February 06, 2017

The Problem With Casual Dating

Seriously, though? What the hell does that mean?

You know that phase that America went through were it was uncool for high school kids to be smart? TV shows like Boy Meets World, Full House, and Family Matters would feature really cool, attractive kids who didn't do their homework and struggled with basic arithmetic, juxtapositioned against very uncool, extremely unattractive super nerds who were taking AP astrophysics and interning for NASA in the 10th grade. This is the phase that Americans are now going through when it comes to relationships. Real, actual, bonafide relationships are suddenly uncool. Commitment is for nerds. Talking about feelings is lame. Only geeks want to know where things stand. Better to let things go with the flow, no questions asked, not even about STI status. Americans are trying everything in their power not to end up like Urkel, and like that era of TV I fear it'll take a few decades before we look back at this unfortunate cool kid moment in cultural history and see how ridiculous we actually look.  

On the one hand it makes complete and total sense. America is a puritanical country, plain and simple. It isn't nearly as liberal is it would like to believe it is, still lets little girls play with Barbies who don't have vaginas (because vaginas are scary,) and would rather elect an actual harbinger of the apocalypse to the highest political office in the land - who is openly sexist and even predatory, I might add - than (gasp!) a woman. 

So yeah...it's bad. At least when it comes to the way men and women relate to each other, and expectedly so. Rather than actually improving the foundation on which men and women relate to themselves, each other, and sex in this country, America has been taking some sloppy short cuts to sexual liberation, one of which is casual dating. I see it as the equivalent of when an ultraconservative, 50-something year old who thinks being gay is a choice and premarital sex is a sin gets a cartilage piercing and thinks they're now radically progressive. 

So first, what does actual progression look like? 

It starts with an assumed equality between men and women, not in terms of believing that we are exactly the same (because we aren't,) or believing that we always want the same things or do things for all the same reasons (because we don't,) but simply relating to each other as human beings first. This changes the dynamic of dating at its very core. In societies that aren't predicated on polarizing the genders until puberty, and even then mingling only for the purposes of dating, hooking up and, effectively, breeding, men and women are actually friends. They don't socialize in odd same sex packs and date as though they're on the Discovery Channel trying to separate one lucky, vulnerable gazelle from the herd. They have actual conversations without agendas, and can enjoy things like sexual tension and flirtation without expectations, stigmas, resentments, etc.  

This realization is what caused me to start seriously studying French culture. After a while it was easy to see the root of the problem that leads to weird, hypocritical behavior in America. Behavior like, people claiming to be deeply religious, frowning on so called promiscuity, meanwhile these people are not virgins, they aren't married and need all fingers, toes and nose hairs on which to count their lovers. People who claim they are progressive and sexually liberal but still expect women to dutifully hide their tampons up their sleeves on the way to the bathroom, think period sex is gross, think a 3:1 oral sex ratio in a relationship is perfectly normal and despite their aversion to female fluids don't understand why women don't seem to want semen in their faces like the ones on the internet. And speaking of the internet, you've got the folks who watch aggressive, exaggerated porn to excess but simultaneously mark a girl's cards if she talks openly about her sexuality, has had "too many" sex partners or the wrong kind of threesome. 

It all comes down to one common denominator - shame.

Shame is at the root of American sexuality, which leads to really, really weird behavior. It leads to closet porn addicts. People who spend their adolescence in a perpetual state of involuntary arousal with no relief in sight, only to go onto more and more extreme varieties of sexual expression once they actually can. There's the unfortunate rape culture in the country, as the genders grow up so ridiculously separate and sheltered from all things sexual, so that by the time sexual expression and behavior finally is appropriate both genders have poor emotional schooling and maturity around the matter. Women become objects in society rather than subjects to be seen, admired, lusted after, catcalled and acquired. Boys are taught to brag about what base they got to in the locker room and eventually score (hello Grease) while girls are taught to keep their knees together lest their net worth decrease with every orgasm. Even those who are drawn to a more liberal lifestyle are aware of the problems that can arise from talking about it - because sex is not something you talk about, despite the obvious truth that people are dying to talk about it! Just look at most of the internet and the success of poorly written (sorry, E.L. but you know it was fan fic) smut such as 50 Shades.

Much like the thirteen year old girl whose parents refuse to talk about sex and acknowledge sexuality to the extent that she doesn't own a real bra even though she needs one and is restricted to maxi pad use only, America is like that thirteen year old girl who desperately wants to look and be mature but just hasn't been given the tools. Thus, rather than showing up to school in a flowing silk top, form fitting jeans and a proper fucking bra, America comes to school in high button tops, itchy sweaters and long pleated skirts, only to change into low rise jeans, midriff baring tops and too much eyeliner in the bathroom. Because when you refuse to acknowledge that sex is a natural part of life, it proceeds to manifest in the most unnatural of ways. 

Casual dating is just one of them. 

Do not confuse casual dating with casual sex. They are not interchangeable

Casual sex actually makes sense. It's sex...with no strings attached. Under this umbrella falls one night stands, booty calls, booty calls on repeat, hooking up at parties, getting drunk at bars and making out (and more) without a care, sex with a cute stranger on vacation, basically anything in Vegas. You get the point. 

But casual...dating? How exactly does one date without strings attached? 

The problem with dating is that it carries certain expectations. Dating is relationshipping in its preliminary stages. We have very clear cut, American ideals surrounding not only what dating is, but what it means. Coffee. Dinner. Dinner and a movie. Drive through movies. Necking. Going steady - not that anyone goes steady and exchanges letterman jackets anymore. This is what dating looks like. And in terms of what it means, or rather, what it's for, it's a discovery phase, or a vetting process. If you're asking someone on multiple dates, or getting asked on multiple dates (by the same person) and things are progressing, ask any red blooded American and they can tell you where things are typically progressing to, whether that destination is spoken or not. It doesn't have to be spoken because there are literally hundreds of years of precedent - dating leads to relationships. Dating rituals are as deeply ingrained into our society as our awkward, shameful feelings about sex, and it would be one thing to simply abandon the old structure and adopt another, or make new rules altogether. But casual dating seeks to merge two completely different sets of rules surrounding sex and dating that fundamentally contradict each other. 

A healthy example of not quite dating:
I was seeing a French man for, oh let's say, three months. It began very simply. We'd been hanging out, watching a movie, and then we had sex. And then began this thing that Americans call dating. Except it wasn't. Not exactly. It included brunch, breakfast, dinners, more movies, bars, social gathering and lots and lots and lots of sex. But very early on, probably one of our first nights out after said sex, we had a conversation that established that despite our arrangement we were not exclusive, or necessarily looking for exclusivity. This conversation wasn't negative or discouraging. Quite the opposite. It allowed things to flourish within clear parameters without anyone getting jealous, confused, angry or hurt. Now granted, during this time we never spoke of other lovers - at least not other present lovers - and when things came to a platonic end we remained good friends. But this is very different from the behaviors that many consider to be casual dating today, because at no point was one of us unsure about where things were headed, or if they were headed anywhere. The terms, if you will, were always clear, which is perfectly sensible and necessary to have a successful relationship of any kind. When the terms changed (i.e.: when things became platonic) this was expressly communicated, not vaguely implied via a serious of unanswered text messages or awkward off the cuff remarks here and there. 

Many take casual dating to mean a zero responsibility/benefits only version of the thing. It means expecting that emotions will not exist, or if they do that because both parties understand that it's casual, they won't be talked about. Or if they are talked about this is grounds for ending the "casual" relationship, because no one wants to talk about feelings. They're too messy. It means operating on shaky ground forged of loose assumptions and unasked questions, because until one person comes out and says, "do you want to be boyfriend/girlfriend," anything goes. It almost always means one party wanting and expecting more than the other is prepared to give, but having no idea their feelings aren't reciprocated because, again, talking is the enemy. It relies on an uncomfortable zone of vagueness and mystery which is not all that sexy when you consider the STI's out there that even condoms can't guarantee protection from. (Get that HPV vaccination, folks.) 

It's trying to fit the ideas of casual sex inside the structure of traditional dating. Unfortunately, one of these things is a triangle, and the other is a fucking square.

We're in a place now where we know that we don't want boring old vanilla sex, and we don't want to spend night after night getting off on elicit websites, but most Americans do not have the emotional schooling and sexual maturity to effectively manage the kinds of relationships that would fulfill them sexually. So instead they rely on shame to facilitate unavailable relationships that almost always end in various levels of disaster due to an inability to do a very simple thing - just talk honestly about their sexual/romantic desires. 

To be clear, I am not by any means trying to say that if you aren't out there courting for marriage that there is something wrong with you. What I am saying, however, is that if you're out there courting for sex, you aren't dating. That just isn't the inherent meaning of the word, and while I am a bit of a stickler and firmly believe that, yes, words matter, it is much more a matter of precedent than that of vocabulary. 

To be fair, the French don't have a word for dating, so Americans don't necessarily need a word for...whatever the heck it is that is happening in that messy grey area between single and in-a-relationship for those that are not necessarily looking to transition from one status to the other. But regardless of whether we can neatly define it in a quick word or phrase, what we do need, and what I fear we do not have, is the mutual care and respect for each other as human beings, not opportunities or options for sex, and the emotional maturity to first identify our own desires for ourselves so as to be transparent with each other about whatever the hell we're doing, regardless of what we decide to call it. 

Two adults participating in the same activity and either defining it differently or not knowing how to define or describe it at all is not adults dating "casually." It's the equivalent of first graders sitting in the SAT and drawing stick figures all over their multiple choice, or writing plotless stories about unicorns and trees with their twenty world vocabulary in their blue books. And to an extent, yeah, it isn't their fault they don't know how to write a proper essay yet. But it's also understood that until then they stay the heck away from the SAT.  

It's not that you can't have fun and enjoy life. But the reality is that even the most detached, emotionally vacant human beings have emotions in there somewhere, and however easy it may be for some to jump into bed sex is just not inherently safe enough these days to be taken lightly. If you're one of those that can't stand convention and you want to go against the grain? - Great! This is for you! Get out there and exercise some emotional maturity. It isn't even trending yet, so you can say you were doing it before the hipsters. 

You can absolutely take every relationship as it comes, whatever that means, but you don't get to skirt the work involved with any interpersonal interaction, down to basic communication, and then let yourself off the hook for such negligence because "it's casual," "millennials date differently nowadays," or some other lame variation of but everyone is doing it. Hell, if Kathy contracted HPV from some guy because she didn't know he was sleeping with other women but she never asked and he never brought it up, would you go out there and do it too?

Didn't think so. 

I mean, hopefully in a decade or so American "dating" culture will graduate from high school. But until then, I beg you, please do not resort to being the emotional equivalent of a cool kid in Saved By The Bell. Communicate carefully and deliberately. Treat your fellow humans with respect. 

Basically...do your damn homework.  


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