02/28/2012 06:41 pm ET

Myth Of Male Weakness And The Three Date Rule

Hugo Schwyzer | Role/Reboot

We baby men. For all the very real progress we've made in recent years in breaking free of unhappy sexual stereotypes, one tired old trope has proved remarkably durable: the idea that straight men are utterly petrified of commitment. Never mind the truth that there are plenty of guys who would like to "settle down," and plenty of women who'd be more than happy to avoid a monogamous relationship. The cultural narrative is a simple one: It's women who want marriage (or its close approximations) more than men. Men, meanwhile, are terrified of being trapped. To soothe that masculine anxiety about being ensnared, women need to disguise their intentions, hide their own eagerness, and above all, avoid any discussion of a "shared future" for as long as humanly possible.

I was talking to a friend of mine recently about her dating life. "Joanna" is 33, single, straight, and interested in -- eventually -- getting married and having children. It's not, as she says a "ticking clock thing"; rather, she's clear that at this age, she's done having casual relationships with men that drift for months and years. She wants to (as my evangelical friends put it) date "intentionally" -- that is, with the explicit intention of moving toward marriage. If a guy isn't marriage material, or has no interest in getting married -- or is planning on waiting until he's struck by divine certainty -- Joanna wants to know sooner rather than later so that she can move on.

Joanna recently asked me a question:

"When is it best to bring up what my goals are? If I say -- on our first coffee date -- that I'm looking to get married, I'm worried I'll scare most men away. On the other hand, I don't want to wait indefinitely. If a guy is very clear that marriage and children are off the table for the next few years, I want to move along before I get too invested. So when's the right time to bring it up?"

In answering Joanna's question, I mentioned Tom Leykis. Leykis, a popular shock jock in Los Angeles for years, dispensed love and sex advice to a largely male audience. He was famous for his three-date rule: "If a woman won't have sex with you after three dates," Leykis opined, "dump her. She's not worth investing any more time in."

I think there's a far more helpful version of the "three date rule": By the third date with a prospective partner, one ought to feel free to initiate the "what are you looking for in a relationship" conversation. If the initial answer is a bit evasive, something along the lines of "let's just go slow and see how things develop," it's not too soon for someone in Joanna's position to explain what it is that she wants. If the other person flinches at this point, that's a fairly definitive sign that your goals are unlikely to be mutual.

Joanna blanched when I brought up the three-date rule. "Isn't that too soon?" she asked. As I told her, three dates is probably too soon to make a commitment -- but not too soon to sound out if she and the guy she's seeing are on the same page in terms of what they both want. The idea that it's too soon to even raise the question is rooted in an aspect of the myth of male weakness: the notion that men are easily scared off by women who are too frank about their interest in enduring commitment or children.

What undergirds Joanna's fears is the lie that even grown men in their late 20s and 30s (if not older still) are little more than overgrown, feckless adolescents desperate to remain single and avoid being "trapped" into monogamous relationships with women. It suggests that all men need to be treated like brash young colts that will buck and kick should the saddle appear too soon. The myth insists, as Jack Nicholson famously did in a film with men in its title, that most guys "can’t handle the truth."

To be clear, no one is under any obligation to marry. Monogamy isn't for everyone, and an unwillingness to wed isn't evidence of a lack of maturity. But Joanna isn't worried about those guys who are adamant that they will never marry, certain that that kind of commitment isn't for them. The ones who are more problematic are those who -- often while already well into their 30s or beyond -- are "open" to marriage somewhere in the very distant future, and only after they are, as they imagine must surely happen, "struck by certainty." It is these latter lads with whom one needs to have a serious conversation by the end of the third date.

Men are indeed under no obligation to commit to any one particular person, or to commit at all. But they are, like all of us, under the obligation not to shy away from serious conversation about one's short-term and long-term goals. After all, the capacity for self-reflection and the ability to articulate one's thoughts and fears was not given only to the be-uterused. While most American men are raised in a culture that discourages the development of a vocabulary for their inner emotional terrain, the truth is that too many guys rely on women being unable to distinguish genuine inability to communicate from stubborn unwillingness. When it comes to the "talk," men's reluctance is all about the latter.

Any dude old enough for a 30 year-old woman to sleep with without violating state law is old enough to handle a discussion about the possibility of a shared future by the end of the third date. To doubt that is to continue to participate in the infantilization of grown men.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carre Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.

This post originally appeared on Role/Reboot.

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