Men: What are they thinking? And where do they get off? More specifically, why do they always think you like them or want them when you don’t? And conversely, why don’t they know when you actually do like them, either? Join me as we keep chipping away at this riddle of the ages.
If you’re a woman, your life is likely filled with a slew of men who mistakenly thought you wanted them when you didn’t. The first time it happened you were probably a mixture of flattered and confused. You might’ve even gone back over everything you did or said wondering where the mistake came. Why did that guy think you were interested when you weren’t? Were you simply “too friendly”? Did you mistakenly act more interested than you meant? Should you “dial it down” next time? Act less enthusiastic? Be more rude? Is it even possible to flirt in a way that also signals you don’t want to actually go out? What is to be done?
While these sorts of misfires are common, it is usually fairly innocuous, part and parcel of being in the world, interacting with others. People approach other people all the time only to get rejected. People mistakenly think someone who is straight is gay, or vice versa, single when married, taken when available. In any situation where there is potential for confusion, said confusion will transpire in one way or another eventually.
But there’s a more complex side to this, which is that wherever there is a situation between a man and a woman, that situation is often potentially sexual, whether you want it to be or not. This can be thrilling or terrifying, and everything in between, depending on the person, the situation, and the respective desires of both.
On some level this is part of the risk of being alive everyone undertakes. But taken together, women’s stories paint a picture of a lifetime of intrusive advances, catcalls, or attempts at taking a relationship romantic or sexual (or worse) that they must learn to navigate in their own way. It then becomes part of the burden of existing while female.
And while, as I’ve mentioned, this is mostly innocuous, it can manifest in terrible ways. Case in point: Famous alleged rapist Bill Cosby’s 2006 deposition admission that he is “skilled” in picking up on nonverbal cues. The New York Times reported:
[Cosby] suggested he was skilled in picking up the nonverbal cues that signal a woman’s consent.
“I think I’m a pretty decent reader of people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things, whatever you want to call them,” he said.
To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Cosby’s monstrousness—drugging and raping dozens of women—is on par with the average dude who doesn’t get that you really don’t want to date him so he keeps calling, or keeps texting, or comes to your work three times asking for you after you’ve already said no.
But I’m saying all of it exists under the same giant umbrella of what we might think of when it comes to men vs women, how they are “different,” and how we culturally condition, portray, and encourage the genders to act toward each other when it comes to getting together, and how it can be totally toxic, and breed awful misunderstandings.
It starts with the first time dudes check you out, and continues unabated until you show the telltale signs of aging that signal your last day of fuckability. And in between are the stories—the guys who just didn’t get that you weren’t into them. The dude you waited on at your waitressing job who thought you liked him. Your male friend who really thinks he and the stripper had “a thing.” The older accomplished man in your career you seek out for advice who assumes you want an affair. And there are studies, too.
Some find that men simply can’t distinguish between friendliness and sexual interest, and err on the side of the latter (convenient!). But often they err on the side of the former, too, when you’re doing everything to convince them otherwise. Maybe they are just bad at reading other people, period.
Well, women specifically. In one study, researchers found that the amygdala in men was more active when looking into the eyes of other men over those of women. They concluded that men were either conditioned or hard-wired to either ignore women more or read men better, probably both. In a study on sexual misinterpretation, researchers claimed that the universal practice of men thinking you wanted some of that D was about evolutionary adaptation, i.e., men need to fuck you to spread the seed, so it’s hardwired into them to keep trying no matter what. I argued then that this is a copout answer that doesn’t account for the pervasive conditioning that encourages men to pursue women in spite of their seeming indifference, and it’s the same case I’ll make here:
The very idea of romantic masculinity, at least in the most generic sense that most of us see in popular culture and various normalizing institutions, is so strongly rooted in a man getting a woman to “give it up.” A man not only chooses a potential mate, but all the momentum is up to him, too: He asks her out, pursues her, makes her his, wins her over, decides when it’s serious, even if it means competing against another man for her hand.
In many depictions of falling in love, especially in romantic movies, the woman resists her suitor purely out of obligation to her social role—she pretends not to like him, pretends she could not care less. Hell, even books like The Rules told women, ultimately, to do one thing to make sure a guy stays interested in them: Act busy. All of this sets men up to think of women as naturally resisting male charm until they are worn down, and themselves as eager pursuers, ignoring disinterest and carving an alternate path to her heart, be it boombox, fake identity, time travel, or any number of other batshit, stalky things male romantic heroes do in movies to win women over who’ve said no thanks.
All this said, I’m not unsympathetic to men, who are given these messages again and again, often from women themselves. In a recent sex diary over at New York Magazine, the anonymous author details her jam-packed week of boning a variety of men at her leisure and some of the attendant complications logistically and otherwise that ensue, before remarking:
I wish every girl knew the power of ignoring, or not giving a shit about the men in their life. It works like magic.
But which kind of magic—magic like he won’t leave you alone, or magic like he will?
And this is not to suggest that women can’t pester men and misread signals. They can; they do. But generally speaking, most men don’t fear women physically—though there are plenty of exceptions. I often wonder why we can’t simply be more direct in these situations—after all, other studies insist that these gender differences are wildly exaggerated anyway.
Why couldn’t a man say, for instance, that he really likes you and gets the feeling you like him back, but, hey, he could be wrong. Then you could say you did or didn’t share his interest. And that would be that. I can’t decide what is sadder: That this is so simple, or that it’s so unlikely.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.