I used to be a Nice Guy (tm). Not a nice guy, not by any means; I mean I was one of those guys who tried to make friends with women I found attractive, solely because I found them attractive, in the hopes of manipulating them or tricking them or guilting them into sleeping with me.
I am very glad I never succeeded. I don't think I possibly could have, but either way I'm glad I didn't. I'd like to say I don't know what I was thinking, but that would be a lie. I know exactly what I was thinking, better now than I did at the time.
It started, I think, in high school. There was, of course, a girl; call her Emma.* Emma was approachable, likeable, friendly, and shared most of my nerdier interests. I decided to have a crush on her.
I mean that literally; it was a conscious decision, at least at first. I liked her as a friend, but wasn't particularly attracted to her. However, I thought maybe our compatibility as friends, and the general consensus of the boys in the class that she was not desirable, would better my chances. (As it turns out, I was not the only one to make this calculation; she told me a few years later she was something of a magnet for "lonely boys.")
I became borderline obsessed with her. I tried everything I could, took every excuse to get closer to her, to be dependable and likeable and non-threatening. I genuinely did like her, but I obviously didn't respect her, since I hid from her my real motivations for some time. Eventually I asked her out, and she said no, and instead of accepting it and moving on, either becoming just friends or letting it go, I began this twisted little dance. I was there for her, supported her through rough times (which she had plenty of--it was high school, we all did), but I also periodically asked her out or told her I loved her. She was obviously incredibly uncomfortable with it, but I kept on, because of my needy, obsessive, one-sided "love." I felt that if she did not love me, my life was meaningless and worthless, but as long as there was some tiny hope that she someday might, I could continue.
In other words, I laid at her feet, unasked for and unwanted, responsibility for my mental health. I told her about my fears and my pain and my (at the time, quite severe and undertreated) depression, and considered her my best friend even as I schemed ways to get her to be as dependent on me as I was on her.
Eventually, high school ended. She moved on to a distant college, and her fragmenting family meant she no longer had a reason to return to our region even to visit. I maintained online contact with her for a time, which slowly developed into something more closely resembling a normal online friendship, but ultimately we simply drifted apart.
As I entered college, my proto-Nice Guy phase developed into true Nice Guy-ism. I'd tried the grand romantic gestures with Emma; I'd been (in my own eyes) the doomed unrequited lover nobly suffering. I'd never felt entitled to Emma's love or to sex (though obviously I had felt entitled to her emotional support), but rather unworthy of it. But in college the romantic melodrama of adolescence gave way to the self-centered entitlement of extended adolescence, and my depression began to be under control. As I started to develop a fledgling sense of self-worth, my sense of entitlement exploded: I had suffered. I was owed. I deserved validation, and validation meant sex.
My freshman year, I spent a lot of time with a woman named Sarah. She'd been in my class in high school, but our social circles at the time were almost entirely non-overlapping (one of my best friends was her best friend's lab partner one year). The only reason I remembered her at all was that she had been fairly attractive; I have no idea why she remembered me.
By college age, however, she was no longer "fairly attractive"; she was drop-dead gorgeous. She was also, I quickly learned, fiercely intelligent, proud, independent, angry, curious, quick-witted, elitist, lonely, and most emphatically not interested in any kind of romantic or sexual relationship with anyone. I did not feel about her at all the way I did about Emma; there was no mooning, no longing sighs, nothing of that sort. I did not, even in the twisted sense I understood the word at the time, love her; she was more like a buddy and debate partner I very much wanted to have sex with.
She was, as I mentioned, lonely. Our college was a large state school primarily devoted to churning out interchangeable degrees that students could use to apply for jobs that didn't much care what your degree was in. The only real exceptions were the English department and the Economics department, and even there most of the students were primarily just there to get their degree because that was the next step in the plan, not because they wanted to learn.
Sarah, however, was a true academic, going to the state school because she couldn't afford better, and that isolated her. I was not in her league, but found the things she wanted to talk about genuinely interesting, and so I was one of the few people she could actually have a conversation with about her interests. Also, I tended to agree with her a lot--even if I didn't agree, I'd find a way to say something true that sounded like agreement--which I think helped make me seem like an ally. Of course I was making an effort to be extra-agreeable because I thought it might slightly improve my (nonexistent) chances of sleeping with her, but I don't think she knew that.
It was about this time I formulated a theory of human interactions. People, I believed, were basically black boxes. You could not know what went on inside them, so you shouldn't try to know; all that mattered was keeping track of what button-presses produced what results. If I could just keep a person around long enough, and keep their attitude toward me positive, given time I should stumble on the sequence of buttons that would lead to the outcomes I wanted, whether that was sex with an attractive woman, friendship with a likeable man (note the implicit, sexist assumptions that men are for friendship, women I find attractive are for sex, and women I don't find attractive are not acknowledged at all), respect from a peer, or good grades from a professor.
In short, I was looking at other people like video games, and seeking the strategies or cheat codes that would let me win. I don't think it's at all an accident that Nice Guy Syndrome appears to be extremely common in the geek and gamer subcultures.
In one respect, this strategy worked. In the first couple of years of college, I had several professors whose classes I was able to game: a philosophy professor who was easily impressed by allusions to modern physics, and a literature professor who allowed us to e-mail in papers and could be tricked into accepting a paper late if you changed the datestamp in the e-mail header before you sent it. However, by midway through college (which is also when I started pulling out of my Nice Guy Syndrome) I realized this was defeating the point of learning as much as I could, and began intentionally seeking out challenges instead.
I never told Sarah about my attraction, and after a year she switched to another school. We corresponded briefly, but quickly lost touch.
I was frustrated, angry, at her and at myself. I felt cheated; I had done everything right (according to my arbitrarily and unilaterally defined rules, anyway), and not received the validation I felt I deserved. It'd be nice to say I learned my lesson and rethought my approach and realized what a horrible little pukestain I was.
Amanda. Catherine. Others whose names, to my shame, I cannot remember. I decided my error with Sarah was focusing on one woman for too long without making my move. Instead I would befriend a woman I found attractive, hang out with her, do things she found fun, share confidences, until I started to feel comfortable that maybe she liked me, and therefore safe enough to ask her out. When she refused, I immediately broke off contact.
It never occurred to me that I might be hurting anyone's feelings or causing them to think I only valued them for their bodies (which I never admitted to myself was true, even though my actions proved it). They were the ones who wronged me, after all, by not holding up their end of the bargain we never made. I was just trying to get into a safe position from which I would not be, could not be rejected.
This is where Nice Guy syndrome most clearly fits into rape culture. It is based on the idea that it should be possible to be unrejectable, without acknowledging that the possibility of rejection is a necessary corollary to the requirement of consent--if you can consent, you can withhold consent, and therefore reject me. Nice Guy Syndrome is thus, ultimately, yet another thinly veiled rape fantasy.
By about halfway through college, as I mentioned, I was moving away from Nice Guy Syndrome. I'd like to say it was because I realized it was misogynistic, narcissistic, and self-defeating, but I didn't. I moved away from it because I found a *different* way to feel safe enough to ask a woman out, and it actually worked. I realized that the best thing to do was just make my interest known as soon as possible, and then let her decide. I also started to get over the idea of sex-as-validation--a year-long romantic relationship in which sex was not an option pretty much cured me of it.
Ultimately, of course, I did evolve toward feminism. With time, I realized how horridly I behaved toward the women I pretended to be friends with. I'm still guilty over that, and I regret the nascent friendships that could have become something real, but never got a chance to blossom because I was too focused on sex, and I regret the potential friendships I don't know about, because I ignored women I didn't find attractive.
Most of all I regret how long it took me to realize I was treating men differently from women, and treating women according to how attractive I found them physically. In other words, I was failing to treat all people as people. There's no way I can apologize. All I can do is, when I see younger friends or relatives expressing sentiments that remind me of younger me, try to talk them out of it.
* All names have been changed.↩
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