DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I (F, straight, cis, 29) am really f--king furious about something and I think I need a guy with lots of male-female insight to talk me off the ledge.
In a therapy session last night with my AMAZING sex therapist (whom I decided to start seeing a few months ago to work out some hangups I had about racial identity, body image, and sexuality), we sort of came to a bummer of a conclusion about a consistent dating hiccup I have.
Basically, I run into this problem where I’ll meet a guy, we’ll be flirty and friendly and I think maybe it could go somewhere, and then as soon as I make any sort of half-move beyond benign flirtation, he backs off with lightning speed. It’s really uncanny. And very disappointing and frustrating.
After recounting my most recent experience with this behavior and explaining how insane it is that this keeps happening and how it’s really starting to weigh on me, I wondered aloud if it could have anything to do with the fact that many of the guys in my social circles are White and I’m Black (biracial, actually), and on top of that, I’m fat (actually the national average, but that’s considered fat by cultural standards). I posited that these guys don’t even see me as a viable romantic option at all, just a “non-threatening” female that they can get something from without putting in any effort themselves–someone they don’t have to try with. Considering some of my male “friends” (I use the term loosely because of what I’m about to explain) are actually in relationships or married and still flirt with me and conveniently omit any mention of their partners when we spend time together (always platonically; I would never start something with a guy in a relationship), this seems like it could definitely be the reason. Their partners, if they did find out how these men talk to me (definitely in a way they wouldn’t interact with male friends), probably wouldn’t like it if I were a conventionally attractive White woman, but because I look the way I look they deem their flirtation harmless and safe.
I should also say that it’s not particularly difficult to find men who want to have sex with me, but as soon as anything more than that is on the table they put their hands up and back away like I might permanently injure them. Anyway, my therapist, who is also a Black woman, agreed that all of the above is totally a realistic possibility. I think hearing that from someone who looks like me, and not just a platitude of “No, you’re amazing, any guy would be lucky to have you, I honestly don’t understand why guys aren’t tripping over themselves and each other to get to you” (which I hear a lot from my female friends who don’t looks like me), was simultaneously refreshing and very depressing.
The thing is, there’s a PERSON on the other end of that flirtation. I think I’m pretty good at discerning the difference between casual flirting and something more pointed, and the times I’ve tried to nudge things in a more romantic direction have been the latter. I don’t think I’m hopeless at reading cues. These guys like getting attention from me and seem to enjoy my company. Until I indicate that I might actually want something from them, and then they WITHOUT FAIL gaslight me into thinking there was absolutely no flirtation or intent on their end. (I should say that the gaslighting happens when I call them out on it, which I don’t do often because every time I have I get the exact same shady-ass response. And, by the way, I have witnesses who attest to these guys’ flirtatious behavior.)
I hope what I’ve outlined so far is comprehensible. I’m clearly a ball of angry, anxious, sad, lonely energy. I don’t even know if I have a question, but I’d love to hear your take on why men do this and whether you think I’m totally crazy for being so f--king over it all. I’m so sick of being treated like my feelings don’t matter, and then being told that the things I’m feeling were based on nothing to begin with. I’m a writer by profession, so maybe I just need to write a book about this or something so people will believe me and maybe even start holding men more accountable. I don’t know. I feel like my anger about this is making me bitter and less open to the men who I’m sure do exist out there who would be open to–or even thrilled!–to date me. I don’t want to close myself off to them, but experiencing this same exciting-then-ultimately-disappointing interaction over and over is really starting to break me.
P.S. My amazing sex therapist also brought up the good point that it would be worth expanding my social circles, and I agree. That said, I’m stuck in my city for work and obviously the pandemic has put a damper on major socializing efforts. I do have a very diverse group of friends, but our industry is pretty overwhelmingly White and image-conscious. (Can you guess which industry I’m talking about?) I also don’t date using apps anymore because I have done that a TON in the past and I’m burnt out; plus, they’re super racist and that makes me feel very icky and I’m allowed to choose to avoid situations that make me feel that way.
Black Ladies Have Feelings Too
DEAR BLACK LADIES HAVE FEELINGS TOO: Before we get started, BLHFT, I want to give my standard disclaimer: I’m a cis, hetero white guy. As a result, I’m not going to have the same perspective or experiences on the intersection of race and gender that a BIPOC woman would, and there’re likely going to be nuances that I wouldn’t immediately think of or recognize. As such, I’d love for my female readers — especially women of color — to share their perspective in the comments.
So with that in mind: I think that you’re right. I think there’s a certain amount of “this person is safe to flirt with because nothing could possibly happen” going on here, and unfortunately, I think that quite a bit of it comes down to race and weight. Now, some of this could sound mystifying; why would dudes — straight, white dudes, specifically — be flirting with you specifically because they assume nothing could happen? Wouldn’t the point of flirting be moving things towards sexytimes?
Well… not always.
There’re two general types of flirting: flirting with and without intent. Flirting with intent is fairly self-evident; the whole point is to build attraction and move things towards a less platonic dimension. Flirting without intent, on the other hand, is a somewhat different beast. The people who flirt without intent (that is, they don’t have any intent to take things further than just flirting) do so for a number of reasons. The most common reason is that flirting is fun, and doesn’t necessarily need to lead anywhere. People can and often do flirt with one another just because they enjoy the banter and the back-and-forth of it, even though there’s a tacit acknowledgement that this is all there is and all there’s likely to be.
However, there’re also folks who flirt without intent because they like the charge they get from knowing others still find them attractive. This behavior knows neither gender nor sexuality; straight, gay, bi and pan folks do it, cis, trans and nonbinary folks do it, and it can often be an incredibly confusing and frustrating experience. There’re straight dudes who will flirt with gay dudes, despite not being interested in them, straight women who’ll flirt with men despite being in a monogamous relationship and so on. The problem here is that the folks who’re flirting without intent… usually aren’t making a point of letting the folks they’re flirting with know what’s up. That, after all, would change the dynamic of the flirting and thus ruin the game. So as a result, you have people who are flirting in good faith, under the assumption that this other person is interested in them… only to make a move and have them pull back like “Woaaaah, who said anything about doing stuff?”
(That being said: I suspect that at least a couple of the dudes flirting with you probably are attracted to you, but haven’t gotten past the social messaging bulls--t around dating fat women. They may be down to clown, but only if nobody knows about it. Which is its own ball of dehumanizing bulls--t.)
And part of what’s especially frustrating for people on the receiving end of this behavior — people like you, BLHFT — is that folks who flirt like this will often deliberately choose people they’re not attracted to. They might rationalize it to themselves as “look at how open-minded I am,” but part of the point is that because they’re unattracted to their flirting partners, they feel free to be to flirt in ways they might not if the stakes were “real”. After all, if they flirt with someone they wanted to hook up with and it didn’t work… well, they just burned that connection didn’t they? But with someone who’s “safe”? Sky’s the limit because hey, who cares if it doesn’t work out. Paradoxically, that exact attitude is part of why the person being flirted with would assume that this person is flirting with intent and gets frustrated and angry to find out that they were misled.
As an aside: as someone who does recommend that people treat flirting as practice… one of the things to recognize is that there’s a difference between “practice” and “flirting with someone who doesn’t know you’re not interested in them”. It’s the difference between a pair of boxers sparring for practice and arranging a match with someone who isn’t a challenge, purely for hype; one is mutually agreed upon, the other is using another person to boost your own profile and ego. The point of flirting for practice is to not get invested in the outcome, so you can relax instead of analyzing every micro-expression for meaning. If it works out, excellent; if it doesn’t… well, hey, it’s practice, so don’t get bent out of shape about it. Learn from it, try again some other time.
Now, for the bad news: unfortunately, there’s not really much that you can do. A--holes are gonna ass, and as long as they can get what they want — the thrill of someone finding them attractive — then there’s no real incentive for them to stop. The problem, of course, is how many of them play it off like they’re serious right up until you reciprocate. While it’s a curious game and the only way to win is not to play… it can be difficult to tell that it’s a game in the first place. I think in this case, the best option is to assume that your “friends” and colleagues who pull this aren’t serious… unless or until they can actually demonstrate their sincerity. If and only if they do so, would I say that you could start flirting back.
I think there’s also a benefit to taking a break and deciding that you’re closed for business (as it were) for a while. Dating can be frustrating enough; it’s that much worse when folks are actively f--king with you and then gaslighting you when you call them out on it. Taking a break gives you a chance to recoup your energy, let your frustrations fade and keep you from developing a callus on your soul. Prioritizing yourself for a bit can be helpful, both as self-care and also giving yourself the emotional space to recalibrate your Spidey-sense to better detect the games-players out there.
I also think that your therapist is correct: it’s well worth expanding your social circle, especially if your industry “friends” are playing games like this. While the ongoing pandemic does make it trickier, it’s still possible to socialize and find groups and organizations that are not only your speed, but have folks who don’t treat their single friends like dopamine dispensers. It also means you’re more likely to find folks who do want to date someone awesome like you, instead of just faking it for s--ts and giggles. You deserve better than that and you know what you’re worth. So give yourself time, find a better class of friend and when you’re ready, go out and get what you’re worth.
Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, firstname.lastname@example.org