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In Defense of Negging

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty

As a woman, I’m not supposed to like negging. Or rather, I’m not supposed to admit it. To do so would be to let the Pick-Up Artists — who coined the term, short for “negative comment” — win. As Neil Strauss, the author of pick-up bible The Game wrote for the New York Times in 2005, negging serves two purposes: “to momentarily lower a woman’s self-esteem and to suggest an intriguing disinterest.” In this context, to neg someone is to purposely take a woman down a notch, to leave her feeling worse about herself and in need of the approval you’ve seemingly refused to give her. And yet.

Samantha Leach can pinpoint the moment it clicked for her. She was watching Matty Healy, the frontman of The 1975, on an episode of Chicken Shop Date. “I do genuinely find you quite attractive,” he tells host Amelia Dimoldenberg. “You have low iron? That’s a turn-off,” he says moments after. Amelia dishes just as much as she takes — she makes fun of his lyrics, his willingness to refer to himself as a genius, while joking that she’s in love with him just the same. Throughout the eight-and-a-half-minute episode, we don’t really learn much about Healy at all. Instead, we just witness the pair repeatedly neg each other. “I’d never paid Healy much attention, but when he started negging her, I realized two things about myself,” says Leach, author of The Elissas. “One, Matty fully did it for me, and two, negging is my toxic trait.”

There are surely countless women who have successfully been negged without even realizing it. Before we even had the word for it, it happened just the same — people joked and teased before the late ’90s, I think. By now, though, it’s not some sneaky, unknown method. TikTok is filled with women explaining what it is, how it works, and detailing the times they’ve experienced it to other girls too young to recall when famous pick-up artists appeared on VH1. And there are plenty of us who’ve come to realize that not only does negging work, but that we actually kind of enjoy it.

The first time I felt I was being negged — not just teased but strategically being assessed for ways to knock me off my perceived high horse — I called it out immediately. “You’re negging me right now, and it’s not going to work,” I told him, a guy from college. He, of course, denied it, swore up and down that’s not what he was doing. I was offended by the premise: You think you’re going to win me over just by being a little mean? We later made out.

For many, negging isn’t even a conscious act: It’s just casual banter. “People appreciate the idea of keeping it light or keeping it funny, feeling like someone can share a similar sense of humor,” says Jordana Abraham, co-founder of Betches and host of dating podcast U Up?, on which she’s discussed negging in the past. It’s a method of building intimacy without being too earnest, too cheesy, or God forbid, love bombing. “Being made fun of a little bit about something can bring two people together, like they’re almost in on an inside joke,” she says.

But perhaps what negging really has going for it is that it’s inescapably personal. It requires effort and attention to detail. You can message a dozen women the same compliment on Hinge, but honing in on some little detail of a person’s profile you can lightly joke about takes a bit more time and energy. You can’t perform a roast without knowing your subject. To be negged, in other words, is to be seen.

And when it happens, it’s as obvious as a classic corny pick-up line. Rather than a backhanded compliment, negging could be perceived as true flattery wrapped in an insult. Make fun of my height, or my subtle Massachusetts accent, or maybe even identify the chip on my shoulder — I know you’re just saying you think I’m hot and am told so all the time.

There’s an appeal to being negged even when a guy admits that’s exactly what he’s doing. “One time I went to a party with a guy who’d recently gotten divorced and into PUA stuff, which he told us openly,” says Summer, a 41-year-old woman living in Los Angeles working in PR. “He then proceeded to ‘cold read’ me in the rudest way, and I knew exactly what he was doing, and I still ended up wanting to fuck him.”

She says he ascertained that she had been hurt by her father, that she compensated for her low self-esteem with class clown behavior, that she preferred depressed men so she could be the primary source of joy in his life. “It sounds so bad,” she says. “But it worked. To me, this is flirting. You’re a little mean, it gets a lady a little mad, everyone’s having fun.”

There is, of course, potential for all this to transform into something more sinister. But what separates healthy from unhealthy negging, says family therapist Dr. Patrice Le Goy, is intent: It can be a form of flirting or a calculated attempt at bringing someone down. “Most people, I think, can tell the difference when someone is just kind of having a little fun, versus someone really trying to cut away at someone else’s self-esteem,” she says. “I always want to ask clients, how are you feeling after you’re hanging out with this person,” she says. “Did you enjoy that? Was that fun? Was that cute to you? Does it really feel okay?”

The negging that Summer enjoys may border on slightly too mean, but she’s aware of herself and her tastes enough to be fine with that. “The darker side of it is probably that I am a little self-loathing, and sometimes when dudes are rude about me I feel like they are paying attention,” she says. There’s also the sense that if these men perceive these flaws and yet remain attracted, they can’t be all that serious in their harshness. “Obviously, classically, getting affection from that same person feels like beating the allegations.”

On a cultural level, what’s harder to confront is the idea that PUAs may have been onto something. This argument is posed by British academic Katherine Angel in her book Tomorrow Sex Will Be Good Again, which explores the complicated relationship women have with desire in contrast to the demand that we know precisely what we want. Women’s desire, sexology research suggests, is more “responsive” than men’s, more likely to be sparked by methods of seduction than the always-already horny male. It isn’t something that emerges spontaneously but rather develops through flirting, foreplay, and sensual buildup. Desire, in other words, is something that can be negotiated. There is no surefire strategy of “convincing” anyone to be attracted to you, but negging may well be one strategy in this arbitration.

We all, obviously, have limits. Just recently, Leach was being hit on by a guy who proceeded to ask what she does for a living, to which she told him she’s a writer. “He goes, ‘That’s cute,’” she says. “And I go, ‘No, it’s not,’ and walk away.” Even so, Leach sees herself as receptive to the playfulness that negging often provides. For many women, the technique has come to define their flirting style of lightly mean repartee. In my own experience, even the arguments about whether negging is occurring or not are part of this coy debate. It only works if the subtext to what you’re saying is that I’m attractive and you care. Really, I just want to see what you’ll say next, whether you’ve been paying attention, if you’re hinting that I’m actually out of our league. It’s a back-and-forth. It becomes, as Strauss called it, a game. We know exactly what these guys are doing. Now who exactly is picking up who?

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