After reading Tracy Clark-Flory's Salon piece from Saturday extolling the glories of traditional courtship, I knew I had to talk with her in more depth.
For more than a decade now, the entire discourse about how we date—or how young people date, anyway—has been framed as a competition. On one side, you have more conservative commentators wringing their hands about the "hook-up culture," arguing that in our rush to be sexually liberated, we women have ruined our own lives by letting men have sex with us without extracting promises of commitment first. Those of us who don't believe, often from experience, that casual sex is really so ruinous end up spending so much time defending it that observers sometimes believe we think that's the only legitimate sexual expression.
Which is what makes the Salon piece so great. Tracy, who has been writing about sex and relationships for years, often in defense of the casual hookup, expressed a more nuanced view of the entire situation, explaining how her increased interest in taking-it-slow, more formalized dating doesn't, in any way, mean that she thinks that a past of more casual hooking up was the wrong choice. Her take really cuts to the heart of what so many pro-sex feminist commentators have been trying to say for years about dating and sex, so I grabbed her on Gchat yesterday to talk more about it.
Amanda: I really liked your piece on going on a for-real date.
Tracy: This was literally my first for-real date ever.
Amanda: Ever? What do you consider the difference between a "for-real" date and what you called more of the hook-up culture?
Tracy: Well, I should be clear: I've online dated. I've gone on dates. But most often they're presented super casually. Like, hey, "Let's hang out." This was the first time someone clearly said to me: I want to take you out on a date, and here is the plan. Typically, whether it's with "hang out" dates or hookups, it's very low-investment—emotionally, financially, you name it.
Amanda: What I liked about your piece was that you weren't condemning hooking up; there's an argument for keeping it light was the implication.
Tracy: Right. I think it's great that people can get to know each other casually. Grab a burrito and a beer! Make out at the bar! But it's also nice to not feel totally stuck with diminished romantic expectations—as in, I can't expect more than a taqueria "hangout" arranged last-minute via text message.
Amanda: That's something I've noticed that a lot of friends complain about since I've moved to NYC: They think a lot of guys are just a little too eager to keep it casual. Which makes me wonder if it's just that now that I’m in my 30s, my friends are developing higher expectations, or if it's a geographic thing, where men in Texas, where I used to live, were more serious from the get-go?
Tracy: I think both are probably very real factors! For me, at least, "hookups" have been a great way of getting to know myself, getting to know other people and getting to know what I want, romantically and sexually. But as I've gotten older—how I hate that phrase—I've wanted a broader spectrum of romantic scripts. And that's when the hookup/low-commitment default became frustrating.
Amanda: I think that's what I really liked—your high regard for diversity. It's not that hookups are bad, you said, but that they seem mandatory. Why do you think it got to that point?
Tracy: I can at least speak to my own experience: I think I gravitated toward casual hookups during a time when I wasn't quite ready for more serious commitment. I needed some time to play and experiment. I think many people feel that way in their 20s. We're spending more time single than ever before. I also think it might have something to do with the current emphasis on independence and individualism for both men and women. There's a greater desire to make yourself, rather than to be made by someone else. And casual dating/hooking up is much more conducive to that.
Amanda: That's something that really was brought home in Hanna Rosin's Atlantic piece about hooking up. She spoke to researchers that said that women were driving the culture as much as men, in no small part because, frankly, boyfriends can get in the way of other goals like getting your career underway.
Tracy: Yep. I think it's totally true for both sexes. It's practical.
Amanda: A lot of people still buy the line that it's something that men impose on women, that men are taking advantage of women's, uh, "easiness". That always bothered me, because there was never really a clear line for me between how quickly you slept with someone and whether or not it turned into wuv.
Amanda: Your point was really satisfying, which is that what we really need is the ability to diversify: hook up if we want, go slow if we want, just do a bunch of different stuff depending on where we're at. I think that sort of thing causes a lot of men anxiety, though. I've noticed a lot of men in online spaces clamoring for a script.
Tracy: Yes! There's anxiety now about falling back on the more traditional dating script (which is not an entirely bad thing, mind you). I think it feels too desperate, too eager to many young men. And, of course, intimacy and vulnerability have always been absolutely terrifying.
Amanda: Did you go on a second date with flowers guy who wanted to do nothing more but make out on the first date? Do you mind my asking? (I've been in a relationship for over six years now, so other people's stories are my entertainment.)
Tracy: Actually, we've gone on something like five dates in a little over a week!
Amanda: Wow, that's a lot. Sounds like it's been fun.
Tracy: Yes! It's incredibly refreshing. And a large part of it is that I'm ready for that for the first time in my life, you know? It's not like I've been yearning for that this whole time and have only now found a guy willing to give it to me.
Amanda: LOL yeah, that strikes me as an incredibly critical point. But that really leads to the question I know a bunch of men are asking themselves, which is how do you know what script a woman is interested in? How do you know if you should keep it light or show up with flowers and a request that you take it slow?
Tracy: Well, see, I think timing is so much of it. It really isn't something that can be faked. You can only do what you're ready to do. If you want to bring a woman flowers, do it. If you want to have casual flings, do that. Eventually you'll find a lady who wants the same thing.
Amanda: That's something I think gets lost in the overflow of dating advice out there, which is that it really is something you can figure out for yourself.