The labor of finding love: Why today's nonsystem is a good thing

One day, the story goes, a young man went to call on a young lady. When he arrived, she had her hat on.

So what? you're thinking. But people in the 1920s would have understood this as an uncomfortable situation. The man had come "calling," expecting to sit in her family's parlor, maybe listen to her play the piano. She thought they were going on a date (thus, the hat). He did take her out - and spent a week's earnings.

Single young Americans have more in common with their 1920 counterparts than it may seem. In the '20s they were caught between different systems of courtship, as "dating" replaced the system of "calling."

Young Americans today are also caught between systems, and mightily confused. The difference is that in 1920, one relatively clear model was giving way to another. Today, Americans have been confused for almost 30 years. There isn't even a clear term for what young people do.

Courtship? That suggests men on bended knee in family parlors, and women who know that red roses mean "I love you" while yellow ones signal love's decrease. It's an old-fashioned word, perhaps appealing to the nostalgic, but of limited use. Courtship leads to marriage, and that's not the set of expectations we want to attach to every first date. Date?

The term "date" is still around (check the "Sex and the City" home page). But dating, as a system with clear rules and expectations, has been in eclipse since around 1970. If young people do go on dates, they're not quite sure how the system works anymore.

What about hanging out? Hooking up? Both are useful terms - with a range of meanings from just being together to having sex - but they are most striking for their casualness. The relationship scene is all so complicated, not just because no one can agree on a name for what single people do, but because people don't all subscribe to the same rules. That makes - well, whatever it is - really hard.

The uncertainty has created a flood of misplaced nostalgia. University of Chicago professors Leon and Amy Kass have called for the return of "classical courtship," in which the roles of men and women are distinct. "The man woos, the woman is wooed," they write. This system rests, they argue, on "the true power of women as women": modesty and chastity.

Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider made a bundle with their first book, "The Rules: Time Tested Secrets for Capturing the Heart of Mr. Right" - a recap of the logic behind the '50s dating system (e.g., don't accept a date for Saturday after Wednesday because you'll seem too available). The Kasses claim an ethical basis for their proposals; the "Rules" women are utilitarian. But both pairs look backward.

History doesn't offer a good model. American systems of courtship have changed because society has changed. The community-centered courtship of earlier years suited a largely rural and agrarian population, though it would be hard to argue that it was primarily based on women's modesty and chastity. At one point in 18th-century Germantown, Pa., for example, one-quarter of all brides were pregnant when they married.

"Dating" emerged with the rise of an urban-industrial society. Dating repositioned courtship outside the full control of family and community. Young people found more freedom in the new world of urban amusements. But there was a fundamental problem with dating. Unlike the old system, it cost money - men's money.

Men + money = women + ?

The missing term wasn't hard to figure. In fact, the term "date" comes from prostitution. At the same time, society insisted on the importance of women's virtue and chastity. The 60-plus-year history of dating was a struggle to balance the impossible demands placed on women, caught between the notion that one had to "pet to be popular" and the chilling injunction: "Who wants second-hand goods?"

Current practices, as incoherent as they seem, are a reasonable response to contemporary society. They are rooted in women's changing roles over the past 30 years, and also in the growing awareness of diversity in society. That's a good thing.

But it may be scant comfort when nobody grabs for the check, or when he's "courting" and you're "hooking up." It is harder than having rules. Still, it is good, largely because today's nonsystem demands more attention to the implications of actions, more communication, more self-awareness. All that self-awareness may be tough on romance. But it's good for relationships, even on Valentine's Day - and that's more important.

• Beth Bailey is the author of 'Sex in the Heartland' (Harvard University, 1999).

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