Sam and I immediately hit it off when a mutual friend shamelessly thrust us together at a singles mixer. She’s not “my type,” if there is such a thing, but her confidence is so attractive that the rest of the party falls away around us. Between her charged eye contact and mischievous smirk as she playfully teases me, Sam could teach a masterclass in flirting. We go our separate ways after a bit, but as the party winds down, she swings by to ask if I met anyone interesting tonight. “Yeah, definitely,” I say, beaming. “You.” Not missing a beat, Sam asks for my number, and I happily give it to her.
Sam’s willingness to reject passivity throughout the night had already impressed me, but asking for my number made her irresistible — in no small part because it’s so rare. Despite 90% of men reporting that they support women making the first move, only 15% of women often do, according to this year’s Singles in America survey.
Of course, the dynamics of initiating a conversation or date are a part of all romantic relationships, but these statistics provide a particular window into heterosexual norms.
“I’ve encountered very few men who are not OK with women making the first move,” says Janet Hardy, a sex educator and author of “The Ethical Slut,” which argues for a woman’s right to advocate for her own pleasure without shame. “But when a woman is the initiator, a lot of men tend to read that as her being up for anything. And that is not OK.” Hardy explains that when a woman says, “Let’s meet for coffee,” it means exactly — and only — that. It’s a distinction lost on many men who view making the first move as an open invitation to go further, thus discouraging many women from initiating.
“But the other half of the story “is that a lot of women have never learned to be the initiator because they’ve never had to,” says Hardy. “It’s scary. She has to confront the fact that she may get rejected.”
Sure enough, the fear of rejection came up as a frequent deterrent in my conversations with women for this story.
“I wouldn’t make the first move because I’d be scared of being rejected,” says Eva, 24. She likes the idea of putting herself out there, but the threat of being “punished by rejection scares me away.”
It’s a risky position to be in, for sure, and one with which men are all too familiar. The moment just before asking out someone I have a crush on can be absolutely nerve-shattering. My heart races, my stomach contorts, and my fingers tingle as though I’m looking over the edge of a tall building. Half of my brain endlessly writes and rewrites the script of what to say while the other half clocks the nearest emergency exit in the event of a rejection. It often feels easier to opt out entirely and join the clergy than to put yourself on the chopping block.
“You’re going to get rejected at some point in your life,” says Lindsey Metselaar, host of the dating podcast, “We Met At Acme.” “I texted a guy [at a bar] in college once and was like, ‘Let’s get out of here.’ I don’t know if this is worse than getting rejected, but it felt like it: He goes, ‘Who is this?’ [Laughs.] The worst part is that I texted him back and said, ‘Hey, it’s Lindsey.’ He definitely had my number already.”
Metselaar points out that many women are afraid not only of rejection, but also of setting up the expectation of continued initiation. “You can make the first move, but then you’re done. Let the other person step forward after that. If you’re making the first, second, and third move, then that’s not fun.”
That’s a rule that applies to men, too — we also want validation after putting ourselves out there once.
Between semesters in college, I texted my girlfriend every day. Meanwhile, I never received a text first. After a few weeks of this, I stopped, waiting to see how long it would take for her to send me one. Nearly four days later, she still hadn’t, so I asked her why. She told me she liked the validation that came with receiving my texts — they showed her that I had been thinking of her and wanted to talk. It simply hadn’t occurred to her that I — or men in general — might crave that same feeling.
Similarly, the men I spoke with are eager for women to ask them out, echoing the results of the survey.
“Hell yes,” says Carl, 26, enthusiastically.
“I have never been asked out,” says Peter, 25. “Always the other way around.” He likes the idea of ceding power to women so she can set the terms of the interaction and feel more comfortable. “I wouldn’t mind if someone slid into my DMs once in a while,” he adds.
It sounds simple, but men want to feel wanted, too. If you’re always the one asking and never the one being asked, eventually it’s going to hit your self-esteem. Being approached by a woman can be very flattering.
But Hardy cautions that what men say in an interview or when responding to a survey and what they do in real life may not always match up. “It’s one thing to say you like being approached because, in your head, you’re being approached by whomever your fantasy [woman] might be. But, in reality, you might be approached by someone you don’t find attractive, who frightens you, or who you know it is not going to work out [with].”
I refer back to the singles mixer, telling Hardy that Sam was one of just two women who asked for my number. The other chatted me up throughout the night, orbiting until she finally caught up with me and asked for my digits when I went to pay my tab. I floundered helplessly for the right combination of words to explain that I wasn’t interested until finally I gave up and put my number in her phone.
“That’s just it,” Hardy says. “The culture has lots of scripts for women about how to say no and lots of scripts for men about how to say yes. We’re not so good at the other way around.” This can prove especially difficult for women who later come out as bisexual or gay and have no idea how to be the initiator.
There’s also the matter of the societal risk women take by putting themselves out there. “We still have a cultural understanding that if a woman asks, it’s because she’s ugly or desperate,” Hardy says.
That’s an archaic, maddening stereotype women have long suffered — and one Hardy is eager to tackle.
“Women’s sexuality is treated as a commodity in the greater culture,” she says. “That means the more available you become, the lower your market value becomes. That’s where a word like ‘easy’ or ‘cheap’ comes from. If a man is trying to understand why women don’t initiate, they need to think that one through.”
Still, Hardy prefers to be the initiator. In both of her marriages, she was the one to propose. When I ask her why, she’s quick to answer. “Because of the power. Because of controlling my own narrative.”
Hardy touches on an important point there: We focus so much on the mere chance of rejection that we forget it’s but one possibility. You could also get a yes!
When you reveal your feelings to your crush — convinced they couldn’t possibly like you — and they excitedly admit to feeling the same way, a raw current surges through you. Anxiety becomes relief, then an intoxicating cocktail of confidence and joy.
It is massively empowering to be the one to make the first move. Whether asking for a number or leaning in for a first kiss, it’s happening solely because you took that one giant leap to make it happen. Even if they say no, you still refused to let that moment (or person) slip away out of fear.
I’ve met a startling number of women who say they’ve never once asked anyone out or made the first move. But I’ve also met many women who proudly reject that fear and, as Hardy says, control their own narrative.
“I like making the first move,” says Sierra, 27. “I think having the confidence to do so as a lady is hot!”
Ellie, 26, says, “Yes! I likely will never see them again if they say no.”
“If I don’t make the first move, it’s because I don’t want you to either,” says Grace, 28.
Men should not be the only ones allowed, nay encouraged, to ask for what they want without judgment or fear.
As Metselaar says, “You’re not gonna win if you don’t buy a ticket.”