Thursday, October 6, 2011

Women Asking Men Out: Some Analysis of Gender Norms



During a conversation over at the blog And that's why you're single,
I was involved in a short discussion about women asking men out on dates. The lone woman in the conversation argued that while men might say "yes" to a woman's invitation to go on a date, they probably weren't terribly interested in her beforehand, and/or aren't going to be as interested in dating her as if they had done the asking. She uses this view to justify to herself not asking men out, which she's certainly entitled to do. (And if she's having luck with her current approach, who cares, right?) I guess I don't know if she's having luck finding quality potential partners or not, but another male commenter suggested that she might be missing out on a certain percentage of men who might not, for various reasons, directly ask her out. She felt that number was tiny, but I disagreed. Here's my response:

You know, I understand that adhering to the old gender norms where men do the asking, and women accept is in some ways a practical strategy. I think women who stick totally to that model are missing out on a swath of men. And it’s not just men who are shy and not assertive. It’s actually including any men who haven’t found you yet (if online), or who don’t know you (if in person), or who simply aren’t the type to ask out strangers or relative strangers.

When it comes to online dating , I really think plenty of women are – through their lack of being proactive – missing opportunities. Vox (the female commenter I spoke of above) points out that men might save her profile and then not go back. Because there’s hundreds of others out there. I know that there have been times when I have saved profiles of women I thought were really interesting, and then didn’t go back for weeks afterwards. Sometimes, it was because I was already going on dates, and didn’t have any more time. Other times, I was simply too busy. And still other times, I just plain forgot.

Another issue here is the issue of who it is you’re attracting. Perhaps you have a full inbox of e-mails from guys, but what if it’s full of guys who either are totally not what you want, or who are too much like your exs? Sometimes, you have to break the norms in order to also break patterns like attracting the “wrong people” – even if you desire to uphold the norms in general.

Besides those comments, I also believe there are some unquestioned assumptions about heterosexual men as a group that underlie Vox's view (which is shared by many other heterosexual women). First off, there is an assumption that men only display attraction directly, and that if they don't ramp things up in an assertive way, they aren't interested. I flat out disagree with this totalizing view, and believe that even some confident, mostly mainstream guys display a mixture of approaches to demonstrating interest in women. To me, this men are always direct and obvious is a dressed up version of the "men are simple creatures" narrative.

The second issue I want to point out is more complicated. I do think there are some men who feel a need to be dominant and in control of the dating process, and who would react negatively towards women who choose to initiate dates. I can see how men like this might go on a date with said woman because it's something to do, and might even be interested in her on some level, but ultimately feel threatened by her assertiveness.

However, I sometimes think a lot of women fail to recognize that men haven't stayed, as a whole group, in the past. That all the efforts of the women's liberation movement, of the various feminisms, and even to some degree elements of the more recent men's movement have had a marked impact on a large number of younger men (amongst the under 50 crowd) in American society. That there are a hell of a lot more men out there today whose actions and beliefs are a blend of "masculine" and "feminine" to use those sort of sloppy terms. That there are plenty of men who are defining relationships more along lines of an equal partnership, and who view dating as something mostly other than from a "traditional" courtship model. And this post is only focusing on heterosexual men. If you include gay men, bisexual men, and men who identify as queer, that would add even more layers upon this discussion.

In fact, I'd argue that one of the things undergoing revision in society is a strict adherence to a single definition of sexuality. That who we are as sexual beings, regardless of whom we choose to ultimately be partners with, frequently doesn't fit into a tiny set of boxes. People like Alfred Kinsey were shunned for talking about this kind of stuff decades ago, and there are still plenty of naysayers running around saying things like sexuality is only about procreation, or only happens in X number of forms, and whatnot - but more and more people are choosing to see the true diversity out there, and do what they can to support and even celebrate that.

Going back to the original topic, I think men who don't "fit" the old norms have a role to play also. We need to be more vocal about how we are approaching dating, including writing and responding to these kinds of posts on dating and relationship websites. We need to share our experiences, and even to some extent explain our reasons for choosing to not go along with the old ways. And for some of us, there's a strong need to develop confidence and an ability to let go of criticism and commentary that we "aren't good enough" or "aren't man enough." And finally, we need to figure out a way to balance critical commentary about the oppressive elements of gender norms with a respectful attitude towards those who genuinely feel ok following those norms themselves.

Whew! All that from a few comments about people asking each other out dates. That's enough from me. What are your thoughts?

29 comments:

  1. I think I might have responded to that blog post as well. Frankly, I'm shocked that this is still an issue. when I was in college in the late 80's/early 90's, it was considered perfectly normal and acceptable that women would ask guys out. After being married for 15 years and getting back into the dating world, I carried on as before and honestly, most men I've come across don't seem to have an issue with it. In fact, my fiance was thrilled that I made the first move. So I've been really surprised to see women my age and younger still buying into the traditional gender roles in this area.

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  2. I'll post here as a single comment the two remarks I added into that debate:

    Some men might not know that they would be interested you, until you make them aware you exist.

    It is said, “motivation follows action”. Similarly, for some people, “interest follows dating”. More accurately, that would be, people get interested in each other from getting to know each other, and get interested in dating each other and having a relationship, from trying it out. A guy can look at a woman and not think much one way or the other, but if she made the approach and let him get to know her, there might be something special waiting to happen. Why not give it a chance?

    It turns out that statistically, about 50% of people show up as introverts on the MBTI test, which means that they are people who stay in themselves a lot, and are thus less likely to make a first move. There isn't thought to be much imbalance between genders in this regard, if anything men are more likely to be introverts.

    So, women who won't make the first move could be denying themselves at least 50% of the playing field before the game has even begun.

    A lot of women who say, "Oh, if a man's interested, he'll make the first move" base this on a single data point, and from anecdotal evidence, e.g. "Well, I asked this guy out once and he said no, therefore no man will say yes when a woman asks him out. And, my friend says the same thing, so it must be true."

    Do you know what would happen if men took the same approach? If every man said to himself, "Well, I tried asking a girl out once and she said no, therefore no woman likes to be asked out and I should stop trying," then that would be the end of dating! Seriously. The realistic pick-up artists (the ones who don't claim their techniques will work on every girl everywhere instantaneously) admit that their chances of success with an approach are roughly 5%-10%. It takes me about 100 approaches to get one "yes". You can't draw any reliable conclusions about whether men will say "yes" to the woman making the first move, until you've made the first move with about a thousand men. You can't draw any reliable conclusions about whether men will be interested or not, until you've made that many attempts.

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  3. I dunno about asking men out. Unless it's an old friend who's known you for years, I feel that it would create an odd dynamic.

    I've emailed and favorited people first, though. Always get a response and an email exchange. Got four first dates that way, and one "second/third/we went to his place/he ended things/I was depressed for a month" type of thing. That's over the past five months. So I guess emailing men first sort of works - you just need to email the right men. By the way, one of the guys I'd emailed later told me that, if it hadn't been for my email, he would've never seen my profile. So, a good way to get noticed. After that, I'd say it's up to him whether to stay in touch or not.

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  4. Goldie, I can understand your reservations about asking a guy out, but if you're already making the kinds of initial efforts you say you are, then what's the difference? It seems like an artificial distinction to me.

    I do agree, though, with the idea that it shouldn't be a "one way street." I have repeatedly written about my deep distaste of chasing and being expected to make all the moves. And I don't think women should be expected to make all the moves either.

    Often, when people are interested in each other, there's effort on both ends. What I'm focused on are those who are stuck in a mindset that one gender (usually men) "should" do most of the work to get things started, because that seems like a foolish, dis-empowered approach to dating in this day and age. It's already challenging enough to find someone of quality you're compatible with - why add more barriers on top of that?

    And as I said above, if what you're doing now seems to be working, then keep doing it.

    I just figure it's always worth reflecting on the underlying assumptions, and being willing to change if appropriate.

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  5. Christina, I was in college during the mid-90s, and don't recall this being such an issue either. It makes me wonder if it's something about the uniqueness of college environments that helps break down these norms, and if once people are out of that environment, many slide back into the old fixed norms to some degree? I don't know.

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  6. Snowdrops, I lean towards introverted tendencies, but have deliberately placed myself in positions where I had to be more outgoing. Mostly that has happened in jobs and leadership positions I have held, but I also have done things like you in terms of taking risks by striking up conversations with women in public, and/or asking them out.

    But I think what those who are more naturally outgoing don't realize is how much energy and effort it can take for people with introverted tendencies to be outgoing and do those kinds of things. It's often assumed that either we aren't confident enough, or we simply aren't that interested - which doesn't give a full picture of what's going on.

    Part of the reason I'm so big on both people doing their share of the effort and initiating in dating, and in a relationship, is that it's exhausting to me when it's mostly on my shoulders. I've been in a few one sided relationships and after a certain point, I just grew tired of trying to come up with things to do together, initiating intimacy, contacting between dates, etc.

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  7. Nathan, we're on completely the same page with this!

    I have to add that I am now really curious to find out what the results would be if a woman made the first move with 1,000 different men - especially after reading Goldie's outline of her experiences.

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  8. Nathan,

    "Goldie, I can understand your reservations about asking a guy out, but if you're already making the kinds of initial efforts you say you are, then what's the difference? It seems like an artificial distinction to me."

    Two differences I can think of...

    1) When I send an initial email, all I'm doing is getting myself noticed by a man who, until now, didn't know I existed. Whereas when I ask someone out, we know each other enough already by that point that he can make up his mind whether he wants to go out with me or not... in my mind, if for some reason he hasn't asked me out by now, then he doesn't want to. I could be wrong, of course.

    2) I think there is more societal pressure on the guy to be a gentleman, be nice to a woman etc. in other words, IMO it is more socially acceptable for a woman to say no to a man when asked out, than it is the other way around. So I can ask a guy out, he'll agree, and I won't know whether he said yes because he genuinely wanted to, or because he was trying to be nice. And life is too short to be chasing an unwilling male ;)

    I am only referring to the original contact (first, second dates...) In a relationship, naturally it's okay for both sides to take turn making plans, or to make plans together.

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  9. @ Goldie:

    On your point 1) - to help clarify the distinction, could you describe what happens between "When I send an initial email" and "if for some reason he hasn't asked me out by now, then he doesn't want to"?

    Or, to put it another way, how do you get from, "a man who, until now, didn't know I existed," to, "we know each other enough already ... that he can make up his mind"?

    In particular, what indicators of interest might be exchanged in between those points?

    On your point 2:

    So I can ask a guy out, he'll agree, and I won't know whether he said yes because he genuinely wanted to, or because he was trying to be nice.

    I have heard it argued just as firmly that the pressure to be accommodating and not to say no is on women. I think the pressures are different in expression, but maybe not in effect.

    And life is too short to be chasing an unwilling male

    You know, I feel exactly the same way about chasing uninterested women.

    True story: I was in regular email contact with a woman I had contacted through a dating site, and our conversations got quite saucy but in a generalised way. I had initially been uncertain about whether anything would or could come of it, but soon felt good about the idea of us getting together. However, I felt as though she wasn't interested in dating and sex with me. So we became friends. Maybe a year down the line, with both of us firmly in each other's "friend zone", I mentioned this. She told me, "I was interested, I just thought you weren't, so I didn't do anything!" We agreed that actually, it would feel weird to try shifting gears, so we remained friends after that.

    The moral of the story being, had either one of us made the first move (despite thinking the other wasn't interested), it would have been something very different.

    The fact of the matter is, with some guys (and possibly 50% of guys!) you'll only find out if he's willing, if you ask him. Men are taught that about women, of course - but that's how the "a man will always ask a woman if he's interested" myth gets started in the first place.

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  10. "So I can ask a guy out, he'll agree, and I won't know whether he said yes because he genuinely wanted to, or because he was trying to be nice." I've heard others say this. There's some truth to it, however I have also experienced women saying yes to be nice as well.

    It's not been common in my experience to receive a direct "no." Some of that might be my personality - I get along well with most people, and don't come off pushy and aggressive. So, maybe that makes it hard for women to make a clear rejection? I don't know. Just guessing on that.

    Part of the challenge in all of this is that most often, we're running on what we've experienced. So if what you've experienced is that guys who don't ask soon aren't interested, it's understandable that you'd figure that's how it is. And of course, those experiences remain valid, even if others of a different nature come in.

    So, what to do? I tend to think that it's always worth experimenting with different approaches. But that's how I am. This blog was an experiment and still is to some degree.

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  11. @Snowdrop:

    "what happens between "When I send an initial email" and "if for some reason he hasn't asked me out by now, then he doesn't want to"?"

    I don't know, the usual... emailing, texting, maybe an occasional phone call? Some interaction that helps both parties decide whether they want to meet face-to-face or not? I cannot even think of any specific detail.

    "I have heard it argued just as firmly that the pressure to be accommodating and not to say no is on women."

    That is correct if you mean saying no to a parent, a kid, a friend etc. Dating is different. Historically it used to be bad form for a woman to say yes all the time in dating. That made her appear easy (or at least, that was the perception back in the day).

    "We agreed that actually, it would feel weird to try shifting gears"

    Why?

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  12. @ Goldie:

    It sounds as though you expect men always to be quicker to reach a decision about whether they're interested. That is, after a certain amount of exchanged communications, you have reached your decision about being interested or not, and therefore assume he must have already reached a decision as well? A man might simply take a little longer than you expect, or maybe even is trying to gauge how interested you are and is looking for a clear signal. Personally, I can have either or both of these problems. In addition to which, I would view a first date as a part of the "getting to know you" phase, and part-and-parcel of texting and phonecalls in that sense.

    It's unclear to me whether you view these early communications as having an "arc" to them that leads up to a first date being proposed (for instance, do you have similar expectations as to who sends the first text or who dials whom first for the first phonecall - or who asks whom for their number first?) Is there an order in which these events might be expected to happen?

    "We agreed that actually, it would feel weird to try shifting gears"

    Why?


    I'm not sure I understand the question. Are you asking why did we feel that way, or are you asking why did we agree?

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  13. @ Snowdrop, I don't know how to answer your questions. I cannot give you step-by-step instructions. Everyone has their own style and learning curve, and their own dating pool. With the men that I interact with, I feel I'm better off not asking them out first.

    Yeah I agree that the first date kind of falls into the same category as the texts, emails and calls in that it is a part of "getting to know you" phase. However since it involves driving around to meet, spending some time and a small amount of money, I'd rather not schedule a first date unless I feel the possibility of connecting on it is high. I do not have that much time to waste, and probably neither does the man.

    I'm not sure I understand the question. Are you asking why did we feel that way, or are you asking why did we agree?

    I don't understand why you decided not to give it a try, because you're friends. I've dated friends. It was an enjoyable experience for all. If you two already know you a)get along and b)are interested, why not try dating, unless there are other compelling reasons not to?

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  14. @ Goldie:

    Well, it felt like we would be "going through the motions" and trying to force something to happen because we thought it "should". For me, attempts to date people who were friends first, just end up feeling stilted and awkward, even if we both would have been interested.

    As for your preferences, I guess the difficulty I am having is how you get from, "I'd rather not schedule a first date unless I feel the possibility of connecting on it is high. I do not have that much time to waste, and probably neither does the man," to, "I feel I'm better off not asking them out first." That's the question I was trying to get at.

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  15. @ Snowdrop, I'm pretty confused. I guess I never had this experience where the man stays in contact, is interested, but doesn't ask me out because he's too shy to. Usually, either he stops writing because he's no longer interested, or I stop writing because I'm no longer interested, or he asks me out and then I weigh all I know about him and say yes or no. So to sum it up, the only time he doesn't ask me out is if he isn't interested. In that case, why would I ask him out?

    I've never had a bad experience dating male friends. I have a lot of male friends, and last year after my divorce became final, a few of them did ask me out. To me, the fact that we had already been friends prior to that made things easier. No one forced anything; if things weren't working out, then we both agreed that they weren't working out, and went back to being friends.

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  16. Uhhh I jinxed it. Just got a text from someone I'd had two dates with, who disappeared afterwards, texted me two weeks later to say he'd like to meet, then disappeared again.

    I assumed he wasn't interested, and started seeing several new people.

    He just texted me saying "I haven't heard from you for a while, so I assumed you weren't interested." and is asking what he'd done wrong to have lost my interest.

    I think my answer is going to be that most of us women are really uncomfortable going all Sadie Hawkins on people. (Especially since many of us have tried that approach in the past and it backfired painfully.) If you're interested in us, say so. Don't wait for us to take initiative after you've been AWOL for two weeks.

    You know what an average guy will do if he's "meh" about a woman, and the woman keeps initiating contact? He'll meet with her since she insists, have sex, and disappear. Ask me how I know :(

    Then again, to be fair, in this particular case, I wasn't all that interested...

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  17. What if this had been a man you were really interested in?

    See, while I agree that a lot of men are going to initiate things if they are interested, the reality is that the sands are shifting on dating. There are more men who aren't willing to chase (myself included), which means that we want women to put in a fair share of effort, and be willing to risk rejection.

    What I hear too much of from women is this idea that they've tried to ask men out a few times - it didn't work - and so they're not going to do it again. Well, if men took that approach, most of us would be single right now.

    I'm plenty capable of asking women out, and do so a majority of the time, but I have also been asked out before and went because I was interested, and not for some quick sex. To me, sticking behind generalized assumptions is a way to play it safe, but also can easily lead you to wrong conclusions.

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  18. Right now, there *is* a man I'm really interested in, who keeps disappearing from contact for a couple days at a time. I'm sitting on my hands, mirroring him like Evan tells us to. I've known him for a while - he's pretty confident - he knows what he wants, and doesn't like being told what to do. So he's probably really not going to like being asked out! If he disappears altogether - bummer - but that would be because he's not interested, not because I didn't ask him out enough. I'll be sad, but what can I do except move on.

    You guys are just confusing women with your modern ways, IMO :)

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  19. Goldie - plenty of women are also doing those "modern ways."

    I agree it's all a bit confusing, but that's where we are at.

    Good luck with the guy.

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  20. @ Goldie:

    I guess I never had this experience where the man stays in contact, is interested, but doesn't ask me out because he's too shy to. Usually, either he stops writing because he's no longer interested, or I stop writing because I'm no longer interested, or he asks me out and then I weigh all I know about him and say yes or no. So to sum it up, the only time he doesn't ask me out is if he isn't interested.

    The thing is, unless you make the effort to find out what happened, you'll never know why he ends up stopping writing to you: maybe he lost interest, or maybe he was waiting to see if you're interested (as in the example that followed your post!) or any number of reasons.

    For example: do you ever stop writing to a guy because you feel like he's not interested in you? That is, because he didn't ask you out on a date yet and you think he would have by now if he was interested? Maybe he didn't yet know how interested he was? It's happened to me that I didn't get interested enough quickly enough for someone I was dating and she cut me off just as I thought I was getting more interested.

    I think my answer is going to be that most of us women are really uncomfortable going all Sadie Hawkins on people. (Especially since many of us have tried that approach in the past and it backfired painfully.)

    Well, yes. It's the same for men, too: At least 95% of men trying the approach of asking the woman first, ends up backfiring painfully. Men just get told to suck it up and move on to the next woman. (Seriously, for a while I made it a slogan for my dating life: "pick myself up, dust myself down, move on to the next bear trap" - because it hurts so much, and because that painful rejection is always the most likely outcome.)

    Also, what Nathan said, in bucketloads.

    You know what an average guy will do if he's "meh" about a woman, and the woman keeps initiating contact?

    See, the key word here is "keeps". I'm a big believer that effort should be a two-way thing in a relationship, so if it's always on you to initiate then there's something wrong. There's a whole heap of difference between "meh" and "shy/unsure", and the difference is that the shy/unsure guy will, once he gets the message, be doing his bit just as much. That goes both ways, guys or women: If I feel like I have to do all the work (as Nathan says, being made to chase) then I might have started off interested, but I pretty soon lose it.

    You guys are just confusing women with your modern ways, IMO :)

    Or could it be that -gosh- men are not all the same as one another but have individual personalities and needs and such?! (God knows how often I've been told that about women, and of course it's true for you as well.) As frustrating as it is for us (men AND women) there is no one simple set of rules for how to understand the opposite sex, and if you follow the flowchart then you'll figure it out. One guy doesn't write because he's lost interest, another one thinks it's your turn to say something, another wants to know you're interested in him, another thinks making you wait is going to make you more interested... and so on.

    (Incidentally, I suspect your guy might be a "this will make her more interested in me" type, but I'm usually wrong about these things)

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  21. Awww, thank you guys :)

    "(Incidentally, I suspect your guy might be a "this will make her more interested in me" type, but I'm usually wrong about these things) "

    LOL, if that's the case, he better say something quick, because, like most of us, I'm seeing two people. I like the flakey guy slightly better, but both are really such a good match for me and I for them, it is very hard to choose. The other one is very consistent, wants a relationship, and has agreed to take it slow. The flakey dude's charm and charisma can only take him so far... I really like him, but may end up with the other one, just because he's been treating me better.

    I guess this is a warning for any shy guys out there to be more upfront, because women are not mind-readers ;)

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  22. Well, I have learned to be more upfront when I'm interested. It definitely has to be balanced because I don't think most of us are good at reading minds :)

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  23. FYI, Nathan, in the end I chose door number 2. And it's a good thing I did. Because, right after I made my choice, my flakey friend told me that he wasn't ready for a relationship. (How's that for upfront, lol)

    Guy #2 and I got off the site this week and are having an amazing time now, knock on wood :)

    Which seems to prove my point that, if a man doesn't show initiative, then pushing and prodding him will accomplish nothing ;)

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  24. Apparently, in most world cultures, women never ask men out, even in North America, because they think she's a prostitute. And men are expected to show initiative while women aren't allowed to have interest in men at all, except men they see in the media, whom they normally won't meet in real life. And most men don't like it when women look at them, make moves or act chivalrous with them. They get very bitchy and violent.

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  25. I am attractive (I guess that kind of thing is subjective but: 5'4", 100lbs, green eyes) frequently described as friendly, cute, and intelligent. I'm quirky and I tend to go after somewhat "nerdy" guys, so I don't think I'm going out of my league or whatever.

    I have asked guys out in high school, college and after, always being as smooth as possible about the whole thing. Like, discussing a video game and then inviting them over to my house to play it. Talking bars and then suggesting we go to one and grab a drink.

    Every single time I have been the one to initiate hanging out, I have been turned down.

    Men SAY they want women to act as the pursuers, but from the dumbfounded expressions I have gotten from these simple, basic requests, I think the reality of it makes them uncomfortable.

    I have no idea what they are thinking about me, but I'm guessing "desperate"? Instead of thinking, "Wow she's so hot, I wonder if she'd like to spend some time with me outside of school/work?" and wondering if he should pursue me, he is thinking "If she's so hot, why is she asking ME out?" i think there is something subconscious, or biological there that makes it fail.

    I'll still ask a guy out if I like him and want to get to know him better, but all the men I have dated successfully have been the ones I seduced into wanting to spend time with me, simply by being available until he was ready to pursue a relationship.

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  26. Ms. Wolf - You sound positively gorgeous! I still wonder why men are supposed to feel needy and desperate by asking women out. What if I said ,"If I am handsome enough, should women not be asking me out?"
    I guess that if the guy is needy and desperate enough he HAS to do the asking and she can see him as desperate and easy.
    Does that sound familiar?

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