Miraculously, in these dark times, I had a legitimately successful first encounter with a woman. We met at one of those annoying movie trivia nights where they test how many French films you’ve seen. She was exceptionally gifted at it, likely due to her upbringing as the daughter of a famous director whose name I’m simply too respectful to divulge. I was the mediocre film student who slept through Max Ophüls’ La Ronde and read the Wikipedia article in order to pass the midterm. But there was a clear, instant attraction, and we exchanged numbers. A plan for a date was made (a screening of The Lost Boys in a cemetery, natch), and we texted every day for hours, leading up to the momentous night.
On the surface, the date seemed to be a success. After the movie, we adjourned to a nearby bar, then moved on to her house. There was kissing and perhaps a breast or two made an appearance. The next day, in the stark light of the morning, something changed. I started to feel like my text messages were less and less welcome. Paragraphs turned into short sentences, which finally morphed into deafening silence. No explanation, just one-word responses to topics that initially elicited significant conversation. It was over, and I didn’t even know why. My flop sweat? A poorly timed joke? My age? Was Mercury in retrograde? Was I bad kisser? Good Lord, did I fart and forget?
Of course, I’m speaking of ghosting — that most cruel and unusual punishment that only seems to get more popular every day. A 2016 survey by the moribund dating site PlentyOfFish found that 78 percent of single people between the ages of 18 and 33 have ghosted a potential mate in their dating life. People are even ghosting their goddamn families. For many folks, either in romantic relationships or the job market, the idea of simply vanishing from an unpleasant situation is preferable to confronting it.
Ghosting spares the poor bastard who is on the receiving end of a merciless ego bashing. But I always assumed I’d be the one disappearing into the technological ether, because of the fact of my penis making me callous and narcissistic. The emotionally astute woman surely wouldn’t employ such a tactic, I thought. Men ghost. Women are ghosted. Such is the natural order of things. My friend, the comedian Alison Stevenson, even wrote an article about the overwhelming number of men who ghost for VICE, excoriating the dates who vanished from her life without a suitable explanation.
And yet, women do ghost, every day — sometimes, out of sheer necessity. An informal survey done by a writer at Elle in 2014 found that 24 percent of the women polled had gone fully spectral and ghosted in the past. That women do this, too, was a surprising discovery, one that might be owed to my own myopic, self-centered, phallocentric attitude about literally everything.
I interviewed multiple people, both men and women, to try to understand what I perceived to be a peculiar gender role reversal. What I learned is that women ghost partners (or fumbling suitors) for a variety of reasons, but often, it’s due to fear of reprisal if they’re too candid. Will the man flip out and throw a tantrum? Will he not get the hint and begin some ritualistic form of begging for sex? Will he dive into an all-consuming depression? Will he become violent?
These stories illustrate something basic and elemental about the current state of human nature within a certain socio-economic class of twentysomething and thirtysomething city-dwelling neurotics. We simply don’t want to talk to each other, regardless of identity, because we’re afraid of hurting each other, or ourselves.
Case in point: Laura (names changed for basic decency) was 25, dating a 22-year-old man in New York. They met on a dating app and clicked over a shared taste in music. They had sex, which Laura described as “fumbling,” but she gave it another try anyway. (In many of these stories, the initial date is troubled, but it’s decided that a second chance is warranted.) The sex remained grim on date two, which put Laura in an awkward situation. “I’m generally of the belief that until date three or so, there should be no expectations for continued contact,” she tells me. “But he had latched on hard, and far too quickly. I replied with terse, disinterested responses and he still sent me text-equivalent novels, often many in a row.”
After agreeing to meet with him in clearly non-romantic situations like broad daylight, he still didn’t get the hint. At the advice of her friends, she ceased responding to his texts. “He was just far too interested after so little time together,” she explains. “I felt awfully guilty about it to be honest — I hate ghosting. But even now, looking back, there are at least 10 unanswered texts from him sitting in our text thread.”
Mary, who lives in San Francisco, says she uses ghosting to break up with men for personal safety reasons. “It’s appropriate for me to ghost someone if I feel unsafe or uncomfortable,” she writes over email. “Secondary to that, I don’t really like confrontation so I try avoiding it when I can. I’m for ghosting because these days we’re much more connected so it might be healthy for some to cut off people if they don’t feel they’re right for them.”
There’s a certain expectation or entitlement that comes out in these stories. The men perceive that they have a right to continue things, to have control over the situation. We demand to be “heard.” In that instance, it seems that severing the connection with impunity is the only way to derive any understanding or acceptance. To that end, I spoke to a ghosted man, Liam, who says he went on five dates with a girl — “to happy-hour spots, hiking trails and the movies” — only to have all of his future attempts to meet up ignored. “I texted her on the 25th, wishing her and her family a Merry Christmas. No reply. I texted her on the 28th, wishing her a safe trip back and asked if she needed a ride from the airport. No reply. I texted her on the 1st and wished her a Happy New Year. No reply.” This phenomenon, which Madeleine Holden referred to as “pleading into the void” on MEL recently, is a manifestation of a certain romantic entitlement amongst men. “How could you not love me?” we moan. “I’m a good guy.”
Obviously, we aren’t entitled to anything, but the weight of expectation is the straight man’s greatest roadblock to happiness. Needing to constantly tell the world we’re good or worthy exposes a tenuous grasp on self-esteem. Being “good” doesn’t always mean being “good for her.” We can protest or attempt to cajole, but relationships aren’t forged through bribery or rhetorical flights of fancy. Despite what dude lit like The Game has attempted to instill in men, you cannot dupe a woman into loving you. Maybe you can temporarily ply them with gifts or flattery — or worse yet, gaslight them into submission — but they either like you or they don’t, and any other methods of pursuit are dishonest, abusive and emotionally fruitless.
The more that nefarious forces online try to convince straight men that emotion, vulnerability and confession make us “cucks” or “betas,” the more we start to demand attention from women. But the inability to read signals — to intuit what is or isn’t real feeling from another person — is what holds men back more often than not. The healthiest thing I ever did was when that girl started texting me less and less was say “alright then” and stop reaching out.
Because the next time you think someone is tired of you, chances are, you’re right.