5 Ways Society Trains Men To Expect Sex From Women
Are you familiar with the "Nice Guy" stereotype? It's a man who spends time with a woman, buys her things, and compliments her to the point where it's suffocating, but more out of the hope of eventually getting into her pants than from genuine friendship. Then, when a sexual relationship never develops, he gets bitter and angry because he feels all the "nice" things he's done have earned him sex. It's a toxic relationship for both the man and his ostensible friend, and in a staggering coincidence, it's the basis of my hilarious new novel that you can buy right now. But this personality type wasn't created in a vacuum. Here's how it happens.
Pop Culture Teaches Men That Passiveness Is Rewarded
I'm going to start by talking about Frasier, because I'm a hip man who knows what the kids are into these days. I watched a lot of Frasier in my formative years to soften my intimidatingly stunning athletic ability, and if there's one lesson it teaches about relationships, it's that being passive is more effective than being honest. The show's longest-running plot, from the first episode until the end of the seventh season, is that Niles is attracted to Daphne, but is too cowardly to do anything about it. Instead of just saying, "Hey, I'm into you, want to have coffee, and also here's a joke about opera?" he surreptitiously smells her hair, eyes her body, comes up with thin excuses to touch her and be alone with her, spies on her, sneaks into her room, buys her gifts, and does her favors. He does everything you can think of that, without a laugh track, would be off-putting. In the rare instances he considers being honest, disaster almost strikes and he's portrayed as smart for continuing to repress his feelings.
Then, right before Daphne gets married, fate brings them together and he finally works up the nerve to confess his love. And she loves him back, of course, because you don't spend seven years building up a plot point only to just throw it out. So Daphne ditches her groom, and together she and Niles live happily ever after.
If you're unfamiliar with that storyline because you're young or, ugh, a Friends person, this is a trope that's in, oh, roughly half of all pop culture involving relationships. The message, over and over again, is that if you're too shy to tell a woman that you're attracted to them, you just have to hang around, and eventually a situation will arise that will let you sweep them off their feet. It may take years, but if you're a good friend or a fun co-worker, romance will inevitably bloom. True love is a video game boss, and you just have to grind experience points until you're ready to confront it.
Female characters never have any agency in this. They're always charmed when the dude says that he's loved her ever since he first saw her gutting cod in that cannery eight years ago (spoilers for Fishing For Love). Because what kind of lesson would these shows be sending if patience and hard work weren't rewarded? So much of pop culture equates seduction with a chore, like cleaning out the garage. You just have to quietly put the hours in, without fuss or complaint, and eventually you'll complete the project. Persistence is considered more important than honesty. When it comes to pursing a woman, there's a fine line between persistence and harassment, but not in pop culture -- if two characters are "meant" to be together, a "no" is just a more dramatic "yes" in the future.
This all reinforces a subtle delusion in Nice Guys. Despite the stereotype of men being willing to hit on any woman with a pulse, some men would rather wrestle a lion than approach a woman. Everything about dating is exhausting and terrifying to them, for reasons we'll get into later. So all these stories about meek guys stumbling into perfect relationships reassures them that they were right to not ask out that woman they like like to dinner or a movie or the new Hollywood executive's office-themed escape room today.
The idea that women will eventually find their lengthy secret crushes cute if they cling to them is an anxiety-reducing godsend. So they keep waiting and waiting for the "right" time. But that time never comes, because their life isn't being written by a hack. So they get bitter and frustrated, because they don't just feel rejected; they feel ripped off, like they were owed love, but it was somehow denied them. And they feel that way because ...
We Still Treat Women As Sexual Gatekeepers
If you ask a Nice Guy whether they respect women, they'll say yes without hesitation. And in many ways, they often do. They'll decry harassment in its most commonly associated forms, like unsolicited dick pics and not shutting up about David Foster Wallace. They'll support feminist policies like abortion rights and access to birth control. They mock bros who catcall women and lonely boys who scream death threats because Lara Croft is wearing the wrong-colored shirt in the new Tomb Raider. Society is starting to do a decent job of teaching Nice Guys to see women as people instead of conquests. But society also does a terrible job of teaching men that sex is a fun cooperative activity, not a reward women dole out as they see fit.
So while many men from generations past thought that the female orgasm was a myth and that a clitoris was an African insect, most Nice Guys readily accept that a woman's sexual satisfaction is important. But in getting that message across, we've accidentally started telling men that while it's wrong to try to seduce women in most situations, when sex does happen, you'd better be goddamn incredible at it.
Think about how we mock men who break sexual mores, have differing political views, or just plain aren't likable, possibly because they're uncultured Friends fans. They probably have a small penis, they don't last long, they can't find the clitoris or make a woman orgasm. They aren't good at sexually satisfying women, and this implicitly makes them a bad person. How many jokes about Donald Trump have you seen where the punchline is that he has a tiny dick? Nice Guys, who are usually sexually inexperienced (and remember, there's an entire genre of pop culture that shames guys for being virgins) will laugh along when people joke about how a politician who said something idiotic about women's rights must have the sexual dynamism of a lethargic banana slug. But internally, they'll be thinking, "Oh my god, is that me too?"
This is the male equivalent of the Madonna-Whore Complex, whereby some men want women who are the impossible combination of experienced sexual dynamos in bed and chaste virgins in public. Nice Guys are taught that they need to respect women, which they inaccurately interpret as endlessly deferring to them. But then, if sex ever occurs, they'll be humiliated if they do anything other than give a woman multiple Earth-shattering orgasms. We treat sex like DC treats their film universe, in that we seriously overstate how incredible every single outing will be.
This is a subtle, nasty way of reinforcing the dated idea that women are sexual gatekeepers who can bone whenever and whomever they want, but ration it for profit like a Mad Max porn parody villain. A man's worth is still wrapped up in how often he can gain access. Nice Guys just think that the key involves excessive flattery and unwanted gifts instead of trapping a woman in a hotel room.
If some guy started joking about how a weird, off-putting woman must be terrible at giving head, they would rightfully be chastised for reducing her role in society to a sex act. But we still think it's appropriate and hilarious to reduce weird, off-putting men to people who couldn't sexually satisfy a woman if their lives depended on it (and Nice Guys think their lives do depend on it, as we'll see). Go search for "small penis" or "clitoris" on Twitter, and once you've filtered out a shocking amount of porn, it's an endless parade of people slamming men they've deemed inadequate members of society. We're linking men's self-worth to their sexual skills, then shaming them for a lack of it. That's not surprising -- it's been done to women somewhere between most and all of history -- but it leaves Nice Guys thinking that they don't have any value or power.
That's how the resentment and the anxiety builds for Nice Guys when the woman they think they're wooing continues to treat them as the platonic friend she thinks he is. He thinks he's done everything right, that he's shown he's interested in the woman as a person instead of inappropriately insisting on sex like whatever celebrity is currently in trouble for doing that as you read this. Then, when sex never happens, Nice Guys don't just think that they're being rejected; they think they've been judged to be inadequate as men. And nothing makes you hate another person more than thinking that they consider you inadequate. This is made worse by the fact that ...
We Massively Overhype Romantic Failure
If there's one pop culture archetype that makes more of an impression on Nice Guys than the milquetoast dude who stumbles into love, it's the sad old men who serve as a warning of what will happen if you don't follow a girl around like a puppy until she fucks you (hopefully not like a puppy). Remember The 40-Year-Old Virgin? An entire movie about how being sexless makes you a depressing loser doomed to an empty life? That's the fate Nice Guys fear most. They're told that mere friendship with a woman simply isn't good enough -- if they're not getting laid, they have failed.
And again, how do we dismiss men we don't like? Why, they're basement-dwelling virgins who are going to die alone, of course. That's the go-to way to instantly dismiss someone as a loser whose opinions are irrelevant. I'm not saying you should be more sympathetic to death-threat-sending assholes, but think about the message. If a terrible person is lonely and sexless, then implicitly the opposite is also true -- being lonely and sexless makes you a terrible person. "But that's not what people mean!" Sure, but if you're already feeling anxious, that's how you interpret it. And it's a message that society drives into men (and women, and the protagonist of my very affordable book) endlessly.
But shouldn't that motivate Nice Guys to just suck it up and ask women out in a proper, respectful way? Right, just like how you're motivated to not be nervous before a big exam or job interview -- a fact which does not actually stop many people from getting butterflies and accidentally telling the interviewer that their greatest weakness is "the amulet." To Nice Guys, they're not just asking a woman out for coffee to see if they click; they're rolling the dice on whether or not they'll be miserable for the rest of their lives. Men are told over and over again that their value is wrapped up in having a woman in their life. That's how we get men who, given the choice between asking a woman out and facing a firing squad, would think long and hard about whether they were ready to meet their maker.
That's partially because we do a bad job of portraying good relationships as low-key. There's an obsession with finding "the one" via grand romantic gestures, because there's little storytelling potential in couples getting groceries and then falling asleep in front of a baseball game because they're both exhausted from work. You only learn about those aspects of a relationship by being in one, but you can't be in one if you're too anxious about the prospect to even try.
Again, women have felt this pressure forever. There are thousands of terrible rom-coms about women who have great careers in either publishing or baking and sassy, loving friends, yet are supposedly missing something in their sad lives for not having a generically handsome man. But it manifests for men in subtler ways. How often does pop culture portray a guy getting rejected as normal and mundane, and how often does it play it as hilarious and humiliating? There's no comedy or drama in politely asking someone out, politely being told no, and both people moving on with their lives.
So Nice Guys see countless stories wherein women vent about creepy encounters they've had with men who interrupted their days, and it freaks them out. That venting is understandable -- I'd be angry too if I was constantly getting harassed about my chiseled good looks while trying to run errands. But Nice Guys end up under the impression that every encounter ends in either a sweeping success or a reminder of why mace was invented. They think there's no margin for error, because there's a constant fear that failure will end in loneliness and humiliation. There's a brutal contradiction. Nice Guys are told that they need to meet new people, but also that if they fuck up even a tiny bit, they will be mocked. And that makes it tough to just ask someone if they want to see a movie and then chat about why Friends sucks for a couple hours. Especially since ...
Women Have To Avoid Offending Men, Which Gives Men Weird Ideas
One of the classic Nice Guy complaints is that women are only interested in jerks. This is usually said after their crush had the gall to date someone who actually asked her out instead of the guy who bought her so much unrequested coffee that she could have paid her phone bill by reselling it. "Jerk" makes us picture a stereotype who reeks of body spray and calls women sluts, but while that may be what Nice Guys are imagining, what they really mean is any guy who isn't as scared as them to make a move. Maybe he even, gasp, gently pokes fun at her sometimes instead of endlessly flattering her from below a giant pedestal!
This leads to guys complaining that they're in the so-called Friend Zone, a limbo of unrequited love where they and the Peanuts gang gather to gripe about how unappreciated they are. "She said she likes stuffed animals, so I bought her 30 and took Friday off work to arrange them in her home, yet she'd rather date a guy who only bought her one and then spent Friday with his friends? This is such bullshit!" Maybe the Nice Guy has been told something like "I value you so much as a friend" or "You're like a brother to me" or "I have repressed all sexual desire as part of my monomaniacal quest for revenge against my parents' killers."
Life tip: Every single one of those statements is polite code for "I don't want to fuck you." There may be all sorts of different reasons for this, ranging from your sense of humor to your hideous yet prominently displayed collection of Friends Blu-rays, but they're all irrelevant. Why don't they just come out and say it? Well, if men watch women (in a non-creepy way) for long enough, they notice that women have been encouraged to let men down gently. Maybe it's while making office lunch plans, or maybe it's when being hit on at the bar. If it's the former, women have been taught that creating conflict and upsetting someone is a sin that makes them look mean, or at least that Steve from Accounting will be mopey all goddamn day if you insist on Thai. If it's the latter, women have been taught that being harsh to a man could lead to that man fucking killing them.
How often do you hear "I'm not interested in you, please stop talking to me" when a woman's being hit on? It's usually more like "You seem nice, but we're having a girls' night tonight" or "I actually have to get going, I have an early morning" or "Due to a rare medical condition, I can only mate when the moon is full." Then the guy goes back to his friends and complains that she was an ugly bitch. It's a dynamic where men have the power, even if they think women hold the power because women sometimes have the audacity to say no.
So men punish women for being honest, then can't or won't read between the lines and thus believe that a woman's polite resistance can be overcome. To Nice Guys, this means doubling down and resenting the "jerks" who aren't being as "nice" as them. "I value you too much as a friend" becomes "Wow, she must think our friendship is incredible! I better make it even more awesome so she thinks a romance is worth the risk! I know she wishes she could have a cat, but her boyfriend is allergic, so I'm going to go adopt 12 of them and then give her a key to my house so she can visit them at any hour!" It rarely becomes "Wait, if she values me so much, why am I the only one who initiates conversations and gives gifts?" because self-reflection is hard and denial is comforting in the short term.
Insisting that women always handle men's egos like precious Faberge eggs puts the blame on women for not reciprocating sexual interest, because their safe response is seen as a coy tease. A straightforward "I'm not interested in you because X," whether X is a strongly held political opinion, different standards of domestic cleanliness, or just some weird intangible element, is dangerous for women to say and painful for men to hear. And Nice Guys are going to continue existing until we don't punish women for saying it, and teach men that it's not the end of the world to hear it. But for now ...
This All Creates A Punishing Loop
So what do you get when you add this all up, aside from a much younger and dumber version of myself who spent an embarrassing amount of time Googling what "normal" romantic milestones were and freaking out at the results? You get guys who feel like they're fundamentally broken, and therefore believe they're being denied what they're constantly told are normal life experiences.
Have you ever seen that joke about how being a straight white man is like getting to live life on easy mode? No, I'm not going to launch into a screed about how straight men are actually the most oppressed people if you really think about it. But the message to Nice Guys is that they're failing at the one thing that should be easy for them. No one likes to fail, but it's especially painful when you're being told both that it's important and that only total losers would fuck it up.
At the risk of ruining the timelines of the countless erotic fanfiction that's been written about me, I was a bit of a slow starter in the romance department. I've since figured it out as much as anyone has, and have made love at enough woman to realize that the whole thing is kind of overhyped (although the fanfiction is correct about how excellent I am at it). Relationships and sex can be fun and rewarding, but they shouldn't define you, and there are far worse things in life than being single.
But until you learn that, you really do feel like a failure. And with every day that passes, you believe that you're falling further and further behind the curve. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You lack the relationship experience that everyone else has, but you swear you need some experience to start a relationship. You feel like you're trapped in the bottom of a deep, dark pit without any tools to begin the long climb out. And part of you doesn't even want to start climbing, because it's scary. So it eats away at you, making you a less healthy person with every little bite.
This can be a difficult subject because, to some extent, it's understandable that romantic inexperience is punished. That inexperience can make a woman feel awkward, uncomfortable, or even threatened, and no guy's sob story can or should take priority over that. No one is entitled to sex and love, even if you're a nice person and even if the lack of them in your life is painful. Nice Guys have to accept that doing the right thing and becoming a better person is a process that could mean that they'll have to keep dealing with that pain for an indefinite amount of time. But it's better than continuing to cling and hope for the impossible.
A major turning point in my dumb life was when I finally worked up the nerve to express romantic interest in a friend, she said no, and then instead of spotlights emerging as people gathered round to mock me, we continued to be friends and life went on. And once you start to get some dating experience, you understand rejection because you start giving it instead of receiving it. You'll date women and like them, but not love them or want to sleep with them, for all sorts of different reasons. And that doesn't make either one of you a bad person. Unless you're rejecting them because they're, like, super racist.
We're in the middle of a sea change, as powerful men are being taken to task for sexual abuses that were once swept under the rug. This is an opportunity not only to clean house, but also for men to reexamine the fundamental ways in which they view women. For Nice Guys, that means understanding that women owe you nothing, that there is nothing wrong or shameful with simply being friends, and that you should be honest about your emotions and accepting of the fact that, while rejection sucks, your life will go on. Because in the end, men and women are all just human beings who should buy my book.
Mark on Twitter and wrote a funny book that The New York Times called "We do not accept unsolicited material for review."
Mark Hill forgot to actually name his book in this article, it's "Confessions of an Average Boy" and available here.
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For more, check out 5 Things Girls Don't Seem to Understand About 'Nice Guys' and 5 Confessions of a Female 'Nice Guy.'
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