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In The News

Changes in courtship reflect more than just the availability of online dating, says Moira Weigel in the weekend’s op-eds. The language and mindset of the precarious economy has migrated into our love lives:

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Is it so surprising that we have turned into sexual freelancers? Many of us treat relationships like unpaid internships: We cannot expect them to lead to anything long-term, so we use them to get experience. If we look sharp, we might get a free lunch.

Formulaic dating, with its successive stages of displayed interest and investment, is nothing new, but it can feel cold and distant with the added intermediary of texting and Facebook relationship statuses. Weigel dismisses laments about the “good ol’ days” of dating as a short-lived trend (only one century!), where dates consisted of dinners and movies planned well in advance. And anyways, online dating is pretty successful, even if  algorithmic matching isn’t.

Further Reading from JSTOR

Of course “the demise of formal courtship” has been lamented since dating began. In 1963, Margaret Donnelly dropped the quote in an exploration of dating and family theories. Dating can be practice, for the sake of familiarizing oneself with the ritual interactions and developing preferences for a future mate.

Donnelly also discusses the power differential between the female and male positions in historical dating: one asserts, the other acquiesces. What’s especially notable about Donnelly is her focus on female agency and limitations in the dating realm:

Although marriage represents the main focus of the female’s adult social status, she cannot act overtly as the aggressor in initiating and building cross-sexual social relationships. As a result of this situation, the partner who has the most to gain or lose is the one who is supposed by definition to take the more passive role. Such a phenomenon gives rise to tension and stress in the on-going social structure, because it is inconsistent with the past socialization of the female and the orientation of her future role.

Claire Langhamer looks at English dating from 1930 to 1970, for a more long-range look at the “decline of romance.” Of course, with the UK’s more aristocratic society, courtship has long been a function of class first and love second:

One woman responded to the 1939 directive on class by stating that “I am at present fond of a man whose birth is superior to my own, whose position is assured and pension able and whose family numbers no black sheep among its members and I rather think my affection is conditional, perhaps born of the fact that he would lever me upwards.”

The article is both charming and frightening in its archival specificity:

A concerned young woman wrote to Woman’s Own in 1945 that “I heard a talk on the wireless lately saying that if you marry simply because you are violently in love, your marriage may fail. My boyfriend and I are passionately in love, and now I feel worried in case we are making a mistake.”

For promising contemporary research on dating, look to Conor Kelly, author of an award-winning essay about “hooking up” and its gendered power dynamics. Kelly discusses that hooking up is actually unhooking sex from commitment and interpersonal compatibility. There are lots of historical implications here:

Those who hook up identify the removal of relationships as one of the hookup culture’s chief advantages because it preserves autonomy. Specifically, they view hooking up as a way to get sexual gratification without compromising their freedom…

… In fact, dating gave a preponderance of power to men, especially in contrast with previous systems for courtship. Traditionally, men were expected to provide the financial means for each date, which gave them control over a number of factors from venues to initiative. This system often led men to believe that their payments entitled them to sexual favors in return.


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Marriage and Family Living, Vol. 25, No. 3 (Aug., 1963), pp. 290-293
National Council on Family Relations
The Historical Journal, Vol. 50, No. 1 (Mar., 2007), pp. 173-196
Cambridge University Press
Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Vol. 28, No. 2 (Fall 2012), pp. 27-48
Indiana University Press on behalf of FSR, Inc