For the last month and a half or so, I went on some dates with a girl (who we’ll call L, for the purposes of this letter) who I met through Bumble. I really liked her, as we have similar tastes in music (which is uncommon among people my age), and it was really easy for me to be myself and remain laid back, light-hearted, and relatively jokey around her. However, earlier today, L let me know that while she liked me as a person, she thought that we should just be friends, as she didn’t she us as being more than friends. I’m open to that, though we both agreed that it would be best to take some time apart, so I can fully process my emotions and come to grips with this. Of course, this is partially because it just happened, but it really hit me hard, as I felt a strong connection with her, mostly in relation to our similar interests. (I tend to become a lot more interested in someone if they have one or more of the same obscure interests that I do.) I also got the “let’s just be friends” speech with a girl (who we’ll call K) who I went on a few dates with a few months ago, though looking back, I didn’t have as strong of a connection with her as I felt I did with L.
It should be noted that I really have only started dating in the past year or so, despite being 29 years old (I’ll turn 30 next month) and I’ve never been in an officially defined “relationship.” My longest time spent dating a girl has been for a few months. I never asked girls out before that, partially because of a fear of rejection, unrealistic expectations about what I wanted in a romantic partner, and having the idea that if a girl liked me, she would automatically ask me out. I also didn’t use touch with girls I was interested in, in part because I didn’t want to be seen as a creeper. After reading your website, I now know the error of my previous ways. However, I sensed a lack of experience with L as well. She never mentioned any previous boyfriends, she mentioned how her parents are very protective of her (compared with other girls, from what I’ve noticed), and she explicitly mentioned that I’m the first person who she went on a date with through a dating app. (She’s in her mid-late 20s) I didn’t ask about her prior dating history, though. Since I don’t have much of a prior dating history, either, I’m thinking that maybe she noticed some hesitation in my actions, as opposed to being confident and truly certain of myself. Obviously, I can’t confirm that this played a role, but I do want to display certain things that will make women romantically attracted to me, like being more confident.
In your articles, you often mention the importance of touch. Before the pandemic, I was able to incorporate touch with some of the girls I went on dates with, though not really since then. With L, we would hug each other when meeting and saying good bye, and occasionally holding hands when we walked together. I made sure to ask her beforehand, but again, I didn’t want to do anything she was uncomfortable with, and when we walked outdoors, for example, we both wore masks. I would have liked to use touch to convey interest with her more, but with us being in a pandemic, I was hesitant towards some things, like kissing her. With K before that, however, I didn’t touch her, as she was much more cautious towards the pandemic, as to name one example, she wasn’t comfortable with eating in restaurants.
Obviously, this makes it harder for a girl to see me as more than a friend, though. While I plan on moving on to messaging other girls online, it stands to reason that there are more than a few women who have a cautious attitude towards the pandemic, and with that, I would have to find other ways to create romantic attraction. I do plan on getting the vaccine as soon as humanly possible, though it’s uncertain as to when that’ll actually be able to take place.
Additionally, in those articles, you mention the idea of bringing up your past sex life to girls in order to create attraction. The problem with that is, that I’m a virgin, so I obviously have nothing to go with that doesn’t involve my right hand. Along with the fact that I’m relatively inexperienced with things like sexual flirting, how can I make up for this? (This created complications with L, as while I did my best to be a little more flirty with her compared to how I was with K, and playfully bantered with her as well, it may not have been enough, and because I sensed some inexperience with her, along with the fact that she generally didn’t talk about more risqué things, made me more hesitant to bring up more sexual-themed flirting with her.)
So, in summary, my main questions are, what are some of the main ways to create romantic attraction with a girl without touch, and how can I create sexual attraction despite my inexperience when it comes to sex?
Always a Friend, Never a Lover
Hey, AFNL, I think I really need to point out something that you’re missing: you’re doing much better than you realize. You say that you’ve only started dating within the last year, but you’ve been on multiple dates with at least two women at a time when going on any dates is like dating on expert difficulty. That’s pretty damn good, man, and I don’t think you give yourself enough credit for this. The fact that you’re so focused on specific outcomes — sex, committed relationships, etc. — is obscuring the fact that for a dude’s first time out ever, you’re doing pretty damn good. You should be proud of yourself, not running yourself down because you’re relatively inexperienced.
The issues you’re having are much more about ignorance than in doing anything wrong. One of the things that people often don’t realize — and, to be honest, one that dating coaches like to avoid bringing up — is that dating is, to a certain extent, a numbers game. You’re looking for people who are right for you, who you have romantic and sexual chemistry with and who are looking for the same things you are. Part of the point of dating is getting to know people and seeing how well they mesh with you in the short term and the long term. That means that you’re going to run into folks who just aren’t right for you, or who aren’t in a place where they’re looking for the same sort of relationship you are. That doesn’t mean that you’ve done anything wrong; it just means that things didn’t line up the way that they needed to in order for the two of you to work as a couple.
The fact that those dates and those women didn’t work out the way that you hoped doesn’t mean that you failed. Part of dating, especially when you’re just starting out, is learning and building experience. You’re learning more about what you’re looking for, what you need from a potential partner and how to connect with folks in ways that align with who you are as a person. And, c’mon man, you’ve already come a long damn way, learned a lot, and made some serious progress. That’s pretty significant improvement in and of itself.
So let’s get to your questions, starting with touch. One of the things you need to keep in mind is that, yeah, we’re still in a pandemic. People are getting vaccinated and the end is in sight, but folks still need to be cautious. A lot of people are more careful about getting physical right now and taking things slower than they might otherwise. Right now, one of the big questions that people need to keep in mind when it comes to dating is: “what are their safety protocols? How careful are they being about masking up and social distancing? Can I trust them to not put my health at risk?” So folks who might be more physical a lot quicker are taking things at a more measured pace while they get to know their dates. Holding hands isn’t much of a risk. Hugging is more of one, and kissing and sex are even more risky than they would be in non-COVID times. That makes things a little more complicated, especially in the early stages.
But that doesn’t mean that touch is entirely out of bounds. Holding hands and other forms of flirty physical contact — playful shoulder or hip-checking, high-fives during emotional high-points, playing footsie under the table, and so on — are fairly safe and ways of flirting and expressing interest. You can take her arm, you can have your hands on each other’s backs while walking, rest your knees on the inside of each other’s legs while sitting across from one another… those are all ways of flirting and signalling interest. It is, however, important to worry less about following a formula regarding touch and physical contact and to focus more on the quality of touch and the way your dates respond to it. Leaning into the touch, or re-initiating contact after you touch them (what’s known as “reciprocal touch”) are good signs; tensing up when you touch them or pulling away, on the other hand, are signs that they aren’t comfortable being touched or touched in that way and an indicator that you should dial it down a notch if and until they’re ready.
Confidence comes into this as well. You don’t want to treat touching somebody you’re interested in like you’re trying to touch a hot stove or reaching out to pet an animal you aren’t sure is friendly. Smooth, assured motions signal confidence and ease; being hesitant and twitchy signals being nervous and unsure. It’s not the death-knell of attraction, but it can make things more awkward. Part of how you can learn to be more confident is to follow a 90/10 split; that is, making the invitation (90% of the gesture) and allow them to decide whether to accept or not (the remaining 10%). So you could hold out your elbow as you’re walking as a gesture for her to take it, or put your hand out with your palm up before leading her somewhere. The high-five is another great excuse for touch. During an emotional high-point, like her telling a great joke or awesome story, you can say “that’s amazing, you get a high five” and hold your hand up with your fingers spread. More often than not, if someone is into you, when they give you that high-five, they’ll intertwine their fingers with yours; this makes it very easy to just continue holding their hand or moving to another form of touch later on.
As with many aspects of dating, reading theory is only of so much use. You need to be willing to put it into practice in order to learn. Holding yourself back because you’re afraid of making mistakes ultimately means that you don’t have a chance to learn from your mistakes and to improve. It also means that you learn that not all mistakes are the “welp, life is over now” kind; just as you can make no errors and still lose, you can make mistakes and still succeed.
Now as for flirting and sexual inexperience, I think you may have misread things. There’re many ways to flirt, some more overtly sexual, others that aren’t. Flirting is, at its core, showing interest in someone in a way that’s engaging and fun. Talking about sex or bringing up previous experiences in the context of sexy flirting is just one way of building tension. Joking or teasing, silly role-plays, even just looking around and talking about the people around you compared to the two of you — creating this conspiracy of two — are all ways of flirting. The fact that you have little experience doesn’t mean you can’t flirt, nor does it mean that you can’t be sexual. You may not be referring to things you’ve done, but that doesn’t mean you can’t joke, hint at or playfully suggest things the two of you might do together, especially in the future.
To be fair: it can take a little more experience and social calibration to get comfortable with more overtly sexual flirting… but that’s also part of the point of dating. The more experience you have, the better you’re able to develop your social calibration.
The most important thing to realize is that your inexperience isn’t inherently bad or good. It doesn’t disqualify you from dating or make it impossible for people to like you. It just means that you don’t have much experience. But people aren’t dating your social resume, they’re dating you. Experience means you may make fewer — or at least different — mistakes, or you may recognize a good or bad situation earlier than you would have before… but it doesn’t make the difference between “datatable” and “not datable”.
So take heart, my friend: you’re actually doing remarkably well. You should be proud of how far you’ve come and what you’ve achieved. Keep at it, and you’ll be having the sort of social life you’ve always wanted before you know it.
Dear Dr. NerdLove,
I find myself in an odd place. I struggle with anxiety and depression and I am currently attending therapy for it. I say all this to present a background to my question.
I struggle with self-confidence and self-worth. I often feel worthless and being in specific unmasculine. I feel I am too skinny, but I hate eating and am partly fearful of being fat. I have never been in a romantic relationship and am a 25 year old virgin. All these have made me feel especially insecure. That I will never be in a relationship and that if I do, my partner will cheat on me with other men who are more masculine, charming, and ectara.
Logically, I understand these are untrue and that I shouldn’t allow these thoughts to dominate my thoughts, but I can’t escape them. I really don’t know how to handle them.
Not-Quite A Man
Couple things, NQAM.
First: your being a man has nothing to do with your build, your sexual history or how many relationships you’ve had. Are you a man? Then congrats: you’re masculine. You’re masculine whether you’re skinny or jacked, whether you have a dadbod or not, whether you have a beard or not, whether you’re a virgin or you’ve gotten more strange ass than a dude at a mutant donkey auction with a stolen platinum card. The sort of thing you’re struggling with is having internalized toxic and restrictive ideas about what it means to “be a man”.
One of the first things I would suggest you should do is talk to your therapist about your issues around food and eating. What you’re describing sounds a lot like the beginnings of issues with disordered eating, which is something that a loud mouth with an advice column is not going to be able to help you with. That requires working with a mental health professional, especially with how much it ties into your feelings about your body. I wouldn’t recommend trying to go on your own with this; even if you were to, say, start approaching eating from a body building perspective, that isn’t going to solve the root issues of feeling insecure and tying your self-worth into your weight or pants size. Orthorexia — focusing to the point of obsession about eating “clean” or healthily — is still a form of disordered eating.
Another thing I would suggest is that you pay attention to what you pay attention to. Part of why men, especially men in your situation, feel like they don’t measure up is because they tend to submerge themselves in forums, subreddits and YouTube videos that keep telling them that they’re failing at being men. Whether it’s the incel community, Red Pill and MRA groups or even just assholes on Twitter or YouTube, when you hear people telling you over and over again that you — or people you identify with — are somehow not manly enough, it’s very hard not to take that onboard and internalize it. I realize that it feels like you’re getting The TRVTH in all it’s unvarnished glory but honestly, you aren’t. What you’re hearing are other people projecting their insecurities and their fears about how they aren’t manly enough, externalizing it and proclaiming it as gospel because they need everyone else to go along with it. This is why paying attention to what you feed your brain can be important. Toxic and restrictive forms of masculinity only work as long as everyone buys into it; one of the quickest and easiest ways for a man to shore up his own male bonafides is to police and punish other men. People who refuse to conform and who embrace their masculinity in all its variety threaten that structure.
Cutting out the assholes who tell you that you’re Not Man-ing The Right Way is a start. Another thing to do is to see how other folks express their manhood in ways that don’t align with toxic ideals. Harry Styles and Billy Porter have consistently made waves for being willing to wear dresses (and look damn good in them at that) and to not give a single solitary fuck. The Korean band BTS, likewise, don’t reflect a hard or hegemonic form of masculinity and yet their predominantly female fanbase think they’re the hottest thing on toast. Not being built like Jason Momoa doesn’t make you less of a man, nor does it mean that anyone you date is going to leave you for someone more traditionally masculine.
In fact, let’s address that anxiety for a minute. What you’re feeling isn’t reality; it’s just your anxieties fucking with your head. You’re projecting your own worry — that you’re insufficiently manly — outward and creating a scenario that hasn’t happened… but you’re responding to it as though it has. You are, in a very real way, hurting your own feelings. But here’s the thing: anxiety is a liar. What you imagine is just that: your imagination. You are just as capable of imagining finding someone who loves dudes who look exactly like you, who wants your specific flavor of manhood. And the great thing about our brains is that they respond to those images as though they were real. Which means that you are just as capable of picturing a positive outcome as a negative… should you choose to do so. In fact, doing this — choosing to believe something that ultimately benefits you — is a great way to hack your confirmation bias in your favor. Doing so means that you’re going to be more prone to seeing things that line up with what you’re choosing to believe — which, in this case, would be that you’re damn hot and people who disagree can go fuck themselves with a rusty spoon. You’ll be more likely to see the people who do want a guy like you because subconsciously, you’ll be on the lookout for it.
Consciously reframing how you see yourself, choosing to dictate the future you imagine on your terms and reinforcing those beliefs by paying attention to the folks who don’t subscribe to toxic bullshit ideas about manhood go a long way towards helping uproot those self-limiting beliefs and replace them with powerful beliefs about how goddamn awesome you are and how the right partner will be goddamn lucky to date you.
(And on the more practical side of things: the imaginary partner who would cheat on you because you’re not “manly” enough or whatever? You’re not going to face that scenario because you wouldn’t be dating them in the first place. As you develop your own confidence, you’ll be rejecting them when you encounter them, and the others would be doing you the favor of self-selecting out of your dating pool.)
TL;DR: start by talking with your therapist about the issues you’re having around food and body image, and get their help to uproot those ideas. And while you work on this, go on a social media diet, cutting out the sites, videos and subreddits that reinforce your negative feelings, while focusing instead on the ones that reinforce your positive feelings. Pay attention to the folks like you who buck toxic masculine ideals and take conscious control over what you imagine happening in your future with your future partners. Choose to believe the things that help you and make your confirmation bias work in your favor.
It takes time, and it takes effort. But the truth is that you’ve got a lot to offer, my dude, if you only give yourself permission to recognize it. Things aren’t nearly as awful as you’re afraid they are, and you can turn things around.
You’ve got this.
All will be well.