Andrew Smiler, Ph.D.

America's leading expert on the masculine self

Dating Has No Rules: Learning the Wrong Lessons from School, Video Games, and Sports

Romantic Relationships, Gender Roles, SexualityAndrew Smiler

Imagine this: a 20 something guy asks out a 20 something girl and she says yes. They go out, the date goes well, he pays. He moves in to give her a kiss, she accepts, and they go at it for a little while. They talk more over the next few days, and go out again the following weekend. Again it goes well, again he pays, they end up sitting in a park, and again they kiss. He tries to take it farther than a simple kiss, and she declines. He backs off, tries again, and she refuses again. Pissed off and confused, he storms away. Maybe he says something he’ll regret.

He wonders what happened, how things moved from right to wrong so quickly.

One part of the answer is about the notion that there’s a universally agreed-upon sequence of sexual behaviors that are “provided” by women to men to show they’ve enjoyed the date. Despite 40 years of changes in gender roles and rules, including direct challenges to this notion, guys—even egalitarian guys—still believe they’re responsible for paying for the first date, so most hetero couples start on this path.

But there’s another part that doesn’t typically get discussed. It relates to our notions of how rules work. From the guy’s perspective, he’s put time and money into this exchange and may see himself as deserving recompense, especially if things have been going well and this is their second or third date. He may think he “deserves” some type of sexual contact. This line of reasoning often gets identified as a rape myth, but I’ve yet to see anyone talk about why guys buy into this idea, except to label them as idiots or stuck in the 1950s. I agree that it’s not how things work in 21st Century America, but the logic still makes sense to me.

Parents provide children with a lot of lessons about rules. Little kids are pretty open about letting people know when they think they’re being treated unfairly. When kids start being taken care of by others, whether that’s day care or school, lessons about fairness get repeated and enforced. At this level, the most important lessons are that rules exist and they are enforced by adults.

Schooling reinforces and expands those lessons about fairness. Here, the lessons include:

  • Rules exist.
  • Rules will be enforced by others.
  • Favoritism exists, as teacher’s pets and targets.
  • Self-defense: there are some opportunities to explain one’s side and some actions may be justified in terms of protecting one’s self.
  • Judicial process: there’s an appeals process that includes other adults who can alter penalties.

Lessons from the school are fine, and they’re supplemented by lessons learned from “free time” activities. For most of us, the activities we choose in adolescence are the same activities that we’ll continue to choose through our 20s and 30s, with some shifting in roles as our abilities improve or time constraints influence our ability to participate.

For guys, two primary activities are video games and sports. Both have substantial gender differences, with dudes more likely to engage in and enjoy these activities. Guys also spend more time doing these things than girls. These things help build and maintain male-male friendships.

Video games rely on a few simple rules:

  • Rules exist.
  • Rules will be enforced by others (i.e., the computer).

Sports reinforce the full set of rules learned from schooling:

  • Rules exist.
  • Rules will be enforced by others.
  • Favoritism (still) exists.
  • Self-defense: there are some opportunities to explain one’s side and some actions may be justified in terms of protecting one’s self.
  • Judicial process: there’s an appeals process that includes other officials who can alter penalties.

Sports add the idea of an “allowable infraction.” These are the penalties, fouls, etc. that influence the course of the game but don’t automatically end the game.

For typical guys, these rules – or meta-rules – are repeated hundreds if not thousands of times and become the framework for how the world works. Unfortunately, they don’t help guys navigate romantic relationships, especially in the initial stage of first dates or “hanging out” because those not-yet-couples don’t usually discuss the rules. If our hypothetical guy thought he and his date were playing by the same rules, then her refusal is an incomprehensible violation of the rules. Sure, the rules can be changed, but not in the middle of a game!

The best parallel for dating is friendship because they share several important characteristics. Boys’ friendships are characterized by deep emotional connection, sharing secrets, and the sense that your friend will “have your back,” the same things they want in a long term partner.

Unlike girls, boys rarely talk about relationship dynamics. They don’t ask each other how the friendship is going or what might make it better.

But friendship relies on an entirely different set of rules, one that’s negotiated between two people and may be renegotiated at any time. Unlike school, video games, and sports, there’s no explicitly stated set of rules, there’s no 3rd person whose job it is to enforce the rules, there’s no guarantee a guy will have the chance to explain his actions, and there’s no judicial process.

Unlike girls, boys rarely talk about relationship dynamics. They don’t ask each other how the friendship is going or what might make it better. Allowable infractions get minimal discussion, often along the lines of “not cool dude.” When the trust that underlies a friendship is violated, boys don’t really “talk it through.” Instead, they do something that might better be called “forgive and never talk about it again.” But they don’t forget.

Part of this is the result of upbringing. Girls are more likely to be asked by and talk to adults about what’s happening in their friendships. There’s a segment of their media choices that focus heavily on who’s friends with whom, who’s dating (or sleeping with) whom, and who’s double-crossing whom; some guys even like the movies. You won’t find those discussions on ESPN, in Hot Rod magazine, or in the WWE.

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This set of experiences makes it difficult for guys to discuss or negotiate relationship dynamics. They don’t have much experience doing so and they don’t have a good framework for thinking about or understanding it.

In the early stages of a dating relationship, a guy who asks questions about whose turn it is to initiate or pay for a date can look like he’s cheap, unwilling to commit to a relationship, or some kind of wimp.

In the early stages of a dating relationship, a guy who asks questions about whose turn it is to initiate or pay for a date can look like he’s cheap, unwilling to commit to a relationship, or some kind of wimp. If he waits for her to initiate (or further) sexual contact, he can appear uninterested, too nice, or too passive. None of these sound like they’re going to lead to a next date.

The widely known rules about dating all says he’s supposed to lead, and both chivalrous and egalitarian guys believe they need to start by initiating and paying for the first date. Those rules don’t give guys any real room to question the rules, not that questioning the rules is likely to be something he’d consider after he’s had all that experience following the rules.

And once that groundwork has been laid, he may not understand or believe that the rules can be changed. This can be especially problematic if he’s the one who typically initiates sexual contact; he may not believe he can ever refuse, and thus change his role.

This misalignment of two different values systems does not make it okay to call someone a name, hit them, or worse, and that’s true regardless of whether that’s calling someone a bitch or a jerk. Knowing why those misunderstandings occur may help us all find some common ground and maybe, just maybe, improve men’s and women’s understanding of each other.

-image from thefootballgirl.com