicative of entitlement), and in some cases it’s directed at single guys in general who complain about being single. “Guys, if you want to get a girlfriend, stop complaining about women, clean yourself up, and stop being an entitled little shit”.
To be clear off the top here, I’m definitely not writing a piece about being nicer to the poor sensitive lads who just don’t know any better. I was one of those lads. I was an asshole, or at least, I had some pretty assholish tendencies. I got better about those things. I learned how to recognize my own entitlement for what it was. I learned to foster my relationships with women in a way that wasn’t filtered through the lens of gender essentialism. I learned to communicate my feelings. I learned to interrogate my own loneliness without blaming “women” for it. I had work to do, and it wasn’t anyone else’s responsibility to hold my hand while I was doing it.
But do you know what happened as I did that work? I became a better person (in my estimation). That’s it. That’s all.
My problem with the “women aren’t dating you because you’re an asshole” argument isn’t that it’s mean; it’s that it’s not accurate. Not only is it inaccurate, but in some ways it reinforces the very kind of thinking it’s supposed to be combatting.
Solving the equation
One of the more insightful criticisms of “Pickup Artist” (a term that has always made me think of “Sandwich Artist“) culture is that it reduces women to a general case, devoid of any individuality or agency. Women, to PUAs, are a solveable algorithm. If you complete the ‘steps’ accurately and in the right order, you will reach the ‘success condition’ of female approval and affection. Any failure to reach that condition is then explained as “lack of game” or “being a beta” or “bitch shields” or blaming the steps for being a “scam”. Never is it the case that the woman you approached doesn’t respond to the ‘steps’ because she’s a human being with a variety of likes and dislikes. Never is it the case that the woman you approached might have been receptive under other circumstances, but she was just having a bad day. Or she was busy. Or she just wanted to be alone at that particular moment. Or she was any number of other totally normal human experiences that could easily explain why your approach, no matter how adroitly executed, was doomed to fail.
This selective explanation ties into the throbbing vein of misogyny that runs through the entirety of PUA subculture: women are assumed not to have their own lives, their own inner dialogue, their own individual humanity. They are instead agents lacking agency – humans in fact but not in substance, whose existence has no dimension other than their physical appeal. Empty canvases upon which ‘game’ can be practiced. If a man’s ‘game’ is unsuccessful, it’s because of something he did, something he is, or something he lacks. It isn’t because of anything that she does, is, or lacks (except insofar as she suddenly becomes an ugly stuck-up bitch for not responding).
Part of this, to be sure, is ordinary asymmetric information bias – you are more or less completely aware of your own inner dialogue, and considerably less aware of the subjective lives of others. However, this bias takes on a very ugly form when combined with the effect of depersonalization, which is a core component of misogyny (or any bigotry, really). When the inability to understand others collides with a a cluster of beliefs that essentially preclude even the possibility of those others having anything like a typical human experience, the result is usually to blame and punish.
If you buy a widget, and you push the button and the widget doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do, then it’s a shitty widget. The widget doesn’t have an internally subjective experience of the world. The widget doesn’t have personal circumstances that might explain why it works some times but not others. It’s programmed to perform a certain action when you push the button. If it doesn’t perform that action, then you deserve your money back, or a replacement widget that does work at the very least.
But people aren’t widgets.
Plug and Play Relationships
So we say to a guy complaining about “the Friend Zone” that people aren’t widgets. We tell him that women have a variety of explanations for why they do things. We explain that each woman is her own person, and expecting all women to respond the same way to a given circumstance is as mistaken as it is misogynistic.
And then we say “besides, she’s probably not fucking you because you’re a creep”.
Which seems to me to be completely defeating its own argument: women are simultaneously individuals with their own likes and dislikes, and they are all disinclined to sleep with you for the exact same reason.
So back to my own single life for a brief second. As I said, when I learned to move away from some of the more ‘assholish’ beliefs and practices I had picked up, the only measurable consequence was that I was a better person. I didn’t suddenly find myself irresistible to women; in fact, I didn’t get more or less affection than I did before. I didn’t have an easier time getting dates. Nothing about that aspect of my life changed. The advice to “not be an asshole” didn’t solve the ‘problem’ of my solitude, and the reason it didn’t work is the exact same reason that PUA techniques don’t work.
Because relationships aren’t widgets.
There are (at least) two people in a romantic relationship. In order for a relationship to work, the expectations and desires of all people involved need to be met. And, because each person has their own expectations and desires, there is no algorithm to solve. There is no trait, or collection of traits, that can be manipulated to yield a favourable result, except on a case-by-case basis. If I like everything about Gina except the fact that she pronounces it “supposebly”, then if she changes that one behaviour, we become more compatible. But one cannot say with any certainty that Gina’s overall chances of finding the person she’s compatible with are in any way affected by a change in her pronunciation. Maybe there’s a bunch of shit that Gina doesn’t like about me. Maybe we’re not compatible at all. Maybe we’re looking for different things. Maybe I would be a good fit for her, but I’m about to change jobs and move to a different city, so I don’t want to get involved with anyone.
There’s a lot of reasons why “if you want to get laid, change X and Y and Z about yourself” is problematic advice for any and all values of X, Y and Z.
A special case
The only time I think this argument can be used non-problematically is if it were phrased in this way: “a lot of women have had negative experiences with guys who do X, Y, and Z, so you might want to see if those are worth changing”. We’re now moving away from categorical statements about what “women” do and don’t like, and toward an understanding that reflects human diversity.
But even then, I’m not satisfied. I am, by my nature, not a jealous person in romantic relationships. While I usually prefer my partner to be sexually exclusive, sexual exclusivity is not, to me, the sine qua non of a committed relationship. And because I am a guy who has a lot of female friends with whom I have intimate emotional connections, I am strongly disinclined to tell my partner that she’s ‘not allowed’ to hang out with other men. I am, in fact, unlikely to bat an eyelash if my partner devotes attention to a person that isn’t me, irrespective of that person’s gender. This isn’t because I’m “stronger” or “more secure” than other people, it’s that I just happen not to be wired that way.
Once, back in the throes of one of my six-week-or-so flings, the person I was seeing was annoyed with me at a Kardinal Offishall concert. I honestly don’t remember why. The way she decided to manifest her displeasure was by dancing with a guy who was standing a few feet away from me. Far enough that he wouldn’t see me (and know that he was dancing with ‘my girl’), but close enough I that could plainly see what she was doing. She would later explain that I was supposed to get jealous, go over there, and cut in. Thus demonstrating that I cared. We can put aside the judgement about whether or not that was the most appropriate or mature way of handling the situation – she needed me to show that she was important to me, and that’s how she wanted me to do it.
Of course, to her great consternation, I stood back and watched the concert. Not in a “I’ll show you” sort of way, but because she wanted to dance, I didn’t want to dance, and I was totally satisfied with the way she had found to solve that problem. She got to dance, I got to lean back and watch the stage, and I was pretty reasonably sure she wasn’t going to ditch me for some random dude. When we had the (inevitable) fight about this later, I realized that my lack of jealousy was a problem between us. She took my lack of reaction as a sign of indifference about her. If she hadn’t raised it specifically, it’s entirely likely that I would have stood by on many subsequent occasions, blithely unaware that there was some expectation of me to demonstrate my fidelity.
And if someone had said to me “Ian, the reason you’re not getting more dates is because you’re not controlling and possessive enough”, I’d have laughed in their face. So would you, probably. Being controlling and possessive is something that a lot of women (including the one in this anecdote) have had really bad experiences with. My nonchalance, problematic in that particular relationship, would serve me very well in subsequent relationships with people who had different histories and needs.
The null hypothesis
My understanding of feminism is rooted in my understanding of scientific research methodology. That is, I assume that (beyond some basic issues to do with plumbing – and even then not necessarily) men and women are fundamentally the same. In a given situation, I assume that a man and a woman will respond in the same average way, when controlling for the effect of socialization. Any time I see a difference in the average response to something, I therefore look to socialization to explain that difference before I look to biology. That’s not always the correct answer, but more often than not I’ve found it saves me from making erroneous conclusions based on gender stereotypes.
As a result of this stance, I make the following assertion: on average, and controlling for the effect of socialization, men and women are looking for the same sorts of things in relationships. Put a better way, there are as many reasons why a given woman will date a given man as there are for the reverse case. Some men are incredibly superficial, and want a woman who adheres to a physical ideal – some women are just as superficial. Some women won’t date a guy who doesn’t make her laugh – some men (myself included) are the same. Some men date complete jerks who dominate and control them – some women do too.
It seems fundamentally at odds with this view for anyone to say “women won’t date guys who are entitled jerks”. Some probably will. Some probably are. Some probably married those entitled jerks, and had shitty, entitled kids with them, and are looking forward to growing old with them. I wish them well, even though I wouldn’t like to trade places with them. Those women would probably find someone with my personality traits and beliefs to be quite unattractive. I have met at least one such a woman. She’s no dummy, nor is she well described by the word ‘passive’. She just likes stereotypical masculinity, and I have no patience for it. We weren’t a good fit.
The splash damage
Now, if you’ve been following me up to this point, you’re probably saying “yeah, but some behaviours are inherently harmful and should be countered”. And I agree. I completely agree. Possessiveness, jealousy, manipulative entitlement, all of these are really toxic. And when I see them being a necessary component of a relationship – as they were, for example, with Belinda (not her real name) at the Kardinal show – I am not willing to simply chalk them up as “different strokes for different folks”. They are pathological, and it would never occur to me to say “be as big an entitled, misogynistic shithead as you want, and then go out and find a doormat who wants you to walk all over her forever” (Shoobie11 points out why my formulation here is problematic). There seems to be something really wrong with that type of relationship, regardless of the fact that the two people involved are getting their needs met.
But at the same time, saying “don’t be an asshole because then women won’t want to fuck you” doesn’t in any way make the argument that there’s a problem inherent in asshole behaviour. It instead makes the argument that the point (or at least the upshot) of not being an asshole is to get sex. Which isn’t in any way a given result. It certainly wasn’t in my case, anyway. I wrote about this before:
Given the number of cishet women who decry feminism or prefer relationships where gender roles are strictly and consistently defined, the idea that paying lip-service to feminism opens up whole new worlds of coitus is… let’s just say the argument assumes facts not in evidence.
Another thing I want to make sure is as clear as possible: I didn’t become a feminist as a ploy to get laid. I didn’t start to become introspective about my male privilege because someone told me that this was the reason I wasn’t getting any action. That’s the reason I tried to become a PUA. The reason I became a feminist is largely the same reason I became an atheist – because certain things I was being told didn’t comport with the evidence, and the harder I looked the more difficult it became to accept gender stereotypes as being true. This process was largely unconnected to my desire for companionship.
But if we’re going to make the argument that belief in the Friend Zone is based on problematic attitudes and is, itself, a facet of misogyny, then let’s make that argument. Let’s talk about why bad things are bad – not because people won’t find you desirable if you do them, but because they’re bad.
Why? Why not just tell assholes that their own assholishness is likely defeating their stated goal of finding affection? Why not point out that it’s entirely likely that the fact that a guy entertains the cluster of beliefs required to accept “Nice Guy™” framing may be the exact reason for his downfall*?
Because relationships aren’t widgets. Because there are lots of other people out there who are single, many of whom aren’t assholes. Many of whom have, however, been told that “all they need to do is” make some adjustment to their personality/interests/activity/appearance/whatever and then affection will surely follow. Many of whom are hearing “nobody wants to date an asshole”, think “nobody wants to date me“, and then make the resultant logical leap. And when they hear, again and again, that the reason women don’t lavish attention on a given man is that he is fundamentally wrong in some way, they listen. I definitely did. Even well after the point at which I probably would no longer have been considered “an asshole” by most people reading this.
Turning this around for a second, there are quite a number of women who are ‘stuck in the Friend Zone’, to borrow the framing. There are lots of single women out there who are otherwise wonderful people, but who can’t seem to elicit the desired response from a person they’re close to. What do they hear when they’re told that people are single because they’re fundamentally wrong in some way? That the reason that a person lands in the Friend Zone is because they’re an entitled prick? Women are socialized to blame themselves already when things go awry in romantic relationships – is that something you want to add to?
A better message
Getting back to my own story as a convenient coda for this piece, I am no longer single. I met someone in the spring of 2012 (as I mentioned earlier). We dated for 15 months before ending the relationship. A few months thereafter I met and began dating someone else. She and I are still together and things are going well, as far as I can know. A lot of the reasons why my previous relationship worked is because of the work I did to become a more aware and less entitled person. By the same token, a lot of it was due to totally random circumstances: enough time had lapsed since her divorce that she was willing to entertain a relationship with someone new, I had become more willing to let someone in than I had been before, we ended up running into each other outside of the office, we attended the same conference where we first got together – a whole laundry list of things that were entirely circumstantial. In the absence of any of those things, we wouldn’t have got together and I’d (likely) have stayed single.
My current relationship definitely wouldn’t be working out if I hadn’t learned a lot of the lessons I learned from my ex. I figured out the kind of relationship I want. I figured out what my boundaries and needs and expectations are. I learned about which things I had to learn to compromise on, and some things I wasn’t willing to change. I learned how to communicate those needs. I learned how I process my own anger. I learned about a lot of my personal failings that had gone unaddressed because I had been single for 8 years. For her part, she had made a decision to stay in Vancouver rather than her old habit of moving from place to place. We met online – she was apparently only days away from deleting her profile when I messaged her, and she decided to take a chance.
With both my girlfriend and my ex-girlfriend, the specific physical and personality traits that we talk about when we discuss desirability could have easily been completely trumped by the circumstances. If Irene (not her real name) had waited longer to divorce, had not marched at SlutWalk, had not attended the conference, we probably wouldn’t have had the amazing 15 months we did. If Marjorie (not her real name) had deleted her account a few days earlier than she planned, if she had gotten a job out of the city, if she wasn’t a fan of the band I happened to mention in my online profile, we wouldn’t be together now. And added to all of those circumstancial variables are the ones that I bring to the table myself, including my 8 years of single life and the way that shaped my personality, not the least of which were the things that changed as a result of my relationship with Irene. I even wrote a song about it.
Relationships and attraction aren’t equations to be solved by adding, deleting, or modifying personal characteristics. People aren’t necessarily single because there’s something wrong with them, or because there’s something wrong with other people. Human interactions are as multifaceted as the human beings involved in them. The things that we tell other people should reflect that reality.
Work on being the best version of yourself for your happiness, not that of a hypothetical person who, even if you did meet them, might not be available for whatever reason. If one was in a particularly charitable mood, one could see this idea reflected in the PUA tenet of “inner game” (although there are differences that re not worth discussing because PUAs). Regardless of the terminology, the fact remains that you can’t will the right person into existence, but there are things you can do in the meantime that will make your life better, even if you never get partnered up.
Learn what kind of relationship style meets your needs – are you looking for someone who is more like a helpful team-mate or a full-blown partner? How much affection do you need – how much is too much? What kinds of personalities do you match up with well? What traits do your platonic friends have that make those relationships work? As you develop those things, you don’t necessarily “make yourself more attractive to the right person”, but you do increase your chance of spotting that “right person” when they come along, and knowing when things are and aren’t working.
But believing that being single is the consequence of some personality flaw doesn’t help anyone, and has a pretty good chance of hurting even those people who don’t deserve it.
*As much as I am trying to get away from relying on footnotes, this one couldn’t be helped. There is a totally acceptable argument that goes like this: “you call yourself a Nice Guy, but you believe all this horrible shit about women. Therefore you’re not as nice a guy as you think.” That’s different from “you’re single because you’re an asshole” – that’s saying “you lack self-awareness”.