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The history of dating reveals how consumerism has hijacked courtship

Dating was tedious long before Tinder and OkCupid.

Marriage isn't necessarily the end goal of dating anymore.
Marriage isn't necessarily the end goal of dating anymore.

If taken seriously, few activities may fill your life with such highs, and such lows, as dating.

Now that it's possible to frenetically juggle prospects on multiple sites and apps and then bounce from bar to bed with them, the roller coaster can get very extreme indeed. It's an astounding shift from a century ago, when an unchaperoned "date" was avant-garde, even suspicious to the authorities, writes Moira Weigel in Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, an extraordinary book published in 2016. Women invited by men to drink in bars were seen as loose and uncouth.

And yet dating is still treacherous: We may find a partner, but we may be ghosted (or exploited, or worse) or become too jaded to keep searching for meaningful connection.

Our habits are also a lot less novel than we like to think.

Companies like IAC — which owns Match, OKCupid, and Tinder, along with 42 other "dating products" — have perfected the art of profiting off our hunger for love, sex, and companionship. But dating has always been a lucrative market for the cosmetics, fashion, and entertainment industries, among others.

Perhaps what we least appreciate is that dating has always been hard work, akin to "an unpaid internship for love," writes Weigel. When we date, we toil as actors in a drama written by society and the lovers who came before us, she observes. And part of what makes it so bewildering is that the script and the roles we play are constantly changing.

In 2016, I called up Weigel, who got a PhD from Yale and is now a fellow at Harvard, to discuss her masterful tapestry of feminism, pop culture, sociology, history, and economics. Our conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Eliza Barclay

What you point out is how, even from the early days of dating in the early 20th century, we've talked about it as a form of shopping -- and as a game. You note that we’ve become more "educated consumers" in terms of how taste informs whom we choose to date and what kind of sex we seek. We’ve also become more agile athletes in the game.

But of course it’s so much more emotionally complex than that. Does treating a romantic prospect like a transaction or a game take a psychological toll?

Moira Weigel

I think so. I think for one, it’s exhausting. For two, if you’re playing [author] Neil Strauss’s version of The Game, which is mostly about fulfilling the male fantasy of easily getting women into bed, you’re encouraged to "think of tonight as a video game." But with that, there’s a loss of connection with your own emotions, which is sad. Because emotional connection is supposed to be the point of dating.

From Glamorous Romances "Playing hard-to-get." (1951)

Eliza Barclay

A related point you make is how participating in digital dating culture today is dependent upon having money. The people who are seemingly just browsing — the people I think of as recreational daters — are the unattached urban elite. (Of course, not all of them are just playing. We now have virtual dating assistants: experts for people who see dating as a part-time job they’re too busy to do themselves.)

So modern people who have significant financial burdens are probably not dating and may also not be able to plan for partnership.

Moira Weigel

My book is mostly about college-educated people in cities. But when you think about why other people don’t date, it’s also because they don’t have time and they have children. It’s material resources and time. It’s part of why it’s aspirational. We have these shows like Sex and the City — it’s aspirational dating.

Eliza Barclay

The history of dating in America, as you tell it, starts when the first generation of women leave the confines of the home to work in cities at the beginning of the 20th century. Suddenly men and women have this opportunity to meet and mingle unsupervised by their families. You call that the shopgirl era — because many of the first women daters were salesgirls in department stores.

And you describe all these other generations of daters that follow them: the college men and coeds (an early generation of lustful frat boys and sorority girls in the 1920s and 1930s), the Steadies (1950s daters who started "going steady" and invented the breakup), the Yuppies (1980s daters who helped create dating niches).

Which of these generations was the most fun for you to research?

Moira Weigel

The 1920s flapper and shopgirl era was a lot of fun. On a very personal note, my grandfather was really sick and in hospice while I was finishing the book. But he’d had this terrific 20th-century romance with my grandmother where they fell in love before World War II and he’d gone off and come back. And he was reminiscing about all the big dances and their ebullient energy and joyriding in the 1930s. I feel like that era was fun — with the serious proviso that if you were queer, not white, not middle class, it was not fun.

Rooney Mara, left, plays a "shopgirl" who falls in love with Carol, played by Cate Blanchett, right, in the film Carol.
Weinstein Co.

Eliza Barclay

This is your first book, and it got a lot of attention (in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the New York Times). Seems like we may be ready for some deep reflection on dating culture.

Why do you think it is resonating so much right now?

Moira Weigel

I’ve thought a lot about how there’s been a reinvigoration of feminism in the US in the past five to 10 years. I tend to think that that is about … the new social movement, starting with Occupy and Black Lives Matter. People are more politicized. Writers like Roxane Gay had a big online following before she wrote Bad Feminist.

I like to joke that "because the internet" is the answer to everything. But I tend to think that the revival of interest in explicitly feminist discourse in the past few years has something to do with it.

Dating specifically — it is a thing that a lot of people do, and these subjects are subjects in which humans in general and women in particular have been underserved. And there’s a real appetite for more complex thinking; at least that was my hope.

Why do you think? It’s been a pleasant surprise for me that there has been so much interest.

Eliza Barclay

I think you’ve given us ways to talk about the subtle, mysterious forces that guide us. You write that dating protocols change so quickly, and thus inspire a lot of anxiety and bewilderment. I think that’s a lot of people’s experience of the new digital dating culture, and we could really use a social and historical guide to help us understand where we are.

Moira Weigel

There isn’t that much writing treating these subjects seriously. And they’re really serious subjects. Indeed, I think not treating them seriously has its own conservative effect, where it doesn’t give people the opportunity to think about the social roles they’re being handed. So I’d like to think there’s a market gap. Some of New American feminism is addressing that. I think there’s still a huge gap for comprehensive, deep thinking about these subjects.

U.S. Census

Eliza Barclay

One thing that seems different today is that before, there was more of a limited window of youth when people could have this experience of meeting new people before settling down with one of them. Now you can perhaps do that endlessly — it’s more socially acceptable to stay single and keep dating your whole life. Do you think that’s accurate?

Moira Weigel

Definitely. The median age of first marriage in the US for men was 29.2 and 27.1 for women in 2015.

In 1970, it was lower [23.2 for men and 20.8 for women], but it hasn’t actually been rising constantly. It went up and down in the middle of the century [around WWII].

Still, it’s definitely older than it’s ever been today, and so in a very measurable way this period of first dating goes on longer. And, as you say, we have different social expectations now about when it will end. So definitely it is a less concentrated window when young people might be "snuggle pupping" and "crumpet munching," [mid–20th century dating lingo] and all these other wild things.

Eliza Barclay

Let’s talk about marriage. You write about how, through the Steadies era, the open secret of a lot of housewives was that they were desperately unhappy. We’re a generation that knows divorce well, and plenty of younger people are wary of marriage today because of their parents’ unhappy marriages.

What’s more, you write that 80 percent of never-married Americans say they want to marry, but "many of us live in ways that are incompatible with the institution. We work too long, we move too often, we may remain ambivalent about monogamy or children. Serial monogamy is a way of putting marriage off. Does it also call into question its place as a central value in our culture?"

Let’s pause and think about that. The paradigm of marriage is so dominant culturally, yet I wonder if we will reach a point where we can be more accepting of the fact that our lives may indeed be a lot less compatible with it. As opposed to seeing [marriage] as the essential life goal.

Moira Weigel

I think we still place this huge emphasis on marriage culturally in the US. We believe in all these benefits, but when you step back and look at it, it’s very skewed by class. People with college degrees are getting married. People without college degrees are getting married at much lower rates than they were before. And even among upper-income people, people are waiting.

I think about Rebecca Traister’s book All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Maybe we are in the middle of a transformation. I’m not a futurologist, and I’m always inclined to historicize.

And I think dating is still a process that a lot of people at least theoretically think of as a process that ends in marriage or a process that’s geared toward finding marriage. And yet it’s not self-evident that that’s the goal of dating. And of course, the bar owner, or the OKCupid owner — they don’t care if you get married. It’s not actually a process geared toward reproducing families. It’s a different thing.

When I was writing the book, I thought, Oh, dating needs to be put in historical context, but of course, marriage also needs to be put in historical context. And it’s not trans-historical at all.

I think about the Industrial Revolution, and the French Revolution circa 1800, when you see this large-scale shift in Europe when you have people living in extended family units, farming together. Then with the shift toward an industrial economy with new kinds of working arrangements, you start to see the rise of this ideal of being in love with one person and being married to one person. In an industrial economy you don’t need all those people living together.

This idea of a love marriage — that you should live with your favorite person who you also want to have sex with — that’s a new idea, too. If the Industrial Revolution invented the love marriage and the nuclear family, is the digital revolution inventing something else? It’s entirely possible.

Where are you, Romeo?
Michael Coghlan/ Flickr

Eliza Barclay

How do you think the digital revolution is inventing a new style of dating?

Moira Weigel

The depressing version is: mobile individuals who move around too much to form permanent bonds. The less depressing version is new kinds of family, and people have more flexibility in how they arrange their lives, where they don’t have to have the 1950s model of family. People do want marriage — what a huge victory [same-sex] marriage feels like! — but yet I wonder if all these large-scale social and economic forces are militating against it.

Looking at sociological data on white working-class families, the lower rates of marriage prove these are economic issues, not cultural issues. I tend to think that these things are very driven by work arrangements and economic forces.

As cities become more unaffordable, I’m interested in how living situations will change romantic and sexual relationships. Maybe it means polyamory, or friends as a bigger part of our lives. Those material bases for romantic relationships are changing. Maybe we won’t think it’s a tragedy [to not marry].

The dating sites where 87 couples, featured in the New York Times wedding section since August 23, 2015, met. (Check out Todd Schneider's analysis of 63,000 Times announcements for more.)
Todd Schneider

Eliza Barclay

You have some really fascinating things to say about the biological clock — how it was actually an invention of the Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen in 1978 in a piece he wrote called "The Clock Is Ticking for the Career Woman." Immediately this idea began stalking career women.

Egg freezing has been marketed as a solution to the biological clock, because it may increase a woman’s chance of having babies via thawed eggs in the future when her fertility may have declined. You call egg freezing "a way to prolong the existence of a problem" — the problem of the burden of reproducing falling almost entirely on women.

Moira Weigel

I’m not attacking individual people’s decision to freeze their eggs. But I think there may be an incompatibility with the biological limitations of the human body and the idea that the best thing is to come up with a futuristic technological solution to them. Why not instead have a more basic social fix?

Also, egg freezing has been talked about in two ways, one of which is easier for me to critique than the other. The first way is this means you can work and work through your 30s and 40s. So when does life come? You’re supposed to put off life for work; that shouldn’t be the way we have to live.

In between basic paid family leave and slightly more flexible career tracks, there’s time-freezing technology. The idea that the time-freezing technology seems a more realistic solution than the basic changes in social policy to me reflects a deep intransigence in thinking about these matters. Though I’m encouraged by the recent paid family leave stuff in California and New York, so maybe we’re getting a bit of movement on that issue.

The other thing that’s harder to talk about is that it seems like people talk about egg freezing as a way to date without feeling the pressure of biological clock and specifically without making their partners feel the pressure. A lot of women say they feel empowered by egg freezing, but at the same time it’s a curious form of empowerment: You can now spend tens of thousands of dollars doing this possibly dangerous procedure so the man you’re dating won’t have to be bothered by the reality that you have a body.

Eliza Barclay

Or that you won’t inflict your anxieties on them.

Moira Weigel

It’s particularly crazy because male fertility also declines with age. But this idea that [for] a certain class of high-achieving professionally successful women this would just be part of making yourself perfect, and not burdening your partner — that seems to me troubling, the attempt of companies like Eggbanxx to normalize that expectation. It seems to have some pernicious effects when we talk about it as something everyone should do.

Eliza Barclay

I’ve done some reporting on egg freezing, but after reading your book I find it more troubling because, as you say, it represents even more work for women — work that may perpetuate inequality.

Moira Weigel

Ha, I’m helping you feel more troubled.

Eliza Barclay

A line I heard from some reproductive technology doctors, and others who are part of this fertility industry, was condescension and frustration with women who turn to things like egg freezing and IVF. They said, "We’re here to help the women, but really they shouldn’t be in this situation. If they had figured this out and weren’t facing this biological crunch, we wouldn’t have this societal problem."

The illuminating point you made in your article "The foul reign of the biological clock" (which was adapted from the book) is that the biological clock is just a social construct for thinking about fertility. It puts a tremendous amount of pressure and reproductive burden on women.

Moira Weigel

It’s so painful for me to hear you talk about this. Because I know people who really struggle with infertility, and they do internalize the language of self-blame that it’s some kind of failure. And it’s so awful. The parameters are clearly social for this problem in the large scale. And infertility is a health problem, it’s not a moral failing. The blaming language is so pervasive.

Infertility affects both men and women, but increasingly, the pressure to prevent it is falling on the shoulders of women.

Eliza Barclay

This is a book that is clearly going to appeal to women. What kinds of reactions have you gotten from male readers?

Moira Weigel

I’ve had men funnily say, "Oh, no, I have a biological clock, too?" I didn’t want equal-opportunity anxiety for everyone.

These gender roles that say men have all the agency also put a huge amount of pressure on men, and it’s not based in reality. So that is also anxious-making.

Eliza Barclay

I think there’s an assumption that more often, men date for sex and then dispose of women. But men dating are also experiencing pressures.

Moira Weigel

Starting with the idea that they should only want sex and not emotion. I know so many men who’ve been so socialized to feel that it would be shaming or not legitimate to experience emotion and have been given so little training even in how to recognize their own emotions. Maybe even if they are on dating apps, they are also following a social script that may be unsatisfying.

Eliza Barclay

That’s key. Some of them may have been socialized to think winning means lots of sex partners, but that may not be good for them, and they don’t know it.

Moira Weigel

One thing that’s interesting about the shift online is that it puts some of the pressure that has traditionally fallen on women on men. This sort of endless fashioning, shopgirl work of making yourself desirable does seem to be something that men experience now.

All this effort — I’m like, no, no, not more effort for everyone, less effort for everyone. But I wonder if some of that anxiety, of producing yourself as a commodity, selling yourself on the dating market, is becoming more universal because of demographics of sites like OKCupid with more male users than women. So it will be interesting to see how that shifts the conversation.

Eliza Barclay

It’s digital grooming.

Moira Weigel

That’s what the sites discipline you to do. That’s how they make money: We put in our photos and what we like. It’s the imperative built into sites.

Eliza Barclay

Okay, so for the disillusioned, frustrated modern dater who’s banging her head against the wall — or a disillusioned former dater in a relationship — what is your simple piece of advice? (And I should note here that you are now married.)

Moira Weigel

When you look at the history of dating, as long as there has been dating, there has been the crisis of dating. And people have felt frustrated by it. At the same time, desire does not die, love doesn’t die. I hope those two things are comforting

More pragmatically, it’s important to remember that all of these platforms (OKCupid, Tinder, Bumble, Grindr) are just tools, but they’re designed to get us to spend all our time on the platform. That’s what their incentive is. Always use these things with an eye to your own desires. There are so many cues to work on your profile just a little bit harder and then you’ll get the perfect match. Or groom yourself a little better and it’ll work.

Those aims are usually different from the aims of your desire. I hope readers will get some clarity about what they want and how the ways they’re dating might not be serving their desires or interests.

To women, I would say: Don’t hate yourself. Seriously, there’s an endless economy in making women hate themselves and therefore buy things. Try to resist this imperative from either the marketer or the dating app to play efficiently. And don’t regard your own pleasure or intimacy as a waste.

I think this language of efficiency can be brutalizing — on the apps and the sites. So let’s be kinder and more forgiving to ourselves and our partners.

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