Dear Prudence

Help! I’m a Reformed Incel. I Can’t Tell When a Woman Likes Me.

Read what Prudie had to say in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored.

Each week, Prudie discusses a tricky letter with a colleague or friend, just for Slate Plus members. This week Jenée Desmond-Harris and Joel Anderson discuss Prudie’s response to: Do I or Don’t I.

Dear Prudence,

I am 28 and a former incel, and I’ve been working on my issues for over a year now. I went from a point where I had no friends, just sat in my parent’s basement and worked/played video games/bullied people online, to a point where I volunteer a lot in my community, go to local events, am part of a bunch of clubs and organizations, and have a small group of friends I hang out with regularly. I am really ashamed of the beliefs I held earlier. I don’t think I ever acted on them in person but I was definitely a toxic bully in a few different online forums. I still have a lot of self-esteem issues because I’m 260 pounds and look like a frog, but I’ve been on two first dates from dating apps, where everything is based on looks, so at least a few women find me attractive. I have also started to understand that appearance is not the sole reason for most relationships (or even the primary reason). However, due to my past, I am woefully behind in managing healthy social and romantic relationships.

I volunteer for an organization a few weekends a month where we make science and math fun for elementary school kids. After the kids leave we usually go get coffee or something together. Once we were invited to someone’s party. I don’t drink. One of the other volunteers, who’s 25, is also very shy and we’re friendly with each other but I don’t really know her too well. The party was her first time drinking and it didn’t go well for her. The night ended with her passing out after vomiting, breaking her very thick glasses which she is virtually blind without, slipping on her puke and landing on a table with her face and hair in someone’s drink, calling herself ugly, and sobbing in my chest. I was the only sober one there, but my tipsy friend and I were able to get in contact with her roommate and we drove her home.

Since that incident, my friend keeps telling me that she’s looking at me differently, and is obviously attracted to me and that I should ask her out. I am completely oblivious in social situations and I don’t know if that’s true. The only things I can think of are when she asked if she could come over to my apartment to watch a horror movie I said I liked (which she did, it was fun), and when she said something to me in private out of the blue about wanting to be a mom before she turns 40. Our organization doesn’t explicitly have a policy against volunteers dating. She’s very cute, we share a lot of interests, and I wouldn’t mind being in a relationship with her, but I feel like if I asked her out and she rejected me it would make our relationship worse, especially since we work with the same set of kids and so work together a lot.

Other people besides my friend have started to ask me if I’m going to ask her out, which makes me think that I must be missing something obvious. She knows that I used to have problematic beliefs, but I don’t know if she knows that I used to be an incel. If we are actually both attracted to each other, she would not be the person to ask me out because she is quite shy and non-confrontational. I am also shy and non-confrontational but I am prepared to ask her out. Should I ask her, though? I am prepared to take no for an answer and go back to our regular lives, but how should I deal with it if she finds me weird or strange after rejecting me?

—Do I or Don’t I

Read Prudie’s original response to this letter.

Jenée Desmond-Harris: I selected this question specially for us to discuss. Not because you’re a former incel (I hope not, at least). But because I feel like whenever we talk about past dating experiences, a common theme for you is that as a younger guy you never knew when a woman liked you. Which reminds me of this “She invited herself over to watch a horror movie and everyone says she loves me but who knows??” situation.

Joel Anderson: You should be delighted by my former cluelessness. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here (though, I’m still uncertain which of us is the one who initiated everything).

But yeah, her coming over to watch a horror movie is a promising sign. I don’t blame him for wanting to take it slow and making sure that he’s not misreading the signs of someone who merely wants him as a friend. He loses nothing by drawing this process out. Hell, he may someday remember these days fondly—isn’t it thrilling (and agonizing) to have a crush on someone and wonder if they feel the same about you?

That said: If they’re both shy and nonconfrontational and he indeed wants this to move forward, he’s gonna have to build up his courage and put himself out there. If he and all of their mutual friends are wrong about her feelings for him, then he’ll just have to deal with it. Which we can talk more about…

Jenée: So you don’t think he should go straight to my script and ask her out? What if she gets drunk and is rescued by someone else and falls for that person instead? I don’t want LW to miss his moment!

Joel: Oh, I think your script is great for whenever he’s ready to use it. I lean toward the second one because the first one sets him (and her) up to keep this inertia going indefinitely. Might as well be direct and figure out where to go from there, depending on her answer.

BUT, I also think he should figure out how serious he is about pursuing a relationship with this woman. He seemed a tad…lukewarm? He doesn’t know her well and he “wouldn’t mind being in a relationship with her,” which isn’t the same thing as identifying her as the love of his life.

Jenée: Oh, that’s actually a good point—I kinda missed that. He DID say she was “very cute.” But, I wonder whether he’s almost willing to accept any old person who’s interested in him. I guess that’s the opposite of being an incel, but it’s still not great.

Joel: Yeah, which gets me to the incel part of this. I don’t really know where it fits unless he feels like rejection could trigger some of those old problematic beliefs and feelings. He has this preamble where he explains that he was formerly a toxic bully but has gotten past that and is ready to re-engage with the world on more humane terms. That’s great! What a victory! But I don’t know what it has to do with having a little connection with one of your colleagues. It makes me wonder if they’re still there beneath the surface, or if he’s worried that they are.

Jenée: As I read your response I realized…I did not answer this man’s question. I was so caught up in wanting him to ask her out that I missed part of what he was actually worried about: “How should I deal with it if she finds me weird or strange after rejecting me?”

And I guess my answer to that is: You probably won’t know if she finds you weird or strange, and I REALLY don’t think she will, but you need to trust that your incel days are over and that you can handle any potential rejection with grace. In fact, think of this as a challenge—a workout for your new, non-incel muscles. If you get rejected, and don’t turn angry or bitter, but simply carry on with life, it will be like you’ve unlocked a new level. You’ll have a reason to be proud of yourself and move on to your next dating prospect with more confidence that you’re a decent guy now.

Joel: Right. If the LW gets rejected, it could be for a whole host of reasons—she doesn’t want to jeopardize their working relationship, she’s not looking for a romantic relationship, she’s working on not embarrassing herself in front of co-workers anymore, etc. It likely wouldn’t be because he’s weird or strange. I can’t imagine her (or anyone) going to someone’s house to watch a horror movie if she thought the LW was any of those things.

And maybe here’s where people will really depart with me: I really don’t think he has to tell her he used to be an incel. Like, he can wait a few more dates lol. That’s not really relevant information about who he is and who he wants to be. Just lead with your best material and go from there. Then when you’re talking about the past and the moment seems right, you can bring it up. Being an incel is, unfortunately, weird and strange. But lots of us have weird and strange pasts—uh, though maybe not quite that extreme. Y’all can bond over them at your eighth movie night or something.

Jenée: You know, I think it would be fine to take “I was an incel” to the grave. I mean, you can say “I used to feel really sorry for myself and even get angry because I had a hard time with women” but I don’t suggest using the I-word around anyone who you hope will continue to like you. As a woman, I just feel like it would be a hard thing to get out of my head.

Joel: Yeah, like, maybe he’ll have to reveal this information at some point because his name was circulating on the internet or whatever. I can understand wanting to get out ahead of it. But no matter how he handles it, there’s no need to poison the well from the start. Figure out if you really like her enough to jeopardize your working relationship, ask her out, and then go from there. Your deepest, darkest secrets can wait a bit.

Which reminds me, Prudie, I got something to tell you offline. 😬

(I’m joking, I’m joking. Ahem.)

Jenée: LOL bye.

Classic Prudie

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