Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Lad Theory

Last Saturday, I was drawn into a random conversation with strangers at a friend's birthday party. I listened to a guy, mid-thirties, make generalizations about sex and love and make indirect asides about his ex-fiancee and his friends -- and then I piped up, "Oh, isn't this just ladder theory or Harry Met Sally stuff?" It didn't phase him -- he just said no, it was his own theory, and a good one, about how men can't be friends with women whom they're attracted to.

Like your eighteen-year-old cousin who makes up "quotes" that are actually misremembered lines from old Modest Mouse tunes, I find a certain type of guy tends to regurgitate the Ladder Theory, whether they've read it or heard it recycled in fraternity discussions or actually tapped into that original vein of nice-guy-resentment from which the theory springs. Guys are simple! they'll have sex with anyone. Girls are impossible! they have two ladders: guys they'll sleep with and guys they won't. The theory recycles familiar tropes like the "friend zone" and the "nice guy" -- though here they're given ever-affectionate terms like "abyss" and "intellectual whore."

Like a personal lampshading, the author includes a useful FAQ at the end, including these clever replies:

You're just bitter.
Answer:Maybe I am. But ladder theory made me that way, my bitterness did not make ladder theory. Attack the theory, not the person behind it. And why does everyone always say I'm bitter just because 99.999% of chicks are bitches?


Criticism: Are you serious or is the site just satire?
Answer: Nothing is just satire.

Given these admissions, an actual debunking of the ladder theory would be mostly boring -- one critic states that the entire theory falls apart as long as one posits that "it is perfectly acceptable to have sexual attraction to friends" -- but I still think it's worth asking, "Why is this theory so attractive, so ubiquitous?"

We can't discount pure and simple misogyny -- c'mon, the guy defines a "bitch" as "a woman who is not honest about why she won't sleep with you. Or sometimes, just a woman who won't sleep with you. And of course women who won't admit the basic truth of Ladder Theory." Male entitlement is a big part of (well) most sexual politics, but let's look deeper.

The deeper anxiety that lies at the root of Lad Theory lies in the assertion that men are attracted to all women (to varying degrees) but women have two categories, one for friends and one for sexual prospects. The Lad Theory writes it thus:

The problem arises because a woman never lets a guy know which ladder he is on. Obviously there is a huge difference, or gap between these two ladders. It is in this gap that kisses of death are delivered and intellectual whores are made. All a man can do is "go for it" and make a move on a girl; ask her out, try to kiss her, write her a love note or whatever.

which is to say: the problem with women is that we as guys don't know what women want. That cute girl with that ugly guy! That nice girl with the asshole! That girl I like who is somehow into guys that aren't me! What does she see in him, him, and not-me? idgi!

The reason that so many guys buy into Lad Theory is because they can't see things from a woman's perspective. They can't understand what motivates a woman to choose one man over another, one man over them, and so they chalk it up to mystery -- to womanliness -- and sprinkle in a few dashes of misogyny for good measure. Behind Lad Theory isn't as much a feeling of entitlement that women should have sex with them (though there's that) as much as guys feel entitled to knowing which girls might. Instead of reading "pick up artist" manuals (all written by men), maybe they should read a few novels with female protagonists -- including, yes, if gender-uptight pseudo-religious codependent girls are your romantic target, Twilight.

Because anyone with any real sense of human relationships will recognize that unrequited love runs both directions: guys will be friends with girls hoping it'll turn into romance, and girls with be friends with guys they'd secretly like to have sex with; many guys are sexual opportunists, and so are many women; and in the truest sense, no one can see anything from another person's perspective, and so when a guy or girl chooses another guy or girl over you, it can seem downright mysterious -- which is why women fall prey to this damn nonsense as well.

We're all a little complicit, of course: insofar as guys bear the burden of first-date approaches while girls read manuals like The Rules, and insofar as girls are pushed through books, film, television towards empathizing with a male perspective much more so than guys towards empathizing with a female perspective, and insofar as guys feel entitled to sex while girls are shamed for being sexual -- then of course sexual relationships will seem unequal to many, inscrutable to a few, and then we all suffer.

Does my utopian dream really call for more guys reading Stephanie Meyer and for more girls to get shot down for confessing their love to uninterested friends? Trust me, the alternative isn't any better -- I'm getting trolled at friends' birthday parties, folks.


  1. Very interesting, and I agree that the main problem does lie in the fact that we don't understand the other gender's perspective most of the time. I like your solution (though it doesn't have to be twilight, guys!), but think most people will opt to stay with the ladder theory since it's much easier to just blame people and not try to understand them.

  2. Comparing our dating lives to dinosaur comics makes everything so much easier.

  3. Glad that awkward, somewhat contrived conversation last weekend led to such a cogent essay! When I teach Romanticism (with Wordsworth and Shelley exalting in the imagination's power to transform human relations, via empathy), I try to make it relevant by emphasizing how unevenly men and women today are socialized to really "empathize" with each other, which resonated with your claim that "[T]hey can't see things from a woman's perspective. They can't understand what motivates a woman to choose one man over another, one man over them, and so they chalk it up to mystery -- to womanliness -- and sprinkle in a few dashes of misogyny for good measure." ~Eileen