In Contempt of Courtship

As host, Ms. Lewinsky functions as Hayley’s on-site girlfriend, giggling with her at hidden-camera footage that shows the suitors misbehaving at a party and helping her to make the undoubtedly difficult decision to dump the guy who slipped off into a bathroom to share a few intimate moments with a hula dancer. The show has spawned plenty of off-camera controversy–the spurned suitor later claimed that the sound of a zipper opening, heard through the bathroom door, was a sound-effect added in post-production–but primetime audiences’ enthusiastic reaction to it has skipped over one huge question: What does it say about our society that we now consider Monica Lewinsky qualified to help anyone find her soulmate?

Lewinsky’s show is only the latest in a whole slew of dating-based “reality” TV shows, which include “The Bachelor,” “Meet My Folks,” “Married by America,” “Blind Date,” “The Fifth Wheel,” “Elimidate,” “A Dating Story,” “Dismissed,” “Rendez-View,” “Change of Heart,” “Shipmates,” “Temptation Island,” “Looking for Love,” and “EX-treme Dating.” In my personal favorite, “Joe Millionaire,” 20 women were whisked to a romantic French chateau to compete for a man’s affections. The women were told the young man had recently inherited $50 million and was “looking for a special someone to share his newfound wealth.” I spent the show’s entire seven-episode run wondering where Fox managed to find 20 grown women gullible enough to believe that a tall, underwear-model-handsome guy with $50 million might need professional help in finding a date. But the success of these shows–40 million viewers tuned in to watch Joe Millionaire choose his guileless mate–shows how much we love to watch other people date, especially when there’s a better-than-decent chance of witnessing an emotional trainwreck. Why do so many eligible singles prefer to sit at home watching other people go out to dinner, walk hand-in-hand, and smooch in bubbling hot tubs than actually go out on dates? When did we start to consider dating a synonym for hell?

It’s almost impossible to find a positive depiction of contemporary dating anywhere. Television sitcoms from “Friends” to “Frasier” delight in the antics of lovelorn singles–not because they’re more glamorous than their married counterparts, but because the vicissitudes of modern dating lend themselves to easy laughs. In novels, we see Bridget Jones as the modern-day counterpart of Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet–only somehow the centuries have robbed our heroine of her ability to bring Mr. Darcy to his knees.

Wasn’t the sexual revolution supposed to make courtship more fun? Yet everywhere we look, we see single people bemoaning the loneliness, the despair, the just plain drudgery of dating. Dorothy L. Sayers once said, “The only sin passion can commit is to be joyless.” But how much joy is there in courtship these days? Dating, it seems, has become a necessary chore, rather like scrubbing down the storm windows.

Something has gone drastically awry in the process of meeting and mating. I recently played confidant to a friend who has valiantly decided to re-enter the courtship arena. From her description, it sounded like she was applying for a new job–reading the want ads, circling anything that sounded halfway promising, sending in her rsum via e-mail, and then trudging out on a series of high-stress interviews. (The only difference was, most employers usually don’t advertise until the post is actually vacant, whereas at least one of her hot prospects hadn’t quite gotten around to telling his wife that the family organization was planning to downsize.) To hone their “interview” skills, desperate affluent singles are driven to hire dating consultants to tell them how to do it right. One New York consultant bragged to Fox News that she charges her female clients $350 for a half-hour consultation to assess the dateworthiness of their hair, makeup, and wardrobe, while men pay $15,000 upfront for introductions to a dozen eligible pre-screened women. That fee also includes a virtual date with the consultant, who then scrutinizes the poor insecure fellow’s manners and conversational skills.

For those who can’t afford individual instruction, there are guidebooks like The Rules, billed as “time-tested secrets for capturing the heart of Mr. Right.” The authors promise their husband-hunting readers that faithful adherence to a few basic rules, such as “Never Call Him, Always Let Him Call You” and “Don’t Talk Too Much” will help them land the spouse of their dreams. (From the vision of dainty femininity sketched out in The Rules, one reaches the inescapable conclusion that all the eligible bachelors out there have posters of Donna Reed plastered above their beds.) The bad news, of course, is that once a girl has adopted the primly determined Rules persona to capture him, she has to keep up the hard work in order to keep him. Hence, The Rules for Marriage, the follow-up to the runaway bestseller. Hewing firmly to The Rules over the course of four or five decades is a daunting prospect, as the recent divorce of one of The Rules‘ co-authors confirms.

Perhaps the continuing popularity of The Rules–in spite of its co-author’s marital track record, they’re still charging $3.99 a minute for dating consultations–is a sign that singles today are desperate for some set of principles to follow. Unlike the well-established courtship rituals of the 1950s, what we have today is a motley set of individual expectations, most of them patently mystifying to everyone but ourselves. Courtship has become an unending pick-up game of playground ball, with each player operating according to his or her own individual rulebook. A woman may make a seductive gesture fraught with symbolic meaning–only to find that, to her partner, it’s a request for a time-out.

Take, for example, this star-crossed couple who poured out their story of dueling social semiotics to a women’s magazine a few years ago. Both sides agree that he invited her out on a dinner date, and that they had a wonderful time until the bill was presented. “When the dinner check came, I took it,” explained 32-year-old Charlie. “But Susie reached for her wallet. ‘Can I help pay?’ she asked. My heart sank. I was sure she didn’t like me. I figure if a woman wants to split the check, she’s telling you that she wants to be friends. After that, the evening ended kind of awkwardly. I didn’t know if I should kiss her or anything, so I kind of hastily said good-night.”

Susie, 28, told the reporter that she saw the encounter very differently. “I offered to split the check because I didn’t want him to feel obliged to pay for me. I figure if he had really liked me, in a girlfriend/boyfriend way, he wouldn’t have taken my money–not on the first date, anyway. And I guess I was right: he didn’t try to kiss me or say anything about another date.”

It’s revealing that teenagers no longer “date” in the traditional sense. Instead, they move in intersecting herds, and actual dating is reserved for those who are already official couples. Formal events, such as homecoming and prom, are arranged with the help of intermediaries: The parties involved set up embassies in the lunch room, and send out ambassadors to arrange the necessary treaties. When one young swain recently called and directly invited a 16-year-old girl to Homecoming, her parents gave the courageous young man two thumbs up. But the girl herself was put off. “It seems so forward, just calling and asking someone out like that,” she explained after declining his suit. Her parents are now resigned to a life without grandchildren.

At the risk of being stripped of my right to wear Birkenstocks, I have to admit that the courtship rituals of the 1950s make me feel a little wistful. The gender roles may have been constricting and the shoes were impossibly tight across the toes, but it’s impossible to deny the now-guilty pleasures of sweetheart bouquets, dinner dates, and nightclubs where heterosexual men danced voluntarily. (And I’m far from alone in my nostalgia, as proven by the release of a recent retro-romance movie, Down With Love, starring Hollywood A-listers Rene Zellweger and Ewan McGregor.) I can’t help envying the “smart and sophisticated woman” described by Helen Gurley Brown–author of the once-scandalous Sex and the Single Girl–who responded to men’s advances with this polished reply: “You’re really lovely, but do you honestly suppose I can sleep with every man who asks me? The answer for now is no.” Brown claimed that one importunate suitor finally gave his iron-knickered lady a silver charm engraved with the words, “We’ll see.”

I can just hear the anguished screams of “That’s just game-playing!” And that’s exactly correct. Both parties were playing a game–defined in my dictionary as “a way of amusing oneself; a pastime; diversion.” The game was called “flirting,” and it’s what people used to do while they were trying to decide whether they might be able to stand each other’s company over the hyperextended road trip that is married life. It’s funny: The men who most oppose the idea of “playing games” in courtship are the same ones who can spend endless hours debating the merits of the designated hitter rule. In all forms of human behavior, there are rules. (For instance, we now shake hands upon introduction instead of sniffing each other’s sweat glands.) The trouble is, the rules governing courtship today are vexing and often destructive, reducing the stuff of poetry to something akin to emotional dodgeball.

I know. That sounds perilously like those counter-feminist conservatives who rail at modern woman for coldheartedly indulging her lustful desires instead of saving her precious flower for the lucky man who will someday lift her bridal veil. But my argument is based not on morality but on sheer utility: The way it’s been done lately, courtship isn’t any fun.

That’s because there is currently only one broadly accepted rule of courtship: The Third Date is The Date (unless, of course, you’re a glued-together-at-the-knees Rules girl.) If either party declines sex on the Third Date, it’s a clear sign that the relationship is going nowhere. And if the Third Date culminates in sex, they’re officially a couple–or at least, the guy’s a real loser if he doesn’t ask the girl out again afterwards. (Sex before the Third Date is a signal that a) you believe in love at first sight; b) you’re a promiscuous floozy; or c) you think a, he thinks b.)

It’s time for all of us to admit that this courtship model simply doesn’t work. If lightning doesn’t strike by Date Three, you can end up walking away from a perfectly lovely person who might just be a little shy, or having a bad hair day. Or worse, by rushing headlong into a “committed relationship” with someone you’ve met only a few times, you can end up wasting weeks, months, sometimes even years of your life on someone you don’t really like very much, on the grounds that you’re already “invested” in the relationship.

The problem is, we can’t bring ourselves to admit that we’re going to have to give up the prospect of instant sex–however rarely it actually happens–for a longer period of pre-intercourse courtship. That’s understandable–and not just because we all like to think of ourselves as the proud owners of constantly pulsating loins. Given how dreadful dating has become, we hate to think of prolonging the agony as we wait for the only foreseeable good part. (Though from what I hear from my single girlfriends, the sex isn’t all that hot, anyway.)

But if we could decide collectively that sex is worth waiting a bit longer for, we’d find that courtship itself might become a lot less stressful and a lot more fun. Right now, those first couple of dates are incredibly intense; we give ourselves only six or eight hours of conversation before deciding whether we want to commit to a monogamous sexual relationship. If we had, oh, six or eight–maybe even 10–dates to make up our minds, we could focus more on the actual date and less on its sequel. By investing a few extra hours in the process, we might draw out of a shy person an unexpected vein of sardonic wit or a deep well of political insight. With luck, we’d screen out some of those false charmers who have learned to conceal their meanspiritedness for a week or two. And after the eighth, ninth, or 10th date? Well, let’s just say that some things are greatly improved by anticipation.

I suppose I should make a confession here: I haven’t done any dating for a long, long time. I’m what Bridget Jones author Helen Fielding would call a “Smug Married.” And quite frankly, when I hear my single friends bewailing their dating lives, I do feel a bit complacent. But when I think about what courtship could, and should, be, I remember one night when my husband and I went out to celebrate some double-digit wedding anniversary.

We’d hired a babysitter, gotten all dressed up, and treated ourselves to dinner at some sleek new restaurant in the city. A comfortable, compatible married couple, we were having a very nice time–joking, relaxing, knocking back a little too much Chardonnay. Then we noticed the man and woman sitting next to us. They were visibly trembling with desire. (The waiter didn’t bother to ask them if they wanted dessert.) It was clear that this was no standard Third Date, to be promptly followed by a tidy hour of pre-programmed abandon. There was none of the awkwardness of fresh acquaintance, no conversational false starts or miscues. It was obvious they were madly in love, and that they were looking forward to a long-awaited, devoutly wished consummation. They were co-adventurers, taking that first exhilarating leap over Niagara Falls. And somehow, as we sat watching that couple from the smooth safety of the shallow waters far downstream, we didn’t feel smug at all.

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