Over the years I’ve spent dating, there’s no tip I’ve been given more than to “play hard to get.” Even from the wisest people I know. Even from feminists.
People have justified this piece of advice in a remarkably large and varied number of ways, including:
- Men love the thrill of the chase.
- Coyness is feminine and sexy. Being “easy” is not.
- Coming off as too interested gives the other person all of the power.
- Being unattainable makes you look highly sought-after and hence, desirable.
- Keeping someone in suspense makes them want you more.
As it turns out, the last two may actually be true. One study found that people prefer dates with limited availability, and the authors theorized that selectivity is read as a sign of value.
And as for the last point, infatuation can evoke an addiction-like pattern in your brain, and when someone’s “craving” you and not getting their “fix,” they end up pining after you and doing whatever it takes to get that dopamine rush.
But I’m going to focus on the first three, since they’re the most frequently cited reasons for giving this advice and also the most detrimental. The first conveys problematic ideas about masculinity; the second conveys problematic ideas about femininity, and the third conveys a problematic model of relationships that incorporates both.
These three explanations also demonstrate why this advice is most often given to women, especially women dating men.
So here’s how each of these claims about the supposed value of “playing hard to get” can support problematic ideas about gender and damage relationships.
Claim #1: Men Love the Thrill of the Chase
Men, I’ve been advised, have a more active sexuality, while women are more receptive. Therefore, if I let men “chase” me, I’m pleasing them (never mind what pleases me) by letting them be men.
This conception of relationships makes it seem like women are passive and have no agency. Their job is to get caught or resist being caught, which doesn’t really give them the chance to do much.
The only “power” this idea affords women is the gender-stereotypical “power” that supposedly lies in their sex appeal, which isn’t really power at all.
This also presents a very narrow and limiting view of men’s sexuality – one that puts pressure on them to initiate everything and doesn’t give them the chance to be desired.
Oh, and there’s also the part where it’s rapey AF.
If someone enthusiastically consents, she doesn’t need to be chased. If you need to chase someone to get her to go out with you, she’s probably not that into you, and you should probably leave her alone.
Unfortunately, men are taught that it’s sexy to pursue women relentlessly. There’s even a TED Talk about it called “The Power of Seduction,” in which Chen Lizra says Cuban men are sexy because they don’t take “no” for an answer.
Then, if women act like this behavior is not, in fact, sexy, men sometimes brush that off as women’s way of giving them the thrill of the chase.
Pursing a man should not be indistinguishable from resisting him. But the “thrill of the chase” trope has conflated these two things and encouraged men to ignore women’s signs of resistance.
Claim #2: Coyness Is Feminine and Sexy – Being ‘Easy’ Is Not
While men are taught it’s sexy to pursue women relentlessly, women are taught it’s sexy to act uninterested.
Depicting an unwilling woman as alluring also contributes to rape culture.
In a healthy sexual culture, an attractive woman is one who is passionate and enthusiastic and clearly interested, not uncertain and hesitant, and a man who notices a woman being hesitant asks her if she’s okay and whether she really wants to go through with whatever they’re doing.
It is a sick culture that takes a woman’s lack of interest as a reason to pursue her more. This is the cultural norm that leads to sexual entitlement, harassment, and assault.
Think about it: When you take the view of “coyness” as an invitation to the extreme, the logical conclusion is that you don’t need a woman’s consent.
But along with this idea that a woman should be coy is that she should not be “easy.”
This treats women’s bodies as commodities that are granted to men in exchange for kindness, validation, money, or something else other than the experience itself.
The assumption underlying this view is that women only have sex to attain a committed relationship – and therefore give away their bargaining power by having sex too soon. Because why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free, amirite?
This same philosophy also makes women who have more sex with more people out to be less respectable than women who are less experienced.
It’s not just about sex, though. This idea that a woman shouldn’t be “easy” has also been applied to dating. Women are expected to be more selective than men, so if a woman’s not selective “enough,” people assume she doesn’t value herself.
This comes back to the same misogyny as the advice to give men the “thrill of the chase.” If a woman’s too “easy” to “chase,” the story goes, she must not have that much value.
Claim #3: Coming Off Too Interested Gives the Other Person All of the Power
This belief is basically the first two combined. In order to have power, it goes, women must be expensive commodities and entice men – because that’s where their power supposedly lies.
This one is taught to men sometimes as well. Either way, the philosophy is that whoever is less interested holds more power.
But why should power lie in indifference rather than honesty?
Part of the reason comes back to fear of rejection. The lower your risk for rejection, the more power you’re said to have.
This belief goes away when we stop seeing rejection as a negative reflection of a person and start seeing it as the result of putting yourself out there and making your desires clear, which should be a good thing.
Beyond that, though, why should dating be a power struggle in the first place?
You only need the upper hand over someone if you’re aiming to manipulate them. If your goal is to find out what they’re looking for and see if it matches up with what you’re looking for, you won’t want power over them. And when you want to be equal, playing games is no longer necessary.
In addition to examining the problematic reasons behind the advice to “play hard to get,” we also need to acknowledge that the behavior itself has negative consequences, regardless of why we’re doing it.
The cornerstone of a healthy, consensual relationship is communicating your intentions – and feigning disinterest detracts from this goal.
Playing games in order to elicit a reaction from your partner impedes your ability to form an open, honest, trusting connection.
Think about it: Wouldn’t it be nice if you knew how your partner was feeling about you and the relationship every step of the way? That way, you could make informed decisions about how much you want to invest in the relationship, know what issues you two are facing so you can try to resolve them, and feel secure and appreciated when your partner is happy with you.
Well, guess what. If we forwent games, relationships could be this way.
It sounds simple, but many of us don’t even know it’s possible. I didn’t until a recent partner showed me by flat-out telling me he was interested in hooking up the first time we talked. So, I flat-out told him the feeling was mutual.
I was terrified that this would take away my power and make him like me less. But to my surprise, nothing dreadful happened. When I told him how much I liked him, he didn’t decide I was too desperate or not mysterious enough or unfeminine and lose interest. He said it right back.
And then I wondered why I spent so many years torturing myself with anything less than this.
But I know why: because I was taught that showing interest was unattractive. I was taught that to get the very thing I craved – connection – I had to disconnect.
We have become a society full of people disconnecting in pursuit of connection.
We’ve grown convinced that in order to get the thing we want most, we have to pretend not to want it. And so then we don’t get it.
Voicing what you want can be empowering, y’all. Because you’re not just increasing the chances you’ll get it: You’re also expressing that you are worth advocating for.
And that is a message that women especially don’t always receive.
So, women and other people whose desires are undervalued, know this: We are worth advocating for. We are not just meant to respond to desire. We have desires of our own.
Those desires are powerful and independent of anyone else. They lie within us long before and long after anybody “chases” us. They are worth honoring no matter how hard or easy we are to “get.”
In fact, it doesn’t matter how “hard” or “easy to get” we are because we are not prey and our partners are not predators and love is not a hunting ground.
Many of us have spent our lives hunted, running out of fear or pressure to please. And we won’t feel safe running toward each other until nobody is armed.
Games are the arms we carry. We tuck them into our belts and pull them out when we fear we’re approaching each other too quickly, too obviously, too easily.
But once we take a second to stop shooting at each other, we realize we’re all after the same thing: genuine connection.
And then, we realize the only arms we need are the ones we can wrap around each other.
In that moment, there is no “hard to get” because there’s nothing to get gotten. Everyone is willing, every intention is clear, and for once, fear isn’t ruling us.
When we stop playing “hard to get,” magic happens. But this shouldn’t feel like magic. Things can be like this all the time if we let them.
But by “we,” I don’t just mean the individuals involved in a relationship. It’s not that easy. When you try to rail against something as powerful as the “hard to get” imperative, you run up against two of the biggest forces governing our society: gender roles and rape culture.
Fostering genuine connection isn’t just about lovers overcoming fear, though it is about that. It’s also about actively challenging the notion that men are predators and women are prey. Once there is no separation between “getter” – the one who’s “getting some” or “getting laid” or “getting lucky” – and “gotten,” there will be no “hard to get.”
There will only be “getting” each other – both in the sense of enjoying each other’s company mutually with no effort or deception involved, and in the sense of understanding each other.
Regardless of your gender, you deserve this. And you deserve for it to be easy to get.
Suzannah Weiss is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a New York-based writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Seventeen, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post, Bustle, and more. She holds degrees in Gender and Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture and Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @suzannahweiss.