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The con was up. Or about to be. That was what it felt like in my midtwenties. I was not sure who I had been fooling, or why, or how exactly I was going to slip up and get caught. The self-help books and my Irish Catholic mother said it was the drumbeat of imminent spinsterhood I heard approaching. I did not want a lonesome, loveless future; who does? But the dread I felt was not about that.
I was starting to realize I did not know how to want.
The first sign came one swampy New York evening early in the summer I was twenty-six. I was walking around Chelsea with a man I had been seeing, and like actors in a romantic comedy we ended up on the High Line. Surrounded by tourists and millionaires, we watched the sun sink into Hoboken, New Jersey.
He was older, handsome, and (I thought) maybe a genius. Also selfish in a way that was that much more destructive for being unintentional. For weeks he had been trying to break off our thing in order to commit to another, longer-standing thing with an ex-ex he had started to call his girlfriend again, and then changing his mind. He wanted to keep us both apprised of his thought process.
He was saying something about the ideologically suspect qualities of long-term romantic love, when a question I had been avoiding caught up with me. Its footsteps quickened.
What should I want?
At the time, I felt miserably torn between my awareness of what a cliché the Maybe Genius and I were and my equally acute awareness that knowing clichés were clichés could not protect me. He was breaking my heart. But like many women, I had been well trained to focus on what other people might want—if not to make them happy, then at least to make myself desirable. So even my feelings came with shoulds in front of them. Should had become a reflex.
“What should I want?” I asked the Maybe Genius later, as he walked me back toward the subway. I was trying not to sound too anything, and it must have worked, because he laughed.
“Doesn’t everyone just want to be happy?”
I winced. It was not just that he was brushing me off, probably so he could go spend the rest of the night with his ex-ex-girlfriend. It was that it was such a banal answer. Did he not have any better information than I did? He was so confident that he had a right to want, even when he wanted to be indecisive. I wanted to want, but what?
Why was I always asking some man?
I had learned to do it by dating. I say “I.” I could mean any one of many women I know. I belong to a generation that grew up hearing that we girls could do anything. Yet in many ways we grew up dispossessed of our own desires. In school, our textbooks told us that feminism was something that had already happened: if we worked hard, we could now aspire to the same things that our male classmates did. Dating trained us in how to be if we wanted to be wanted.
Since we were children, we had heard that romantic love would be the most important thing that ever happened to us. Love was like a final grade: Whatever else we accomplished would be meaningless without it. We knew that we were supposed to find love by dating. But beyond that there were no clear rules. Nobody even seemed to know what dating was.
As grown-ups, most of my friends agreed that dating felt like experimental theater. You and a partner showed up every night with different, conflicting scripts. You did your best. Those of us who were women looking for men were flooded with information about how we should go about it. Books and movies, TV shows and magazines, blog posts and advertisements all told us how to act.
Pink covers and curly scripts, and the fact that these instructions came stuck between perfume samples, clearly announced that they were trivial. Come on, the pink and curlicues and perfume said. Dating is not serious. But what could be more serious than the activity you are told is your one way to fulfillment—and the main way your society will reproduce itself?
The more I thought about it, the more it felt like a conspiracy.
Here is how to be if you want to be loved, the advice said, which is to say, if you want to be worth anything.
Now don’t ask any questions.
Female desire is not a trivial subject. Neither is happiness. As I recognized how many of my assumptions about what I should want and how I should act had come from dating, I realized that I wanted to find out where dating itself came from. To do this, it would not be enough to survey the present. The welter of beliefs that friends and I held had accumulated over decades, if not centuries. So I set out to investigate the past.
My first Google search yielded some bad news.
* * *
Dating was dead.
On January 11, 2013, The New York Times confirmed it. “The End of Courtship?” a headline asked. Citing conversations with twenty- and thirty-something women from several East Coast cities, the paper of record announced that “hookups” and “hang-outs” had replaced the ritual of the date.
“The word ‘date’ should almost be stricken from the dictionary!” one source exclaimed.
The author posed a series of questions that he seemed to imagine any single girl longed to hear. Then he shot them down.
“Dinner at a romantic new bistro? Forget it.”
“A fancy dinner? You’re lucky to get a drink.”
“Nobody dates anymore!” parents who have children in high school or college often protest when I tell them that I am writing a book about dating. Meanwhile, countless singles across America sign up for online matchmaking services every day.
At restaurants across the country, pairs of strangers meet every night, each earnestly hoping that the other might be The One, or at least someone to make a life with. Brimming with information they have gleaned about each other, two people sit down. They start, a little stiffly, asking questions.
Are they doing it right?
One person laughs too loud.
“First online dates.” My friend rolls her eyes. “You can always tell.” She has been working as a waitress since losing a job in PR and says she sees dozens of such daters every week. She can tell an OkCupid from a Match.com meet-up. She says that subtle differences distinguish JDaters from those who met on Hinge.
If dating is dead, the owners of the apps and restaurants must say, long live dating!
Have reports of the death of dating been greatly exaggerated?
* * *
All human societies, and many animal ones, have always had courtship rituals. They have not all had dating. The male blue-footed booby does a mean mating dance, but he does not date. Neither did Americans until around 1900. Since then, experts have constantly declared that dating was dead or dying. The reason is simple. The ways people date change with the economy. You could even say dating is the form that courtship takes in a society where it takes place in a free market.
The story of dating began when women left their homes and the homes of others where they had toiled as slaves and maids and moved to cities where they took jobs that let them mix with men. Previously, there had been no way for young people to meet unsupervised, and anyone you did run into in your village was likely to be someone you already knew.
Think what a big deal it is when one new single shows up in a Jane Austen novel. Then think how many men a salesgirl who worked at Lord & Taylor in the 1910s would meet every day. You start to appreciate the sense of romantic possibility that going to work in big cities inspired.
The ways people work have always shaped the ways they date. I’ll pick you up at six made sense at a time when most people had jobs with fixed hours. Today, a text asking u up may be asking basically the same thing. But dating is not only influenced by work. Dating is work. Some of that work is physical. Take all the things that glossy magazines suggest a straight woman must do to be baseline datable. Shop for attractive clothes, exercise to fit into them, eat well, and stay well groomed—nails polished, everywhere waxed, face made up, hair styled, etc. Work at a job to earn the money to pay for it. All daters are advised to make and monitor online dating profiles and maintain winning social media presences. Their efforts do not end there.
The work of dating is not only physical. It is emotional. My old roommate Travis used to refer to his first-date routine as “The Travis Show.” He would punctuate this with an ironic flutter of jazz hands. But it does take work to perform the version of yourself who might charm a stranger. The hardest part can be making that work seem effortless.
The fact that dating is work is not necessarily a bad thing. Labor is how we shape the world around us. Desire is the chance each of us gets at birth to bind ourselves with others and make our shared world new. Most writing about dating only addresses certain people: straight white middle-class kids or college graduates who live in cities. Because I want to investigate dating culture, which is produced for and marketed to such people, I will talk a lot about them, too. But I will also try to show how their stories intersect with others.
Attraction and affection can leap across lines set by identity. Over the past century, dating has given people exhilarating new freedoms. Daters have gone out and fought for their rights to look for love that is interracial, straight, gay, both, neither, monogamous, or polyamorous, without risking criminal prosecution. It has become possible to imagine doing so without fear.
There is no better life than a life spent laboring at love—exerting effort not because we have to, but because we believe that what we are bringing into being is valuable and we want it to exist. Yet because our culture tends to misunderstand the nature of labor and of love, we undervalue both.
If marriage is the long-term contract that many daters still hope to land, dating itself often feels like the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship. You cannot be sure where things are heading, but you try to gain experience. If you look sharp, you might get a free lunch.
Copyright © 2016 by Moira Weigel