The Ladder Theory, or "LT," is a folk psychology explanation of the ways in which men and women evaluate members of the opposite sex upon first impressions. In the "LT" model, this decision is typically made quickly and is often final. This determines the other's potential as a future mate. LT began as satire, but developed into a more fully fleshed-out model of the dynamics of male-female attraction. It should be noted that while LT has many supporters and claims to be grounded in "decades of sociological research," the theory has never appeared in a referenced journal or scientific forum and its proponents cite no studies or data sets to support their conclusions.
LT attempts to explain differences in how heterosexual men and women evaluate potential opposite-sex sexual partners and friends. It is based on the perceived tendency of men to be more comfortable with the idea of having sex with female friends than the reverse. LT thus presumes that a platonic friendship between a man and a woman, in practice, lowers rather than increases the likelihood that the relationship will develop into a sexual one, due to the greater perceived tendency of women to maintain strong separation between relationship types. As a result, the initial decision-making process on how a particular relationship is to be classified is considered vital to understand. This process of classification and ranking is described as a "ladder".
LT argues that heterosexual women categorize men into either "possible sexual partners" (sometimes called the "Potential" ladder) or "nonsexual acquaintances" (sometimes called the "Never" ladder). Each category has a hierarchical ranking among members within them, based on their perceived sexual desirability or the perceived value of their friendship. The separation between ladders is derived from a perceived tendency in women to assign value on the ladders based on significantly different criteria: the qualities deemed desirable in a friend often appear very different from those considered attractive in a sexual partner. LT also presumes a tendency in women to infer that the strength or presence of one set of qualities equals the absence or weakness of the other -- essentially, that a specific man's rank on one ladder is inversely proportional to his "natural" rank on the other -- thus leading them to rigidly maintain this categorization once assigned. Men who become aware that they have been placed, against their own preference, on the "Never" ladder by a particular woman are cautioned, in LT, against trying to get themselves recategorized: this act is perceived as an unwelcome emotional aggression, and may provoke a response of hostility or withdrawal.
Conversely, LT argues that men tend to evaluate female acquaintances solely on a single ladder, conflating both sexual desirability and relationship value into an overall measure of priority (but usually with sexual attraction given primacy). Women placed at the top of the male ladder represent an absolute ideal of desirability, usually a combination of extreme sexual attraction and whatever other personal qualities are considered desirable by the man in question. (These qualities may be social expectations, pragmatic concerns or nonsexual ideals, depending on the individual and his context.) Only the very bottom of the male ladder, in LT theory, is reserved for women the man has firmly excluded from his sexual interest.
The differences between the "one-ladder" ranking system of men and the "two-ladder" ranking system of women, in LT, often lead to mutual misunderstanding, the most egregious example of which is held by LT to be the so-called "nice guy" approach. In this model, a man attempts to increase his appeal to a woman by demonstrating the qualities she has indicated that she values in another person (stereotypically, these are positive "friendship" qualities such as patience, kindness, helpfulness and consolation). To the male, this is perceived as simply increasing his overall appeal on the single ladder; for the female, however, such behaviour increases the man's rank on the "Friendship" ladder while simultaneously decreasing it on the "Partner" ladder, due to the perceived disparity in criteria between the ladders.
A harsher term for the same principle is derived from the Woody Allen short story "The Whore of Mensa": LT suggests that a man who attempts to appeal to a woman through intellectual stimulation or entertainment runs the risk of, rather than becoming or replacing the woman's sexual partner, becoming what Allen satirically depicts as an "intellectual whore" -- someone sought out solely for their intellect, with no interest on the part of the woman in broadening the relationship to other dimensions. LT asserts that there is less stigma attached to a woman maintaining platonic friendships with other men outside her primary sexual relationship than the reverse, due to the perceived separation of relationship values on the "ladders", and that this entails a certain degree of hypocrisy -- women are given latitude to maintain multiple relationships to satisfy all their social needs, while men are expected to find satisfaction for all their social needs in a single relationship only.
Ladder Theory's primary assertion in social mechanics is that classic "nice" behaviour in courtship is actually a less productive tactic than might be presumed, and can in fact be counterproductive, as women are presumed typically to infer lack of confidence rather than devotion or good character. LT argues that the most effective tactic is to establish desirability on the "Potential" ladder first and only then to establish high ranking on the "Friendship" ladder, rather than the reverse.
In addition to being too general to apply with useful predictability to individuals, ladder theory is sometimes considered sexist in its assumptions about male and female sexual/relationship motivations; it presumes an innate hypocrisy in the women it purports to describe (the difference between "ladders" is assumed at best unknown to the woman herself, and at worst deliberately concealed or misrepresented as a power tactic), and an innate venality in men (men are assumed to rank all women by sexual desirability first and foremost, at the expense of other qualities, and to only use secondary qualities as "tiebreakers"). LT can be of use in exposing certain bad habits that do occur in relationship dynamics, but it has more value as a negative to avoid in oneself than a model to manipulate or exploit in others.
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