Does Dating Still Matter?
Is dating on the verge of extinction? In an article featured in their latest September magazine, Vanity Fair addresses the fearful world of Tinder—and the toll it’s taking on traditional sorts of courtship:
Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating apps, which have acted like a wayward meteor on the now dinosaur-like rituals of courtship. “We are in uncharted territory” when it comes to Tinder et al., says Justin Garcia, a research scientist at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction. … People used to meet their partners through proximity, through family and friends, but now Internet meeting is surpassing every other form. “It’s changing so much about the way we act both romantically and sexually,” Garcia says. “It is unprecedented from an evolutionary standpoint.” As soon as people could go online they were using it as a way to find partners to date and have sex with. In the 90s it was Craigslist and AOL chat rooms, then Match.com and Kiss.com. But the lengthy, heartfelt e-mails exchanged by the main characters in You’ve Got Mail (1998) seem positively Victorian in comparison to the messages sent on the average dating app today.
Linker writes at The Week that he’s fearful of what this means for his kids:
I want them to enjoy the fulfillment that can only come from devoting themselves to something that transcends the self — a spouse, a child, a family. I want them to experience falling in love and feel their hearts opened to hopes of a higher, more enduring form of happiness. I want them to experience the rarer and more precious goods that follow from the disciplining of their baser instincts (like the animal desire to copulate with a different sexual partner every night of the week) in order to reach an end that’s pursued for its own sake rather than for the instantaneous rewards it brings.
But The New Republic‘s Moira Weigel retorts that such responses are reactionary, and part of dating battles that we’ve had throughout history. After tracing the history of such dating wars from the 19th century through the present, she adds, “Even a short survey makes it clear that every generation has thought that the next generation was dating wrong. … The death of dating genre tends to treat each new form of courtship as a moral aberration. This is silly.”
Weigel doesn’t seem to appreciate the progressive edginess of the dating world, from the first examples she provides (like consternation over women meeting strangers in public), to the modern hookup-culture that Salon discusses. And she fails to understand why parents such as Linker aren’t merely exhibiting a merely reactionary horror, but rather a legitimate shock over how far we continue to progress in our sexual freedoms, as a culture.
Weigel does admit that we are progressing into new territory—she just doesn’t think the progression is an ethical one: “New practices like hooking up have less to do with a moral apocalypse than with the evolution of the economy,” she argues.
Young people today are told to be flexible and mobile in all other aspects of our lives; we are told to be eternal entrepreneurs of ourselves, and that we cannot count on steady gigs or fixed contracts or benefits. Why would this not apply to our love lives, too? Why shouldn’t Tinderellas use an Uber for romance and sex when they use one for everything else?
It is true that our mediums and environment influence us in powerful ways. Financial insecurity and unemployment are a couple factors that often dissuade young people from marriage. So is having experienced the divorce of one’s parents. Technology has, some argue, encouraged a short-term focus on immediate pleasures—it fosters a short attention span and an appetite for the immediate.
The question is, of course, whether Weigel is right: that these things are not ultimately moral issues, but merely a change in the way we as humans work. A stage in relational evolution, perhaps.
Linker seems to suggest that these are moral issues. He believes that, in the age of liberality, we’ve stripped young people of such moral language, and they are merely responding with the vocabulary we’ve given them: “God? Nature? Won’t the world be better off without those musty old ideas limiting our freedom, hovering over our heads, judging us, weighing on our conscience?” And Rod Dreher hasresponded to the Tinder story with moral arguments against this growing trend.
But many people concerned with the hookup culture are people who have glimpsed what dating could be, and what it can practically or relationally offer to young people: namely, something more than pure sexuality and momentary physical satisfaction. Dating offers the opportunity to appreciate the entirety of the human person: mind and soul, as well as body. Dating can be about getting to know a person, and learning to appreciate them in all their various virtues and defects. It can offer an opportunity to develop a friendship, one based on more than mere sentience.
And this is what we may lose, if we go from dating to merely hooking up. We lose that gift of appreciation for and friendship with one person, learning to know them in a full way that honors their personhood and individuality—in a way that sees and appreciates them for more than their physical anatomy.
Aside from the dated person themselves, there’s often a community that springs up when you date a person. Your friends mix and mingle, you meet new people and form new social bonds. As the Salon article notes, a principle of proximity often guides traditional dating relationships—a principle that not only helps cultivate closeness with the boyfriend or girlfriend in question, but also binds you to a people and place.
Losing this would be a sad thing. Dating, regardless of whether it ends in marriage, affords us an opportunity to know and appreciate other people in a unique way. It also helps us grow personally—forcing us to confront our own personal vices, teaching us to overlook annoyances and give up our own desires to serve someone else. Replacing that gift with the temporary yet exciting opportunities of hooking up may seem liberating, but one wonders whether eventually we’ll come to feel ourselves cheated out of something greater, and deeper.