Phoebe Maltz wrote an interesting piece a while back about how, despite all of the advances that women have made and are trying to make, there is at least one area where there is absolutely no movement:

Even for those against a traditional definition of marriage, who think dating bills should be split, that both parties should work outside the home, and that both parties should be allowed to be of the same sex, the notion that (among straights, obviously) the man must do the proposing has, it seems, gone nowhere. Even the NYT, home of the librul media elites, features Vows videos, one after the next, of ‘when he popped the question.’ We could look at this as a quaint and harmless tradition, were it not for the increasingly common situation of women towards the end of their potential childbearing years essentially ‘waiting for the boy to call.’

To examine this, it helps to go back a stage, to the who-asks-who-out. From ample anecdotal evidence, amongst my fellow heterosexuals, relationships tend to work out better when it’s the man who does the asking. This is because, when a woman asks, she will doubt the man’s interest for the duration of the relationship. If he liked her, why didn’t he ask her out?

This is one of those areas where I’m progressive in theory but conservative in fact. It’s sort of like how a woman should be free to ask out a man at any point, the statement that she makes by cutting against that particular grain is problematic. The women who do cut against that grain often poorly represent women as a whole. Not because they bucked the norm specifically, but the same attributes that freed her from cutting against that norm can sometimes also cut against other norms that are more useful. It’s been generally true in my life that people that are inclined to follow good social norms are also predisposed to follow bad ones. People that buck bad norms also often buck good ones. Still. If I were asked out by a girl that came across as uncrazy, I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes if it was someone that I could be interested in. Another worry would be that the woman might come across as domineering. This is of course totally unfair, but as I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago it is not unfounded. Women that have the gumption to ask men out are often more aggressive in general.

From the girl’s point of view, though, it’s a lot more problematic. It’s not just a matter of lingering doubts on her part. The problem is that there are a lot of men that will, if asked out, say “yes” and think, with all the cogency of Beavis & Butthead, “Heh, heh, she wants to jump my bones.”

Or if there thinking isn’t that crude, the fact will cross a lot of men’s minds that “Hey, she likes me! I won’t even have to try!” It’s a stereotype but true that men are often at their best when they’re put in the position of having to prove themselves. Men are more inclined than women to do as little work as they need to in order to get the job done.

Of course, all of these problems could be solved if more women in general asked more men out in general. You wouldn’t have the skewed representative sample. Men would learn that being asked out is not a proposition for easy sex and that yes, they will have to try in that relationship just as they would in any other. Men can be kind of dense so it would require several failures before it gets through their thick skulls what the deal is. Right now they don’t get enough experience with it to discern the patterns. So to get it so that women that do ask out men are not to be considered doormats, crazy, cavalier, or aggressive, more women will have to voluntarily have to put their neck out and have that assumed about them to start bucking the trend. Any takers?

As a brief aside, it seems that from the comment section on Phoebe’s blog and elsewhere that some women really underestimate the difficulty of it all from the male point of view. It’s one thing to think hypothetically “I should ask him out” but it’s another to actually do it. Someone suggested that under the current regime men get the best that they can do and women get the worst. Not true. Women are asked out by men that they’d never have the courage to ask out. Men fail to ask out girls that would probably say yes. It’s all strategic in ways that a lot of guys are not good at strategy. I do prefer the male role in things and think that we do slightly have the better end of things, but only slightly. It’s possible, though, that in a society in which men and women do the asking in roughly equal measure that it will become less painful for everybody involved. Being asked out on a regular basis would likely give men some insight on what to do and what not to do. Not to say that the approachment would be the same, but there would be lessons to learn. I think that men’d also be more understanding of the terrible position it is to be asked out by someone that you think is a pretty nice person but that you don’t want to date and women’d would get a better understanding of why men become embittered with constant rejection (even a man that is not desperate and lonely faces rejection with startling regularity).

Now on to the main thrust of Pheobe’s post, which is marriage proposals. I think that this is something just too ingrained to have any prayer of changing. The cultural norms tell us precisely what is going on when the man proposes. Particularly if he’s on one knee with a ring box in his hand. I think that if a woman asks a man to marry him, he doesn’t automatically know whether it’s a knee-and-ring situation or just putting out feelers. One of the more humiliating experiences in my ex-girlfriend Julie’s life was when she thought she was proposing to her then-boyfriend Tony and he thought that she was putting out feelers or otherwise outright joking. On the other hand, my friend Dave Linas’s wife proposed to him and it worked out fine.

Despite the formal knee-and-ring tradition, I do think that the process of proposing has become more egalitarian. My oldest brother Ollie proposed to his first wife at her request and my older brother Mitch and his wife Brynne decided together to get married. The actual proposal was, in both cases, a formality. Clancy and I didn’t have any formal discussion on the matter, but I constructed a pretty straightforward way of determining whether it was something that she was open to and ready for. I think the days of popping the question in a way that’s anything more than momentarily shocking are passing. I think that women are in general a lot more emboldened to needle if not outright ask. And I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with the tradition of the man outright asking.

That brings me to Phoebe’s original post, which inspired the one above. She asks the question:

Why, if a woman asks for marriage, is it an “ultimatum,” and if a man asks, pure romance?

The short answer is that if a woman says “no” it doesn’t necessarily end in a break-up. Phoebe says it should, but I’m not so sure. If I proposed and was told “no” with the inflection that more time was needed and not that she didn’t want to marry me, I wouldn’t view that as the end. It would certainly be a blow to my self-esteem and could cripple the relationship, but wouldn’t necessarily. An ultimatum, by its definition, would.

In some ways, though, the ultimatum is the much more fair way and it definitely shouldn’t be viewed as “nagging”. A man can pop the question to a clueless woman and really put her on the spot. As I said above, it seems more frequently than not it’s discussed, but it’s not necessarily so. And if the man does so choose to break things off after she says “no”, he’s heartbroken and more likely to get sympathy. If a woman demands that a man propose immediately (or almost immediately) with no forewarning and threatens to leave if he does not comply, she’d come across as positively nuts.

So in conclusion, I think that Phoebe is quite right that women should not be tagged with the label of “nag” for agitating for marriage. Women should be free to ask out men that they would like to see, but I don’t blame them for failing to do so and (with the exception of the Beavises) don’t blame men for being a little wary of being asked out. I disagree with some of her analysis, but it definitely got me thinking about the subject.


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9 Responses to Immodest Proposals

  1. Peter says:

    In theory, a woman who is interested in a man can send off subtle, or not-so-subtle, signals that she’d like him to ask her out. It’s the whole basis of flirting. The trouble is that theory doesn’t always work well in practice, because men tend to be much less adept than women at picking up on clues and subtleties. Either they never realize that the women were nearly begging to be asked out, or they come to the realization when it’s too late.

  2. ? says:

    Adding to Peter’s point: if there ever were any women who wanted my attention, I sure wish they had taken the initiative. In my case, ? still wouldn’t have got it, but a normal guy would have.

    That said, I can think of at least two additional disadvantages from a woman’s point of view:

    1. Requiring that men do the asking out allows women to screen for self-confidence, which (I’m told) women really want.

    2. A man invited by a woman to activity X is much more likely to accept the invitation for reasons other than seeing the woman as a potential romantic partner: he merely likes her and enjoys her company, or he enjoys activity X. So my sense is that what a man accepting an invitation tells a woman is less than what a woman accepting an invitation tells a man. Now, if the relationship turns “physical” then that should be obvious (but ? was pretty dumb about this, too).

  3. Barry says:

    Will:
    My engagement came about in a very smooth, subtle way. My girlfriend and I had been dating about 2 years. During the third year every once in a while she’d make a joke about going by the jewelry store to look at rings. I’d laugh/wink/smile/nudge and we’d go on our way. Finally she said, “Let’s go by the jewelry store” and I said, “Ok”. And that was that – we was engaged. No ring-and-knee moment.

    Peter:
    men tend to be much less adept than women at picking up on clues and subtleties

    That happens a lot with married women. They don’t understand their “clues” are not just subtle, they’re identical. A glare means one thing, and the exact same glare can me something entirely different. And we’re supposed to pick up the difference.

    I can’t recall a single time in my pre-married life (or post-married for that matter) when a woman has “flirted” with me, when it didn’t involve an overt action.

    Weird Symbol Guy (Omega?):
    1) A person can only have self-confidence when he has reason to be. Constant rejection can weaken anyone’s confidence, and if a guy’s been rejected numerous times a girl that likes him shouldn’t rely on his (severely weakened) self-confidence as an indicator of his suitability. Self-confidence in asking someone out, or estimating ones one worth as a man can have nothing to do with self-confidence in school, business, life, etc.

    2) Your right – seems to me a guy accepting a woman’s invitation to an event or a date does as much to inflate his ego as signal a romantic conquest opportunity. Men need to feel accepted and wanted, in an overt manner. We like to know, see, and be shown that we’re liked, wanted and needed. Constantly being on the offensive with asking women out always puts the “wanted” ball in their court. A woman rejecting him will always bruise his ego, and even accepting his invitation is not sufficient if he gets the idea she’s just humoring him. But being asked out by her – that’s pure egold, baby.

    Well, at least I assume so.

  4. Peter says:

    I’ll hazard a guess and say that women are better at picking up on nonverbal clues and subtleties because they have always had primary responsibility for child rearing. Infants and small children cannot talk, or cannot express themselves well, so it’s vital that the adult raising them (usually the mother) has the ability to sense things.

    Similarly, and at the risk of sounding like one of these evolution-explains-everything geeks, I would imagine that men’s traditional responsibility for hunting and agriculture means that they’re better than women at “reading” the weather and environment and have better understanding of natural landscapes.

  5. trumwill says:

    In theory, a woman who is interested in a man can send off subtle, or not-so-subtle, signals that she’d like him to ask her out. It’s the whole basis of flirting.

    She can indeed. There are numerous pitfalls to this. For one thing, if a guy is not interested or is not sure that he is interested, he can dodge and weave for about as long as he likes by playing oblivious. That sort of leaves her in a position of wondering if he is cutely oblivious or not interested.

  6. trumwill says:

    Requiring that men do the asking out allows women to screen for self-confidence, which (I’m told) women really want.

    Well, it allows them to screen for guys that are actively interested in them insofar as they are willing to take a chance. This assumes that she gets enough suitors that screening on this basis is helpful.

    A man invited by a woman to activity X is much more likely to accept the invitation for reasons other than seeing the woman as a potential romantic partner: he merely likes her and enjoys her company, or he enjoys activity X.

    Or he thinks there might be cute girls there whose number he can get!

  7. trumwill says:

    That’s a cute engagement story, Barry.

    Self-confidence in asking someone out, or estimating ones one worth as a man can have nothing to do with self-confidence in school, business, life, etc.

    I agree and disagree. There is a strong overlap between the sort of confidence involved in asking a girl out and asking for a raise and making friends in a room full of strangers. We can call this “social confidence”. I think that’s what a lot of women are looking for. Men, contrary to the wisdom that our interest begins and ends with youth and beauty, often look for the same.

    People can frequently be confident in other aspects of their lives and have little social confidence. Unfortunately, that often comes across pretty poorly. Likewise, a socially confident person can be very humble in other aspects of their lives. Such people usually specialize in self-depricating humor.

  8. Peter says:

    There is a strong overlap between the sort of confidence involved in asking a girl out and asking for a raise and making friends in a room full of strangers. We can call this “social confidence”.

    Agreed, in most cases. I’ll only point out that having confidence in a strictly business context is not quite the same as confidence in a strictly social context. Over the years I’ve generally been better with business confidence than with the social version, though my performance on the latter type has improved considerably in recent years.

  9. Becky says:

    An interesting post idea, since I’m kind of in that limbo land myself. Ted and I have talked about marriage and have even gone ring shopping but he’s the one that will ultimately purchase the ring and proposed (meanwhile I pick up a greater share of the household expenses while he’s saving up). I’ve know even offered to help pay for the ring, but he said no so I think there’s something about the process that he wants to handle. I was actually going to post about something related with weddings/traditions, esp. once the couple reaches a certain age.

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