Despite enormous changes in patterns of dating and courtship in twenty-first-century America, contemporary understandings of romance and intimacy remain firmly rooted in age-old assumptions of gender difference. These tenacious beliefs now vie with cultural messages of gender equality that stress independence, self-development, and egalitarian practices in public and private life.
Through interviews with heterosexual and LGBTQ individuals, Ellen Lamont’s The Mating Game explores how people with diverse sexualities and gender identities date, form romantic relationships, and make decisions about future commitments as they negotiate uncertain terrain fraught with competing messages about gender, sexuality, and intimacy.
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The Puzzling Persistence of Gendered Dating
Karley Sciortino writes a recurring opinion column for Vogue on sex, love, and relationships. Recently she asked, "Can I Be a Self-Sufficient, #Empowered Woman and Still Enjoy It When a Guy Picks Up the Check?" Sciortino's conclusion? Yes, as she finds herself feeling "like a whore — in a good way," and "confused" as to why "wanting to blow someone for my dinner is seen as 'regressive.'?" As she explains,
Look, I'm a feminist or whatever, but I still like it when a guy picks up the check on a date.... In terms of gender equality, we've come a long way in recent years. At 32, I often earn a similar income to the men I date, and I like being in relationships that feel equal. And yet, there's also this old-school part of me that likes it when a guy takes the reins, in ways that extend beyond just his wallet — like, offering me his jacket when it's cold, or helping me down the stairs when I'm wearing nonsensical shoes, or spanking me when I get too drunk. You know, lovingly misogynistic Don Draper shit.
Sciortino's take on dating is not an outlier. But how do we make sense of her perspective?
A gender revolution is underway. Talk to middle-class young adults in the United States today, and you'll see how firmly many embrace the new cultural messages of gender equality. Young women are, more than ever, investing in their educations and careers, while putting their love lives on the back burner. When they do partner, they expect to do so with someone supportive of their ambitious professional goals and they plan to continue to support themselves financially. Heterosexual men are encouraged to desire and respect these independent, go-getter women and adjust their relationship goals accordingly. But while many progressive young adults claim a feminist identity, they define it by opportunities in the public sphere and meanwhile fail to examine the inequalities stemming from their most intimate desires. As a result, in spite of significant progress, the gender revolution remains "uneven and stalled."
While young adults now have a clear set of professional goals and a vocabulary with which to understand them, the social scripts for dating and courtship have not undergone a similar transformation. Despite enormous changes in how people construct relationships in 21st-century America, contemporary understandings of heterosexual romance, desire, and intimacy remain firmly rooted in assumptions of gender difference. Dating norms and scripts continue to presume that men initiate sexual and romantic overtures, and women react. Men are still expected to ask for, plan, and pay for dates, initiate sex, confirm the exclusivity of a relationship, and propose marriage. These conventions feel both safe and right, and heterosexual men and women actively desire them.
But these seemingly benign rituals may lay a lasting foundation for inequality. Once a couple marries, the gender division becomes more entrenched, with women taking on more of the housework and childcare than men. This doesn't only influence the home. Women's caregiving responsibilities limit their availability for paid labor, leading to lower wages and greater challenges moving up in their careers in the long run. Women are also more likely to make career sacrifices for their families, such as stepping out of the workplace for extended periods of time or relocating in support of a partner's career. Men, on the other hand, are less likely to take time out of the workplace when they become parents, even when they have the option to do so. Even women who out-earn their partners often end up doing more household labor to compensate for their success in the workplace so as not to threaten their partner's status in the family.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer (LGBQ) people are not immune to this contradiction between an egalitarian ideal and established expectations as they navigate the tension between assimilation and innovation. True, they often seek to form relationships that take critical aim at heteronormativity, and express greater support for egalitarian practices than do heterosexuals. Yet having recently won a hard-fought battle for inclusion in one of the most conservative social institutions — the married couple relationship — some find themselves affirming more than challenging prevailing understandings of how relationships should work. As a result, many gay and lesbian individuals still enact domestic inequalities in their relationships. For everyone then, conventional norms compete with the stated desire for progressive relationship practices.
The Mating Game looks at how people with diverse gender identities and sexualities date, form relationships, and make decisions about commitments as they negotiate an uncertain romantic landscape. As college-educated residents of the San Francisco Bay Area, the young adults (ages 25–40) in this book have the economic resources and progressive social environment that should enable them to construct their lives in opposition to conventional practices. Yet surprisingly, for most of them, their intimate relationships are firmly shaped by entrenched inequalities. In the following chapters, I uncover how gender upheaval has only partly done its work; in fact, old gender tropes are firmly in place, shaping our personal lives, but raising little concern. Indeed, a tepid feminism has taken hold in which many people fail to interrogate how the personal is political. Yet others see the danger, sounding the alarm that reveling in gender difference is a recipe for gender inequality, and they advocate unconventional ways of building relationships. A showdown between traditionalism and egalitarianism is underway.
THE DEATH OF DATING?
Popular media narratives might have us believe that we are in an era of apocalyptic "anything goes" romance. In 2013 the New York Times ran an article proclaiming "the end of courtship." According to journalist Alex Williams, traditional dating rituals are obsolete, replaced with a casual and individualized approach in which young adults put limited effort, and money, into their dating lives. Dating websites jumped on the bandwagon, declaring new rules in the "?'post-dating' landscape" and encouraging women to look for romance in nontraditional ways and contexts. And supposedly, it's no longer only men running the show; economically empowered women now set the terms of intimacy. They purportedly aren't playing by "The Rules" as outlined by the 1995 bestselling self-help book that encouraged women to play hard to get in order to secure commitment from men. Reluctant to even use the word "date," young adults now "talk" or "hook up." As Rolling Stone argues, millennials and Gen Xers are taking the sexual revolution a step further than their baby boomer parents, avoiding early commitments altogether in favor of casual sex, eschewing monogamy to leave space for flexible relationship structures, and refusing limits on their sexual orientation. In what is portrayed as a welcome and freeing change from an overly rigid past, young adults are no longer confined to just one relationship pathway, but instead feel free to pick and choose what works for them. As Slate states, "good riddance" to courtship and the sexism and heteronormativity embedded in its rituals. Yet this assessment certainly doesn't reflect the experiences of the majority of the people with whom I spoke.
In spite of the supposed and much-trumpeted rise of hooking up, the majority of young college-educated adults remain committed to gendered dating and courtship practices. Once college ends, even those who avoided dating in favor of hooking up tend to follow conventional dating patterns as they begin the search for a committed, long-term partner. Those without college educations may be upending traditional courtship, but it's the result of financial constraint, not empowerment. Struggling to attain the economic resources and stability that Americans understand to be the foundation of a good marriage, young adults who are low income or working class often feel shut out of the dating and marriage markets altogether. Even so, many of the steps they can enact are often taken in a rather traditional manner. Thus, alongside these narratives of gender role reversal and relationship anarchy, outlets such as New York Magazine, The Atlantic, and Women's Health puzzle over why young adults, especially young heterosexual women who are vocal in their commitment to gender equality, remain so attached to old-fashioned rituals. As one article asks, "You're a Feminist ... So Why Don't You Date Like One?"
These competing messages about how intimacy should look leave young adults with a murky sense of what constitutes an ideal romantic relationship. Very few of the people with whom I spoke either expressed a desire for a fully traditional, male breadwinner, female homemaker type of relationship or articulated a radical, gender-neutral worldview. Instead, I heard story after story of how, while the division of paid and unpaid labor in partnerships should be equitable and not determined by gender, gender-traditional romantic behaviors should be preserved. This was especially the case among heterosexual women and men. Indeed, three-fourths of heterosexual women and men wanted or expected some semblance of a traditional courtship, and almost everyone wanted at least certain aspects of one. In contrast, 80 percent of LGBQ young adults wanted relationships that explicitly reject traditional dating conventions in favor of gender-neutral and egalitarian practices. This raises interesting questions about how, why, and among whom gender norms persist in romantic relationships.
DATING AS AN AMERICAN INSTITUTION
Current courtship conventions may put men in the proverbial driver's seat, but historically women and their families had substantially more control over the process. Prior to the 1920s and the advent of the modern dating system, wooing often took place within the confines of women's family homes. Under the "calling" system, interested male suitors would visit women in their homes, where they would sit in the parlor and have a conversation. When a woman first came of "appropriate" age, dependent on her social status, her mother or guardian would invite eligible men to call on her. As she matured, a woman was able to invite her own suitors to the house. Those deemed unsuitable or undesirable were turned away at the door. Widely embraced, "calling" was created to emulate the wealthy counterparts of a newly formed and rising white middle class.
After the 1920s, the United States saw the ascendance of "the date." Courting was no longer relegated to the private sphere, but instead took place in public. Originally a lower-class response to a lack of private space in which to receive suitors, dating was rapidly embraced by the middle class who saw it as exciting and freeing and who established it as an "American institution." And as middle-class white women increased their presence in the public sphere, entering college and professions, they also demanded broader access to public spaces. Yet ironically, as these women took their place in public life, they lost control over courtship. The date took women and men away from the prying eyes of family but also required transportation and money, as couples went out to dinner or a movie theater. In the process, control over courtship shifted to men, as they were the ones expected to ask for the date, plan the date, pick up the woman and drive, pay for the date, and then take her home again. As the relationship progressed, the man was supposed to ask her to go steady and, if things went well, to propose marriage. The woman could pick and choose among suitors, but she was never to initiate.
Based on an assumption of a breadwinning, dominant male and a dependent, passive female, these courtship norms dictated distinct behaviors for men and women. They were premised on the belief that men and women are innately different and that these differences are reflected in their skills, activities, desires, and the separate spheres they inhabit. Cultural narratives about gender associated men with power, agency, ambition, and the public sphere, where their breadwinning activities were used to support their wife and children in the home. Women, on the other hand, were represented as nurturing, reactive, and expressive, ideal for homemaking in the private sphere. Courtship conventions reflected these beliefs, situating men as the initiators. These norms were prevalent enough to shape people's experiences and perceptions of courtship to the present day, establishing these behaviors as the most ideal and appropriate way to progress through relationships.
Of course, the narratives and resources that undergird conventional courtship practices were not available or applied to everyone, but rather centered and reflected the experiences of the white middle class. Public dating required money, and concepts of what constitutes romance were constructed around affluence and consumption. The family ideal of separate spheres was the result of a growing white middle class that had the resources to rely on one income. By contrast, dominant narratives of women as weak and in need of men's protection, one driver of the separate spheres ideology, have never been extended to women of color. Many men of color, on the other hand, were prevented from fulfilling the male breadwinner and protector role. Racial discrimination and oppression made it difficult if not impossible for people of color to fulfill these supposed ideals. In the decades leading up to the start of the gender revolution, women's self-reliance was seen not as a sign of empowerment or equality, but rather as a result of men's failure to enact their role as heads of household and a dysfunctional breakdown in appropriate gender roles.
In spite of these exclusions, dating remains a widely understood and accepted means of developing committed, long-term romantic relationships, particularly among white college-educated Americans. Powerful cultural messages perpetuate particular beliefs around how and what types of relationships we should form. Even those who are excluded from dominant relationship pathways frequently don't question the pathway or the end goal itself, but rather their own ability to enact it, delaying committed relationships until they have the resources to do so. However, while traditional dating and courtship practices dominate the public imagination of how relationships should play out, the assumptions about gender difference on which these practices are based have been significantly destabilized.
GENDER AND INTIMACY IN UPHEAVAL
Since the 1960s, the United States has experienced a massive transformation in the gender system. So far-reaching are these changes that they have been referred to as a gender revolution, emphasizing the radical changes in women's educational and career attainment. The narrative of revolution resonates most strongly with a particular demographic, the white middle class, who reaped the rewards of the increased opportunities for self-development among women. But the expectations for professional success are widely embraced as both ideal and necessary. Middle-class parents raise their daughters with professional ambitions, and now that women's college graduation rates exceed men's, these women are far more likely to expect career trajectories that mirror those of men.
The decline of formal sex discrimination has increased women's access to a wider range of jobs, which are also better paying. Well-educated women are delaying marriage until their late twenties and early thirties in favor of establishing careers; this significantly increases their earning potential throughout their lives and their ability to support themselves independently of men. The increase in the availability and reliability of birth control has given women greater control over their reproduction, allowing them to invest more heavily in their careers. They no longer have to worry as much about an unexpected pregnancy and can delay marriage in favor of starting a career without having to forgo sex, thereby making space for women to enter into a succession of dating and sexual relationships. Indeed, it has become increasingly acceptable for women to be sexually active outside of relationships, signaling a decline in, though not an end to, the sexual double standard.
Women have also seen a decline in the status of the homemaker, making it a less desirable pathway, even among couples who can most afford to support a family on one income. Couples are having fewer children, who are born later in a woman's life. Women, especially those with a college degree, can expect to spend fewer years of their lives with young children in the house. These changes make permanent homemaking less appealing in light of the opportunity costs of staying at home. At present, the majority of women continue to work after having children; well educated, well-compensated professional women are most likely to quickly return to full-time work.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Mating Game"
Copyright © 2020 Ellen Lamont.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
1. The Puzzling Persistence of Gendered Dating
2. The Quest for Egalitarian Love
3. New Goals, Old Scripts: Heterosexual Women Caught
between Tradition and Equality
4. A Few Good (Heterosexual) Men: Inequality Disguised
5. Queering Courtship: LGBQ People Reimagine
6. The More Things Change . . .
7. Dated Dating and the Stalled Gender Revolution
Appendix 1: Summary of Interview Respondents
Appendix 2: Interview Guide