By Amy Medvick
Amongst my circle of g-friends, I have become the go-to girl for tips on what to do in perplexing adult situations involving MEN. It’s funny, since I don’t feel like an expert. But it makes sense: I have so many experiences to draw upon.
Especially—necessarily—break-ups. You give me the run-down, and I can call bullshit from a mile away, identify the type and give you a list of the possible outcomes, possible responses to each outcome, and another round of possible outcomes from each possible response to the first round of possible outcomes. I can organize it into a tree graph for you, compile the final combinations, and calculate the probability of each. I am ALL over the endings.
But I have come to realize there is a part of the process that I just shouldn’t give advice on, because it confounds me to no end. Or rather, to no beginning: courtship. What the fuck!!!
Because nothing says “I love you” like trying to act natural in a wind storm.
Nothing in the world is more frustrating. Sure, on TV (to which we turn in order to educate ourselves in these matters and rate our success) they make it look easy. But they are using the basest of camera tricks; make-up, good angles, wind-machines and scripts. With these aces up their sleeves, our televised love-gurus ask each other on dates with smooth and clever banter. Sometimes they get shy, just often enough to be believable human characters, but they almost always overcome it in an honest outpouring of their interest or grand, charming romantic gestures, and usually meet with success.
But in real life—or at least, in the artsy non-traditional-gender-roles circles that I walk in— courtship has to be conducted secretly. Sometimes so secretly that the person you are courting doesn’t even know about it, but that is a risk you have to take to maintain decorum. It has to be a secret that you like so-and-so, and when you ask them on a date, it has to be a secret date. So you don’t call it a date, you say: “let’s hang out” or “will you be at that party?” Cloak & dagger style: no one can know! You secretly get their phone number, ostensibly for some super platonic reason like, say, flute lessons. It’s not allowed to openly state your interest in someone—no! Two prospective mates must nudge incrementally towards each other, perhaps in real time while watching a movie—just as friends!—at a rate that is too slow to be observed by an outsider (so they suppose) but just fast enough that the other person will actually notice (so they hope). Often, the outcome is the reverse.
After it has become impossible to pretend there is nothing going on, like for example after you two have had sex, then it still has to be a secret whether you, like, like-like the person, and if so, how much. The status of the relationship (shhhh, don’t use the R-word) may remain secret—to the lovers and the world— long after the two love-birds have been happily nesting and fucking for weeks, even months.
Once in a while you hear stories about someone who got asked on a date, and who wasn’t so put off by this lack of seductive finesse that they actually accepted. But it’s always a friend of a friend, and quite frankly, I’m starting to wonder if the whole “will you go out with me some time?” thing is just an urban myth.
Have things always been this way? I think they must have been different, once upon a time, or else where would the notion of date-asking-out-on have come from?
Actually, I know things have changed a lot whenever I talk to a friend of mine who is in her 60’s. When discussing how to get closer to my latest crush, she offers suggestions like:
“Why don’t you go by his house and knock on his door and say hello?”
I’m left with my jaw on the ground, speechless.
“Um, um, you can’t just DO that,” I stammer.
“People don’t knock on each others doors any more. Not even when they are expected. You just text that you are there.”
“Ok, so just text that you are in the neighbourhood and you would like to knock on his door.”
“No. Absolutely not, I can’t. Only friends do that. We’re not friends yet… If I just start acting like we’re friends, he’ll know I like him as more than a friend.”
“Isn’t that the point, to be more than friends?”
“No. Yes. No.” I sigh. “Not like that—there has to be another way.”
What made such a great cultural divide between my friend and I, historically? Well, there is a lot: sexual liberation, the de-formalization of our social interactions, then cell-phones and social networking bringing us new mediums through which to interact. Each have shaped our mating rituals, though in many ways we have become more formal (in the sense of constricted by social codes) and more awkward about sex just as communications technology has allowed us to be constantly—and casually—connected to anyone we like. Hmm. There is also, of course, feminism, which brought many changes—right?
We still have the old cultural scripts lying around (the same ones that get used for TV) instructing us on how courtship used to be done, and I reckon that anyone who can’t relate to the mating ritual described above is probably still following these old scripts, or has maybe written entirely new ones that are working really well (I’d like to see them please!). In the olden days, the woman’s job was to simply be as attractive and nice as possible to the man she had her eye on, find ways to get his attention and hope he noticed. The man’s job was to take the lead, decide which woman struck his fancy and ask her out. It was undoubtedly a nerve-racking role for the men and a frustrating one for the women, but it had one thing going for it: it was clear. Everyone knew what to do. If a man asked you out, he liked you; if he didn’t ask you out, he didn’t like you. If a woman said yes, she liked you; if she didn’t…. well, actually, there’s the problem. There wasn’t much a woman could do if she wasn’t interested, other than hope she would be believed.
Our courtship rituals have changed dramatically in response to feminism, and it’s a darned good thing. Ostensibly, since a woman can take a more active role in courtship, she is less likely to be pressured into any kind of sexual or romantic relationship with a man she isn’t interested in. Except, wait, no, that still happens. Shit.
One side of a game of love tennis in the 1970s, decade of feminism, mandatory long hair, and many shades of brown. Deutsche Fotothek, via Wikimedia Commons
Ok, well, at least now women can ask men out, and men can accept dates. No one has to pay for anyone else, and everybody opens their own doors and pulls out their own chairs. That’s all great stuff—if only it actually played out that way. It seems to me, though, that in the bohemian kinds of circles that have been amenable to the breaking down of traditional gender roles, men and women aren’t asking each other out in equal measure. Instead, no one is asking anyone out.
It’s understandable. I mean, it must have been hard all those centuries for those shy dudes to have all the pressure on to make the moves. I’m sure a lot of them sighed sighs of relief when they were finally allowed to take a more passive role. I totally get it, because the thought of asking a person on a date gives me night-sweats too.
So now, for man and woman alike, it has all been turned into a covert operation. We are love-spies.
Of course, for me, as a woman, to what degree are those night sweats, and my predilection for love-espionage, caused by pre-feminist social conditioning? I’m pretty ballsy in other areas of my life, why not this one? How many women are eagerly embracing the ask-out? How successful is it when we do—how much encouragement do we get to ask men on dates? Any time I have taken even a mildly pro-active role in pursuing a man (ex. saying hello, talking to him, smiling, and if I’m feeling really bold, flirting back when he flirts with me), though he is usually flattered and I am sometimes successful, he seems to get the idea that I am totally obsessed with him, which is never true. (When I like a guy that much, I don’t do anything, for fear he’ll know!) Maybe it’s because we aren’t yet used to women behaving this way, and that makes our interest seem exaggerated, but just so much as wink at a man and he starts on about how he’s not ready for a rela—sorry. Not ready for an R-E-L-A—No! I can’t even spell it. We’ll call it an “R”.
So, you learn to keep your winks in check and your feelings secret. Otherwise, you risk looking like you are a crazy marriage-mongering man-trapper. Instead, you play it cool, play it hard-to get. Which is what we had to do before, except now it’s also a secret that we are trying to look pretty and be nice. So, you wear sweatpants a few times around him, and are a little mean once in a while, to throw him off, and you call him “dude” sometimes because that’s what platonic man-friends call each other, right? But you have to be careful that you don’t give him the impression that you dislike him, or that you are actually a platonic man-friend.
Meanwhile, the dudes who were relieved that the onus is off of them for leading the courtship process still want to retain their dignity and their sense of masculinity while “opting out” of asking out. So, instead of letting their feelings show and hoping someone will act on them (which would be way too girly— that is, if that’s what girls still did), they pretend they aren’t all that interested (which is now what we do), that they aren’t looking for a re-… re-… for an “R”, with her or with anyone.
Nope, it’s all got to be a secret. Much MUCH more dignified for both involved to slowly inch towards each other on a couch, thereby maintaining the decorous illusion of platonic non-interest, while actually secretly touching knees, until one finds oneself in a serious R— top secret, of course.
In a way, through mutual passivity, we have achieved a kind of gender equality— we are all pretending not to want anything, at least, nothing specific, although obviously we do (hello, hormones). At times, we still pretend that the men just want the sex and the ladies just want the love, and never the twain shall meet—for old times sake—but we do it with a wink, because we know it isn’t really true. It’s just those quaint old scripts. Shucks.
Freyr is dying of lovesickness because he is in love with Gerðr and he’s afraid to ask her out to dinner. I feel ya, Freyr.
And if perchance you’re talking to the semi-mythical relationship guy, or gal-who-just-wants-to-sow-her-wild-oats… or, um, collect them… or whatever… you’ll never know, because everyone’s desires are kept so well hidden. We are just as varied as ever, a variation that blatantly ignores gender binaries, but we’ve finished it with a veneer of sameness that has robbed us of our honesty. And though it makes for some delicious sexual tension, it’s an equal-ness that leaves you with few options and plenty of anxiety any time you actually have a crush on somebody.
Well. So maybe I do have some advice when it comes to courtship, but it might be useless while everyone else is sworn to secrecy. Could we all, perhaps, maybe try to be a bit more open, more straightforward about our interest? Stop acting like it’s shameful to like someone? Can we find non-aggressive but still clear ways to let our interest show? Gals, can we grow some ovaries and take the lead about half the time? Guys, can you remain calm when we do that, so that we don’t feel like we’re not really allowed to? Can we all just stop speaking in hushed tones and hiding behind the holographic screens of our spy-grade Bond-style love-espionage camera-phones, and actually say what we feel?
Or fine, text what we feel, with our spyPhones, whatever. Point is, this idea could be revolutionary:
Honesty. Openness. Transparent communication. Dates. And then, lots of love.