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There are two ways to attempt to initiate a romantic relationship: either by making a direct verbal proposal (e.g., "Would you like to go out on a date with me Saturday night?"), or, to display primarily non-verbal signals that indicate interest and receptivity and wait for the other person to do the asking. The first method has been termed a "risky initiative" (Farrell, 1986), the latter nonverbal flirting behaviors are often called "proceptive behaviors" (Moore, 1985; 2002).
First Time Risky Relationship Initiatives
First time risky initiatives are direct and unambiguous requests that have not been made previously, and that will either be clearly accepted or rejected. Because risky initiatives are unambiguous, they cannot be misinterpreted. In the film "When Harry Met Sally" Harry makes a risky initiative that Sally finds offensive, so he says "I take it back." Sally replies: "You can't take it back, it is already out there." First time risky initiatives are especially salient because the initiator has no previous history of acceptance by the target person. Because the response to the initiation is uncertain, Farrell (1986, p 126) noted: "The 'first time' is the most important time, when the risk of rejection is by far the greatest."
Nonverbal Proceptive Signaling
In contrast, proceptive relationship initiation signals are typically open to various interpretations. In the film "The Graduate" Mrs. Robinson gives proceptive nonverbal signals to her daughter's friend Ben, who says: "You are trying to seduce me, Mrs. Robinson. Aren't you?" (italics added) The potential ambiguity of proceptive signals leaves the signaler less open to direct personal rejection since such initiations can be seen as either an initiation, or as just very friendly behavior. Monica Moore (1985; 2002) has catalogued a variety of nonverbal proceptive behaviors, including smiling, brief glances, raising of the eye brows, hair flips, drawing attention to attractive parts of the body, etc. Clark (2008) found that the use of nonverbal "proceptive behaviors" generally makes someone of the opposite sex more attractive. However, these behaviors were rated to be most effective when they are performed by women, rather than by men.
The Traditional Courtship Script: Females Give Proceptive Signals / Males Make Risky First Time Relationship Initiatives
While women sometimes do make risky first time relationship initiatives, men have traditionally been expected to make the great majority of them. Men generally have done the asking for a first date, while women have generally given proceptive signals of interest or receptivity to such a request. If a woman accepts a first date, men have been expected to make additional first time risky relationship and sexual initiatives as their relationship develops (Farrell, 1986).
For example, if a newly dating, heretofore platonic heterosexual couple, go out for the first time on a movie date together, the woman might signal her willingness to hold hands proceptively -- perhaps by placing her hand on the chair arm rest next to him. If he actually reaches out to hold her hand, that would be considered a risky first time initiative. His intent cannot be misinterpreted, nor could her acceptance or rejection.
Here are a few brief video clips from television shows of males making risky initiatives, females engaging in nonverbal proceptive signaling, and a brief clip from an interview with social psychologist Monica Moore describing proceptive signaling. (Heads up: audio is a bit out of sync.)
Today, Are Women Asking Men Out on First Dates? No.
One might think that after decades of increasing equality between the sexes, women might be doing more of the asking. To see if this is the case, I recently conducted a study, along with two of my students, Agata Janiszewska and Leslie Zabala, to check on the frequency that each sex wanted to either be asked out, or wanted to do the asking, and the actual number of times each sex had done so in the last year. We administered an online survey to 87 heterosexuals (31 males, 55 females), most of whom were undergraduate college students (Mills, Janiszewska & Zabala, 2011). Most of the survey participants had been single in the past year, or, if they were in a relationship, they were asked to think back to the last year that they were single.
The first question we asked was whether they preferred to ask someone out, or would rather be asked out on a date.
Percentage of males and females who would prefer to be asked out, or ask someone out.
As noted in the histogram, a great majority of the women, 93%, preferred to be asked out -- only 6% perferred to do the asking. The majority of men preferred to do the asking, 83%, while 16% preferred to be asked out on a date. It is interesting that more men preferred to be asked out (16%) than there were women who preferred to do the asking (6%). That difference suggests that 10% of men may be waiting quite a while for a woman to ask them out on a first date.
Preferences are one thing, but what about actual behavior? We asked the survey participants how many times they had asked someone out on a first date in the past year.
Number of times subjected asked someone out on a date in the last year
As can be seen in the histogram, males reported significantly more instances of asking someone out in the past year. On average males asked four women out on a first date in the past year. In contrast, most females did not ask anyone out on a first date in the past year.
We also asked how many times the survey participants had been asked out on a first date in the past year. On average, males reported that they had been asked out about once. Females reported that, on average, they had been asked out about 5 times.
Number of times subjected has been asked out on a date in the last year
Men of my generation, who went to college in the 70s and 80s, mostly embraced the goals of the feminist movement. Greater equality, or at least equity, between the sexes seemed fair. And, from a male perspective, there might be some benefits for us as well -- including less inhibited female sexuality and the anticipation that women would begin asking us out on first dates. So we waited. And waited... and... we are still waiting!
So, after decades of increasing sexual equality, why are women not assuming equal "risky initiatives" responsibilities? Even if doing so can be at times anxiety provoking and sometimes result in painful rejections that are difficult not to take personally, wasn't one of the goals of women's movement "equal rights, equal responsibilities?" Over this time period, many other aspects of gender-role behaviors have indeed changed -- for example more women than men attend college today. However, this part of the courtship script -- female indirect nonverbal proceptive signaling and male direct verbal initiation -- apparently has not much changed. This suggests that something deeper than arbitrary social gender role assignments may be involved in the development and persistence of this robust sex difference. The reasons for the persistence of this sex difference may be largely beyond our awareness because they involve evolved psychological adaptations that operate below consciousness. We may be able to articulate what we desire and what we find aversive, but we don't know why we have these feelings.
One explanation for this sex difference may be what I call "female reputational defense theory." From an evolutionary perspective, males and females have faced different reproductive opportunities and constraints due to fundamental biological sex differences in reproductive rate ( M > F) and in confidence of genetic parentage ( F > M) (see Mealey, 2000). These differences have led to the evolution of sexual dimorphic psychological adaptations related to a variety of behaviors, including courtship (Symons, 1979).
Humans as a species have very high levels of obligate parental investment. Further, ancestral men could invest in their offspring by providing meat (a dense source of protein and calories). They could also offer protection and socialization of their children. Human male parental investment is thus generally highly prized by women, and it is a reproductive resource over which females, particularly in monogamous societies, will vigorously compete. To attract a high value reproductive partner, females demonstrate the qualities that males desire in a long term mate, in particular: fertility, health, and sexual fidelity (Buss, 2011).
It is the latter quality, sexual fidelity, that is of relevance here. Because males suffer from genetic paternity insecurity (they are uncertain of which children are genetically their own), males should pay particular attention to cues that may forecast the future sexual fidelity of a potential long term mate. Ancestral males that were unconcerned about monitoring cues that may have forecast future female infidelity were presumably more likely to misallocate time and resources investing in children to whom they were genetically unrelated.
Derogating a female's sexual reputation
Females can increase their mate value by giving cues that generally forecast future sexual fidelity to a long term mate. For example, adolescent females avoid friendships with females who have been identified by others as promiscuous (Lees, 1993), because, by association, such friendships may have a negative effect on their own sexual reputation. Physical assaults between women are often motivated by accusations of promiscuity (Campbell, 1986). Dosmukhambetova and Manstead (2011) found that, in the context of impressing potential long term mating partners, women were likely to try to distance themselves from promiscuous females, and they also expressed more negative emotional reactions (compared to men) toward a female who showed a tendency to be unfaithful. These studies lend support to "female reputational defense theory" -- females actively attempt to impress potential long term mating partners by offering evidence that they would be a sexually faithful partner.
The results of our study may also be interpreted as an effort by women to protect their sexual reputation. By refraining from making first time relationship initiatives, women may be providing evidence to potential long term mates that they would not make the first move with another man in the future, given their history of not doing so in the past.
So, if women have a natural tendency to avoid making direct, verbal first time relationship initiatives, should they be relieved of "equal responsibilities" in this area? That is an intriguing question. We certainly don't let men use the "but it is only natural" excuse to justify some of their more antisocial behaviors. Should we give women "a sexual inequality pass" because it is just one part of a natural courtship script? Or, should we encourage women to make more risky initiatives? Should men go on a "risky initatives" strke? Should we ask women to "woman up" -- put their fragile egos on the line, get some ovaries, get out there and start asking out men on first dates?
Campbell, A. (1986). Self report of fighting by females. British Journal of Criminology, 26, 28 - 46.
Clark, A. (2008). Attracting interest: Dynamic displays of proceptivity increase the attractiveness of men and women. Evolutionary Psychology, 6(4), 563-574.
Dosmukhambetova, D., & Manstead, A. (2011). Strategic reactions to unfaithfulness: Female self-presentation in the context of mate attraction is link to uncertainty of paternity. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, 106-107.
Farrell, W. (1986). Why men are the way they are. NY: McGraw-Hill.
Lees, S. (1993). Sugar and spice: sexuality and adolescent girls. London: Penguin.
Mealey, L. (2000). Sex differences. NY: Academic Press.
Mills, M., Janiszewska, A, & Zabala, L., (2011). Sex differences in making risky first time telationship initiatives. Poster presented at the Western Psychological Association Meeting, April.
Moore, M. M. (1985). Nonverbal courtship patterns in women: Context and consequences. Ethology and Sociobiology, 6, 237 - 247.
Moore, M. M. (2002). Courtship communication and perception. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 94(1), 97-105. doi:10.2466/PMS.94.1.97-105.
Symons, D. (1979). The evolution of human sexuality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.