Let women make the first move: what Mel Magazine gets wrong

The passive voice is inconsistent with initiating.

© Dave DuBay

Will women asking men out on dates further the goals of #MeToo? Mel Magazine thinks so. And while Tracy Moore may be on to something, the way she frames it is problematic.

Moore begins with a conditional statement: “If men took a sabbatical from making the first move…” But why men must take a sabbatical in order for women to initiate dating is unclear. A social norm where a person—regardless of gender—initiates a date if they’re attracted to someone makes more sense.

But Moore’s suggestion that men, by taking a sabbatical, initiate women’s initiation of asking for dates means women aren’t really taking the initiative.

If women want to take the initiative then the onus is on women to do so. To initiate is to take responsibility, but the very title of her piece is ambivalent toward women doing this. “Let women make the first move” presupposes that men are actors and women are acted upon.

This is a common feminist theme. In 2011 the Fatal Feminist wrote, “Get me off this damn pedestal.” One blogger pointed out the author’s passive voice: she appears to be a damsel in distress waiting for a white knight to rescue her. To say women need to take responsibility if they want to be the ones to initiate dates is to not put women on a pedestal. It treats women as equals. But to say men need to let women initiate is benevolent sexism.

Moore goes on to explain the benefits of women initiating dates. I’m in agreement here. When I was single I got asked out on average once a year. It’s flattering. But that some women have always chosen to ask men out shows that men are not preventing women from doing this. Women who don’t ask men out are preventing themselves from doing it.

Moore also points out that the experience of being asked out will enlighten men to women’s experiences and likely increase men’s empathy for women. This would be a good thing.

But while she notes that women also will experience rejection is a new way, her piece remains mostly female-centric with little awareness of the male gender role.

Women often think men have more power in the dating world. Feminism in general is reticent to acknowledge women’s power over men because it muddies the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. In reality, both men and women have power and powerlessness when dating, but usually in different ways.

Twenty some odd years ago I was a recent college graduate who got a job working with people with AIDS. Gay bars often did fundraisers for us.

Being a twenty-three year old man in a gay bar is an enlightening experience. I’d walk into a gay bar and men would turn to look. It’s very ego boosting.

I didn’t think of myself as attractive before that mainly because as a shy guy I was mostly invisible to women. Both sexes experience invisibility, but I don’t think feminists have any clue that invisibility is far more common for men compared to women in the dating scene.

In a gay bar men would initiate conversations. Being shy, initiating conversations has always been a challenge, but I realized that if I were gay I’d have no problem finding a date. Yes, there were a few creeps. But most gay men were fine with me not playing for their team.

With asking for dates, however, women often have greater privilege than men. Asking women out on dates is not a choice for men—it’s an obligation. A man who doesn’t ask doesn’t date. Asking men out on dates is a choice for women, though. She’ll still date even if she doesn’t ask, though she might date more if she does ask. Going against social norms means she’ll face disparagement time to time. But having more options is better than having fewer options.

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When consent isn’t enough

Societal expectations of casual sex ignore how many people feel about sex.

© Dave DuBay

David French, writing for the conservative National Review, muses that the inevitable moment for #MeToo has arrived—an “uncomfortable” sexual encounter has been labeled sexual assault. French says this reveals “the defects of modern sexuality.”

He has no interest in defending comedian Aziz Ansari: “Under no circumstances should a man treat Grace the way Ansari treated her. It was wrong. Full stop.”

But our culture sexualizes too many things, French goes on to say, including first dates. Yet, “human beings have a desperate need for a sexual morality that transcends consent.” More specifically,

Even if men and women reject Christian morality and believe that waiting for marriage is a bridge too far, the decision to delay sex until well after the formation of a healthy relationship will protect people from an immense amount of heartbreak.

As old fashioned as this may sound, there needs to be a wider discussion of French’s point. Not sexualizing everyday situations doesn’t mean stigmatizing casual sex—everyone has the right to live their life as they choose. But society’s acceptance of casual sex has morphed into the expectation of casual sex.

The so-called sexual revolution involved many things, and the birth control pill tops the list. The pill enabled women to have sex with much less fear of pregnancy, even to the point where some women declared that they could have sex like men—casually, promiscuously, and without emotional attachment. Never mind that such a view promotes one dimensional stereotypes about men. It also ignores the emotional aspect of sex.

Since the 1960s, pop culture’s portrayal of sex has in many way become more unrealistic. Did people today grow up thinking that they should engage in casual sex like TV stars? Did the absence of emotional repercussions on the silver screen lead people to think there would be no emotional fallout from having sex with a relative stranger?

And do women and men experience this differently? Sociologist David Buss found that although women and men engage in casual sex about as often, women are much more likely to regret it afterwards.  This is true cross culturally, and for lesbians. Buss notes that this seems to involve more than just culture.

This, of course, contradicts the popular progressive claim that biology plays no role with gender, though you’d be hard pressed to find a neuroscientist or biologist who agrees. This doesn’t mean that biological determinism is true, or that culture plays no role. But it does mean that we need to consider the big picture.

For men modern society values quantity—the number of notches on his belt. And as we’ve seen with all the allegations of sexual assault, this can have serious consequences.

In the Washington Post, Elizabeth Bruenig writes that,

Sex is a domain so intimate and personal that more harm can be done than in most social situations, and that given that heightened capacity for harm, we should expect people to operate with greater conscientiousness, concern and care in that domain than in others.

She concludes that, “Demanding an expansion of empathy and responsibility when it comes to sex isn’t regressive.”

I would add that empathy and responsibility should be reciprocal. The initiator should be looking for signs that the advances are unwelcome. And in the absence of coercion or impairment, regret after consent is the responsibility of the person who feels regretful.

Fixing our culture is going to take a while. We can begin by educating young people that what they’ve learned about sex from pop culture is often not the way sex is in the real world. Some people are fine with casual sex but others are not, and there is a gender difference which is at least partially biologically influenced.

And we can encourage realistic expectations, such as the assumption that one’s dating partner sees things as casual unless stated otherwise. That means examining our feelings about casual sex, and if need be setting boundaries from the get go such as the old social norm of not going to someone’s apartment on the first few dates, or explicitly telling someone that sex outside of a relationship is not an option.

But individuals can’t go it alone. We need wider cultural support for people who choose these “old fashioned” norms. Pop culture will need to play a leading role.