Wooing the Past: Courtship Flirts With a Comeback

Karen S. Peterson, USA Today, 9/27/2000

...Dan Cere of McGill University in Montreal called for better scientific research on courtship in a report delivered last week to the Institute for American Values, a conservative think tank in New York. He believes that most who research how one finds a mate today have gone awry by cutting the link between courtship and marriage. "Courtship no longer occupies a vital place in American culture," he said in his report, "The Experts' Story of Courtship." "Today, men and women can no longer turn to socially prescribed forms of conduct to help them find their way to marriage." Many researchers refer to courtship, he says, in terms of forming close, usually sexual relationships, but not marriage.

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Subjects: Marriage, Courtship

Who would have believed it?

The seemingly antiquated concept of courtship, the wooing and winning of a partner according to an accepted set of rules that lead to marriage, is being poked, prodded and dusted off.

Researchers want to know if there is any mileage left in the notion.

Some social scientists and religious leaders are calling for a return to the rules of courtship.

And others in the dating trenches are longing for help. There are no rules to follow anymore about just "dating," much less some type of formal courtship, and many are confused.

Lynn Harris is the 31-year-old advice guru behind the popular Web site Breakupgirl.com, owned by Oxygen Media. "Women ask me all the time, 'This guy keeps inviting me to hang out. He comes to my place, and we order Chinese carryout. Where do I stand? Where do we go from here?' "

She recommends "Brady dates."

"You go on 'date dates,' the way the Brady family did," she says, referring to The Brady Bunch TV family of the 1970s. "They knew then if they were going steady. Somebody asked!"

Courtship defined

Johns Hopkins University sociologist Andrew Cherlin defines traditional courtship: "It was a process where parents and others kept watch while young people found a spouse. It had rules, steps carried out in view of everyone. It meant sitting in a parlor and chatting with parents. In the 1950s, it was an elaborate routine of going steady, getting pinned, getting engaged and then going on to marriage. You might not have sex until then."

He says the idea is virtually archaic. While he still includes the history of courtship in the text he has authored, Public and Private Family, he has dropped pages mulling over various courtship theories. "There is no true courtship today."

Cherlin believes some good things have been sacrificed. "We have lost the ability to slow down the process of becoming intimate and choosing a partner," he says. "We have lost the assistance of parents and elders in the community, who were sometimes helpful and sometimes not."

He does not want to appear overly wistful, he says. "But sometimes intimacy just comes too fast." Today, couples choose to live together, but that is not the same, he says. "Courtship was about waiting until you were sure. Cohabitation is about plunging in and seeing if it works. If not, you are allowed to leave."

Some researchers have moved the concept up front. Dan Cere of McGill University in Montreal called for better scientific research on courtship in a report delivered last week to the Institute for American Values, a conservative think tank in New York.

He believes that most who research how one finds a mate today have gone awry by cutting the link between courtship and marriage. "Courtship no longer occupies a vital place in American culture," he said in his report, "The Experts' Story of Courtship." "Today, men and women can no longer turn to socially prescribed forms of conduct to help them find their way to marriage." Many researchers refer to courtship, he says, in terms of forming close, usually sexual relationships, but not marriage.

He calls for new research goals that link love and marriage. And he remains optimistic. "Perhaps we in North America have already passed through the 'end' of courtship and are now poised to witness its rebirth."

Need for new rules

Courtship still exists in a rather bruised form, says John Townsend, a psychological anthropologist at Syracuse University and author of What Women Want – What Men Want: Why the Sexes Still See Love and Commitment So Differently. "Some women still demand men ask them out, take them to dinner, and they may have known each other for a month before the subject of sex comes up. But an awful lot of the young are saying, 'Let's hook up,' " referring to quick, asual sex.

Few people really want to return to the formal days of yore, many experts say. And there is little desire to return to the times when men called the shots and paid all the bills.

"That system that we seem nostalgic for, when everybody understood what the rules meant, created a great deal of inequality between the sexes and put pressure on both without necessarily creating satisfying relationships," says Beth Bailey, author of From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America. "It is reasonable to say we wish we knew how to do it better. We need to create new rules rather than go back to the older system."

University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz wishes we would consign the idea of formal courtship to the dustbin of memory. "I hate this nostalgia, the idea that there was some kind of perfect era that we lived in from which we have somehow fallen. Gag me with a spoon!"

Hints of change

Freedom is now the key component of the social scene, says Sarah Rosen, 17, of New York. "You go with the flow and see how things work out. What can happen is more interesting without rules."

But there are some signs of change, says Leon Kass, a humanist at the University of Chicago and co-author of Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, an anthology of marriage and courtship literature. "I think there is a growing recognition that something has been missing over the last decade. Women especially are increasingly fed up with the so-called 'hook-up' culture. But the older generation has not provided them with adequate training or examples, so they don't really know how to go about courtship or how to think about what is involved."

Other signs of change range from the serious to the frivolous. A quick check of the Net using the word "courtship" reveals a number of religious organizations encouraging a return to strict rules of courtship and no sex before marriage. In 1997, the Christian best seller I Kissed Dating Goodbye encouraged the young to reject recreational dating. Author Reb Bradley recommends old-fashioned, parent-supervised courting as part of a Christian-based "courtship movement."

And the pop culture shows some signs that women do want some contemporary version of courtship. The controversial 1995 book The Rules has sold 2 million copies in 27 countries, says author Sherrie Schneider. There was a second book, a third is due next summer, and movie rights to The Rules have been optioned.

Schneider and co-author Ellen Fein now give consultations for $250 a half-hour, working with "very progressive women, with careers and condos and beepers." Their rules include "we don't call men, we don't ask them out, we don't say yes to a last-minute date, and we don't sleep with them on the first, second or third date. You have to pursue us. And that is the only way to get us. And men love the hunt."

Sweet nothings whispered on the Web are today's edition of a lovely tradition

Marshall Miller and Dorian Solot, both "late twentysomethings," did not meet on the Internet. But they courted there. And they use the term "courtship" even though they decided to live together rather than marry.

"One of the ways Dorian and I courted was by exchanging e-mails," Miller says. "There is a whole tradition of writing love letters that has been revived on the Internet. We sent each other wonderful messages."

They still do, Solot says. "We e-mail on a daily basis. We write each other sweet and caring things. It is our way of staying connected."

The Internet gets some applause from experts who track the history of courtship. "One of the interesting things about 19th century courtship was the extensive letters couples wrote to each other," says Beth Bailey, who teaches in the American studies department at the University of New Mexico. She also is the author of From Front Porch to Back Seat, a history of dating in America.

"My grandparents in Appalachia wrote each other two or three times a day," Bailey says. "I certainly know those who write each other frequent e-mails today. They say things in writing they would not say when they are talking to each other."

Leon Kass, co-author of Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar, an anthology of marriage and courtship literature, is enamored of the romance carried on through the Internet in the movie You've Got Mail. "It showed how the Internet can create distance" and slow people down, he says. "The Internet can retrain people to get to know each other before jumping into bed."

Frequent romantic e-mail exchanges, he says, "are a sign of the deep hunger in this culture to find some way to get the work of courtship done."

Of course, courting via the Internet raises safety issues, both experts caution. "There is a lot of fraud," Kass says. People may not be who they claim to be. But as long as people are careful, e-mailing over time is a "great" way to get to know each other, Bailey says.

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