Thursday, May 9, 2013

Love is a Power Struggle: Why college guys don’t “go the extra mile” for women

For the past few days, my Facebook news feed has been full of female friends cooing over a video in which a 10 year-old gives romance advice to college aged men. That video, titled “The Extra Mile,” can be found below:

In addition to the kid’s undeniable cuteness, it’s easy to see why many women love this video (feminists who find chivalry patronizing are one exception). As he says, women list maturity and kindness as the top things they look for in a partner, and this video preaches those things. Additionally, it gives women a chance to lament how immature and un-chivalrous most college guys seem to be.

Meanwhile, most of my guy friends have greeted it much less enthusiastically. I’ve seen several women post the video as their status, but not a single man followed suit. None have even commented positively. One man even posted a video titled “How to Make a Sandwich” in the comments of his friends post – a joking but obvious expression of dismissive disapproval.

So if guys really stand to benefit from this kid’s advice, why aren’t they receptive to it? Is it selfishness? Laziness? Ignorance? Even sexism or feelings of superiority? Are we just too proud to admit that someone less than half our age can have better game than we do? I don’t think so. Rather, I think ignoring this advice is perfectly rational for a self-interested man living in modern society, and it’s important that both men and women understand why. Therefore, this post has two purposes. First, I hope to explain to women why most college men don’t act in the way this video advises. And second, I will explain to the men who do act that way why it probably hasn’t been working for them.

Part I: Social pressure and the incentives it creates

The short answer to these questions is that men and women face different social incentives that pressure them to act in different ways, creating a rift between how men act, and how women want them to act. The first of these disparate social pressures is the pressure on young men (but not young women) to have sex, while the second is the pressure on young women (but not young men) to enter into committed monogamous relationships.

Let’s start with the pressures on men. It is well understood in our society that men seem to pursue sex much more eagerly than women do. But why is this? Are men just horn-dogs who can’t keep it in their pants? Do women just have more bodily control and self-restraint? Again, the answer is no. Men want sex not just because we enjoy it physically, but also because there is great cultural pressure on us to prove our manliness by having lots of sex with lots of different women. This pressure results from subconscious competition between men to see who is the most powerful amongst them – the same pressure that makes us get in fist-fights over stupid shit, or attracts to violent sports as an excuse to tackle someone. Men are naturally programmed to compete with one another, and as it relates to women, this produces an impulse to show off our “game.” Our society venerates men who can attract and mate with lots of different women – men like George Clooney, for instance. These men are viewed as powerful, and that confers great social status and respect upon them.

This incentive also pressures us to avoid monogamous relationships, which to some men signify weakness and dependency. A powerful man, society tells us, has girls lined up, just waiting to go to bed with him. They’re dependent on him, not vice-versa. Monogamous relationships jeopardize this perception of manly dominance by making men appear “whipped,” especially if he “goes the extra mile” to do all the chivalrous things his girlfriend wants him to. This may sound heartless and cruel to girls, because they don’t have the same pressure on them to pretend they’re unaffected by emotion or feeling. If a girl tells her female friends that she’s fallen hopelessly in love with her boyfriend, they’ll likely view it as romantic and be jealous of her. But if a man told the same thing to his friends, he’d probably be teased for such an embarrassing, “soft” confession. It’s for this same reason that when guys are talking on the phone with their girlfriends in the presence of other men, they speak very differently than they do when courting their girlfriends in private. Saying “I love you,” for instance, is often avoided, or else said quietly and with initial hesitation. There’s a famous scene in the movie “Grease” in which John Travolta transitions from excited lover to a total douchebag once he realizes his pals are snickering behind him. So not only are young guys pressured to have lots of sex, but we’re pressured to avoid any long term relationship with the girls we have sex with. We don’t want to be tied down and committed, at least not yet – we just want sex with no strings attached.

Now, I can already hear all you women out there complaining about how this is immoral and sleazy and unfair. By seeking sex without the intention of a relationship, some claim men are using girls as objects – something you can discard once we’ve gotten our rocks off. To an extent this anger is justified, especially if men intentionally deceive or lie to women about their intentions. But before you get on your high horse about this, recognize that girls do the same thing in reverse, through an infamous tactic guys like to call “the friend zone.”

The friend zone is where girls keep guys they know are attracted to them in perpetual limbo so they can take advantage of this attraction. Girls flirt with these “friends” just enough to keep them around and make them think they have a chance, but they never have any plans to actually advance things romantically. Just like men, they insinuate they’re open to a relationship they’re not really open to. Why do women do this? Are they just that cruel that they like to torture guys and play with their hearts? No – once again, the answer can be found in differing social incentives.

Our society views attractive women in higher esteem than unattractive ones, so like men, women have an incentive to attract people from the opposite gender. Like men, they compete amongst one another, often viciously, to prove who is the sexiest. This is why they spend incredible amounts of time putting on makeup and deciding what to wear and obsessing over their appearance: there is enormous pressure on them to look good all the time, and to attract as many men as possible. But unlike men, once they successfully attracted the opposite gender, women have an equally strong incentive to stop there, without doing anything sexual with the person they’ve attracted. This is because once they cross the line between attracting lots of men and fucking lots of men, all that positive social kudos turns into negative social whiplash. All of a sudden, they’re viewed as easy sluts. To be clear, this stigma is utter bullshit. It is completely unfair and a total double standard that many people are rightfully working to change (with some success). But for now, that stigma is still so powerful that for many women, the social detriment and embarrassment of being viewed as a slut far outweighs the physical enjoyment of the sex itself.

This weird incentive structure is what creates the friend zone. In order to maximize their social gratification, girls have an incentive to assemble an entourage of good-looking males they’ve attracted in the past, and to be seen in public showing them off. They ask these “friends” to hang out with them and to go shopping with them and to do a million little favors for them, without any intent to escalate their relationship above this level. This confuses guys because all that positive, enthusiastic feedback we get from our initial romantic advances never translates into actual romance, even if the girl keeps flirting for months after we first met them. Why do girls keep trying to lure us back in, acting cutesy and giving suggestive signs, if they don’t want to be more than friends? To a guy, going through all the trouble of attracting a partner without realizing the physical benefit would defeat the purpose of the attraction. What men don’t get is that to a girl, the attraction itself is the benefit.

Of course, women want to have sex too – certainly no less than men do on a biological level. But the only way they can have sex without being socially castigated for promiscuity is by entering into a committed relationship. Romance with a stranger at a party will make their peers gossip; romance with a boyfriend will make their peers jealous. In the short term, this means women want to find a boyfriend willing to shower them with attention in highly public ways – the same affection men are pressured not to give them. And in the long term, this means women are pressured to get married relatively quickly. With the continued prominence of the “traditional gender roles” in Western society, women see more resistance to independent self-sustainment. With the disparate returns women see in the labor market, and less incentive to go out on their own. This is part of the reason that the average age of first marriage for men in the US is 29, while for women it is 27. This plays into their short term incentives as well. If a female college student knows that she prefers to be a stay-at-home mom going forward, there’s an economic incentive to find her husband from among the bright promising college grads to which she has easy (but temporary) access. The result is the statistic mentioned in the video: while in college, 63% of women are looking to meet a husband.

Men, on the other hand, usually don’t go to college looking for a wife. In the short term, the pressures I mentioned above deter us from committing ourselves to just one girl. And in the long term, there’s plenty of time for us to find a spouse well into our 30’s, because there’s much less pressure on males to get married quickly. Inversely, there’s far more pressure on us to move out on our own, establish a stable job with a steady income and advance our career path. Just as women who aren’t housekeepers sometimes meet scorn and hostility, men who aren’t breadwinners are often ridiculed as unable to provide for “their” family. Therefore, men have an incentive to stay in school longer, and to remain single longer, before looking to settle down. For these reasons, most guys don’t feel pressure to enter a committed relationship in college, creating yet another mismatch in desires.

What does this mean for college romancers? The cynical truth is that young love is nothing but an enormous power struggle. Both sexes go out on the weekends with a subconscious desire to elevate their social status relative to their peers. When a woman is hard to get and men are slobbering over her, she holds the keys, and that power translates to veneration and social status. When a man has “game” and can get lots of women to fuck him without becoming beholden to their wishes, he is viewed as powerful, and that translates to respect and social status. We jostle and maneuver and strategize with members of our own sex to determine who has the most power over the other sex – not to satiate our bodily needs so much as to attain social gratification and enhance our self-esteem. If you think this preoccupation with how others view us is shallow and immature, you’re right – but it’s just how the world works. Older couples may have the confidence, independence and selflessness to love without caring how their peers view it – but college students generally don’t. Sex and relationships among young people are a fierce competition, and both sexes have to engage in that competition to get what they want.

Part II: How men get what they want

With these incentives in mind, it’s clear why this video is popular with women. Of course women wish all men would go the extra mile to keep them enamored on romantic dates. If men acted this way, it would make the long term relationships women are pressured to enter much easier to find, enjoy, and show off. College women are looking for a boyfriend as charming and romantic as this little kid, so encouraging men to act this way suits their interests.

But unfortunately for them, men have an incentive to act in a very different way: a way that’s more likely to get us sex, and less likely to get us bogged down in a long term relationship. This is an uphill battle because women have the opposite pressures, so to be successful we must maneuver around these obstacles. Doing that adeptly requires putting ourselves in a girl’s shoes, studying their situation, and assessing the wants and needs their predicament produces. Although girls usually don’t go out to parties with the intent of having sex, in certain situations they do make an exception. Clever men study those situations thoroughly to figure out what it is they need to provide. Girls will happily tell us what they’re looking for in a husband, but we don’t care about those criteria. What we ask ourselves is, what do girls look for in a one night stand?

When we do that, it becomes clear that the most important factors women consider are not maturity and kindness. That’s not what sex appeal is about. Getting sex is not done by making girls feel special or appreciated or doted on – it’s done by making them aroused. It’s done by presenting oneself as so desirable and sexy that the prospect of a secretive fling outweighs the risk of negative social backlash. Men who want sex must woo, charm and enchant women into forgetting that cultural pressure. Simple kindness may make women happy and appreciative, but it won’t turn them on.

What does turn women on is confidence. Men have learned that in order to get what we want, we must be brave enough to initiate the conversation, and direct enough to guide it. We must challenge and tease women to push the envelope and make things happen. Men looking for sex mustn’t appear unsure of their abilities. They mustn’t hesitate, waffle, or display uncertainty. Any nervousness must be masked by a self-assured swagger. And although men needn’t be arrogant, the truth is that it usually doesn’t hurt. The notion that “girls like assholes” isn’t strictly true, because girls are not attracted to condescension. But they are highly attracted to confidence, and if that spills over into cockiness, they tend not to mind.

Another thing that turns women on is intrigue. To get what they want, men have learned to construct an aura of enigma that leaves girls curious and wanting more. We’ve learned to be diverse and multifaceted, and to have a few surprises up our sleeve. We make sudden and unexpected decisions, knowing this will confuse girls of our intentions and engender yet more interest. This element of the unknown creates anticipation, suspense, and undeniable sexual tension. But to use this to our advantage, men realize they must work as quickly as possible. The longer we wait, the better women get to know us; the better they know us, the less mysterious we become, and the less they romanticize about our identity. Men understand that in order to have a chance, we have to make girls swoon at the first impression, before that novelty wears off. We’ve learned to make our move within the brief window of time in which those first impressions are formed, and then to close the deal before the allure of that impression dies out. To get sex, we have to strike while the iron is hot.

But at same time as they’re moving quickly, men must go slowly enough to develop trust and personal connections. Women must feel safe and secure to go home with someone, so men cannot come across as shady. Of course, we can’t wait long enough to reveal our full character, because that would take months – we can only offer selected glimpses of the whole. But in the short time we have, we have to come across as normal enough that she’s comfortable taking the risk of leaving her friends and accompanying us to a private place. Men have to be forward enough to catch a girl’s interest, romantic enough to escalate it, and disarming enough that she’s willing to act on it.

Finally, the most important thing that turns women on is power. As much as feminists hate to admit it, nothing arouses women more than masculine dominance and strength. Men know this instinctually, and that instinct drives almost everything we do when we’re playing the field. Men have learned that to get what we want, we must be an alpha-male. We must demonstrate control over the situation, our surroundings, other men, and even over the woman herself. We know women do not go home with timid, submissive beta-male weaklings. They want men strong enough to protect them. When deciding where to go next and what to do there, the man must be the one to make suggestions. If we defer that responsibility and ask them to take command, they’ll usually give indecisive and ambiguous answers: even if they want sex, social pressures often prevent them from verbally suggesting it. Long term relationships are a different story, because women are less stigmatized there. But during a nightlife pickup attempt, most women don’t want the reins – they want us to use the imperative and give them instructions. Women are turned on by men who take charge and call the shots. More than anything else, women lust over power.

For proof of this, look no further than Jay-Z and Beyonce. Physically, Jay-Z is one of the single ugliest celebrities I’ve ever laid eyes upon. He is short and pudgy, with enormous lips. I’m convinced he could finish an entire stick of chapstick in one use. By contrast, Beyonce is one of the most gorgeous women on the planet. If she wanted, she could have practically any man in the world clamoring at her feet. But when Beyonce scanned the field of possible husbands, Jay-Z was the one man who caught her attention. How can this be? The simple answer is that when Jay-Z walks down the street, people move out of his way. Men and women alike recognize Jay-Z as a man with wealth, influence, status, and swagger – a man who kicks ass, takes names, takes shit from nobody. He is not a nice, friendly, cute man; he is a powerful, dominant, alpha-male badass, and girls find that incredibly sexy.

Part III: Why the video doesn't work

How do these tactics compare to the video’s advice? For the majority of men, not very well. However cute this 10 year old may be, he still has a lot to learn about sexual attraction (though I imagine puberty might help). Take for example the following quote: “Don’t just be a nice date; be a nice guy.” That quote belongs in a video tutorial for “how to get friend-zoned, 101.” The saying “nice guys finish last” isn’t true in life in general, but it is very true in college nightlife. This is because women do not view kind, sincere, eager to please, reserved, nice men as potential fuck buddies. They view them as either prospective boyfriends (who they oughtn’t screw on the first date), or as valuable friend material (who they can keep in reserve to do all those unthreatening nice guy things with in the friend zone).

Next, the video implores men to “make George Clooney proud and be the knight in shining armor every woman wants you to be.” This would make sense if women wanted the same thing men did, but they don’t. Women want us to be their caring, attentive boyfriends; most college men have no interest in that. I suspect that George Clooney doesn’t either; in fact, Clooney said after his 1993 divorce that he will never marry again. And why should he? Despite being in his 50’s with gray hair, George Clooney can still get almost any girl he wants. Since his divorce, Clooney has been in and out of at least eight high profile celebrity relationships with dazzling actresses, models, and TV personalities – just because he can. The best part is that unlike women who “sleep around”, society worships him for this. That’s why George Clooney does not follow the advice this video gives. He doesn’t go the extra mile to please anyone. Rather, he remains aloof, bouncing between several different partners without fully committing to any of them. This same practice is ruining Taylor Swift’s reputation, it only adds to Clooney’s allure and fame.

The truth is that not only are kindness and maturity not what girls look for in a hook up, but they can actually make men less sexy by counteracting the things girls do look for. This is because it’s very difficult for guys to come across as a “bad boy” and a “nice guy” simultaneously. A bad boy kicks ass, takes names and gets what he wants. A nice guy does nice things for people, which makes him seem submissive to their interests.  Sexy men lay subtle hints, and know how to pick them up; nice men aren’t brazen enough to flirt this way. Nice men complement women; sexy men tease them. Nice men are polite, making sure they don’t offend; sexy men are forward, making cheeks blush and nostrils flare.  Sexy men are intriguing because they’re mysterious, ambiguous and tough to figure out; nice guys are boring because they’re honest, transparent, and predictable – exactly who they appear to be. Sexy men are confident to the point of cockiness; nice men are humble, but in the presence of cocky men that only comes off as meekness and timidity.

To be clear, nice guys do provide girls with lots of things they like. For one thing, nice guys are easy to confide in, because they’re willing to listen. Nice guys will happily allow girls to vent about their problems and feelings – often, ironically, their feelings for other guys. This is naturally painful if the man wants a relationship with the girl himself. But since nice guys are not aggressive enough to direct the conversation themselves, they will submit to this topic like all the others. They’re open, amiable, and easy to talk to about meaningless, superficial shit. Ultimately, nice men are friendly, so girls treat them like a friend.

But nice guys do not provide women with sexual arousal. Only alpha-males can do that, and nice guys are the beta-males. They are the punching bag that the alpha-males beat up on, stand-in loser that the alpha-males blow past on their way to a score – the frikin’ Washington Generals of flirtation. What they tell themselves is chivalry is actually an enormous flashing sign that says “walk all over me,” both to the female target and the male competition. They want sex as much as any other guy, but they don’t have the courage, confidence, or capacity to go out and get it.

From this perspective, the advice given to men in this video is terribly counterproductive to what most guys really want. Most guys want sex, and as it turns out, getting it has nothing to do with being a chivalrous knight in shining armor. “Going the extra mile” is courteous and cute, but it isn’t sexy. Instead, the characteristic that truly makes sex an attractive proposition for women is power. Men preserve their perception of power not by working for the girl, but by making girls work for them. Picking flowers and dishing transparent complements signifies that the man is chasing the girl, and outside of a committed relationship that makes him far less attractive.

The video closes by saying that “when you’re nice to others, you feel good”, and truer words were never spoken. Maturity and kindness will get you far in life, and if all you’re after is friendship, you should follow this video’s advice no matter your gender. And for those already in a committed relationship, random acts of kindness are an even better idea. But when most men seek advice on how to “get girls”, they usually just want help getting laid, and being the nice guy won’t get them there.


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  2. It should be clarified that this post's matter-of-fact assessment of the social pressures under which men and women presently operate is in no way a moral endorsement of this current state of affairs, or of any behavior choice for men or for women. I'm observing that this is the way it is, not asserting that this is the way it should be. As for how it should be, a system with more equality between men and women, in which the social pressures and expectations placed on men and women were equal, is far preferable to me. It would lead to fewer rapes/sexual assaults, facilitate mutual honesty about what either sex is looking for in the other, and permit both women to seek casual sex and men to seek loving relationships without fear of social repercussion.