Collie Creating
Codex Firestarter

Why ask what women want?

by Collie Collier
September 2005 Firestarter column

I've listened or read recently of several men I know commenting on how terrible they are at figuring out what women want, and bemoaning their subsequently being alone in the world. I always find this a little odd, even though it's a classic male lament, rather like the Riddle of the Sphinx: "What do women want?" I mean, they are the same species as you are, guys. It's not like you're trying to figure out what, say, a dragonfly or a drop of water wants.

From the first British publication of George Bernard Shaw's

I've watched guys throw their hands to the sky and practically yell out the frustrated-sounding question regarding what women want. I've also seen it sniggered between smugly complacent men, as if it were a subject everyone "rational" already understood was pointless to ask.


I find it interesting the question is never addressed to someone who might actually be able to answer it for them. These men don't ask either other women, or the very woman they're upset with -- so it would appear the question is for them more rhetorical than practical. The impression they give is they don't really want an answer; what they truly want is to be "justifiably" angry or patronizing about women in general.

I don't think I can help that kind of man. He's grinding a personal axe, and his listening to reason would most likely prove his aggression unfounded. I do find it curious how often such a man will loudly brag about how much more reasonable men are than women, but his issues aren't my concern. Instead, I'll continue writing what I hope are reasonable and approachable suggestions on how one might better understand both oneself and other people, regardless of their gender.

I don't know for sure what causes this confusion in some men. I know there was a time in my life when I realized I was really bad at interpreting human body language -- it hit me right around the time other kids my age were starting to date. Consequently I didn't do any dating in high school, but I did decide I was, come hell or high water, going to learn how humans communicated.

Yes, it took me several years, but by the time I'd been in college a few years the first time, I was told I was damn good at it. Yes, I still work at it, what with taking classes, reading books, and so on, to keep my experience up to date. Yes, humans still occasionally surprise me. However, and if it helps any, I am living proof that communication skills are not magic -- they can be learned, even from a standing start.


The kinder parts of me suspect this confusion is just a natural consequence of a lack of socialization, which a bit of good life experience or communication practice will alleviate. The less kind parts of me wonder if some folks are just lazy, and want to know what women want mostly so they can bribe the women successfully for sex.

When I'm feeling really tired and cynical, I wonder if this is in reality a symptom of emotional cowardice. Do these people truly want to know what women want? -or is what they want a magic pill that will solve all their relationship problems for them, so they're never worried about emotional risk or being vulnerable to another?

Yes, I know that's not really fair, and doesn't apply to everyone. However, let's look at this analytically and honestly. Only you can know for sure the answer to the question I'm about to ask, and there's no test on Monday for this. So, if the following applies, read on -- I'm going to make some suggestions on how to fix things. If, however, it doesn't apply to you, then you can cheerfully jump to the next subtitle.

So, once again: check carefully and honestly inside yourself. Have you sometimes paid attention to a woman or man you didn't really like -- because in truth you just hoped to get laid? And if the answer is yes, do you think maybe that there is part of your problem -- that you're in effect treating people like objects?

Think about this carefully, please. Do you know anyone who likes being treated as if their feelings and desires are worthless? Do you like being treated like a toy or a tool? Let's look at it from their point of view. What do you do best? Art? Computer trouble-shooting? Car repair? Something else?

Well, have you ever had someone try to wheedle your work out of you for free? Let's say they flatter you, tell you what a really great guy you are! Oh, and could you please fix their computer for them? -draw their favorite character for them? -write their homework assignment for them? -just take a quick look to see what's wrong with their car? Just a quick look; it won't take but a moment, pleeeease?!

And let's say it's been a long day already, and you've been busting your chops for free for friends' projects because you really are a nice guy -- and then there's yet one more demanding, self-centered whiner who can't be bothered to even say, "Thank you!" when you're done laboring for free for them... and you tiredly tell them no, you can't do this for them, you're so sorry -- or maybe you lose your temper and actually snap at them to please stop asking you to do something which is actually illegal, and they know it -- and they react with shock and anger! They huffily declare you no true friend! Or perhaps they label you an insensitive jerk for not doing what they wanted, when they wanted it, and for free!

Annoying and unfair, isn't it? Kinda like what a woman might feel like when she suddenly realizes you don't really like or care about her... you just want someone you can persuade to unquestioningly give you all the sex you want, when and how you want it -- and then to accept the uncaring payment of "what women want" so she'll go away and leave you in peace... until the next time you want sex.

Important tip on being a good human being here: This is probably one of the biggest things women and men want, right here: to be seen first and foremost as people -- and emphatically not as nothing more than animated sex toys delivered without instruction manuals.

If you don't want to experience this sort of horrified rejection from women who are mature adults, try starting out by assuming you'll never have sex with the woman you're talking to. If your first thought on reading that last sentence was a puzzled, "Then why bother"?" then maybe that should tell you something important right there.

Acting like an adult is a good way to attract adults. Try treating her first like a person and a friend. If she wants to take the relationship further, she'll let you know. If not, you still win: you weren't a jerk, and you have a nice friend you can hang out with.

Important relationship tip a lot of guys don't seem to have grasped: women frequently have female friends. If you hang out with a woman friend, you're likely to also meet more women than you would by just hanging out with the guys.


To be fair, men are not alone in their lament about the incomprehensibility of women. Our culture is fairly good at isolating the sexes in differing and mostly incompatible sex roles. Fortunately those are breaking down little by little (religious rigidity and consumerist stereotyping notwithstanding), which allows all of us to try out less stifling ways of living and being.

However, you can still see the archaic remnants making a lot of money for the opportunistic, such as the author of the ludicrous "Men are from Mars, women are from Venus" series of books. Sheesh, talk about assuming ethnocentric cultural training is actually inherently instinctual in the species! It'd be funny if it weren't so embarrassing. Men and women both are from Earth, folks -- cope.

I've been asked to provide examples for both men and women of the incomprehensibility of the other gender. So imagine something such as the following: the relationship is chugging along and everything seems fine... and then suddenly she just explodes about some stupid little thing -- like taking out the trash or something. The guy is left bewilderedly wondering where that came from? If she wanted the trash taken out, why didn't she just ask?!

The answer is that it's not really unexpected or new. She's been hinting about it for days with casually passive-aggressive comments like, "Gosh, honey, the trash sure does seem to be piling up." She didn't want the answer you gave, which was the correct one: "Sure is." What she actually wanted was, "Oh, I'll take it out right now, sweetie!"

Let's not forget, please, that men do the exact same sort of thing too. I'm always appalled when I hear of a man trying to end a relationship by "hinting" at his lack of continued sexual interest through not answering her phone calls and never spending time with her any more. I'd ask how they'd feel if that were done to them, but I already know they hate it, since many of them have told me so. Uhm, reality check here, please -- if they'd hate it, why are they doing it to someone else?!

In both these cases the issue isn't what gender the passive-aggressive idiot is. The issue is that they're people who are lying, either to themselves or to their lovers. It's dishonest. It's avoiding confrontation of the real issue. It's someone unrealistically expecting their passive-aggressive behavior to net some desired result -- without then having to actually be honest and kind and forthright to folks they purportedly care for.

This sort of behavior is emphatically not the answer to getting what you want from people, either male or female. It is a crummy way to treat any human being. The real answer is both simple, and hard to do: Just tell the truth about what you want. If you can do that, you'll find it's much easier to persuade others to tell you what they really want too.

Thought for the day here: if you want to end a relationship, don't just tell them so. You must also stop having sex with them! Don't laugh -- I've had to give this advice on more than one occasion. There's no denial like the denial of someone who doesn't want to face reality.


Which leads to the hard part: how do you know what you truly want, so you can ask for it? Most of the time we're sure we know what we really want -- a more expensive car, a better job, a different pair of shoes, a new lover. But is that short-term goal really the issue? Is it even necessarily what we truly want?

This is why I mentioned consumerist stereotyping earlier. It's easy for corporate America to sell things to you, if you fit into a clearly defined niche. It's even easier if you put yourself into the niche for them. If you're busy worrying about keeping up with the Joneses (or with whatever TV show characters you watch) then you won't be asking awkward questions like 'Do I really need this new toy?' If you never listen to your own body, then you'll unquestioningly eat everything put before you, rather than deciding you've had enough, thanks.

This bit of mental legerdemain is helped along by advertising, which teaches you things aren't just closely associated with ideas -- but rather that the things are the ideas. How many people do you know who are willing to have a wedding without the white dress, the ring, and the cake? Do you know any sports fans who gladly buy cheap, overpriced memorabilia for "their" team -- even though the team easily and uncaringly moves to another town at the drop of a million bucks? How many people do you know who try to look like models or movie stars, engaging in self destructive behaviors in order to do so?

People do foolish things like this because they've been taught that's what they really want. Were they to carefully consider what they were doing, they'd easily spot the cognitive dissonance of letting someone else tell them how to spend their money and live their lives.

But our society doesn't teach or encourage us to think critically or to carefully analyze what we want from life. As a consequence we have a society full of people who don't really know precisely what they want, because they've never taken the time to think things through. Instead, they've bought into someone else's needs and expectations... and then, years later, they wonder why they're not happy.

Unsurprisingly, if you don't really know what you want, it's easy to end up with a whole bunch of stuff and relationships that you don't really like, want, or need. What I find surprising is how often people try to resolve this simply by getting a new load of useless junk! This used to make me wonder how they kept from running out of money. I discovered the answer, unfortunately, is that they don't -- they just keep floating their debt ahead of them, like a herd of zebras carefully ignoring the hungry lions pacing them as they graze blindly into a dead end.


How does one figure out one's true desires? I suggest a bit of personal introspection. As with the old saying about not being able to truly love until you also love yourself, I suspect you're unlikely to recognize someone who really knows what they want until you know what you yourself want.

There are several ways to accomplish an introspective attitude, and it varies person to person. Meditation is one highly-recommended way, although I confess I personally find it a little difficult. Another way is to take a pad of paper, make two columns titled "things I like in my life" and "things I don't like in my life," and start filling it out. Take about two or three weeks to do it right, to write down every single thing you can think of. Towards the end I suspect you'll start seeing the pattern emerging, and from that you can draw a better picture of your own needs and desires.

One final suggestion is to just sit and think carefully about your desires, every time you think of things you might want. Try asking yourself these three questions:

  • Do I need it?
  • Why do I need it?
  • Do I really need it, or is this just someone else manipulating my desires?

Once you feel you can honestly answer those three questions, and you feel no hint of internal uneasiness when doing so, you may be better able to discern what you truly want -- as opposed to falling for slick advertising or the latest fad. A nice side effect of this sort of introspection is you often also start being more resistant to advertising -- which is, in the end, designed only to make you feel insecure and inadequate. I suspect you'll be well rid of those two self-defeating emotions.

Further, once you have a more secure grasp of what you truly need, you'll probably also find you spend your money more wisely -- which is always a good thing. Knowing what's really important, and having the means to pursue it, is a huge step forward in living a fulfilling life.


Over time you'll most likely find an increased sense of self confidence, as you become more sure of who you actually are, and what precisely you need in life. It is my hope that introspection will also lead folks to make more rational moral choices. It would be nice if we all made the conscious choice, for example, to hang out with people because we actually like them, and not just in hopes of getting laid. It'd also be nice if we recognized friends as being just as important as, if not more important than, potential sex partners.

Lovers may come and go, but true friends will be there for the long-term haul. That being the case, wouldn't it simply make good sense to treat people as if they truly mattered to you, rather than simply assessing and disposing of them via some sort of twisted sexual-meat-market mentality? Further, if you have a lover who was a friend first, your relationship with them is that much stronger and more likely to last.

So in the end, here's what I suggest: don't ask what women want -- ask yourself what you want. Learn to really know yourself, so you can know others. Believe me, the trip can be as fun as the destination -- and fascinatingly, the journey never really ends.

Good luck and happy introspection!

Reader comments

09.01.05: Greg's thoughts

(and my replies)

In an interesting dovetail to this, I was going through a bunch of my stuff while packing, and found a box of my old Playboys (someone sent me a subscription when I was fifteen as a joke). Flipping through them, I found an article by Tim Allen on this very subject 'what do women want'.

The thing is, as humorous as his article was, I couldn't tell if he was actually joking, or serious in his commentary. :}

But that is the crux of my experience with this question: no one I know personally has ever asked it, of me or anyone else, that I am aware. Do I just hang out with a better class of people, or is this a fluke? I doubt it's a Massachusetts thing, that we're smart enough to know better. Because there are some stupid people here. :P

I think it's like racism, in a way -- it's not acceptable any more to be openly racist or sexist, so the pathology is now expressed in more covert, subtle forms.

For example, you don't flat out ask what's "wrong" with "them" any more, when you notice they're different than you. Instead, you (generalized you, of course) just sort of sniggeringly agree with your friends (who are all of the same race and gender as you) that "those people" are just impossible to understand. Or you write amusing articles where no one can really tell if you're being sincere or just laughing at "them" for being different.

It's... an uncomfortable feeling sometimes, I know. I don't want to be either racist or sexist, but sometimes socially taught taboos are so deeply ingrained into our thinking, and so "naturalized" (as in '
everyone knows that's true!') that you can't even recognize they're there! Those are the hardest and most virulent ones to get rid of.

09.02.05: Phantom's thoughts

(and my replies)

My extensive field work over the years has lead me to the conclusion that, in Toronto at least, it is utterly pointless to ask women what they want. Because 99.95% of Toronto women I asked repeatedly and daily had no clue what they wanted. At all. Anything they said they wanted, they didn't want after they got it.

After careful research with a fairly large sample (I lose count after 42), I found exactly one woman who knew what she wanted. And married her! Woo hoo! Now of course she won't shut up telling me what she wants. Something ain't working, I'm the first to know. ~:D

Still, its better than trying to do the friggin' Vulcan mind meld trying to figure out what's ailing the woman today. That was my experience with all my other test subjects, couldn't get a coherent request out of a single one of them, I was just supposed to "know". Frustrated the hell out of me, I've got to say.

I hasten to add that this may be a local phenomenon, peculiar to the area and time of my research. Not wishing to be lynched on line, y'understand.

The Thank-God-I'm-Married-So-I-Don't-Have-To-Date-Anymore Male Chauvinist Swine Phantom

P.S. Here's another mystery I've always wondered about: why is it that so many women think they don't have to keep their word? When men break a promise they at least have the grace to be ashamed when confronted about it (excluding criminals and total meatballs of course), a tremendous number of women of my acquaintance (present company excepted!) don't seem to even understand the concept. Makes business dealings rather frightening I have to say. Deficiency of moral training or Y-linked trait?

Wow... my experience matches yours exactly, right down to the lack of personal understanding and the inability to keep one's word -- except that for me it was all MEN who were acting that way! And yes, when I finally found an honest man who knew what he wanted, I grabbed on! That was 17 years ago, and he's still a champ. ;)

Hm... it can't be simply a local phenomenon, though, because I've had men act equally rudely and stupidly in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and California. Maybe we just attract the wrong sort of people? ;)

It might be us, I agree. I'm not the easiest man in all the world to get along with, that's dead certain.

Me either, as a woman. ;)

But on the other hand there's the divorce rates to consider. Put together two of those pin headed narcissists we dumped (or were dumped by, d'oh!) and what do you get? Modern family where nobody looks after the kiddies and then they get divorced after five years leaving Mummy holding the bag.

While I don't think this excuses it, I speculate that what is happening is a cultural change in how folks look at marriage. Marriages used to be something you really worked at, because you very much depended on each other -- he for support, children, housekeeping, and nurturance; she for financial and physical support (or something like that -- I'm sure there were women who really wanted a house, and men who didn't want children, and so on).

However, that's not the case any more -- women don't have to depend on their husbands for financial support. That being the case, if he's a dork there's no reason to stay. And if she's a witch, there's no social stigma attached to leaving her... so why not?

The problem, of course (at least as I see it), is that we've socially taught folks to think of their own happiness first when it comes to marriages... but we seem to have forgotten that we still have the children to think of.

Maybe I'll write a
Firestarter about this. The social construction of families and marriages is certainly interestingly in flux right now. ;)

Possibly when women (or men, in your case) couldn't decide what they wanted, it was just that they didn't want me and couldn't pull together the guts to say it. They preferred to irritate the shit out of me until I went away under my own steam, apparently lacking the integrity to be honest and forthright even in a close personal relationship. My insight into the workings of the female mind seems to be fairly feeble though, so I could be wrong and they were just a bunch of air-heads. Anyway I consider it a blessing that I dodged a major bullet with every one of them. God help whomever they finally married.

I have seen men and women both do this, unfortunately -- the 'if I'm mean enough s/he'll just go away' thing, I mean. It's a horrible way to treat anyone, and it sounds like you wouldn't stand for it any more than I would. To be honest, I wish no one would -- it'd save a whole lot of heartache in the long run. :(

Myself, I'd far, far rather folks are up-front and honest with me, if I'm doing something that's bothering them. If I
know I'm doing it I can maybe try to fix it, after all -- but if I never know, how could I possibly ever try to fix it?

With men in business I just assume they're going to backshoot me at the first opportunity (because they surely lack the guts to try me from the front, bunch of fucking pencil necks grrrr!) and behave accordingly. I cover my ass and make sure that I have money saved up for when they inevitably fire me. I'm rarely disappointed. Sad, isn't it?

Yes, that is sad, and I'm sorry to say I'm familiar with this also.

Interesting in another way, though, as the term I'm familiar with is back-stab, not backshoot. ;)

Getting backshooted (backshot?) by a female was a novel experience I must admit, normally they don't do that kind of thing with me. I don't conflict with them in their dominance pecking order, I guess. Motivated by gut curdling fear, that one was. She hired me as a PT because I knew Tai Chi, assumed I was some kind of airy fairy crystal worshiper like her. When she discovered what I really am (which is just so not that!) she freaked and laid the seeds of my destruction as fast as possible. Her boss punted her two weeks later. Justice is sweet. ~:D

That's why I like the building trades. You can tell what's going on immediately that you arrive at the job site, there's no politics that can't be settled with either a case of beer or a knuckle sandwich, and it is painfully obvious who does all the work and who leans on the shovel. Best of all, if the job is really annoying and the people are a bunch of jerks you can pack up your shit and walk. No downside.

I'd heard that from another pen-pal I have who's in the building trades, and even as I didn't envy him the back-breaking work, I did envy him the brutally honest behavior of his co-workers. I wonder if there's any similar subculture of extremely straightforward behavior amongst women?

Well, other than poverty, but being poor is ok if your liver doesn't get destroyed by drinking to forget work every night. ~:D When you own your own business, busy is GOOD! Hooya!

Heh... my associate told me several weeks ago we needed more clients -- so I went out and got them. Recently he half-laughingly told me he'd be more careful what he wished for next time! Yes indeedy do, we're busy -- aaaaaaaah! ;)