The bizarre plethora of articles that has been published lately regarding young, single “millennials” and our dating/sex lives is mind-boggling. The Atlantic (not surprisingly) tops it out I think with recent pieces such as “A Million First Dates,” “Forget Online Dating: Here’s Something That Might Really Hurt Monogamy,” and “The High Price of Being Single in America.” Bloomberg presented us with “‘Intellectual Meat Market’ Makes Washington Long Odds for Single Women.” The Wall Street Journal recently published “Hacking the Hyperlinked Heart.” And of course, The New York Times just released “The End of Courtship,” an obituary to traditional dating and a cry for help for millennials who just don’t know how to navigate this new, tricky, casual, and tech-infused world of dating.
There has already been lots of criticism launched at The New York Times’ most recent attempts to use a few anecdotes as evidence of some sort of trend, and they’re spot on. So we’ll skip over for now the hetero-normative, cherry-picked, and unscientific aspects of this article and address the real concern: Does the new way of dating prevent the building of healthy relationships?
The End of Courtship and The Expansion of Women’s Rights
Courtship has traditionally been the period in which a male suitor pursued a female with the intent of marriage. A suitor’s family, wealth, and social standing were all major factors in whether the courtship would be encouraged by the woman’s family, leading to a prosperous marriage, or not. A woman of certain standing would be presented as ready to accept suitors at a “coming out ball,” and men dance with her and commence calling on her.
But our society is way, way beyond that now. Because of economics, technology, and of course expanded rights for women, we’re no longer even remotely close to that format of relationship-building. Times have changed.
Even as recently as a half century ago, women were no longer sold to the highest bidder, but we were still trapped in a system that prevented women from being fully engaged actors in the courtship ritual. I’m not saying a woman could never refuse a suitor, but we were hardly as free to pursue the relationships we wanted.
We were not permitted to act on our interest in a man, afraid we’d be considered “bold.” Contraceptives were not available to married women nationwide until the Griswold v. Connecticut case in 1965, and unmarried women until the Eisenstadt v. Baird case in 1972—meaning women didn’t have control over their reproductive cycles and were unable to fully explore their sexuality.
Women weren’t given the opportunity to be financially independent and therefore were forced to consider a man’s ability to care for them and any future children. We weren’t afforded the rights to leave a relationship that had turned abusive, and it wasn’t until 1993 that spousal rape was criminalized in all 50 states. All of this means that the traditions of courtship as we’ve understood it over the centuries has become radically outdated in today’s world.
Frankly, I’m delighted that the idea of courtship is being upended. For sure, my parents and many other couples from that generation are happily married. Then again, many aren’t. But this myth of “the good old days” is one that has been paraded around for generations—you know for sure that our parents, growing up in the free-love sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, also heard about their damaging relationships from their own elders.
This New York Times article isn’t about the end of courtship—it’s about how the end of courtship is ruining our lives and any chance at happiness. And that’s where it completely loses credibility. We are dating now via text message and websites, “hanging-out” and group activities. And it’s supposedly destroying us,“leaving a generation confused about how to land a boyfriend or girlfriend” because we don’t “know how to get out of hookup culture” and are fooled by “a false sense of intimacy.”
The conclusion is that somehow this leaves us all unfulfilled, confused about how to date, and ultimately completely screwing up the dating, and ergo the “marriage and relationships” thing. That the combination of hookup culture and technology has led to an inability of my generation (especially women) to form normal, healthy relationships.
But the truth is, as an intelligent and well-educated young woman, I’m just as concerned with avoiding an unfulfilling and unhealthy relationship as I am with finding a strong and healthy one.
Why has dating changed? Simple. Because marriage has. Relationships have. Our expectations for ourselves and our society have. And perhaps most importantly, for me and my girlfriends, our options have.
Despite the GOP’s War on Women and the attacks on women’s health and rights around the country, things have gotten astronomically better for women over the past few centuries or so, and certainly over the past 50 years. My friends and I are being taught the warning signs of abusive relationships. We no longer need to marry a man who can support us financially. We can delay childbirth until we’re ready. And in response, men are changing their expectations. Gender stereotypes are alive and well, but the men we know want a woman with a career, with ambitions and goals, who can carry her end of the conversation. One who doesn’t rely on their paycheck (recession, anyone?), and with whom they have something in common. As sexually liberated women, we want a man who respects and pleases us. Men want a woman who has some idea of what she wants, isn’t afraid to ask for it, and enjoys physical intimacy as much as they do.
If reporters at The New York Times are going to comment on how millennials are going about dating, they should take a closer look at what we’re trying to get out of dating. The game of traditional courtship is dying because its participants are no longer playing for the same ends.
How Women Are Navigating This New World of Dating
One of my girlfriends recently got out of a 10-year relationship she’d been in since college. We were chatting the other day about her intrigue with just this topic—how to flirt, the appropriate ways of reaching out to men via text/technology, how to decide whom to go to bed with and when, etc. I reminded her that working so hard to throw out the rule book for women—on what we could and could not do and should and should not do—meant that she could write her own rules. For what she wanted. For what would work for her and for her relationship alone.
What were her own qualifications for who she would sleep with? What were her boundaries? Did she want to explore a real relationship again, in a more formal way, or was she really looking to just have fun out on the town, meeting new people?
These are the questions of the new relationships and the new interactions in which men and women are engaging. How can anyone possibly say this is more damaging than the days in which women were bought and sold like cattle to the highest or most respectable bidder?
Society bemoans all of these different, more casual relationships as damaging and dangerous, but they’re simply an extension of the changing gender roles we’ve been experiencing for the past half century and more. And that’s not a bad thing—even when it comes to redefining relationships. Those of us with higher educations who get married later in life tend to stay married more often. The national divorce rate is higher now than it was a century ago, suggesting that people are getting out of marriages that aren’t working for them anymore, and yet the divorce rate has also been declining for the past two decades. And marriage equality has completely opened up such public relationships to an entire generation of people who’ve been denied their civil rights for far too long, while rebuilding our own perceptions of what marriage “should” be like.
So yes, my friends and I are upending the traditional courtship rituals. I admit it. And it certainly is messy and confusing at times. There’s no doubt that “The End of Courtship” resonated with many of my friends in its assertions that it’s hard to tell a date from a hangout from a get together from a potential meeting of soulmates. But traditional courtship offered me far fewer options and far less control over my life. These new relationships are the relationships of a new world of men and women, seeking what they want when they want it on equal footing and on equal ground.
If a man isn’t engaged enough, doesn’t want what I want, or doesn’t treat me the way I want or know I deserve, for the first time in history, a woman can just walk away.
Messy? Yes. Confusing? Definitely. Tricky? You bet.
Such is life. And I’ll take it.