This One Habit Makes Dating Much Harder For Men & Women. Can We Ditch It?

Award-winning Journalist By Cleo Stiller
Award-winning Journalist
Cleo Stiller is a Peabody Award–nominated, Emmy Award–nominated, and Gracie Award–winning reporter exploring stories about health, gender, and technology among millennials. Her acclaimed television show Sex.Right.Now. aired on FUSION and explored deeply personal and political stories about health and identity.

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Why do we always expect men to make the first move in dating? In this excerpt from her newly released book Modern Manhood: Conversations About the Complicated World of Being a Good Man Today, journalist Cleo Stiller explains the history, science, and psychology of men and "the chase."

Let's start at the beginning with a classic male archetype: man as the pursuer.

"Persistence pays off," says Dominick Quartuccio. Quartuccio used to run a sales team with a $4 billion sales goal in Midtown Manhattan but left the corporate life to be an executive coach. He's now an international speaker, author of the book Design Your Future, and co-host of the podcast Man Amongst Men. To give you an idea of the kind of circles he runs in, he recently presented a workshop about masculinity at the renowned financial firm Goldman Sachs in New York City. He's learned a lot about men from his clients, who are, he tells me, "high-performing men who are publicly confident but privately confused." The type who think, "'Hey, I have everything that I ever worked for... I have everything on paper. Everyone from the outside thinks my life is great, but on the inside I'm feeling restless and stressed.'"

Quartuccio is big into this notion of persistence sculpting how men think of themselves. It's a concept known as "the hero's journey." "As guys, we look at these heroes who against all odds prevail, right?" he says. "However, many times the hero has been told no. Not necessarily in a social or sexual context, but in life, in business, in war, on the sporting fields. If he falls down, he gets back up and keeps going until he gets the prize. He's a relic."

What's one of the most iconic, deeply ingrained prizes at the end of the hero's journey? Boy wins the prize and gets the girl.

But where did the idea for this archetype come from?

Man as pursuer.

You have to remember that marrying for love is a relatively new concept. For most of human history, marriage has been seen as a strategic way to broker alliances. In that context, women are seen as the property of the men in their family to be traded for wealth and power. Dating, in the sense we think of it, didn't really start in the United States until around 1890. It was a result of the industrial revolution, when women and men left their villages to move to cities for work.

According to Moira Weigel, author of Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, the term "date" first made its way into print in 1896 in a weekly column for a Chicago newspaper by a writer named George Ade. The column, called "Stories of the Streets and Town," promised to give the paper's middle-class readership a look into the life of the working class. In this particular column, a young clerk at the paper suspected his girlfriend was seeing other people and asked her, "I s'pose the other boy's fillin' all my dates?"

Dating was something reserved for the working class. The middle-class version was known as "calling." Middle-class women didn't need to work, so suitors would "call" on the women at their home. "The ritual," says Weigel, "made men into agents in pursuit. It made women the objects of desire."

This is something that has stuck with us ever since—the idea that men are the pursuers and women are to be pursued. It's one of the classic archetypes of what makes "a man." From the men I talked to, I can say that some of you think this is bullshit, but you still play into it. Some of you never related to this and still don't. And some of you are straight old-school and definitely still subscribe to this idea.

"Pursuing, to me, is a hard job. You can be shot down very rapidly," Helen Fisher, Ph.D., says. "All my studies clearly indicate that men would be very, very happy if women invited them for the first date, or initiated the first kiss, or if women were the ones to call the following morning, or the ones to initiate sex. But women don't do it. I think that says a great deal about the fact that, in courtship, things don't change."

Fisher is a renowned biological anthropologist who specializes in the study of the evolution and future of human sex, love, marriage, gender differences in the brain, and, as she describes it, how your personality style shapes who you are and who you love. She's the author of six books on the topic and the chief scientific adviser at Match.com. Basically, if you have a question about sex, gender, or brains and need a historical perspective, you call her up. I have several times over my career, actually.

"Men say that they would be happy if women initiated the first kiss, but women don't do it," Fisher says. "It's very interesting: Women still want to be pursued, and I think they're going to continue to want to be pursued."

In a post-#MeToo world that's moving beyond the gender binary, I caution against making any blanket statements as Fisher tends to, but her point is well taken. The point here is there are a lot of mixed signals circulating in our culture right now. On the one hand, if you have a penis, you're supposed to pursue in every realm of your life, professionally and personally. That's a lot of work! And, as I heard from a lot of guys, lately it's become confusing—and even a little scary. Because on the other hand, if you pursue in the wrong way, you might offend someone or get in trouble.

"I think that we're moving into a very exciting time, where women are more and more allowed to take the initiative, and still a lot of them aren't taking that initiative," Fisher says. "But it's only because we are in this time of tremendous transition. As time goes by, particularly with [millennials], they are leading the way toward women being more assertive in courtship—and when everybody realizes that men do want women to be assertive in courtship, that that's appealing to them, more women will do it."

No wonder men are confused. The traditional roles of courtship and pursuit are blurring, and all the rules you were taught for how to chase a woman have been repealed. Instead, those tactics could now be considered creepy.

"Imagine a guy who was deathly afraid of approaching women before," Thomas Edwards, a dating coach based in California and founder of the company The Professional Wingman, says. "Oh my God, he might commit to celibacy now."

Dang!

Persistence used to make you the hero. Not anymore. And the truth is, it's been on the outs for a while—in fact, a lot of you might have thought we had already left it in the past.

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Gender and the brain.

Is the notion of male pursuit innate—is that behavior hard-wired? Let's dig into what drives human behavior when it comes to gender.

I brought this question to Lise Eliot, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and professor at the Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and the author of Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow Into Troublesome Gaps. Eliot's research is centered on brain and gender development, and she specializes in analyzing the interplay between innate biology, sociocultural factors, and individual experience in molding our brains and behavior.

In my first question to Eliot, I asked if this gendered behavior originates in the brain or from somewhere else. Eliot stopped me right there.

"Everything is in the brain," she says. "All of our behavior is coming from the brain, but the question is, how does that behavior get there? Are you born with it, or is it learned?"

I want to make sure to pause long enough on this idea so that it seeps in. All of our actions and thoughts come from the brain. But the question is: How does that behavior get there? How much of that is inbuilt before you're born? And how much did you learn along the way?

"We do think there's something, probably prenatal testosterone, that what I call 'biases' brain development in one direction or another, just like a tiny little tilt," she says. But Eliot says most researchers will tell you that the difference is negligible.

Look at something like risk-taking, Eliot says. Research shows that there's no question males take greater physical, financial, and sexual risks. But, she underscores, there's no gene for risk-taking. While some will point to the role of hormones like testosterone, Eliot says that isn't really it, either. Rather, she says, it's cultural influence that encourages this behavior from an early age. For example, we encourage boys at an early age to be highly competitive with each other—but much less so for girls. When you win a competition, the brain releases testosterone, promoting a sense of status and decreasing your sense of doubt, says Eliot. In this way, from an early age, we train young people with penises to be more comfortable with risk as a brain activity.

So, this notion of "hardwiring" that I heard referenced in a bunch of my interviews? "It's just so counterintuitive to how our brains actually develop," she says. "Anyone who has ever studied the brain knows that the brain is exquisitely plastic." Moreover, we all come equipped with the same chemicals. Men and women are born with both testosterone and estrogen. It's just a matter of proportions that differentiates them.

The idea of the "masculine" and "feminine" energies also came up in a lot of my interviews, so much so that I had to dig into it. Humans have a long, long history of ascribing "masculine" and "feminine" qualities to nongendered things (like chemicals). Take, for instance, the yin and yang of Taoism, or Shakti and Shiva in some Eastern religions. Shakti is known as the feminine energy. She represents the great mother who nourishes all life. Her counterpart, Shiva, is masculine energy. He represents consciousness. Shiva is the vessel that Shakti fills with water and life.

Historically, these notions didn't describe people with penises versus people with vaginas. It was understood that each person was born with their own individual proportion of the two complementing energies. In other words, each human has masculine and feminine energy within them. We're going to talk a lot about "what men do," and it's important to put these gender scripts into a historical and cultural context. In many cases, and for many centuries, not everyone reduced human behavior to the binaries we take for granted now. To examine our current view of them, let's look at some macro trends of modern culture.

The man box.

The first is that men are frequently put into a box. There's a whole national conversation around this idea called "Man Box culture." Basically, the idea is that we're taught "that men are in charge, which means [that] women are not," Tony Porter says in his TED Talk.

Tony Porter is the CEO of the organization A Call to Men, which provides education all over the world for healthy, respectful manhood. Porter is legit. He's an adviser to the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer, and Major League Baseball. Basically, he is working with all of our country's top athletes to reshape masculinity.

In his TED Talk, he continues explaining what we teach men. "That men lead and [women] should just follow and do what we say. That men are superior [and] women are inferior. That men are strong and women are weak. That women are of less value and the property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects," he says.

Porter's TED Talk has racked up more than 3 million views. In it, Porter lays out what he calls the Man Box. (He got the term from Paul Kivel, who wrote the book Men's Work: How To Stop the Violence That Tears Our Lives Apart. Kivel helped develop the term "Act Like a Man Box" with the Oakland Men's Project in the early 1980s.)

It's a series of qualities men are instructed to embody:

  • Do not cry openly or express emotions (with the exception of anger)
  • Do not express weakness or fear
  • Demonstrate power and control (especially over women)
  • Aggression-Dominance
  • Protector
  • Do not be "like a woman"
  • Heterosexual
  • Do not be "like a gay man"
  • Tough/Athletic/Strength/Courage
  • Makes decisions—does not need help
  • Views women as property/objects

This idea of the Man Box has gotten so much play in men's circles that, OK, well, you know Axe body spray? The parent company, Unilever, commissioned a study called "The Man Box: A Study on Being a Young Man in the U.S., U.K., and Mexico."

What did it find?

"Young men reap certain benefits from staying inside the Man Box: it provides them with a sense of belonging, of living up to what is expected of them," it reads. "Friends and parents may praise them. However, when those same norms tell men to be aggressive all the time, to repress emotions, and to fight every time someone threatens them, the Man Box demands that they pretend to be someone they are not, and study results show how violent and lonely the resulting life can be."

Someone else who has an interesting perspective on masculinity is Alex Schmider. Alex is the associate director of trans representation at the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD. He's made quite a name for himself within his industry, working behind the scenes with TV networks and film studios on their inclusive representation of transgender communities in the media. So much so that in 2017 he made Forbes' enviable 30 Under 30 list in the media category.

As a trans man, Schmider has had the opportunity to think critically about what masculinity means to him and what aspects of it he will and won't participate in, more so than say the average cis man. Here's what he came up with: "This affects every member of society...cisgender boys and men are not given nearly enough space or encouragement to be vulnerable and open with themselves, to familiarize with their emotions, to communicate their boundaries and needs, to respond to the boundaries and needs of others, and to develop meaningful relationships using all of the above interpersonal skills. External messages of inadequacy based on unchallenged conventions of gender can internalize and become a perpetual cycle of self-criticism and 'not enoughness'—punishing them and the people around them."

How does this relate to dating? Basically, men are still trying to fit into a very specific definition of what it means to "be a man" even if it doesn't feel completely authentic to them, and it reflects on how they date. I can give you an example. Meet Clint. As #MeToo was unfolding, he sat down and reconsidered his "own thoughts, behavior, and conditioning," he told me. He changed "pretty drastically," he said, adding that it felt like being in a funhouse of distorted mirrors, then walking outside and seeing things as they really are. One of his areas of change was how he approaches dating, specifically valuing emotional connection over physical attraction.

"I feel more whole, and thus more valuable to a potential partner, and less willing to indulge in the old, destructive paradigm play of 'man chases woman, she lets herself be caught,' etc.," he says. "I'm worth the chase, too, and really, it shouldn't be a chase. Connection, if true, is easy, fun, honest, and fair." You're worth the chase, too. Like Clint, you may need to mature beyond a narrow view of masculinity to reexamine how you want to date.

From Modern Manhood: Conversations About the Complicated World of Being a Good Man Today by Cleo Stiller. Copyright © 2019 by Cleo Stiller. Reprinted by permission of Tiller Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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