Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Ask Polly: I Want to Get Laid But I'm Afraid of Oppressing Women

leeeegendDear Polly,

First of all, let me assure you, I feel like a huge asshole just for asking this, but I've been chewing on this question on and off for more than a year without any real resolution, so I thought I'd turn to you. Here's the deal: I'm wondering whether I'm abusing feminist ideology in order to justify a natural shyness around women and, if so, whether you could find me a new narrative that would help me feel less bad about acknowledging and acting on attractions.

I've always been seriously shy about any aspect of dating, sex, hooking up, whatever. It's not that I have trouble interacting with women—indeed, my female friends greatly outnumber my male friends. I have no problem making friends with women and, in general, I feel I am generally more comfortable in mostly female environments (this probably came from being thirteen and being constantly made fun of by the other boys in my class, as well as growing up with two older sisters). While I'd hesitate to call myself a feminist, mainly due to my concerns about being appropriative, I would say that I have an enduring interest in gender politics that I do my best to express through my actions.

This interest began to manifest after unrequited crush no. 4,523, around my mid-twenties (I'm in early thirties now) when I began to wonder whether the reason I was so unhappy about my lack of meaningful romantic relationships was because of my attitudes towards women. It has, I believe, helped a lot internally: by working to change a lot of my problematic behaviors and mindsets, I'm not nearly as hung up about sex and relationships as I used to be, and overall I do feel like I approach thoughts about women in a much more healthy way than I used to, helping me get out from being the seething ball of bitterness and anxiety that I was when I was younger.

Despite this, however, dating still fills me with dread, and even though I no longer look at my lack of a love life as some sort of scathing indictment of who I am as a human being, I'll admit that I'm still kind of lonely and would like a relationship, or at the very least to get laid more than once or twice a year. However, I seem to not want to do anything about it because I can't help but think that everything that could be done to do so upholds some unhealthy societal norm.

So, for example, when my friends comment that a cute woman has been flirting heavily with me all night, and tell me to go for it, I say that there's no way to tell what she's really thinking and that the last thing any woman needs is to feel like she can't communicate the way she wants to without some entitled creep getting entirely the wrong idea, and that some people are just naturally flirty and we shouldn't assume that that's some sort of indicator for desire, and that if she REALLY liked me that way she would have made it much more clear, and I don't want to assume that any display of friendliness is automatically some attempt to get something going, because that's a real problem in the way men and women interact nowadays. And then I bring up that she has a boyfriend, and I should respect her choice and it's creepy to hit on someone in a relationship as if I know more about what she wants than she does. And my friends go, maybe she wants a new guy, to which I say, “If that were the case then she can say it and make things clear and unambiguous because I'm not going to try and override a decision she made about her own life.” This, incidentally, is the point where one of my friends says, "You're letting your feminism get in the way of your game," which makes me think but, at the same time, I think it would be safer to err on the side of not doing anything to avoid contributing to a toxic environment.

Or, talking to my one sister about a very attractive woman at one of my group activities, she said why not ask her out, and I said that she probably didn't join the group to meet guys and I shouldn't create an atmosphere where she has to worry about being hit on constantly. Besides, I just *know* she doesn't think of me that way (I mean I don't really know for certain, but I generally make the assumption that women aren't interested in me that way, so why bother with someone I think isn't interested?). So I don't want to make her uncomfortable or anything. Or when my sister’s husband asked whether I ever talk to attractive people I see on the subway, and I respond that that's the LAST place anyone wants to talk to a stranger and that women are harassed all the time by people who can't take a hint and I don't want to be one of them because nine times out of ten everyone on a subway, men and women, just want to be left the fuck alone.

Or, last week, I was hanging out with two friends of mine, both female, and one of them began giving me some sort of vibe that involved sitting MUCH closer than necessary, initiating much more physical contact than she had ever before, and also briefly and purposefully stroking my fingers under the blanket. When the other friend left for a bit to walk her dogs, she looked up at me and said she couldn't concentrate on the movie, and I kind of just froze and said that I thought we should watch (stupid, stupid, stupid) and she harumphed and moved across the couch and bundled up her blanket and crossed her arms and acted weird to me the rest of the night. But I've known her for two years and she never had given me any indication that she was interested in the past, and neither of us were at all sober and I don't want to be predatory and take advantage of someone, and she shouldn't have to be concerned that I would try, she should be able to have fun and get fucked up with guy without having to worry that he'll try to fuck her. And how do I know that what I perceived as flirty behavior isn't just all in my head and she didn't mean anything by it? Because that happens, not just to me but to people everywhere. But her reaction made me think I fucked up somehow, and I ALSO don't want her to think I was necessarily rejecting her because she's WAY cute and awesome and smart and principled and if I'd known I was good to go I totally would have gone for it, but I felt the situation was too ambiguous and now I'm worried I made her feel unattractive in that moment, which I know from experience is a terrible thing to feel.

So, things like that. Not helping matters is that the times when I have thought I was good to go, it turns out I had miscalculated, which made me feel awkward and probably made her feel that way too, and so I'm just crappy at trusting my instincts when they're telling me "say you want to kiss her!" because I've been wrong so often in the past and it's felt terrible and I don't want to feel that way.

And so I'm wondering whether all those fancy explanations that I wrap up with deep political meaning are just excuses to justify me not pursuing the relationships I want, like the problems I've always had with sex and dating just went to grad school and came back with an MA in women's studies and philosophy but, at heart, is still the exact same problem. It's the same fear—that there's something fundamentally unlovable about me and if I ever express a desire for someone in any way, they won't like me anymore because how could I even SUGGEST such a thing—except dressed in big words and given some sort of political justification. Like, it's not that I'm shy and need to learn to take some risks, it's that I'm not going to impose myself on someone who just wants to be left alone and live her life and have male friends who don't try to hit on her, because I refuse to be That Guy. They're different mindsets, but it's the same result: I don't bring up the topic of possibly dating people I'm attracted to and decide it's not that bad having a new friend, because, obviously, awesome people don't stop being awesome just because they're not sleeping with me, and I want to have awesome people in my life.

One thing I've been thinking about is that my mindset could be making this assumption of sexlessness on the part of women, as if they don't also have bodies that get horny as well, but I'm not sure if that's really reflective of my thoughts because I acknowledge that women also want to have sex, I just have a very difficult time thinking they want sex with me. And then I've been thinking that it's unfair to expect women to take on all of the risk in romantic interaction by wanting them to make the first move and not responding to anything unless they make their desire abundantly clear, because as a man who was raised with the expectation that I'm the one supposed to do all the asking, that fucking sucks and why do I want to burden women with having to do that. But, on the other hand, it sounds like WAY too convenient an excuse and could just be my mind trying to rationalize the predatory hunter/prey model that has caused so many problems in the first place! We must always police ourselves for bad thoughts, I believe, for the oppressor within can be far more tenacious than the oppressor without, and I wonder whether this is just the inner enemy speaking.

So you can see I've been having a rough time and possibly missing opportunities to find what I want in other people. It's only recently, though, that I've started wondering whether I'm hurting other people by doing this, people who may have actually wanted me but I refused to respond because I didn't think things were clear enough and I didn't want to risk making them feel shitty, which in turn could be making them feel shitty (admittedly, it's the final example that got me wondering this).

Am I overthinking all this? How do you both pursue the relationships you want while still staying true to ideals of gender equality? How can you be more comfortable expressing what you want while not going overboard and becoming an entitled creep? And, finally, should I have kissed that girl in the last example?


Just a Dude

Dear Just a Dude,

Dude. There's this movie, "Legends of the Fall," that's ostensibly about three brothers, all in love with the same woman (Julia Ormond). But really, the movie is a soft porn bodice-ripper for ladies who saw Brad Pitt in that one small role in "Thelma and Louise" and decided that he was tasty man candy. If that sounds hard to believe, go watch "Thelma and Louise” (Again. You're a male feminist, so I know you've fucking seen it.) and you'll understand why Pitt had a certain undiscovered-fuck-toy appeal back then. He had this weird country-cousin allure that made him exactly the sort of squeaky plaything you wanted to ferret away to a secret corner of the house and chew to tiny little bits.

I saw "Legends of the Fall" in a crowded theater on opening night because my Irish boyfriend loved to see cheesy American blockbusters on opening night in America, among Americans. We both knew the movie would probably be stupid, and it WAS stupid, but that incited more rowdy audience back-talking, which was the real point.

Anyway, there was this one scene where scruffy cowboy Brad Pitt asks his little brother, Elliott from "E.T.," (Henry Thomas!) whether or not he's fucked his brand new, smoking-hot fiancee, Julia Ormond. Elliott says something like, "I am not… That is not… When the time comes, after we are legally married, we will… m-m-make love."

Brad Pitt replies, in a low growl, "I suggest you fuck her."

So that's pretty much the sum total of my advice to you. I suggest you fuck her.

The fact that you go from NOT wanting to hit on women with boyfriends and NOT wanting to hit on women on the subway (both reasonable) straight to NOT wanting to respond in any way to an obvious expression of sexual interest (by a woman who interests you!) really underscores how much you've overgeneralized this problem, confusing reasonable self-restraint with some overall philosophy of non-intervention.

Stop analyzing the psychosocial and political layers of every single interaction with every woman. Are you interested or not? If you are, say so. When a lady is fondling you on the couch, that typically indicates that she's interested. If you'd rather say, "Can we pick this up when we're not drunk?" that's great. If you want to say, "Can I kiss you?" that's also good. But freezing up and getting confused and then feeling bewildered by her silence and anger, but not saying a word about any of it, and THEN slicing and dicing the whole thing intellectually, passing it through every high-minded filter known to humankind? This is a squandering of precious youth, an offense against hormones and nature and humanity. PLUS, WHO HAS THE ENERGY FOR THIS SHIT? Open your mouth and speak. Say what you want. Politely stating your desires in the presence of an apparently interested human being is not a high crime against womankind. It just isn't.

If the woman in question isn't interested, she is free to tell you that. What's the problem? Where is the insult or injury there? Give a woman ample opportunity to set you straight. Feel free to apologize for presuming. But don't apologize for even CONSIDERING opening your mouth. Admitting that you have attractions and desires does not make you an oppressor. No.

I can see why your friends are encouraging you in such a wide range of situations, some of them not entirely comfortable. They just want you to stop thinking so much and do something, ANYTHING. Because you are not some stalking carnivore that needs to be shot. Stop worrying that it's offensive or poisonous or wrong to think or say this or that. Yes, I do admire your EFFORTS to always police yourself for bad thoughts. I agree that people should try to honor their highest selves, rather than merely assuming that their behavior will naturally match some stanky half-assed selfishness displayed by the lowest common denominator of humankind. But I think that these valiant efforts of yours, and all the analysis you put into every single wasted moment of your squandered existence as a virile young human being, are clearly beginning to stand in the way of your happiness. Instead of thinking quite so much about every dimension of what a woman wants and thinks and feels, I would suggest spending a little time getting to know a woman, or a few women, who interest you. That means asserting yourself. Speaking up. Saying what you want. Telling someone how you feel.

After you start dating someone? Trust me, THERE IS PLENTY OF TIME TO SLICE AND DICE EVERYTHING YOU DO IN A RELATIONSHIP. You will have many, many opportunities to recalibrate and reconnoiter in order to ensure a totally egalitarian pairing. The entire power dynamic of a union is not established and then set in stone within the first few milliseconds of a given interaction. There are multiple times, over the course of a relationship, to reconsider your actions, give more generously, reassert your interest in your partner's feelings, inquire after your partner's comfort. All of these things are likely to go well for you, because you care. Healthy women will appreciate your ability to put them front and center, to listen, to sensitively take their feelings into account at every turn.

But in the beginning, it's pretty black and white. There is desire, or interest, or a spark, or there's nothing. How will you know if you don't ask?

Do you need to analyze whether or not you seem predatory, or wonder if you're creating the wrong atmosphere? I'm not saying there aren't situations where these questions might be appropriate and even welcomed. On the subway, or in the company of a woman with a boyfriend: Good idea. But I'm just going to go out on a limb and guess, based in part on what everyone else is telling you, both with words and without words, that you are not in clear danger of behaving predatorily in an everyday situation with a woman who's FONDLING YOU UNDER A BLANKET.

You are, however, in danger of hiding in your hidey hole forever, of ignoring bright, flashing "COME CLOSER!" signs, and of never ever kissing a pretty woman or dating a lady or doing anything, at all, ever. You are in danger of remaining paralyzed by your neurotic thoughts indefinitely.

And that's a cop out. Your overactive, pro-feminist, hypercritical imagination is a cop out. You are more comfortable writing endless, winding sentences about why you shouldn't act, why it wouldn't be RIGHT or GOOD to act, why it's NOBLE and DECENT and RIGHTEOUS not to act, than you are with action, and desire, and the feeling of feelings.

I have to admit, there are a few red flags in your letter. First, you describe your past in very vague terms. What are you talking about? It's tough to tell. Second, the women in your letter are suspiciously faceless and interchangeable. You didn't offer a concrete detail about any of them. You seem to find them appealing, but it's never clear WHAT EXACTLY you like about any one of them. Does one woman excite you more than the others? When a faceless multitude of women add up to a problem? That's a little suspect. Let's not just skin the damn cat, here. Let's unearth your true desires and feelings and figure out WHO out there is lively and spontaneous enough to blast through your complexly constructed web of rationalizations and teach you to live a little, goddamn it.

I'm not sure you know what you want, though, because you're blocking your feelings with this rambling, self-blaming paralysis of yours. You need to make less room for your thoughts, and make much more room for your feelings. I suggest you stop thinking, listen more, ask questions, and feel your feelings. I suggest you smile at the woman you really do like. Notice how that feels—making eye contact without apology. I suggest you ask if you can kiss her. If these things go well, I suggest you talk about your attraction to each other. I suggest you express your interest without qualifying it with disclaimers and intentions to ensure that you are not in the least bit offensive or suspect. I suggest you leave all of the complicated sociopolitical ramifications out of this picture at first, if at all possible. And if all goes well? I suggest you fuck her.

Because you are not a walking encyclopedia without a working penis, are you? You are not a sex offender, either. You are not poisonous, simply because you're a man. You are a polite person. You will ask her for her consent many times. This is clear. You will be kind and you will pay attention.

But you're not a fucking computer. You ARE an animal. She is an animal. This is a good thing. I suggest you fuck her. And if you're lucky, she'll recognize that she's an animal, and she won't get clouded up by her self-consciousness and self doubts and she'll fuck you, too.

Now obviously, there are people who will read those words and assume that I mean, "DOMINATE THE LADIES, MALE OPPRESSOR!" Get real. I'm not telling anyone to become a player overnight or fuck and run or hit on women with reckless abandon. We all know about rape culture and the insane rape-y shit happening all over the place. Go read that long New York Times article about the woman who was raped at Hobart and William Smith Colleges. I mean, seriously, WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING OUT THERE?

But let's not let our criminal caveman culture keep us from realizing the full force of our sexual potential. Early feminists, suffragettes, and enlightened men have fought very hard to assert that women are not merely vessels that make babies or vessels to get fucked, we are sexual beings with thoughts and desires of our own. Please don't infantilize us with your condescending, overconcerned intellectualizing. I know you mean well. You want a new, more helpful narrative? We women want what we want, just like you do.

You're not evil. We're not helpless. Get over yourself. Put your ego aside. Far less is at stake in a single interaction than you believe. The hero doesn't succeed or fail here. People out there find love when they learn to show up and be themselves. I know, you're shy. That's why you have to practice a little, and make a few mistakes. Stop trying to protect yourself. Stop trying to control the outcome. Stop trying to remain perfect and harmless and blameless. Turn off that twisted brain of yours for once and just say what you want and ask what she wants.

You have the rest of your life to bring gender equality into your relationships—at home, at work, everywhere. You will always do that, and god bless you for it. But there is a limited window for saying, "I want to kiss you. Can I?"

Don't think. Feel. Ask. And if the answer is yes? Go for it.


Do you wish Brad Pitt would say something to you in a low growl? Write to Polly and discuss!

Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.

40 Comments / Post A Comment

lemmycaution (#243,936)

I agree. Overly analyzing things is a problem.

Maybe he should do on-line dating with the intent of finding a relationship so he does not have to deal with hitting on friends thing that he has a hangup about.

The sad thing is that people who have never been in relationships / had sex are bad at relationships/sex.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@lemmycaution Good call. I think online dating would make it clear for LW that the women he is meeting are, indeed, interesting in dating him and (open to the possibility of eventually) fucking. Making lovers out of friends of 2+ years is always tricky, and that seems to be one of the problems here. But I agree with Polly, there is NOTHING WRONG OR OPPRESSIVE WITH ASKING FOR A DATE OR PHONE NUMBER. Especially at a social event that revolves around a shared hobby or interest. Lots of people attend those kind of functions because its a way to meet people TO DATE who already like doing what they do. So yes: online dating, and continue to attend social hobby things.

@lemmycaution somehow I missed this before making my comment below. Obviously I agree – I think online dating would definitely help here.

SeeNoJars (#270,470)

I agree!!

I'm a woman and I went through a similar thought paralysis for a while. Every time I met a man I would think, "Do I want to date him? If not, am I flirting too much? Am I sending the wrong message? Does he even want to date me? At what point do I set him straight about my intentions?" and on and on and on.

I'm an obsessive person, in general, but this was by far the peak of my obsessions. And a lot of things factored in to make a perfect storm of terrible thought suffocation.

As someone mentioned below, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helped me with these unhealthy thought patterns (because obsessing is totes an attempt to control shit) and online dating helped me with the specific dating part. I dated for the entire summer, and nothing was long-lasting, but it sure stamped out my obsessions. Because, as stated above, I knew these guys wanted to date. And I knew that they (for the most part) wouldn't be unpleasant if I was honest about my conclusions after a couple of dates. It was great fun.

That was a few years ago. Now I'm still obsessive sometimes, and I still dislike ambiguity in dating. I just say how I feel and ask how he feels, because I know otherwise I'll fill in the ambiguity with fictional theories.

grendan (#269,504)

Oh there's an animal all right.

George Kaplan (#283,207)

I've lived this. There've been enough situations growing up and talking to women who weren't interested that you don't want to be seen as imperceptive when you meet new women who actually may be interested. I don't know when it actually changed in my life, but this fear lasted past that change, and kept me from approaching and flirting when it would've been welcome. For years. The short answer for me is that CBT helped a lot.

But you need to get to the point where you come to a personal position that there's really nothing big at stake when you talk to a woman or ask her out. Once they sense that comfort, then they feel there's less at stake for their response and they'll be comfortable. Everyone likes some attention, and there's nothing wrong with being attracted to someone, as long it feels like the attention-giver doesn't feel entitled to a certain response. I think giving friendly, passing compliments to those you notice without expecting anything in return is good practice and will help you see there's nothing wrong with attraction itself. Again – there's nothing big at stake here. Flirt or talk like you expect nothing in return. Flirting can also be "being nice."

Then, with comfort, the welcome, more playful Brad Pitt-like taking charge just comes along.

laurel (#4,035)

Talk therapy is pretty good at sorting out whether your spiraling, repetitive habits of thought are serving you well or not. In fact that's one of the things it's best at.

Fern Reno (#277,053)

Maybe he doesn't really want to be with a woman?

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@Fern Reno You do know that its really insulting to insist that someone's professed sexual identity (or identity of any kind) is not actually their identity, right? Would you tell a nervous gay person who has trouble identifying and dating other gay people "well, maybe you're just not gay!" No. Don't be a jerk.

nyc121212 (#238,441)

@Fern Reno I actually think this was a pretty reasonable question. There's nothing offensive about suggesting someone who invents crazy excuses for never dating women might not be interested in dating women. Of course plenty of people are just shy, confused, etc. But this person wrote to an advice column worried he's lying to himself about how he approaches attraction and relationships…

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@nyc121212 LW says he has crushes on women and is attracted to women; we ought to take that at face value. He is not worried or insecure about his sexual identity (that might read something like "Dear Polly, I have never gotten an erection over a woman" "Dear Polly, I have no desire to make out with women, even though all my friends and society tell me to go for it"). His question is about overcoming anxiety about something he VERY MUCH WANTS TO DO WHICH IS FUCK LADIES. "Oh, well, maybe he's gay" is insulting to heterosexual and gay people alike. This is clearly a very intelligent and introspective dude . . .I'm sure in his many ramblings and self-relfections "maybe I'm gay" has come up. Lets give him some credit. (The reason I'm very sensitive on this point is that I have also partook in the "maybe he's gay!" glibness in the past, and gotten my ass handed to me on an identity politics platter). Unless LW swoops in on this point and *smacks* his head and says WOW I'VE NEVER THOUGHT OF THAT– YOU PEOPLE ARE GENIUSES I'VE NEVER RECONSIDERED MY SEXUAL IDENTITY. Probably because women give him boners.

nyc121212 (#238,441)

I just don't think suggesting a self-identified heterosexual man might not be attracted to women is an offensive violation of identity politics. It seems more offensive to be hyper-sensitive to the open, honest question of whether he might be asexual, gay or any number of other identities that don't involve being attracted to women…

BeenThereDoneThat (#258,177)

@Fern Reno
Had the same thought reading this…

Nancy Sin (#232,943)

Maybe this guy is one of the women from #womenagainstfeminism trolling us to make a case study about how feminism emasculates men.

But seriously, letter-writer guy, you have tons of female friends, so you know how to have non-sexual relationships with women based on mutual interest. Become friends with one of those hotties first to find out if she's relaish material and trust your instincts. Maybe you just haven't found the right sexy-to-friend ratio and your mind and body is just telling you no even though your eyes are telling you yes.

(Also, therapy, and maybe meds, because you are dealing with some considerable anxiety.)

Ed Minchau@facebook (#283,227)

@Nancy Sin "trust your instincts" – along with "just be yourself" – is among the worst advice anyone could give. He's in his situation precisely because he's trusting his instincts and being himself. Assuming the letter isn't a put-on.

I suffer from the same paralyzing over-analysis, and the thing that really helped me was online dating. It sounds simplistic, but it really does eliminate a lot of the ambiguity about whether or not the people you're meeting and flirting with are looking to date (or at the very least, fuck) you.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@major disaster Yep. Online dating just quashes this issue. I can attest.

RobotsNeedLove (#236,743)

Yoooooooooo you know what's a toxic attitude about women? That they don't know their own minds, can't say what they want when asked, and couldn't possible be sexual without being exploited.

Look, dude, the answer to your first question is yes. Yes you are abusing feminist ideology. I applaud you for what appears to be very hard work to overcome what you know is problematic thinking about women – your comment about your past bitterness is a red flag to me. But you're falling into a different but similar trap – unless you are actually going to act like a predator, women don't need protection from you, just like they don't owe you anything. I encourage you to really try to start thinking about women as whole people, not victims or any other kind of cookie-cutter image. And stop worrying SO much about other people's feelings. You are sympathising yourself to death.

A little story: a very socially awkward (but lovely) friend of mine one day decided that he wanted to have more sex. It was in the context of being in a secondary relationship with a poly girl, which I think emboldened him. So he started approaching (carefully, respectfully) certain women he thought might also be interested in having casual sex. I got a nice email from him one day that laid it out. And we then had a nice date to talk about it, and then a little while later had sex. And it was fine! We didn't pursue it for lots of reasons, but it was totally fine. And it was presupposed on my own agency, my ability as a person to make decisions for myself.

So, maybe do that.

Also, online dating.

@RobotsNeedLove Yes. As I was reading this letter, I kept wondering why I had such a happy and varied sex life when I was single, yet I had a lot of the same thoughts that the letter writer had. And the answer lies in a couple of things that RobotsNeedLove noticed: The letter-writer's bitterness about the past, and his need to protect women from himself.

I'm reminded of John Lennon's lyrics in Getting Better All the Time: "I used to be cruel to my woman / I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved. / Man, I was mean, but I'm changing my scene / And I'm doing the best that I can."

I wonder if that's the letter-writer's story, too. Maybe he is overcompensating.

I didn't want to be That Guy, either. Hell, I even hesitated to approach women in nightclubs because I didn't want to pester them while they were having a fun girls' night out! Jeez…

I hope the letter-writer takes Polly's suggestion to heart: Identify what (or actually, who) you want, and say it straightforwardly and without shame or embarrassment. Women find that incredibly hot (if they're attracted to you).

You Know What? (#258,220)

@RobotsNeedLove-I was thinking the same thing, he writes about women (or, as he thinks of them, "females"-probably short for what he's really thinking, "females of the species"-insert Picard facepalm here please) as if they are mute, sensitive animals that will collapse like a souffle if not approached in EXACTLY THE RIGHT WAY! Everyone has the right and more importantly the RESPONSIBILITY to speak up and let their needs be known. All this "but what if she this and what if she thats" is dithering. The girl stroking your hand under the blanket is sending you a message loud and clear that she's interested in something more and your idea that you know what's best for her indicates some serious gender issues of the type you so strenuously profess to not have.
Practically LW needs to work on his communication skills but he also needs to stop assuming he's the only one who really "knows what's best" for them-how incredibly patronizing!
I see many people who live in their heads so much that it stunts their growth as adults. Life is not lived by only thinking about things, life is lived by DOING things as well. Make your interests and desires known to those that are involved in them and then act like a thoughtful, compassionate adult however they respond. That is the path forward, not the paralylsis of analysis. I agree with the other commenters that CBT would likely be very helpfull to LW, it certainly helped me a great deal.
I also agree that this letter might be fake, wouldn't surprise me one bit!

Debussy Fields (#9,962)

@Holden Lewis@twitter That was Paul.

Alyanumbers (#284,634)

@Debussy Fields nope, it was John Lennon. Paul wrote most of that song, but John wrote this specific verse about his relationship with Cynthia. From his Playboy interview: "All that "I used to be cruel to my woman, I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved" was me. I used to be cruel to my woman, and physically — any woman. I was a hitter. I couldn't express myself and I hit."

samsamsam (#272,144)

Was in a similar situation – online dating helps a ton. Also, "Friends that are women" or "lady friends" both sound way better than referring to everyone as "females" throughout the entire letter. It's more humanizing.

Mr. B (#10,093)

What if we view online dating as the most depressing enterprise imaginable though?

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@Mr. B time to either challenge or confirm that view.

@Mr. B I got over it pretty quickly. I don't know about you, but for me, meeting people any other way is pretty damn near impossible for many reasons (not just the ones we're talking about here). So if the choice is online dating or be celibate, it's not a hard choice.

iantenna (#5,160)

my biggest crush in middle school and high school had a hyphenated last name. i, too, technically have a hyphenated last name but it pretty much only existed on my birth certificate and i was known only by my father's name. in the 8th grade, after a year of crushing heavily, i decided to register for school with my correct, legal, hyphenated last name in some bizarre and poorly calculated show of solidarity. needless to say, it did not work, people made fun of me, and by high school i'd gone back to the name everybody i'd gone to school with forever knew me by. in hindsight i felt like a condescending asshole for thinking that it would have worked; like this weird attempt to relate could counteract all the weird, shy, dickish things i almost certainly did. this letter feels like the long form adult version of that stupid move.

also, i learned a few years later that her hyphenated name was actually her biological father's last name and her step-father's last name so the joke was even further on me.

Squirrel Bait (#260,369)

I don't think politely expressing interest is the biggest problem men create in public spaces. It's usually a) being overly aggressive (which I doubt this dude is even capable of) and/or b) not being able to graciously accept rejection. If you ask her out or ask her for her number and she declines, accept it with grace and walk away or change the subject. That is so much better than being the guy who pouts or gets angry or whatever because he feels entitled to sex. Those are the guys who create the real problems.

I agree with Polly about leaving people alone on the subway, in elevators, and other places where women will feel somewhat confined (i.e., not able to get away from you if you turn out to be a dude who is going to freak out about not getting the attention to which he feels entitled).

And that woman with the blanket was being beyond obvious, and your baffled rejection of her probably stung. That is absolutely why she was acting weird afterward.

It is completely and totally possible to be a red-blooded, masculine man without being a rape-y douche. Those two things need not be synonymous. LW doesn't need to apologize (literally or figuratively) for being male. LW is already painfully aware of the male privilege he enjoys, most of the men who act offensively aren't aware at all.

Just treat women like people. Normal, human people. Who also want sex. Maybe with you, LW? Find out!

Madly (#276,079)

@Subway Suicide@twitter Totally right. In some way, this kind of over-concern infantilizes women and accomplishes the opposite of whatever "I-get-it-ness" the LW is going for. Women are adults too, yo! Now go out and get yourself some.

misspiggy (#250,319)

I have gone out with men like this and am married to one of them. They're at the other end of the spectrum from aggressive, entitled chauvinists, whom I sincerely wish to avoid. Also I'm a sucker for a bit of repression. But I've accepted that if this is the kind of guy I go for, I'm going to have to be very clear what I want. So after all the hints and the snuggling and so on have got me nowhere, I've simply said things like, 'You can kiss me if you like'. Which has worked very well indeed.

While the advice to this dude is very helpful, I think it's a pity that he's expected to use his words and all the rest of it, while women aren't expected to do the same. I understand why we're in this place, but it makes me sad.

blue_canary (#238,555)

@misspiggy It makes you sad that Polly gave advice to the person who wrote the letter? Who else is the advice for? Should she have tracked down the female friends and acquaintances of this shy guy and told them to be more bold?

Don't worry, women get told plenty to "use [their] words and all the rest of it"–in this column, even, when they're the ones who have written a letter and emailed it to a website, asking for advice.

tploomis (#248,141)

"You're not evil. We're not helpless." Those two sentences encapsulate it.

Antilamentation (#272,956)

LW, let's say you said to a lady (let's call her "Jane"): "Jane, I like you a lot. I'd like to take you out on a date sometime."

And Jane says: "Oh! Yes. I'd like that too."

Great! No problem. Everyone is happy. Enjoy your date!

If Jane says: "Oh. I'm flattered… But I like you as a friend. I'm not looking for more."

And then at that point, LW, if you badger her about it, if you pressure her, if you whine at her, if you lash out – then you would be being a jerk. If you have done this in the past you are right to not want to do it now.

But if you take a breath, and then say something like, "I see. Thanks for being honest with me." And then generally behave like a chilled out person, then that is FINE too. No problem. No harm, no foul.

And at least you'll have given her and you a chance to talk about the situation and clear the air.

LW, you are making a lot of noise in your head about this (ideas being deconstructed to death!) And then you are relating to those ideas as if those are somehow more important, more vital, more interesting than the actual flesh and blood person, the delightful lady who is sitting beside you, trying to get handsy with you under the blanket! What about her agency and desire? What about yours?

Try talking about your feelings with whichever lady you happen to fancy. Give you and her a chance to clear the air and see what you both want. And also get your friends to support you – people you can debrief with, and who will encourage you. When you have good friends on your side, it's much easier to manage the ups and downs of dating.

dietcock@twitter (#64,482)

So much neurosis…. Just A Dude's exegesis reminded me very much of David Foster Wallace's short story "The Depressed Person." So much so, in fact, that I'm wondering if wasn't really an elaborate put-on and maybe Polly just got unwittingly punk'd?

Anarcissie (#3,748)

@dietcock@twitter — Indeed, I had the idea that the letter might have been carefully constructed to point out that, in terms of sexual attraction, what many women say they want, and what they actually respond to favorably, are two different things. It's filtered through contemporary gender-politics discourse, but doesn't depend on it. Something very similar could have been written in the depths of the 1950s using different symbols and markers. This seems odd, because generally women are less delusional about life situations than men. Maybe it's the hormones?

AnnaGraeme (#283,277)

LW, you should read "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." It's all about being thinking so much you can't do anything, and trying so hard to being nice/respectful to other people that you end up doing them a disservice. It's about high schoolers and some people find it kind of corny and melodramatic, but I reread it every few years, and I've continued getting insight from it long after high school.

beetnemesis (#247,919)

This guy took way too many gender studies classes in college.

Philmosk (#247,649)

Hmm. Must've written in to 'Ask Polly' in my sleep.

charlsiekate (#231,720)

It seems like LW's giant concern with not making women feel uncomfortable is a convenient way for not ever feeling uncomfortable himself. What's so wrong with a little discomfort? I can personally attest to the fact that awkwardness isn't going to kill anyone, and sometimes a little awkwardness can lead to a lot of fun. Taking risks, even small social risks, is a great way to feel more alive, even if they end up in rejection.

I am always flattered when someone shows interest in me, and I only feel insulted or belittled or taken advantage of when someone refuses to accept no for an answer, or generally ignores my response to a situation. Also, it helps to remember that we've all been flat out rejected in the past, many times over. It's like Polly says – Rejection is not personal.

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