Learning to Date

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When we are in high school (maybe even junior high) many of us are terribly interested in the dating scene.

Having a date on Saturday night boosts our status in our social circles, and we feel like we fit in, like we belong. Being teenagers, our school environment provides plenty of opportunity to meet potential dating candidates. The dating sea is full of fish, and the scent of adolescent curiosity permeates high school hallways. We approach dating with a carefree attitude, accepting it as a natural part of our passage through our teens. Sometimes our most serious considerations seem to be whether one of us has a driver’s license and access to a car, and the other has an older, sympathetic sibling who might be bribed into getting us beer. Dating is pretty simple, though with peaking hormone levels, unrelenting emotionality, and fledgling social skills, it can seem daunting.

Since we don’t get taught dating skills, we learn by observing how others do it, and our models are often our peers, equally unskilled and inexperienced. Rare indeed is the family in which our parents share dating tips with us. Lucky are those surrounded by older siblings and extended family members from whom we can pick up dating data just by hanging around and keeping our ears open, ever discreet lest we get dismissed for being too young to hear about that stuff.

And of course that stuff is sex. As preteens, we watch the pre-date rituals of shaving, grooming, dressing. We marvel at the excitement. We may even get to hear about the event the next morning. But we don’t very often hear about any sex that might have happened, other than a vague, “….and then we did it.” It can feel the same as when we were younger, trying to figure out where babies come from.

When it is our turn to start dating, we enter the arena sometimes frightened, often curious, usually ignorant.

We experiment and blunder, learning by doing. We are torn between anticipation, trepidation, and longing. Eventually someone catches our eye and our body responds. We become aware of wanting to touch them, of having them touch us.

Now sexual negotiation begins. What we know, how skilled we are at knowing what we want and how to ask for it, and how well we can negotiate all affect the course of our future social and sexual interactions. We become, thankfully, more graceful with practice, but unfortunately (and commonly) not before we have hurt or been hurt.

We struggle with figuring out what we are looking for, and even that target keeps moving. Attraction, affection, and lust all get wound up together and we use each to justify the others. We know how good touching feels, but we also understand the social, emotional, and physical consequences of touching too much. The double standard of boys’ being encouraged to ‘score’ and girls’ messages to be seductive but not seduced keeps us all a little off balance and unable to speak honestly about our short- and long-term goals regarding sexual behaviour. Now we are either supported or abandoned by the sexual and interpersonal information we’ve garnered along the way.

If we know how to find accurate information we can get most of our questions answered. And if we are confident and secure that we can make mistakes and still be embraced by our families and/or our friends, we can ask for help before we make mistakes. But we often feel neither informed nor confident. And too seldom do we have such solid support systems. Without that kind of back up, we soon realise how very hard decisions can be, and how big the consequences.

We need all the help we can get.