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How dates got so complicated

A young man and woman share a float
A young man and woman share a float
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Apparently an unofficial U.S. holiday known as National Date Night is this Saturday. It's an occasion that poses more definitional issues than you might suspect. Glamour, in a recent poll, found that 73 percent of women "said they often can't even tell whether they've been on a date or not" and 19 percent "said they had never been on a real date at all."

What's going on? Why are so many people so confused?

A combination of things — technological changes like online dating, societal changes like the whittling down of the stigma attached to casual sex, and economic changes — have worked together and bent what we thought we knew about what we were taught about dates and dating. Anything, everything, and sometimes nothing can pass for a date nowadays.

So confusion isn't really all that surprising. Here's why:

Dates have always been defined for us, never by us

Part of this confusion is that each person has their own working definition of what it means. This idea varies from person to person, and is usually something culled from what that person has been told a "date" is, rather than from personal experience.

In the 1950s, there were instructional videos about dating for teenagers, which were made by adults. Those videos codified dating to an extent by providing guidelines for acceptable behavior and activities to do on a date. This was a drastic change from dating in the 1920s when there would be parental supervision:

Today, those messages are a bit watered down (some, as we explain, still stick). And parents and adults today don't have as much control over young people's dating actions.

"It varies from person to person," Dr. Zhana Vrangalova, a sex researcher and adjunct professor at NYU, says. "Some people think of it in the traditional sense: dinner, movies, whatever. People have also stretched the definition of the date to something more casual like getting drinks. Couples and non-monogamous couples have their own definitions of dates too."

Eliminating the idea that a date is a prescribed set of actions makes those older definitions obsolete. Ergo, a 20-minute coffee meet-up and an afternoon stroll in the park could both be dates, as could seeing a movie together, or dropping by for wine and an episode of Game of Thrones.

The downside is that when anything can be a date, any platonic friendship activity can be construed as a date. That's part of the reason why there's that startling number of women in Glamour's poll who can't tell whether they've been on a date. It's not that they don't have working definition of dating or what a date is. It's that they can't tell what the person they went on that "date" with is working with the same definition.


Joe Shlabotnik via Flickr

What if guys stop paying for dates? Are they still dates?

Guys paying for the check has been a way for both women and men to tell and signal if they are on a date. It's a tradition that men and women still hold on to, even though women have better jobs, a better range of jobs available to them, make more money than they did in the past and even though studies show that men continually rate intelligence and education as important, desirable qualities in a mate.

According to researchers at California State University Los Angeles, nearly two-thirds of women said they offered to pay for dates. But nearly 40 percent of those women said they hoped the guy would turn down the offer, and 44 percent said they would be annoyed if the bill was split.

Dr. Wendy Walsh, CNN's human behavior expert, takes this a step further in her explanation of why the old definitions of dating are obsolete. Men, she believes, used to use dates to flaunt their ability to be a good partner for the future, with the end goal being sex. Sex and partnership were incentives for courtship. But women, she points out, are earning more and more specifically, childless women in their 20s out-earn their male peers

"When you have a high supply of powerful women, they can have sex for pleasure's sake. The price of sex in the 1950s was around six months of courtship — the beginning of dating to marriage. In the '80s, it was three dates," she says. "Now the price of sex is one well-worded text: 'Do you wanna hang out?'"

Walsh's criticisms and opinions about dating and sex seem to only apply to certain subset of the women. And Walsh fully admits hers is a very controversial stance — studies have shown that even though the marriage rate in the United States has dipped, the numbers have dipped less for educated women than they have for other segments of the female population.

"The problem is that one partner has a fertility window and the other doesn't … Guys like to feel like a king. There can't be two kings," she said. "This is news that powerful single woman don't like to hear. I'm not politically correct — I'm scientific."

When it comes to gay and lesbian relationships, these gender norms are, of course, thrown out the window. There seems to be chatter that whoever does the inviting should offer, but the answer "who pays" question isn't any more clear.


A still from the Bravo show, Online Dating Rituals of the American Male

Online dating made "dates" really clear, but changed them too

On the surface, online dating doesn't seem that confusing. If you're meeting someone using sites like OkCupid and Match or apps like Tinder, Grindr, or Scruff, those are probably dates (or hookups) and both of you are pretty sure you're not meeting each other with the primary intention of friendship.

But that doesn't mean online dating is purely beneficial.

"It has deepened a gulf between reality and imagination," Giovanni Frazzetto of the Institute for Advanced Studies, Berlin explains. "It's ridiculous that if someone sees a beautiful human being on the other side of the bus stop, instead of approaching them with an elegant line or finding an excuse to talk them, the first thing done is to check whether they are online."

Frazzetto defines a date as a "bridge" you build to get to know someone else.  "They are the inevitable first step to be in the exclusive presence of someone we are interested in getting to know better. Dates are a bet, a transaction of hopes, and sometimes a mirror for illusions," he said.

Frazetto and Vrangalova both say that online dating has given people plenty of dating options, and perhaps too many dating options. And in the online dating world, people have become a commodity, which has changed the way we date. Frazetto argues that we don't have as much patience, and are hesitant to devote our time on a date. That's the reason, he says,  20-minute coffee dates are now a thing.

"The fact that people may swipe potential partners on a screen and date up to five possible individuals a week is a sign of determination to find a partner, but it makes the whole enterprise rather superficial," Frazetto said. "The interest (and the relevant investment) in the person on the other side of the coffee or dinner table evaporates too quickly sometimes, because there will always be another (perhaps more appealing) prey when the computer or smart phone is turned on."


Don Shall via Flickr

How we hookup changes the way we date

But let's suppose that instead of going to a dinner and movie, two people simply hook up without any preceding activities. Is that a date? Or something else?

Vrangalova is the creator of The Casual Sex Project, a website that collects stories from people having sex with people who they aren't in a monogamous relationship with. "For some people, a date is a hookup." she said. "There's a lot of uncertainty about what things mean."

Further, the definition of "hookup" is as varied as the definition of date. "Defining what hooking up and what a hookup is a problem," Amanda Gesselman, a 28-year-old post-doctoral research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, told me. Gesselman studies hookup culture, and explained that the word could mean anything from making out, to one night stands, to assisted masturbation.

"We're hearing a lot more about it, because it's easier for people to do that [hooking up] on college campuses, and also because it's not quite as stigmatized."


Friends with benefits have become such a hot topic, that a movie starring Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis was created to explain them.

The one-night-stands turned into our friends with benefits

We might have called them one-night stands in the past. But that doesn't apply anymore. Because there's less stigma, one-night stands turn into "friends with benefits" (FWB) situations — a relationship built on the premise of regular casual sex without commitment. Gesselman sees a lot more FWB-type of situations in her research. She calls this behavior "pre-dating," when women "try out" a suitor, and sees what kind of partner they can be. "That affects dates and dating," she said.


Photo by: Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

"Hook up culture" has been a popular trend story for the past few years. And there's this image of undergrads and young adults being more promiscuous than ever. But that might be just a myth.

A 2011 study from researchers at University of Nebraska-Lincoln entitled "Talk About ‘Hooking Up’: The Influence of College Student Social Networks on Non-relationship Sex," found that only 37 percent of the students they studied reported two or more hookups during the school year. But 90 percent of the participants thought a "typical" student had been involved in two more hookups.


Even if the numbers in real life aren't as out of touch as they are on a college campus, there is some sense of hookup inflation. This perceived sense of everyone hooking up around us changes our expectations, changes the pressure we have, and perhaps changes the way we'd naturally behave.

What is and what isn't a date?

After speaking to all these experts, I asked them what their definition of a date is. I've assembled the very basics of a "date":

  • A date involves two people who are meeting in person
  • A date has no time restriction, and there's no rule that short dates are better than longer dates
  • Someone paying for the date usually signifies that you are on a date
  • Don't expect dates to be elegant anymore
  • You can take your hookup on dates
  • Some people think hookups are dates
  • If you're unsure, just ask: "Is this a date?" (the nuclear option)
Perhaps the important thing to remember is not to take ourselves too seriously. Dates, at their core, are supposed to be fun. And maybe this confusion is just the "new normal" that we (single people) have to deal with. Compared to how our parents and grandparents dated in the past — instructional videos and parents sitting in with a gentleman caller — a little confusion seems like a blessing.  A "National Date Night" might help ease some of that uneasiness, sure.

But we'll probably be fine without it.

Update: One of our readers pointed out that Dr. Walsh's points might be mistaken for facts on marriage rather than opinion. I tried to make that clearer.