My Mama’s sex education talk with me and my sisters consisted of three words: “Don’t do it.” Mama said that no man “worth having” kept around a woman who slept around. So, we dated by Mama’s rules: don’t call him so much, let him call you; don’t chase him, let him chase you; and if you want him to want you, leave something to be desired. That was our first lesson in playing hard to get.

I embraced my mother’s prudence until the day almost three years ago when Darrell first smiled at me. Don’t get me wrong: I intended to play hard to get. When we met, I told Darrell I was “in the lab” working on some personal self-esteem issues and shouldn’t seriously date. I wanted to see if he liked me enough to pursue me. But, drawn by his smile and wit, I eventually asked him out instead. From the beginning, we spent part of every day together — going to ethnic restaurants, people-watching from my Brooklyn fire escape and sharing long intimate talks while staring at his bedroom ceiling. I broke every part of Mama’s hard to get rule. And I got my man.

Regardless of how we sisters feel about playing games or keeping it real, most of us have at some time played hard to get — that is, made brothers work extra hard to win our hearts. When asked “Have you ever played ‘hard to get’ with a man you liked?” 87 percent of users said yes; only 13 percent said no. Though the result of the poll seems clear, we must still weigh the risks and rewards of either dating strategy.

Games women play

Unlike me, my sisters — 20-year-old twins who are students at Eastern Michigan University — side with the majority of the poll respondents. They remain convinced that Mama was right when she said playing hard to get is the only way to win the respect and love of a man. “If you want a man to be your man, you have to play,” says my sister, Monique. “When you give it up too easily, he’ll hit it and forget it. It was like that when Mama was growing up and it ain’t changing,” she insists.

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Monique says she’s gotten everything she’s wanted from men in their 20’s — from dates to CDs and clothes to “quality time” and oral sex — by playing hard to get. More importantly, the more she held out, the more the young men liked her because they enjoyed the chase, she believes.

When we talk about playing this game what we’re really talking about is women’s desire for self-respect and control over our bodies, says Dr. Melissa Littlefield, a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland who has written about Black women’s gender roles. Playing hard to get can lead to both self-respect and control, she explains, because this slow-paced dating ritual gives a woman time to see if a man is worthy before investing her precious emotions and sex. “It’s like playing poker. You want to see what the other person has before you show what you’ve got,” Littlefield says.

Making our own rules

I personally reject the notion that women have to behave according to anyone’s rules but our own. After my first date with Darrell — which turned into an all-day date at a park where we spilled our guts to each other — I realized that when men say they don’t want a woman who plays games, they mean they don’t want a woman who uses Mama’s rules to toy with a man’s emotions.

However Dr. Littlefield notes that women who reject the traditional expectation that we play hard to get must be prepared for the consequences. “People are still going to expect you to play this [hard to get] game, and if you don’t, you have to expect resistance,” she says.

But the risk of playing too hard to get can be losing a potential Mr. Right. So to create our own rules we have to learn to balance our need for respect and control with our understandable desire to give in and give freely in love relationships. This is not an easy task; it may take years of dating to figure it out. But a woman can learn to play by her own rules and still win.