Ask Dr. NerdLove: Is Approaching Women Fundamentally Unethical?

Image via Shutterstock.
Image via Shutterstock.

Hello all you exploding bed cobras, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only dating advice column ready to give you the love advice you need while you’re in line for The Last Jedi.


Last week we talked about approaching women without being a jerk. This week, we’re going to dive a bit deeper. Is there any way to flirt with women that doesn’t run the risk of being harassment? Is it even ethical to try to approach someone because you’re attracted to them?

And on the relationship tip, what do you do when your plan to escape your small town gets derailed by meeting someone amazing? Is it better to stay for love or leave for greener pastures?

Lock your s-foils in attack position and switch all power to front deflector shields. Let’s do this.

Hi Doc,

I have a somewhat general question that relates to a lot of the advice I’ve seen you give over the years. Like many of your advice-seekers, I’m a man who is shy about approaching people... but I’m baffled about why I SHOULD. What I mean is, I don’t understand the moral argument in favor of it.

It seems like a pretty simple issue to me. If I find someone attractive and approach them, then it is perfectly reasonable that I might cause them some level of distress when I do: awkwardness or annoyance or creeped-out-ness. I don’t presume this level of distress would be large, nor do I think it’d necessarily happen 100% of the time. But the moral calculus here seems very easy: I can do something that is reasonable to cause some level of distress and have no positive outcomes, or I could refrain.

Furthermore, as I said, I’m a man. I believe that men have a moral responsibility to keep from doing anything that causes sexually relevant distress in others. (It’s not that other genders LACK this responsibility, but for men in our society it’s especially important.) With this in mind, I can’t imagine any possible justification for me possibly ever approaching anyone in that way, in any context.

This also applies to finding someone attractive. If I see someone I think is hot, I’m likely to show a bunch of nonverbal, subtle signs of this, even if I try not to. The object of my attraction could very easily pick up on these behaviors and feel that same distress. I consider this slightly more forgivable than approaching someone, since it involves behaviors I can’t directly control. But since I’m aware of the possibility, don’t I have the responsibility to cut these feelings off at the pass as much as possible?

I’m aware that it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility that someone might respond positively to me, because they’re deep in the long tail of some population distribution. But that would make ME feel bad... someone so open or generous could be dating anybody, and so there’s certainly better people than me they could be with. And if their issue is low self-esteem, then I’d feel like I was taking advantage of them.

I’m aware of one common answer to this question: because my line of thinking here often leads to resentment and bitterness, which in turn lead to hurting others. But no form of anger has ever made sense to me, in this context. Anger is for when something UNJUST happens... and there’s nothing unjust about this.

It might cause me SADNESS or DISAPPOINTMENT that someone doesn’t reciprocate my attraction, but sadness is just part of life, and it’s honestly not that bad. And it’s hardly something to blame someone for, if they have preferences that exclude me.

The other problem is that this results in neediness, but that seems like kind of the same thing. I’m not a lonely person, thankfully; there are plenty of people with whom I have emotionally intimate relationships. So I don’t think that’s a danger, either.

I don’t write because this is a big issue that’s causing me daily turmoil, but more as a genuine expression of confusion. Many people (including you) seem to presume that a guy in a situation like mine should just approach people with confidence and then be cool when rejected. Sure, that’s better than NOT being cool, but how is the morally superior option not just to refrain? The worst-case scenario is, someone would want to be with me and so we both miss out on it, but this is highly unlikely, and... I mean, grow up and deal.

The other option is I cause sexually relevant distress in people more often than necessary, and that just does not seem like the side to err on. The only person whose behavior I have responsibility over is myself; how could I not pay attention to that to minimize hurt in other people?

So... what’s the argument, here? How is it possibly morally justified for me to find people attractive, much less approach them because of it?

Immanuel Can’t

Well I’ll give you credit, IC: you’re the first person I’ve seen who’s tried to use the Utilitarian ethical framework to explain why he shouldn’t approach people. Now, you and I both know that the question you have isn’t the question you’re asking. But for the sake of argument, I want to actually engage with your position here.

The thing you’re arguing is that approaching someone might cause them distress, with little chance of a positive outcome. And thus, with a utilitarian outlook, where one should attempt to cause as little harm and promote as much good as possible, it is more ethical to not approach someone.

And hey, I see where you’re coming from and if you were right, I’d totally agree with you. But you’re leaving out a number of issues.


The first is that this isn’t a one-sided equation. You’ve essentially erased the potential interest and agency of every woman out there. You are starting from the presumption that women are passive actors in this scenario, who are just there to be receptive to people who may or may not approach them. That ain’t true.

In fairness, it’s a common misconception… but it still isn’t true. While women may not be doing the approaching as often as men do, that doesn’t mean that they’re standing around doing nothing. As I told Shy Guy last time, women who are interested in being approached put quite a bit of effort into being approachable. From the way they dress to the way they signal to people they’re interested in that they’d appreciate someone coming to say hi, women are as active in the ol’ mating dance as men. Their work may not as be obvious to an outside observer, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

So, right off the bat, if someone is giving you the classic “look at you, look away, look back and smile”? They’re not going to be distressed if you do approach them.


And then there’s the fact that may women are painfully shy. They may well be dying for someone to come talk to them but are absolutely terrified to make the first move. Being the person to come up to that wallflower and start a conversation would be a net positive, while leaving them to quietly kick themselves would be increasing the amount of distress in the world.

The second is that people who are looking to date — particularly people on dating sites or in social spaces where mingling is expected and encouraged — go into it understanding that there will be people they don’t click with, that there will be frustrations and the occasional “why did I do that?” That’s part of the social EULA you clicked “yes” on when you agreed to participate in society.


But can we be honest here, my dude? Just between you, me and the entire readership of Kotaku? This ain’t about ethics. This is about you not wanting to approach people and trying to rationalize it into being something noble, instead of just accepting that you’ve chosen not to.

I mean, it’s kind of glaringly clear that you’re dealing with low self-esteem issues here. The fact that you define somebody noticing that you may be attracted to them as “causing distress” isn’t exactly the subtlest of clues. And, straight talk here: once you get out of high-school, reasonable people don’t freak out over the idea that someone they’re not into is into them.


(Please note carefully that I said reasonable people. Folks who lose their shit because someone who’s LBGTQ might think they’re cute ain’t reasonable.)

Now at some level, I think you knew exactly what you were going to get when you wrote to me. I’m here to help people find solutions to their love problems. It’s kinda my thing. So if you think I’m going to sign off on the idea that approaching people is inherently bad… well, you don’t know me very well, do you?


Approaching people, whether directly or indirectly, whether we’re introduced through friends or joining a conversation, is part of how we meet people. There is no high authority that assigns our social circles, so if we want any sort of social life, platonic or otherwise, this is part of how we build it.

And risking rejection is part of it. There’s no way around it, because not everyone’s gonna like us for any number of reasons. And I get it: rejection can be scary. Rejection can be painful. But it is only as painful and as intimidating as you let it be. You build it up far more in your mind than it is in reality. I’m saying that as someone who’s been rejected more times than a fan’s Star Trek script proposal. It isn’t going to play out the way you imagine it in your head.


I know how much low self-esteem and depression can fuck with your head. I know how it can combine with a confirmation bias that leaves you convinced that your interest alone in someone is an inconvenience to them. And as someone who’s dealt with all of that, I can tell you, without a doubt, that it’s all bullshit. It is your jerkbrain dripping poison in your ear, telling you lies in your own voice so that you’ll believe it.

But the key to getting over all of that isn’t avoiding people forever, it’s getting help. It’s learning how to build up true self-confidence, how to silence that lying voice and how to feel the fear and go do it anyway.


Now, if you’ve decided to write off approaching people, ever, then more power to you. I’m certainly not going to insist that you do something that you don’t want to do. But do us both a favor and actually own that this was a choice that you’ve made because you don’t want to get rejected instead of following a moral imperative, because I Kant even...

If we’re going to play dueling philosophers, let me quote Marcus Aurelius: “A man’s true greatness lies in the consciousness of an honest purpose in life, founded on a just estimate of himself and everything else, on frequent self-examination.” Lying to yourself about your own motivations to justify your choices isn’t ethical, my dude. It’s not a just estimate of yourself. Doing so denies your own greatness.


That the best thing you could do is to find yourself a counselor or therapist and talk with them about your self-esteem and your belief that your interest in someone is somehow an imposition on them. I think you’ll be far happier in the long run.

Good luck.

Hey Doc,

Been a fan of your column for a while, but recently came into a situation that requires some advice. At the end of this summer, my girlfriend of four years decided it was time for us to part ways. We had been living together in Chicago and since the condo was in her name, I packed up my things and had to move back home. Needless to say, I was pretty devastated to lose the woman I loved and be forced to move back home with my folks, back to a town that I hated. However, in time, I was able to see how unhappy we were in the relationship towards the end and I feel like I’m beginning to move forward.

Lately, that forward progress has plateaued, being back home. I’m broke right now, so I don’t have a lot of options, and with most of my friends here either moving to other states or moving on to different phases of their lives, it’s been one of the loneliest times in my life.

I talked to a friend who lives in Minnesota that has a job opening in another state that I’m going in to interview for this week. I’ve been pretty nervous about making this drastic change, but also excited at the idea of starting fresh somewhere that’s not my hometown.

Then I met a girl who had just moved here and had an amazing first date. With my ex, it was more of an opposites attracting kind of thing, so right off the bat it was refreshing to meet and talk to someone with some common ground. I don’t really connect well with people in general, let alone during the first meeting.

Sorry for all the backstory, but here’s the crux of the issue: all of a sudden, I don’t know whether or not I want to leave. I’m trying to see her as much as possible before I have to make a decision, but I feel like that is putting a lot of pressure on the first connection I’ve had since my ex.

So I guess my question is how irrational am I being, knowing that I just met this girl and only had one date, and not knowing whether these feelings are genuine or if I’m still getting over my ex? Am I crazy to be giving up a chance to start fresh and get out of my hometown just because of one person who may or may not feel the same way? Any chance this connection I feel is actually real, or am I still reeling from the loss of my ex and the life we had built together?

Thanks for your help!
Sincerely, Dazed and Confused

Congratulations, D&C, you’ve somehow stumbled into a romantic comedy about a small-town boy coming back from the big city and itching to leave again but maybe the love of a good woman will make him realize that happiness means staying where you grew up.


Did I mention I kind of can’t stand these kinds of rom-coms? It’s the sort of thing I might have been more sympathetic towards when I was younger and less experienced. As I’ve grown and matured, I’ve started to twitch at the idea that all you need is a great relationship to change everything, and also small-town life is the only thing that’s real. ‘Course, the older I get, the more I also realize that Benny from Rent was right and his friends were poverty-tourists and freeloading assholes. But I digress.

The short answer, D&C, is that yes, you’re being incredibly irrational on many levels, starting with the fact that you have been on one goddamn date with this woman. I’m sorry, she may look like Samantha Mathis, smell like fresh-baked cookies and get her hair done by cartoon birds but you have gone on one date with her.


The question of whether you’re getting over your ex is actually irrelevant here. Getting over your ex isn’t a question of time, it’s a question of growth. You might still be reeling from your break-up — and ending a four-year relationship is going to be a major shake-up — but that isn’t the issue. Your feelings are real, but you’re misunderstanding what they mean. What you have here is a giant rush of dopamine over the fact that you’ve had a good date with someone that you’re actually compatible with. That’s a heady rush, especially considering that you’ve been in a shitty place, emotionally.

But while I don’t doubt that she may well be an amazing person, you aren’t jumping the gun, you’ve run the entire track while everyone else is still lining up. You, frankly, don’t have anything to base a decision on here. You don’t know how she feels about you. And even if she’s into you… well, that doesn’t mean anything in and of itself either. You may have great chemistry, but chemistry does not a relationship make. The fact that you’re hot for one another doesn’t mean that you have what it takes for long-term success.


However, let’s assume that you do. Let’s just say that you two would be very happy together if you were to date. There’s still one very salient point to consider: you’re miserable in your hometown. You have few friends, which means that your girlfriend would be your sole source of companionship and emotional intimacy. That is an incredible amount of pressure to put on a relationship. Similarly, you’re not doing well, financially; lack of money and the attendant financial stress are actually one of the most common reasons relationships fall apart.

And then there’s the fact that, well, you aren’t happy there. It’s not like you were ok with living there but wanted to maybe expand your horizons. You don’t like that town. This isn’t going to change just because now you’re dating someone. The things that drive you crazy about this town won’t be different because you’re getting laid on the regular. The only thing that will happen is that you’ll be in a town you hate… and have a girlfriend.


Trust me when I tell you that once the novelty of a new relationship wears off — as it always does — you won’t be able to ignore the things that you don’t like about that town. But again, that’s assuming that you even get to the relationship stage with her. You have gone on — say it with me now — one date.

To be fair, you haven’t exactly put down deposits in this new city either. Your job is still very much in that quantum state of uncertainty that could go either way. But you’re considerably further along that particular timeline than you are with your date.


My suggestion is that you make moving your priority. You’re miserable where you are and frankly, misery shared is misery squared. This woman may be amazing, but that doesn’t mean that you should be putting off your future for her, especially after one date.

By all means, continue to date her. See if anything is there. But don’t put off your plans to leave. If the two of you are meant to be, then you can give long distance a chance. You have a chance to start over and build a new life. That’s not something you should give up for a toss of the dice.


Good luck.

How do you handle approach anxiety and fear of rejection? Have you had to decide between a new career and a new relationship? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. We’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.


Ask Dr. Nerdlove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Write and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.


Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blogPaging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove podcast. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.

He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.



That first letter writer very rapidly got up his own ass and I tl;dr’d. But his first actual paragraph, I definitely identified with.

It seems like a pretty simple issue to me. If I find someone attractive and approach them, then it is perfectly reasonable that I might cause them some level of distress when I do: awkwardness or annoyance or creeped-out-ness. I don’t presume this level of distress would be large, nor do I think it’d necessarily happen 100% of the time. But the moral calculus here seems very easy: I can do something that is reasonable to cause some level of distress and have no positive outcomes, or I could refrain.

I feel this, not because of some perceived immorality though or afraid of being accused of assault for saying Hi, but rather simply being paralyzed at the thought of someone feeling uncomfortable as a direct result of my actions. It doesn’t have to be a woman, I can feel this way about all manner of social interactions, approaching someone I’m attracted to simply is the most direct way I could accomplish such a feat.

And I’ll hear female friends of mine express a desire to just get a drink somewhere, but don’t because they don’t want to have to deal with someone trying to talk to them. I super don’t want to contribute to that. Again, not because I consider myself a paragon of virtue, just that...I would find that annoying too, and I would hate to be the cause of that annoyance.