Whenever I see people, especially men, talking about their struggles in dating, there’s one myth that comes up over and over again: the concept of who has all the power in dating. It’s never long before someone will bring up how women have all the advantages when it comes to dating. Because women – theoretically – “get” to be approached, they ultimately control the dating scene. They get to decide who gets the date and who doesn’t, who’s desirable or not, and because they have an easier time meeting men or finding sex, they simply don’t face the struggles men do.
Now granted, this is bullshit, and it’s bullshit that falls apart if you take about five minutes to actually listen to women. But it’s bullshit that lingers because it taps into a host of anxieties, self-limiting beliefs and mistaken ideas about male and female sexuality. Not surprisingly, it also gets a lot of traction from grifters and bullshit artists who trade on other people’s anger, frustration and fears; after all, it’s a lot easier to sell people books, “secret seduction techniques” and courses if you convince them that they’re being cheated somehow.
Leaving aside the inherent falsity of this concept, it’s also a belief that holds people back in all areas of their life – not just in dating, but in work, personal and professional relationships, even in simple personal growth and fulfillment. However, men who believe this aren’t wrong in one, specific instance: they have, in fact, lost their power.
The problem is that they’re blaming the wrong people. It’s not that women have unfairly gained power and influence over dating… it’s that many men have made themselves powerless. Let’s talk about how men can improve their lives and, in the process, reclaim power and agency over their own lives.
What Power Is… And What It ISN’T
Before we talk about how you can reclaim power in dating, we need to address the nature of power, what it looks like in a dating context and why so many men are convinced they’re powerless. This is important because, quite frankly, a lot of folks have a very mistaken idea of what power actually is.
Put a pin in that; we’ll becoming back to this.
The myth that women have all the power in sex is pervasive because it seems to make intuitive sense. After all, even in this post-Third Wave Feminism era, the social dynamics of dating still put the onus of initiating and approaching on men. Shockingly, even as social mores change, dynamics that’ve been in place for literal centuries tend to be difficult to uproot and change, even when you recognize intellectually that they’re bullshit. When you’ve spent the most impressionable and formative years of your life absorbing overt and and covert messages about male and female sexuality and gender roles, it’s not a surprise that we treat these dynamics as forces of nature instead of social constructs that are quite literally sold to us.
One of the side-effects of this constant reinforcement of gendered behaviors is that we come to treat these as being laws of nature, rather than social constructs. We come to believe that women don’t like or want sex as much as men do has a basis in biology, rather than decade upon decade of messaging. If we accept this as being valid, then it makes “sense” that women are the supposed “gatekeepers” of sex; men want it, women control access to it and get to decide who has sex. As such, they get to dictate terms to who gets access and thus they have “power” over men.
Now, none of this has any actual basis in either history or biology. The modern concept of marriage and courtship are barely more than 200 years old and what we would recognize as dating didn’t truly come into vogue until the 1920s. But feelings don’t care about your facts, and the idea that women have “the power in dating” has everything to do with feelings – and specifically about men’s anxieties about being men. When we talk about women having power in sex and dating, what we’re actually talking about is “having agency”; that is, they have the right to decide who they do and don’t want to date or to have sex with and under what circumstances.
And at the end of the day, when people complain that women have the power in dating, what they’re actually saying is the fact that women have options and agency is a problem. Specifically, it’s a problem because it means that women can have standards that don’t include the men complaining about who has that power.
This is why concerns about who has the power in dating have very little to do with power and who gets to decide. It has everything to do with an individual’s anxiety about not knowing how to interact with the people they’re attracted to. When it feels like you don’t have the ability to impress, charm or otherwise woo someone you like, it feels as though there’s an inherent power differential and one that supposedly isn’t “fair”. People feel like all of the risk and all of the pain of rejection gets put squarely on the shoulders of men, since men are supposed to initiate.
What this doesn’t take into consideration, however, is that there’re reasons why men are still expected to initiate. While more and more women do make the first move, there are still large swaths of men who react badly when women take the initiative. Considering that the average man presents a greater physical threat to the average woman than women do to men, it’s understandable that many women are hesitant to make the first move. After all, there’s no way to know for sure who will be cool and who’ll turn into a screaming rage monster.
However, there’s another reason why the idea of who “has the power” is a fraught discussion. The idea that women are the “gatekeepers” of sex is presented as a problem in no small part because of how men are socialized to base their sense of worth and masculinity on how desirable women find them and how much sex they have. As a result, if women are allowed to decide who they want to have sex with, this means that women stand as the gatekeepers of, not just a man’s value, but also who gets to be a man.
Once you recognize this inherent anxiety, it gets much easier to see why men complain about who “has all the power”. The complaint that Tinder changed things so that “even a 5 thinks she deserves a 10” is a complaint that someone who supposedly should be “grateful” that any man is hitting on them has the temerity to refuse him and think she “deserves” better. Similarly, this feeling of trying to dictate who “gets to decide” undergirds the attempts of many men to try to tell women why they need to change for a man and demand that they make themselves smaller and less threatening to their egos.
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It’s an attempt to dictate terms, to convince women to make themselves less, so they’ll accept less. Their chief complaint is that women have agency – that women don’t need a man and, instead, can choose who they want – and this disadvantages them. Trying to convince women to not take up as much space or not have as much agency is their attempt to reduce women’s power and agency because as long as they have that agency, those men have fewer chances for sex or relationships and thus, their own masculinity.
They are, at the core, agreeing that by not having the power to be the decider, they are irreparably handicapped.
But this continues to ignore a critical issue: it’s not that they “lost” their power somehow, it’s that they never had it in the first place… because they don’t understand what power actually is.
Understanding Your Power
This raises an understandable question then: what is power, precisely, and who really has it, especially when it comes to dating?
Well, to quote the sage: “Power resides where men believe it resides; it’s a trick, a shadow on the wall.”
The idea that power resides where people think it resides may seem absurd; as Tyrion points out in his conversation with Varys, the man with the sword literally holds the power of life and death. But as Varys points out: the man with the sword isn’t in charge. The same is true with dating and sex. Yes, men have the physical strength and can be a threat to women… but how does that give them power in dating? Forcing someone into sex is rape; compelling someone into a relationship under the threat of force is – at the very least, assault, domestic abuse and stalking. We don’t consider those to be power in dating, we consider those to be crimes.
Now, we can say that women deciding which approaches they’ll accept and which they’ll reject, whom they choose to date and who they don’t, is a form of power. And if a woman is able to (in theory) sit there and let men come to her, then that, too, is a form of power. However, to say that this means that women have the power in dating is to fall for the same illusion.
Contrary to what many would have you believe, men are also making decisions. The concept that women have the advantage of dating because men approach them, and they get to choose from all those who approach, ignores that men have also made choices. The men who are making those approaches ignored or dismissed all of the women around them that they didn’t want to approach, date or fuck. The only difference is that since that this decision doesn’t affect them but, instead, has everything to do with their preferences, they don’t register it as being meaningful. The only difference is the order of operations.
Many complaints about power in dating are less about who has the power, and more about a moment of self-awareness and the feeling of not living up to a certain image — usually a self-imposed one based on inaccurate ideas about what women want in a partner. This is also frequently paired with a lack of awareness of their own standards and an unwillingness to grant others the same consideration they want for themselves. And this leads to one of the reasons why the discussions over “who has the power” are so misleading: when folks complain about women having the power in dating, what they mean is having control over others. They’re equating women choosing who to date as control and influence over men – “getting to set the market price of sex” and so on.
But that doesn’t actually track with dating. When we talk about women having the power in dating, we’re ultimately talking about power over themselves and their own lives. They are, after all, just deciding who they want to date. Deciding who they want to date, by definition, excludes others. And the people who are most upset about this feel that not being chosen is an offense against them; as though women are not-dating at them instead of just picking people they’re interested in.
This is why podcasts like Fit’n’Fresh or Hardly Initiated keep trying to tell women they’re unattractive unless they act, look and exist within certain parameters: they’re treating power as a matter of control. They’re trying to push women to conform to standards that don’t threaten, intimidate or exclude them and – importantly – leaves them in a position to control those women throughout the relationship. They’re less interested in dating so much as dominance.
Now to be sure, there are folks who would say that women deciding to set standards would be equivalent to trying to push men to conform to different standards. The problem is that, to accept this would imply that men don’t have agency to decide who they want to date. It plays into the idea that men are helpless before the power of boners, true, but those same men aren’t exactly chasing after women they consider unattractive or undesirable.
To say that women have the power because they get to choose means ignoring your own power; you’re hardly forced to approach folks you aren’t into or to consider relationships with people you’re not attracted to. Unless you’re going to insist that men also have to consider anyone who also decides to shoot their shot at them (including folks who aren’t of their preferred gender or who have incompatible genitals) then you’re ignoring your own agency.
And this, ultimately, is the core to understanding your power. Your power isn’t about your control over others, especially when it comes to dating. Your power is about your agency, influence and control over yourself. Reclaiming your power in dating is all about reconnecting with the control and agency you had… and gave away.
How To Reclaim Your Power
The first step to reclaiming your power is to recognize a fundamental truth: power isn’t something that can be given to you by others. Much like validation, power has to come from within. This is one of the ways that the discussion about “who has the power in dating” loses sight of what that power truly is.
To say that women have the power because they can choose or reject others who approach them and that men don’t is to imply that the power women have takes something away from men. It perpetuates the idea that power in this case – who chooses – is the sum totality of power and that men are forced to go along with it.
But as I said before: in the typical social dynamic, men have chosen too; they just chose first, by deciding who to approach or to ask out. To complain that this gives women “the power” is to complain that not getting what you want exactly when you want it means that you’re powerless.
Some might say that because women “get” to choose, that means they get to set terms. They get to dictate who is or isn’t attractive or what standards men have to meet in order to be chosen. But at the same time, men aren’t forced to accede to those standards. Leaving aside that men have done the exact same thing for centuries, there’s nothing saying that you have to try to meet those standards. You are entirely free to say “nope” and bounce; there’s nothing stopping you from going to find someone whose standards include you. Saying that this is giving them power is negating your ability to walk away.
Yes, you may not “get” to date that specific person… but again, your power is exactly the same as hers. She is saying “this is what I want in someone I am willing to date,” which is precisely what you said when you chose her. If she rejects, you, she’s expressing her agency to do so, while your choosing to not try to fit someone else’s arbitrary expectations is expressing your agency.
That’s power – exercising your ability to decide what you are willing to accept or reject.
The same is true when it comes to dating or relationships. Having power means recognizing that you have choices, that you’re allowed to have preferences and to have boundaries. You don’t, for example, have to limit yourself to whatever level of relationship or intimacy another person wants. If you want a committed relationship – whatever that looks like for you – and your potential partner doesn’t, you aren’t restricted to the relationship that they want. You can agree to it if that’s something you’re able to accept… but if that’s not something you want, at a pace or manner you want or a relationship you can handle, you can leave.
Hell, even in a committed relationship, you don’t need to wait until you have an excuse to break up with someone. You don’t need a reason, you can just go, just because you don’t want to be in a relationship with them any more. That’s entirely within your power. Yes, other people can judge you for it… but that’s a them problem, not a you problem. Having and maintaining boundaries means accepting that people won’t always approve or like it when you do so. But if your boundaries are contingent on public approval, then they’re not actually boundaries.
That, again, is a form of giving away your power.
And that’s why power can’t be given to you by others. If it can be given, it can be taken away. If your validation and value is dependent on the approval of others, you have given away your power; you have let others take charge of how you feel about yourself or your sense of self worth. When you make your sense of self-worth dependent on the approval of others — such as, say, in dating — then you’re disempowering yourself.
And we tend to disempower ourselves in a multitude of ways.
True Power Comes From Within
One of the most insidious things about the argument about who does or doesn’t have power in dating is that we often don’t realize how often we give our power up entirely. All too often, we forget just how much control and agency we have in our lives. Instead, we look at a situation and decide that it’s impossible and unchanging and that there’s nothing to be done. Sometimes this comes from external sources; we grow up in a toxic and abusive family or survive abusive relationships and have our agency forcibly denied. Or we come from backgrounds of privation and need and so on. Other times, we do it to ourselves; we decide that we simply can’t do anything and so we don’t.
All too often, that’s not true. We just decide that because we can’t see a path to the goal we want, that it’s not possible. But this, again, is how we give up our power… in no small part because of those misconceptions about what power is.
Part of having power is understanding that power is influence. However, this isn’t about having influence over others but over yourself. The power that matters most to dating is the power to believe in your own potential and motivate you to do the things you need to do to achieve that potential. Or the power to improve yourself and make your life better. Or the power to walk away from people who treat you badly and instead find the people who love, support and care for you.
So if, for example, you’re being rejected for reasons, then part of you taking back your power includes deciding if you think those reasons are legitimate and — if so — what you intend to do about them. And if you decide that those reasons aren’t valid, you can decide that your best choice is to move on to others. If you believe that your power is only valid when your choices are met by the approval of others, then you have no foundation for your own self-esteem and value. What one person says is necessary is going to be different for someone else. Whose views will you prioritize? A thousand individual strangers? Or your own?
Yes, there will always be folks who have standards that exclude you. There will be people who will only date men who are six feet tall or more. If you’re under six feet, you may feel left out, sure… but this doesn’t mean you’re powerless. Part of reclaiming your power is to understand that you can’t control others, only yourself. This includes how you choose to respond to others’ choices or standards – including choosing to recognize those folks are not right for you.
In the case of “not being tall enough”, you can choose to be resentful that a specific person’s tastes don’t include you, or you can choose to look for potential partners who don’t dismiss amazing people for shallow reasons. Or, for example, you’ve convinced yourself that you need to be buff and muscular in order to date (you don’t), you can either start eating more chicken breasts and hitting the gym… or you can decide not to hold yourself to standards that are not only unrealistic but impossible to maintain and focus on loving your body as it is.
Similarly, part of reclaiming your power means recognizing that sometimes you need to do things for yourself instead of waiting for others to do them for you. Part of why many men feel powerless is because they’ve focused on what they don’t have or haven’t done. Rather than going out and achieving those goals for themselves, they complain that it’s unfair that others got there first and this means that they’re forever left out. Feeling like you got a later start or have less experience than others is understandable. However, you have a choice between deciding that this is a permanent disqualification, or going out and gaining experience anyway.
Does this mean that other folks may have a head start over you? Sure… but that’s not the same as being left out or excluded. Love and attraction isn’t a zero-sum game, nor is there a window after which you are shut out for good. People who have reclaimed their power aren’t worried about what others have done. Instead, they focus on their own journey. If having a later start means that some think that this means something’s wrong with them, that’s their problem; folks who have reclaimed their power choose to prioritize folks who aren’t as small-minded.
The same is true for your own self-esteem. It is absolutely true, for example, that social media can give you an incredibly distorted view of what success looks like or even what “attractive” looks like. But at the same time, you have agency and control over where you give your attention and what sort of influences you allow into your life. Does the algorithm prioritize certain types of bodies? Yes, absolutely. However, while the algorithm has influence, it doesn’t dictate terms to you. You have the capacity to be your own media curator and program director. You can either wait for the gatekeepers and taste-makers to acknowledge you and provide you with images that reflect you in a positive light or you can go looking for them yourself — or create it.
Yes, this absolutely requires effort on your part. Many times, part of why we let ourselves give up our power is out of convenience. It’s very tempting to pick the quick and easy path, and if you’re lucky or privileged, that path may well cater to you already. But not everybody is privileged and not everybody is catered to constantly. Even the privileged will find themselves having to struggle and put effort over convenience. That’s fine.
Power isn’t about convenience, it’s about initiative and action. Preferring something simply because it’s easier is the opposite of reclaiming your power. This is why “tried it once, it failed, that proves it doesn’t work” isn’t power.
Nor, for that matter is “well I said not to do this but they didn’t listen to me or respect my wishes and so there’s nothing I can do.” Well, ok. That’s a thing that happened. But then, did you stay and take it, or did you leave once they showed they wouldn’t respect your boundaries? Sometimes enforcing your boundaries – and exercising your power – means enforcing your boundaries on yourself. If someone treats you disrespectfully or does things that upset or harm you, and they refuse to listen or stop when you tell them, then removing yourself from the situation is as much a method of enforcing your boundaries and utilizing your power as demanding that they stop.
As I said: if your power is conditional on the acceptance or approval of others, then it’s not power. Part of reclaiming your power is recognizing that you make the changes you want to see come to pass. Sometimes that means you push past your doubts and your fears and build something yourself. Sometimes it means removing yourself from a bad situation.
It’s almost never inaction.
However, one thing to keep in mind: power rarely means immediate success. It’s important to remember that reclaiming and using your power doesn’t mean doing it all at once or in one long continuous go. Take small steps, do it a bit at a time with a chance to recover if that’s what you need. Slow change is still change, slow growth is still growth, slow improvement is still improvement. If you need to take a moment to rest, that’s fine. If you need to take a break and come back to it, then that’s what you need. The fact that you’re making progress is what’s important, not the rate at which you’re making it.
Who Told You That You Were Powerless?
One of the most important things to remember when it comes to reclaiming your power in dating: if power resides where you think it does, then it’s important to consider why people tell you otherwise. Consider why folks will tell you that your decisions are wrong or that other people’s choices are something to be upset about when those are choices that don’t include you. Ask yourself who’s telling you that you don’t have power… and why are they telling you this? Ask yourself how it benefits others to tell you that you lack power or that it’s been TAKEN from you instead of given away? And it’s important to ask why the opinions of others should matter more than your own?
There’re a lot of choices we can make for ourselves that others won’t approve of. The concept of fat acceptance, for example, drives some people mad with anger; the idea that a fat person might choose to exercise their power to love themselves as is, seems to drive them up one wall and down another. It doesn’t affect others one iota, and yet they see this as an unspeakable crime that a fat person isn’t miserable about being fat or breaking themselves to pieces to change it. Living your truth, even in defiance of others, is a way of reclaiming your power. Daring to love and prioritize your happiness, regardless of how much you do or don’t match the mainstream, is reclaiming your power.
This is in no small part because, again, people often equate power – especially in a dating context – as control over others. But as I said before: finding and reclaiming your power isn’t about being in charge or dominant, especially when it comes to relationships. If you’re playing games in order to be “in control”, or “in charge”, you have the opposite of power. All you’re doing is demonstrating that you have no faith in your own value or desirability and you’re relying on trickery to make up for it. Power is about agency and having options, which include who you do and don’t interact with or attempt to date. It also means doing the work on your own situation and making things work as best you can.
And to be absolutely clear: the approval of others doesn’t imply validity. The things valued by “the crowd” vary over time including concepts, beliefs and behaviors we find reprehensible today. It wasn’t that long ago that “this character is TRANS!!” was considered to be a valid punchline (or, for that matter, a defense against murder charges). Basing your own sense of value and self-worth on the approval of others, especially strangers, guarantees that your value will never be stable. What is valued now may well not be valued or desired tomorrow, even if nothing has changed.
Yes, this means power is an illusion. It always has been. It’s a story people tell themselves; the question is whose story are you willing to believe over your own? The one that empowers you or the one that tells you that you’re helpless and hopeless?
This is your story. This is your power.
It’s time to take it back.