Forget about the pangs of unrequited pursuit. Proffering romantic rejection is emotionally risky business. And as the Internet was reminded this week, it's particularly dicey for straight women turning down straight men.
On Monday, Buzzfeed writer Grace Spelman publicized Harry Potter fanboy and (more disconcertingly) Feminspire co-founder Benjamin Schoan's online flirtation-turned-aggression toward her. In response to a series of tweet and a flirtatious Facebook message Schoan sent her way, Spelman told him she had a boyfriend and wished him well. But as many other women online and IRL have experienced firsthand, all was not well.*
This prompted Jessica Roy at The Cut to wonder whether a best way to turn down a guy even exists. Regardless of the communication tactic, ultimately saying "no" can lead to a backlash of breakup proportions despite a relationship that never even existed. She writes:
"The whole exchange is pretty emblematic of the inherent difficulties of rejecting men, both online and off. Women are frequently made to toe a line between being polite enough to not set off the suitor, but not so polite that their manners are interpreted as flirting."
Indeed, empirical evidence supports these anecdotal "inherent difficulties" Roy describes. In 1993, Florida State University psychologist Roy F. Baumeister published a study investigating how unreciprocated attraction affects/afflicts both parties. Whereas the romantic hopefuls experienced a mix of pain and wistfulness at what might've been, rejecters were awash in guilt, feelings of intrusion and annoyance. Speaking to The New York Times about the research, Baumeister described the rejecters' experiences of turning down other people's romantic prospects as "agony."
Shifting back to AnecdoteLand, as a straight woman part of that agony is certainly stoked by some straight guys' inability to handle rejection. Saying you're simply not interested demands an explanation. Informing him you're a lesbian arouses a new sexual challenge. The go-to "I have a boyfriend," can also elicit disbelief and outrage, as exemplified by Schoan's tirade. And even when emotional investment is as minimal as Tinder messaging, many online dating dudes apparently expect rejection etiquette, as dictated perhaps by Emily Post's disgruntled brother Rick.
For unverified Twitter evidence, behold:
Diving back into research, I have a hunch two big things are jamming up men's rejection management. Because when we further color in the details of who tends to be on either side of this uncomfortable (or downright caustic) exchange, a gendered blueprint for Guys Gone Wild in Response to Girls NOT Going Wild emerges.
For starters, being attracted to someone is very much a dice roll, as it's statistically likely to dead-end. A 2013 study "The Prevalence and Nature of Unrequited Love" found it FOUR times as commonly experienced as what the authors called "equal love." And not terribly surprising, men appear to experience it more.
A likely byproduct of a heteronormative narrative in which men are expected to play pursuers, they might put themselves in the line of rejection fire more frequently. A 1997 study among young people, for instance, found 16- to 20-year-old men experienced more unreturned attraction and love, compared to episodes of mutual attraction as well as women in the same age group.
To that potential rejection fatigue add something sociologists call "masculinity threat," and you've got a volatile powder keg of fury waiting to happen. Masculinity threat occurs when a guy feels (consciously or not) he can't fulfill masculine gender role expectations, such as being a breadwinner, possessing physical strength and enjoying sexual access to women. And when masculinity threat looms, overcompensation often follows in its wake.
"[Our] research shows that men are under very strong prescriptive norms to be a certain way, and they work hard to correct the image they project when their masculinity is under threat," Stanford organizational behavior and psychology professor Benoît Monin told the University of Washington.
Monin's study, published in January 2015, artificially lowered male participants' handgrip strength test results. Those who thought they were weaker than expected subsequently reported themselves taller, more sexually experienced and more athletic compared to guys who were told they had average handgrip strength.
That chest puffing can further metastasize into outright physical and sexual aggression.
Analyzing the interplay between masculinity scripts and male-perpetrated violence, sociologists Tristan Bridges and Tara Leigh Tober note: "Men who are brought into labs and have their masculinity experimentally 'threatened' react in patterned ways: they are more supportive of violence, less likely to identify sexual coercion, more likely to support statements about the inherent superiority of males, and more."
It's therefore reasonable to imagine how masculinity threat can sometimes trigger spiraling personal attacks against a romantic or sexual rejecter. But men themselves aren't necessarily to blame. Rather, Bridges and Tober emphasize, it's a perceived external threat to that male identity that sparks the flint. (It's also worth noting that a femininity threat can happen as well, but that's likelier to skew away from outward aggression, as fitting with that more passive gender construct.)
When it comes to dating and mating, feelings will always get hurt; pride will always get wounded. Emotions happen, and that's just fine.
This brand of agony isn't heartache. It's the pain of male entitlement and female autonomy disregarded simultaneously. And how do we collectively get over it? By pivoting this masculinity threat into a promise that heteronormative gender roles will be rewritten to reward agency over access and recast men and women as people instead of pursuers and prizes -- and not taking 'no' for an answer.
*Some women don't handle romantic rejection well, either. Of course. In exclusively exploring how masculinity and rejection relate, I'm not suggesting women don't have their own rejection management issues.