Fifty years ago parents wrung their hands wondering what to do with their daughter who was ‘going steady’ with her high school sweetheart. Back then, parents encouraged their daughters to see many boys, correctly believing that this would provide experience with a wide array of relationship styles, promoting better choices of a life mate. Behind that rationale, however, lurked a hopeful belief that seeing many casual suitors would keep their daughters chaste. The practical goal of society’s dating strategy was to get Susie to the altar, if not as a virgin then at least not as a mother-to-be.
The sixties’ sexual revolution, and the widespread availability of the birth control pill, changed all that. Now that girls could say ‘yes’ as well as ‘no’ to sex without the threat of unintended and often unwanted pregnancies, parents squirmed realizing their little princess could be experimenting sexually with several boyfriends, none of whom she may marry. The face of dating changed.
Today, parents are relieved if their daughters hook up with only one partner. In the effort to keep our girls safe, we settle for fidelity if not virginity. Sadly, the double standard still informs our decisions about sex and dating—boys get a free pass (if not a wink and a nudge) about early sexual activity while girls juggle labels of ‘slut’ (those who put out) and ‘bitch’ (those who do not). Saddest perhaps is the trend for very young girls to provide sexual favours (usually oral sex) for multiple boys while receiving no sexual pleasure themselves.
Dating seems to have disappeared from our cultural landscape. People now define as single or partnered/married. Rarely do we hear that someone is playing the field or dating several people. The sex-negative message from half a century ago trumpets a different answer to the question of mate acquisition, but it is no less damaging. We hear routinely of new couples assuming sexual exclusivity after they have had sex but before they know much else about each other—an ‘all your eggs in one basket’ approach. Not surprisingly, most of those couples emerge some months later disillusioned and believing they will find true love in another lover, not in another system.
The opposite of single is married, not dating. Dating and marriage should feel different from each other. Why are we so quick to abandon the freedom of choice dating offers, replacing it instead with Polaroid-quick courtships and instant sexual exclusivity? Do we still believe that sex is so potent, so dangerous, that we dare not play with it? Haven’t we grown beyond the ‘kisses are contracts’ stage? Have we been so silenced about negotiation and communication that we settle for any relationship that affords us sexual gratification? Moreover, if that is true, how much talking could be going on within that relationship regarding how sex can best be expressed and enjoyed?
Surely we can do better if we define dating as an enjoyable process in which we learn about potential partners by trying them on for a good fit. We need not limit ourselves to exclusivity with each one to whom we are sexually attracted. We are willing to shop endlessly for a new car or home, yet couple far too quickly once we establish a sexual liaison. Responsible, compassionate sex should be an adjunct to the process of coupling, not the prime reason for doing so.
There is an old saying: “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet the handsome prince (or princess).” How much happier we would be if we used sex as but one of the many criteria upon which we base our coupling decisions.