"You're intimidating!" he said.
My friend Josh and I were walking back to our dorm after a late night out on the quad. It was the spring of my senior year, and I was about to graduate having never even held hands with a guy, much less been kissed. I was trying to figure out why.
Having grown up in a Christian culture where getting married by age 25 was what was expected of me, I was about to graduate without a boyfriend, or at least a crush, or to my knowledge, any dude who secretly harbored a crush on me. To my fellow "ring by spring"-type Christians, I was clearly was doing life wrong.
In exasperation that night, I asked Josh why no one wanted to ask me out, what it was about me that made guys not follow the path they were supposed to follow in asking me out. And here was my answer.
"You're intimidating," he said. "You're smarter than us guys, and really independent, and that makes it hard."
Part of me wanted to embrace his words as a recognition of my own modern self-assurance, but deep down, I was heartbroken. Here I'd been patiently waiting for one of these guy friends of mine to realize that they had a cute, confident woman right under their nose. And, oh, they had realized it — and quickly decided it wasn't what they wanted.
I grew up Baptist in the Midwest. I had pledged my virginity and vagina to God when I was 14, and spent years investing myself in dating books and courtship culture. I attended a private Christian college and was studying theology. I read the self-help book Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge like it was gospel and studied the gender roles laid out in the Bible — i.e., all that stuff you've heard about how women should "submit" to them — like it was a secret path to marriage.
Within traditional evangelical couples, the man is the leader, the protector, the provider. In the practice of dating, this means the man is the one who should ask the woman out, and NEVER vice versa. The woman is the caretaker, the nurturer, the lover, and, in dating, the one who accepts the invitation. One of the important teachings of some strains of conservative Christianity is this emphasis on "complementarian" gender politics, where men and women have distinct but equal roles. (These prescriptions are obviously aimed at heterosexual couples only, as many conservative denominations still frown on same-sex relationships.) Together, these two separate female and male halves form the whole, as God's plan dictates. In John and Stasi Eldredge's books on gender, the man is painted as a knight rescuing his princess.
So, growing up Christian, I was convinced that my role in dating as a female was to be pursued. If a relationship started with me doing the asking, it was doomed to fail because that was not God's plan. Not only would taking romantic initiative render me spiritually impure, I thought, but asking a guy out would set the tone for the whole relationship, putting me in the driver's seat. I'd be the leader from day one. It was to me like a magical incantation — if I didn't start the relationship just right, it would blow up in my face and turn me into a rat.
And so, I became the Nice Guy.
The Nice Guy, in modern parlance, is the creepy dude who becomes friends with a woman in the hopes that he'll win her over by listening to her problems and giving her rides to places. Eventually, he believes, she'll "see the light" and reward him with lots and lots of boinking. When the devoted listening and errand-running doesn't make the girl fall in love with him, the Nice Guy does a 180. He starts complaining about other dudes the girl is dating, convinced every one of them is an unrepentant jerk. He acts hurt and begins to distance himself from the woman friend. And, in worst case scenarios, he'll lash out at the female friend, challenging her on why she goes for all those other jerks and not him.
As you can see, the Nice Guy treading water in the "friend zone" isn't actually that nice, nor much of a friend. In my fervor to do relationships "God's way," I became a similar archetype: a sniveling, annoying, friend-zoned jerk. I'd develop crushes on guys and orbit them in a "friendly" way, getting lunch and chatting after class, convinced that actually saying "I like you" would blow up in my face. After all, the one time I did say that I liked someone, he stopped hanging out with me almost entirely. Or, more accurately, I distanced myself from him because without the quiet, unrequited desire, I had no use for his friendship.
As a Christian female, I know these "Nice Guy" patterns so intimately. Since I wasn't "allowed" to ask a guy out, my choices were limited to sitting on the sidelines and hoping my crush would eventually realize he was hopelessly in love with me. I mean, we studied together! My first week of college, I made friends with someone who was arguably one of the hottest men on campus. And for the next four years, I languished in the friend zone, always hoping for more but never actually articulating my desire to move things beyond "just friends."
During college, I made a nice little home for myself in the friend zone. I became used to being the girl who could be friends with all the guys and yet never had a date. Such unique relationships were my bread and butter, my reputation, my thing. January of my senior year found me hiding in my dorm room, crying my eyes out under my desk because yet another guy friend had started dating someone else. He had told me excitedly about their first kiss and how was enjoying these new beginnings. Instead of being happy for him, as his friend, I stormed back to my room and cried. It took me another three years before I felt I could explain to him that the reason I walked out every time he talked about meeting a new romantic interest was because of my affection for him.
In making light of the friend zone and protesting against Nice Guys, we tend to forget why such thinking appeals to people. For many, the friend zone is a useful way of explaining their own lack of courage and their own inability to use their words and speak up. We're convinced — either by cultural influence, our own anxieties, or even religion — that speaking up about desires will "ruin the friendship," and therefore that it is somehow better to martyr yourself in silent desire.
There's no denying that there was a time in my life when friend-zoning was a legitimate, accepted way of thought for me. The guys in my life were mere stand-ins for an eventual husband who would lead me spiritually and give me security. But instead of teaching me how to be a good person and to own up to my own feelings, Christian purity culture instead encouraged me to become a whiny, annoying, desperate person. I was supposed to be married — I would be fulfilling God's plan in that way! — but I was also not allowed to make any actions toward making that happen. And therefore the friend zone became the most useful explanation for my own lack of agency and lack of ability to move forward on anything relationship related.
So what changed?
I graduated. I left the insular world of my small-town college and went to graduate school. Then I moved halfway across the world to teach English, and I realized that if I wanted my relationship status to change, my gender didn't determine whether or not I could say something. I learned how to use my words, to speak up and ask guys out when I thought something could happen — even if we were friends. Such openness made it possible for friendships to flourish, even if my affections were rejected.
Three years ago, at age 25, I met a boy. I liked him. We flirted the entire night. And I asked him out the next day. This boy turned into my first real relationship. While the relationship ultimately didn't work out, I learned that asking people out wasn't going to doom a relationship, that confessing feelings in a friendship didn't have to ruin it, and that many people appreciate a confident, collected woman who is willing to say, "Hey, I like you."
These are the lessons I never would have learned had I not begun to question the environment I'd taken as fact for years: the complementarian, conservative Christianity in which I was raised. Purity culture — both the idea that Christians need to keep themselves virgins until marriage and that women need to accept their submissive role as wife — taught me that I had no agency of my own to respond to a relationship. It created a person I now barely recognize as me.
To get rid of Nice Guys — of both genders — we need to both encourage people to take the initiative when it comes to dating, and to understand that rejection isn't a referendum on us as people. Love isn't destiny, and gender isn't a cage.