Let me tell you a story; I promise it won’t take long. Roughly two months ago, my younger sister called our mother to ask for some advice. A bartender she was friendly with had asked her out via text message and she wasn’t sure how to handle the situation (in part because she is currently in an exclusive relationship with her boyfriend). I don’t know exactly what was said, or exactly what my sister wanted to happen, but my mother encouraged her to at least consider it “because she’s never been on a real date before and she might want to have that experience” (for context, she and the boyfriend were friends in high school for some time before their relationship became romantic). For some reason that exchange has inspired me to think about “dating” a fair amount, and I want to unpack that statement and everything that I find appalling about it and the attitudes behind it.
(My mother’s view of all things relationship may be a frequent casualty of collateral damage when I blog about such things; an unfortunate consequence, but she often says things that seem to me to be representative of regressive patriarchal attitudes. I’ve never been certain how seriously she means them).
In any case, the picture I get of “dating” from this and other similar remarks is something like this: two people, who do not know each other particularly well (acquaintances at best, total strangers at worst), mutually interviewing each other as if for a job. From other remarks that were made when I was younger (about, e.g., avoiding messy foods like spaghetti on ‘dates’), it was made abundantly clear that one is supposed to hide one’s flaws as long as possible during this process. One sees similar things in ‘dating guides’ written in the 1950s, about how to attempt to impress one’s partner (or avoid failing to do so) in this context, etc. I am not going to attempt to argue against politeness, but it is possible to take it too far and require people to cultivate an appearance of being superhuman (I don’t even think this is a strawman – I once read a blog post that particularly disgusted me, in which a woman proudly boasted of the fact she would leave the house to go to the bathroom whenever her husband was home, because she didn’t want her husband to know she had bodily functions. I no longer have the link and have no desire to go searching).
This seems one of the most ass-backward ways of beginning a relationship that I can imagine. I don’t even understand how people willingly go into a situation like this – why would you put romance on the table with somebody while explicitly not knowing them very well? That seems to be what my mother meant by “a real date” – if you know the person well before you start the romance, then it’s been tainted somehow and is no longer “dating”? What, precisely, makes this awkward process so sacrosanct? Is it some kind of rite of passage to go through stilted, cliche activities with strangers, firing blindly with a shotgun in the hopes of getting a hit? (I suppose if one does get lucky and find a compatible partner via this process, it could be something to reflect on and laugh about later? That’s really the only advantage I can see in it…)
It seems to me that if you are monogamous and interested in a long-term partnership, your partner should be a very close friend if not your closest (otherwise, why choose that person with whom to spend the largest portion of your time?), and therefore it seems… impractical, at best, to seek one’s partner using methods one would not otherwise use to find new friends. What this formalised “dating” method seems most likely to produce, if you ask me, are the sorts of Patriarchy-approved relationships in which two partners live largely separate lives within their prescribed roles and tolerate one another for the sake of their children but otherwise interact as little as possible. Which sounds downright hellish to me, for lots of reasons (in particular, as a person who is and will remain intentionally childfree, the idea of such a child-centred existence surrounded by misery is just incredibly enticing).
What makes it worse is that I do actually think that the “dating” approach does get some things right – doing structured activities together can be quite pleasant, and is a good way to spend time and get to know somebody better. The key word there is “better” – it’s hard to build from nothing. And more importantly, in the “dating” model there’s no way of knowing whether the person is worth knowing before beginning this process. Combine this with the ubiquitous rape culture and it gets even worse, because in addition to whatever emotional vulnerability one opens themself up to by going out with a stranger there is also a great deal of physical vulnerability (not that I mean to imply people aren’t also often harmed by people they trust, I know the statistics as well as anyone else, but I trust my point is taken).
I will go further: I think the formalised “dating” formula inherently relies on gender-essentialist and misogynistic ideas to function (and probably also some misandric ones to boot, gender-essentialism is bad for everyone). It seems to me that an actual belief in equality would entail that a person meet people in the same way irrespective of gender. To do otherwise implies that people of different genders are different classes of person. (Especially when you consider that in many of our society’s attitudes you see the conceit that “men and women can’t be friends” – fuck “When Harry Met Sally”, while that film may have done some good in promoting the idea that women can also experience sexual pleasure, I think on the whole it’s sexist and awful and promotes some really toxic ideas).
Obviously the dynamic I’m criticising here is only really applicable to traditionalistic monogamous heterosexual relationships, but that doesn’t make it utterly irrelevant.
I’m rambling a bit at this point, and I’m not sure if I have a coherent point here, but I think there’s something truly perverse in invalidating an actual relationship for the sake of this sort of pageantry (which is essentually what my mother’s comment to my sister did). Who, in their right mind, would prefer the latter?
(I will, of course, add the usual caveat that people are different and not everything works for everyone. You don’t have to agree with me, and I’m sure that approach does work for some people. What I object to, above anything else, is its presumed normativity; if it worked for you personally, good for you and I don’t intend to invalidate your choices).