There’s a lot of debate and moralizing about modern sexual interaction, including but not limited to the acceptability of catcalling and other compliments in public spaces, what constitutes creepy behaviour or harassment, and who has the most power in the sexual marketplace. There seem to be a great deal of misunderstanding and miscommunication between men and women regarding these kinds of questions (and many others), and it all seems to center around the differing experiences men and women have within the sexual dynamic: men hunt and women fish.
What I mean by this is that, in heterosexual situations (generally speaking), when a man finds a woman attractive, he actively pursues her. He approaches her, chats her up, tries to find topics to discuss with her, asks for her number, and other active, planned methods of initiating the dating process. Men hunt.
Meanwhile, when a woman finds a man attractive, she dresses up nicely, behaves in a more friendly way when he’s around, and makes herself look as appealing as possible. She puts out the signal that she’s available and interested, but passively, and she waits for him to come to her. Women fish.
To be clear, despite existing connotations, when I use these terms, they’re not meant to imply any kind of inherent predatory behaviour. Hunting and fishing are both strategies which can include predation, but most people don’t prey on others. For the purposes of this essay, assume that these are value-neutral terms.
In any case, this male hunter/female fisher dynamic is an interesting one, because of how it contrasts with the majority of the animal kingdom, where it’s typically males with the brightly coloured plumage doing a mating dance to attract attention until a desirable female approaches. But in the human species, it is females who wear the bright colours and dance to attract attention, and the males who approach them. In both cases, however, the females select the males.
This is generally accepted to be the result of the disparity in risk that either sex takes on in the reproductive process: a male can reproduce nearly as often as he wants without expending many resources or risking harm to himself, whereas a female can only reproduce (in the case of humans) a little more than once a year, and must accept risk to her health, great expenditure of bodily resources, and meaningful vulnerability for extended time in order to do it. For these reasons, the female of many species is necessarily more selective than the male when choosing a mate, in order to ensure that when she does take on that risk she minimizes her odds of harm to her health in the process and produces a child that is healthy and successful.
I’m not usually that interested in evolutionary psychology as an explanation of human choices (as a broad theory, I find it leaves little room for basic agency). Indeed, in previous articles I made it clear that, for the most part, I see gender as a combination of roles that were necessary only in the pre-industrial world, and purely constructed cultural norms that sprung up around them, but for better or worse, this risk disparity does appear to inform a lot of behaviours, both in the animal world and the human one, even though modern technology has more or less mitigated the risk disparity for humans (and in may cases reversed it). Hunting and fishing may have evolutionary roots and be chosen in a somewhat unconscious way by those who follow gender roles without examining them, but they are choices, and those choices have consequences.
Like any human dynamic, the “hunting and fishing” relationship comes with pros and cons for all. The pros for women include the following:
- A fisher’s experience in the sexual marketplace is one of constant validation. Men must approach her in order to win her attention, and they must do so often and with many women in order to have a chance of success, so (especially if she’s conventionally attractive), she will be constantly approached. This means that the average woman will receive regular compliments, appeals to her interest, offers of free drinks, and other forms of validation that keep her feeling attractive and appreciated. On dates, men will try to impress her with creativity and knowledge of her interests, pay for her drinks and meals, and do their best to charm her so that she chooses them.
- Fishing comes with the benefit of very little up-front effort. Constructing the bait can be time consuming if the fisher chooses (depending on how she styles her hair, makeup, clothing, etc.), but most of fishing is sitting peacefully in a boat and waiting for something to bite. She may not have to do anything at all in order to be approached. On dates, she is generally expected to make an effort to be attractive and interesting, but she is rarely expected to plan or pay. She gets to sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience that someone else has curated for her.
- Fishers enjoy a buyer’s market, due in large part to the disparity in selectiveness discussed above. Because a hunter must play the numbers game, many hunters are constantly vying for her attention. This makes her interest, sexuality, and beauty extremely valuable. For this reason, not only is it much easier for her to get a date than it is for a hunter, but she also has the ability of profiting monetarily from her own sexuality in ways that men are less able to do, via modeling or sex work, but also by virtue of the many opportunities that arise for a woman who is seen as attractive (any job where her beauty will be an advantage to her when interacting directly with clients, from waitressing to sales to reporting the news).
But these benefits, of course, come with drawbacks:
- When you fish, you are simply putting out the signal that you are available and interested, and that signal is broadcast to everyone who can see you. This means that every available and interested hunter is going to approach you, whether or not you find him sexually attractive, putting you in the awkward position of regularly rejecting any hunters who were not the target of your initial signal. If this happens often enough (and depending on the amount of social energy a given fisher has), many fishers will stop experiencing a deluge of hunters as validation and start to perceive it more as pestering, especially those who attract mostly hunters they don’t find attractive.
Especially given our culture’s particular sexual morality which casts overt sexuality as demeaning, dirty, or rude, in addition to the guilt and awkwardness of regularly rejecting others, the knee-jerk disgust reaction toward overt sexual interest expressed by someone perceived as sexually unattractive, and the feeling of being pestered, it’s common for fishers to develop a prejudice against hunter (male) sexuality that is composed of the assumptions that it is base, superficial, irritating, disgusting, or even predatory. These prejudices and assumptions are, of course, also a disadvantage for the hunter, but they make it difficult for fishers who possess them to fairly and objectively evaluate hunters for the qualities they are seeking. Prejudiced fishers have a very hard time finding dates, because they see most hunters as “not my type” (or worse), even when they’re not.
- Fishing is not a proactive strategy. Someone who fishes simply casts the line and then waits. Depending on their location, it may not take long for someone to bite, but the target of interest may not be among those who bite, or even be aware that a line has been cast. Choosing to fish makes it very difficult to ensure interaction with the person you’re attracted to, and gives you little to no initial control over interactions.
Hunting comes with more or less reciprocal pros and cons. Their advantages are as follows:
- Hunting comes with the advantage of a great deal of up-front control. Hunters get to determine, to a large extent, who to interact with and how. They decide the terms and circumstances of how and when to approach someone. They have creative control over the details of most dates, and because their strategy is direct, they make many of the decisions at the start of this process (for better or worse). They are also almost never approached, so they very rarely have to reject anyone.
- Hunters have typically been raised as such, taught through the male gender role to actively pursue women. This gives them a lifetime of experience approaching others, getting used to rejection, and asking for what they want, developing a thick skin and assertiveness that will serve them in many other aspects of life.
However, the disadvantages are many:
- The high energy and effort one must keep up in order to be a successful hunter are nearly untenable (especially for introverts). Hunters must constantly approach fishers and endure rejection time and again before any fisher accepts their appeal. Attractiveness, charisma, and other positive characteristics increase their chances of success, but even the most attractive hunter must put in the effort of approaching and impressing fishers just to determine which fishers are attracted to them. Even after finding an interested fisher, hunters must obtain phone numbers, initiate dates, and plan everything out. They are also usually expected to pay for any food, drinks, or cover charges in further encounters. And while a date for a fisher is a relaxing, curated experience (assuming the date goes well), for a hunter it’s more like a job interview. He knows that in order to compete with the other hunters who are all vying for that fisher’s attention and affection, he must be charming, witty, interesting, generous, respectful, and just the right amount of invested, so that he appears interested but not desperate, flattering but not aggressive. This is as stressful as it sounds.
- A large concern with hunters is that fishers don’t communicate much while fishing. The hunter must read his audience carefully, because he needs to know exactly how to appeal to someone whose desires and preferences are unclear. Most of hunting is trying to determine exactly what a given fisher will find attractive, charming, thoughtful, or interesting, usually without clear language.
- Since many fishers read initiating as pestering, harassment, superficiality, degradation, or foolishness, hunters run the risk not only of rejection, but also of ridicule, being labeled a creep, or worse. This places the hunter in a catch-22 situation, where he must initiate to find a partner, since women almost never hunt, but any initiating can be read as disrespect or impropriety (often based entirely on his attractiveness, rather than his actions), so that the only remotely effective strategy men have at their disposal is to subject themselves to many forms of disapproval, from regular rejection, to disgust, to ridicule, to offense taking, to even fear or lashing out, on the off-chance that the target of his interest also finds him attractive.
- This collection of disadvantages inevitably leads many hunters who lack the social energy, confidence, patience, or luck necessary to maintain this strategy to disillusionment, loneliness, and depression. When the only effective method for finding a partner requires constant effort and subjection to disappointment, in a world where most people have very little free time and come home from work already exhausted, the hunter often doesn’t have the time or energy to pursue love or sexual gratification. Those who are less confident or unlucky in love often find this entire situation too daunting to even start, and I talk to such men all the time.
I mentioned at the start of this essay that I see a lot of misunderstandings between men and women that stem from this dynamic, due to their wildly different experiences in the sexual marketplace. Perhaps one of the largest factors in this misunderstanding is that fishers, by the nature of their strategy, communicate their desires very infrequently. For many fishers, this is because she wants to determine if a given hunter is genuinely the type she is seeking, rather than running the risk of hunters simply saying what she wants to hear in order to win her over. Others want to be swept off their feet by someone who automatically knows what she wants. Others still are too timid to communicate their preferences, or aren’t sure what they want in the first place. Nevertheless, any interaction in which one party is decidedly non-communicative is bound to be frustrating. Women often complain that men don’t understand their needs and boundaries, while men complain that women don’t communicate their needs and boundaries.
Perhaps one of the most dangerous manifestations of this failure to communicate is the game of playing coy. Many women will feign disinterest because they enjoy being pursued, sometimes leading her to say no when she means yes. This phenomenon is not unknown to men, which puts them in a difficult position. They must gamble on every sign of disinterest, and every “no,” which could mean “prove how much you want me” or “I’m sincerely not interested.” What this means is that conscientious hunters will take every “no” at face value, so a lot of secretly interested fishers will go home with their hands (and so will those hunters).
Meanwhile, more enterprising and perhaps less scrupulous hunters will win over fishers playing coy, but also run the risk of taking a genuine “no” as a secret “yes.” This means that fishers who play this game will sometimes be rewarded for lying at the expense of honest women, and those who don’t play this game will suffer anything from the annoyance of not being taken at their word to downright sexual assault, because hunters have learned from experience that “no” sometimes means “yes.” This puts both parties in an ugly situation: the hunter who is now labeled a consent violator for doing what other women have taught him to do, and the fisher whose consent was violated because other fishers aren’t honest about their intentions and desires. Because of a lack of clear and honest communication, everyone loses.
Another concern that seems to inform a great deal of misunderstandings is the “buyer’s market” aspect of the dynamic. Because women are constantly approached and appealed to, their perception of this experience is going to be different from that of men’s. While women with more social energy enjoy this flattery, those with less find it tiresome (before you add in the ideological interpretations, such as the feminist assumption that it’s meant to demean or control women). Hunters hear from both kinds of women, and this often feels like a mixed message. Hunters aren’t sure what degree of engagement is appropriate, because different women have different preferences and comfort levels. And fundamentally, hunters struggle to understand how fishers could be annoyed or unimpressed by being constantly complimented and sought out, since the average hunter, who endures rejection and disapproval as a necessary part of seeking dates, would kill for a fraction of the validation or appreciation that the average fisher receives. While a fisher may consider a given behaviour superficial or harassment, a hunter may see it as a sort of genuine human connection for which he feels starved. Similarly, (largely because of the sexual morality of our culture) fishers see their ability to profit from their sexuality and beauty as cheapening or dehumanizing, whereas many hunters just wish they could do it.
Less of a miscommunication between the sexes and more of a broad misunderstanding, the hunting/fishing dynamic leads to perception of males as more sexual and females as less sexual than they actually are. Because hunters must play the numbers game, they are perceived as “always on” or being driven by sex. Meanwhile, because fishers play the gatekeeper, they are perceived in the extreme as frigid or asexual, in the less extreme as having a default of disinterest. This leads to asymmetrical sexual advocacy, in which women are protected from sexuality like Victorian-era prudes (even by progressives), and men are excluded from advocacy against sexual misconduct, because someone who always wants sex can’t fail to consent or be victimized by harassment or assault. This isn’t just a misperception between the sexes. Generally speaking, I have seen that women perceive women this way and men perceive men this way, too.
Finally, because the bait for fishing is mostly physical beauty (as well as its value and profitability outside the sexual marketplace), many women suffer from the misconception that a woman’s societal value is limited to her physical appearance. Because of this, they worry that they will become devalued, less respected, or less appreciated as they age. What these women don’t realize is that just like women, men value physical attractiveness and a wide variety of personality traits in their partners, and that once a hunter learns that a given fisher is far more beautiful than she is interesting, he’s likely to move along, just as a woman might do with a man who is more beautiful than he is interesting. Furthermore, her value to society is not, and never was, limited to her value to a prospective partner. However, any fisher who worries about this can assuage her worries by being sure to cultivate a personality and a variety of practical skills (which is something that hunters must do in order to have even initial success, since they appeal to fishers with attributes like charisma and wit).
I’ve outlined a lot of problems that result from the wildly different experiences men and women have in dating and sexuality, from the initial drawbacks of either side to the ways men and women fail to understand each other through the lens of these differing experiences. Here are my proposed solutions.
Most obviously, men and women simply need to communicate more, on an individual level and in groups. On the individual level, women need to say what they need out loud and be willing to clearly communicate their boundaries, or men are going to continue to live in the dark. Women need to stop playing coy, because this leaves everyone lonely at best, and harms other women at worst. On the group level, men and women need spaces to air their grievances and be heard as equals. No privilege checking, no victim contests, no arguing over which side has more pros or cons. Everyone needs to be willing to listen in earnest, with an open mind to the existence of real problems and drawbacks on both sides.
Second, I’ve noticed something with the rise of the normalization of queer relationships: it’s helping break down gender roles for all, including heterosexuals. Who should pay for a date between two men? When two women are attracted to each other, who should ask the other out? How should an existing poly couple approach a prospective third? These kinds of questions inherently raise questions about the necessity of dividing the roles in heterosexual dating so simplistically as they have been in traditionalist societies.
When there’s no default role for any party in the pursuit of relationships (when both are the same sex, for example), roles develop naturally as a result of individual personalities, rather than individuals feeling that they have to fit gendered expectations of how to approach interaction. The result is that queer relationships, especially in media representation and discourse on relationships present public examples of alternatives to the male hunter/female fisher dynamic. The availability of such examples have, I’ve observed, led to more heterosexuals choosing an approach that suits them better.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, women need to bite the bullet and start hunting. I started doing this at a young age (when I was only dating men), but it became even more important when I started dating women (since most women, even queer women, tend not to initiate). From the very beginning it dramatically shifted my perspective on the entire dating process, and I think every woman would benefit from hunting at least sometimes, and men would benefit too, in the following ways:
- Women would share in the burden of constant rejection and the up-front effort of approaching targets of attraction.
- This basic role reversal will help men and women better understand each other’s experiences, perspectives, and complaints.
- Women will start to understand that hunting isn’t predation, harassment, or the purview of the shallow
- Men will get a piece of that sweet, sweet validation pie.
- Women won’t have to sit around waiting for a partner to come along.
- Even if only some women choose to start hunting, this will start to shrink the massive disparity in sexual value between men and women. When more women are actively pursuing men, more men will have a chance at dating.
- Experience on the hunter side of the dynamic will give women more of an opportunity to develop thicker skin and assertiveness.
- A role reversal will reduce the perception of women as chaste and men as always on, leading to more respect and understanding for women’s sexuality and men’s capacity for non-consent.
In short, I constantly hear from men who are at a loss because they struggle to find the time and energy needed to be successful hunters, the patience and determination necessary to endure rejection, and the finesse required to navigate the catch-22 of sexual morality. They suffer from loneliness and depression, and often self-loathing, and don’t know how else to proceed. They could try fishing, but with so few female hunters, it’s not a viable strategy. As is so often the case, what needs to happen is the breakdown of gender roles. Men need to try fishing sometimes, and women need to try hunting sometimes.
EDIT: Understand that these assessments of human behaviour and experience are meant to be comparative, not absolute. So while I understand that women who fish experience some rejection, for example, which varies with level of attractiveness and other factors, I think that this is substantially less the case for a given woman/fisher than for an equivalently attractive man/hunter. Furthermore, for hunters it is more direct and explicit rejection, as opposed to the subtle and arguably less painful rejection of simply not being approached by the target of your interest.