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Dating Will Never Die

If the Industrial Revolution didn’t kill it, how could Tinder?

Library of Congress

Last week, Vanity Fair broke some bad news: We are living in romantic end-times."Tinder And The Dawn Of The Dating Apocalypse," the headline thundered. The author of the piece, Nancy Jo Sales, followed a pattern that you will recognize from umpteen other viral pieces on the (Sad) State of Modern Courtship.

It goes like this: In the bars of downtown Manhattan, or some other overpriced urban center, young people are using their cell phones to find sex without love! Douchebags who crunch numbers for the financial services sector by day, are making quant-y boasts about the women they see by night! Well-pedigreed young women are receiving obscene text messages from men they have never even met!

Throw in a few titillating observations from people who seem like authorities on the scene—Nancy Jo Sales cites the 28-year-old “fetching, tattooed owner” of an East Village Sake bar, who says that, “Men in this town have a serious case of pussy affluenza”—add vague quotes from a handful of academics—“we are in uncharted territory,” one researcher from the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana attests—and voilà!

You have a trends piece.  

When half a dozen friends and relatives emailed me “The Dawn of the Dating Apocalypse” last Friday, I struggled to get through it. I have spent the past two years researching a book on the history of dating, which has meant two years reading countless versions of exactly this kind of article. As long as young people have gone out and done things they call “dating,” older people have struggled to keep up with their exploits. And writer after writer has made a living out of chronicling them with a mix of prurience and outrage.

If there is one thing I have learned from combing through over a century of material about dating, it is this: People have been proclaiming that dating is about to die ever since it was invented. What intrigues me about these pieces is: Why does anyone still read them?

Every decade or so there seems to be an outbreak of hysteria about some new trend or technology that threatens to destroy dating. When I was in middle school in the 1990s, it was cybersex. When I was in high school and college in the 2000s, it was “hookup culture.” If you plug the phrase “hookup” into Google NGram, you see that it appears out of nowhere around the turn of the millennium and has climbed steadily upward ever since. At first, most of the studies of hookup culture focused on students in high school and college. But since 2010, a spate of reporters have turned their attention to mobile apps that facilitate sexual encounters on demand—allowing users to behave like drunken kids at a frat party well into their nominal adulthood.

One of the academics Sales cites is Justin Gracia, a research scientist at the Kinsey Institute at the University of Indiana. Sales quotes him as saying that “there have been two major transitions” in heterosexual mating “in the last four million years”: the agricultural revolution and the invention of the internet. I have no doubt that the emergence of human civilization changed human courtship patterns. But the idea that these patterns remained stable from four million years ago until the invention of the World Wide Web strikes me as highly dubious.

Even dating, which is only one form that human courtship has taken—and a recent one, at that—changed many times between when it first emerged around 1900 and when millions of Americans started to go online in the 1990s. When they first started doing it, the fact that men and women were going out together at all was a scandal. In the late nineteenth century, the standard way that middle class Americans courted one another was not dating, but “calling.” A woman of marrying age would invite suitable men to visit her in her family parlor, where her mother or aunts chaperoned. If the couple hit it off, more calls followed, until eventually they got married and sat in their own parlor. People who could not afford parlors met romantic prospects through their church or other community groups, also under adult supervision.

In the 1890s, massive changes in the American economy and social landscape started to change courtship customs. Millions of people were migrating from the countryside, or from other countries, to large cities. And in these cities, women were going to work in public. Women who would have toiled as slaves or domestic servants or housewives if they had been born a decade earlier were finding jobs in factories and shops and restaurants. The Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has estimated that by 1900, 55 percent of American women worked outside their homes. At work, and on the street, they could meet more men every day than they would have in a lifetime in the rural villages they came from. Sometimes they “made dates” with them.

This meant they met them at a bar or restaurant or boardwalk or movie house in order to eat something or enjoy some entertainment. Given how poorly many women were paid, making dates was often the only way they could afford a hot meal, not to mention have any fun. But there was no precedent for women meeting strangers in public, unless they were “public women,” or prostitutes. And so, authorities were highly suspicious of the first women who did. Indeed, they often arrested them.

In the 1910s, the Bedford Hills Reformatory, an institution in New York founded rehabilitate female “delinquents,” was full of women who had been locked up for dating. But the Vice Squad did not, or would not, get it. (Then, as now, the police often used suspicions of sex work as a pretext to harass poor and minority populations.) These women were not necessarily promising sex to the men who had invited them out, and certainly not for cash. They only promised a few hours of their time and attention. And so, the ambiguous emotional transaction that is the modern date was born.

And in short order, the “death of dating” trends piece was born with it.

The practice of dating made courtship part of the economy. It depended on how people worked and the kinds of commercial entertainments that were available for them to enjoy after work. Like the rest of the economy it has changed constantly, undergoing versions of what an economist would call “creative destruction.” Every time it does, trends pieces declaring a moral crisis have appeared. In the Roaring Twenties, these pieces were all about the antics of the first generation of students who mixed at coed high schools and colleges. Writers coined the phrase “sexual revolution” to describe their behavior. Magazine writers reported on their saucy slang. Among the flappers and fussers (their playboy male counterparts), there were “button shiners” (boys who danced so close to their partners that they appeared to be polishing their suit or shirt buttons on their dresses), “crumpet munchers” (who danced close “for the kick they get out of it”), and “snuggle pups” (don’t ask).

But above all there was “petting.”  In his 1920 novel, This Side of Paradise, the young F. Scott Fitzgerald devoted an entire chapter to “that great current American phenomenon, the petting party.” “None of the Victorian mothers,” Fitzgerald warned, “had any idea how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed.” “Mothers Complain That Modern Girls ‘Vamp’ Their Sons at Petting Parties,” the New York Times proclaimed in 1921.

Like the contemporary hysteria over Tinder hookups, adult anxieties were driven by new technologies. Before mobile phones, there was the automobile. Dean Robert Cooley Angell of the University of Michigan, a famous authority on student life, warned in his 1930 book, The Campus, that cars were completely changing sexual mores. “The ease with which a couple can secure absolute privacy when in possession of a car and the spirit of reckless abandon which high speed and moonlight drives engender have combined to break down the traditional barriers between the sexes.”

Fast forward ten years, and teens were giving up “petting parties” in favor of pairing off. Today, the term they used for it, “going steady” sounds almost comically innocent. But the advice mavens of the 1940s and 1950s were appalled. In 1942, Doris Blake, a nationally syndicated advice columnist wrote a lament for the disappearance of more promiscuous forms of dating. “It's simply a pernicious habit grown out of we-don't-know-what that has fostered this ridiculous custom of a couple of 16, 17, or 18 year olds pairing off to the exclusion of everyone else on the dance floor,” she fumed. “It’s just not smart to get one’s name tied to one individual at that period of life.”

She was too delicate to spell out the biggest danger many adults saw in going steady. The Catholic Church was not. In 1957, following a public denunciation of going steady by Alphonsus Stritch, the Archbishop of Chicago, Catholic Magazine warned readers that “it is impossible for a boy and a girl to be alone together in an intimate and exclusive companionship for any length of time without serious sin." Catholic schools across the country expelled students who were discovered to be “seeing one other student to the exclusion of all others.” Like the working class date and the petting party, going steady apparently launched teens on a slippery slope toward total dissolution.

Even a short survey makes it clear that every generation has thought that the next generation was dating wrong. Very few writers spell out what they think dating should be; it seems to be something that authorities can agree on its protocols only after they become outdated.

The death of dating genre tends to treat each new form of courtship as a moral aberration. This is silly. New practices like hooking up have less to do with a moral apocalypse than with the evolution of the economy. 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?

Articles like Nancy Jo Sales's also rely on on a weird combination of timelessness and technological determinism. If we are to believe the evolutionary psychologists she cites, our genders have stable essences that were fixed tens of thousands of years ago; however, for all that time men have been waiting for the latest iPhone roll out so they could really realize their natural desires. Yet, despite the basic implausibility of its assumptions, this genre has remained enduringly appealing. Why? It has something for everyone. To the adults who feel bewildered by how young people, especially their children, are dating, and by new technologies in general, it offers answers. It lets them feel knowledgeable while retaining their moral superiority. To singles who are dating and frustrated, it comforts them that they are blameless: The state of dating affairs is fatally corrupt; no one could do better. Those who are happily coupled get to enjoy a shiver of Schadenfreude; if they are secretly bored they console themselves that bed death must be better than Tindering through the apocalypse Nancy Jo Sales describes.

And yet while these stories may be temporarily reassuring they are ultimately destructive. First, they are not only incoherent; they are reactionary. Stories about the depraved state of dating in the present often indulge in unreflective nostalgia for the past, while obscuring all the things that were terrible about dating then. We may look back at the Fifties as an era of sweet chivalry now, but it was also an era of unbearable gender double standards, date rape that left young women no option but to blame themselves, shotgun marriages that pulled women out of school and led to lifetimes of unhappiness. Forget what happened to you if you fell in love with someone not of your race.

The second problem is the converse: the attitude that articles like "Dating Apocalypse" evinces ignores the genuinely exciting and emancipatory possibilities of change. Let’s take the cybersex that supposedly threatened my generation. While authorities fretted about pedophiles supposedly lurking in every AOL Chatroom, for many queer and non gender conforming kids the Internet was a godsend. Countless young people attested, when they grew up and came out, that they had formed invaluable bonds online--especially critical to those who grew up in households or places where they felt sure their sexuality would never be accepted. An article on teens and cybersex that appeared in the New York Times in 1999 cites a startling statistic offhand: One in six gay teens who graduated from high school that year would be so badly beaten, at least once, before graduation that he would have to seek medical assistance. Do we really wish that they had had no options other than IRL?

I understand why the pessimistic attitude that Nancy Jo Sales piece implies toward courtship is enduringly appealing. Self-satisfaction can sell as well as sex. However, I believe that this attitude gets things precisely backwards. The ability to desire and love is the chance that each of us gets to makes the world new by joining our lives with others. How regrettable it would be not to understand it well enough to really embrace it.