The Dating Game: The Dangers of Cash-Based Courtship

In the olden days, women had all the power when it came to wooing men. Now, the rituals of romance put them at a disadvantage.

On the very first date of her life, 16-year-old Carrie (not her real name) was taken out by Trent, a senior she knew slightly at the large high school both attended. The pair went to a spaghetti house for dinner, then drove to a mall to see a movie. When the movie was over, they went out for dessert. As Trent pulled his car into Carrie’s driveway, he asked Carrie for a goodnight kiss. Carrie didn’t really want go lip-to-lip with Trent (he was a little on the geeky side) but her first thought was, “He spent all that money on me!”

In the end, she didn’t kiss him — and he never asked her out again.

The editors of a new book on courtship say it’s no accident that males have learned to view females less in romantic terms than economic ones. And the people we can blame for this dismaying state of affairs are: our great-grandparents.

University of Chicago professors Amy and Leon Kass have edited a collection of essays titled Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying. One of the best essays is Beth Bailey’s “From Front Porch to Back Seat.” Bailey writes that until the beginning of the 20th century, dating as we know it did not exist. If a man wanted to get acquainted with a woman, he came calling at her parents’ home. He sat on the porch or in the parlor, drank lemonade, and perhaps listened to the young lady play the piano — all under the watchful eyes of her parents.

Courtship power, in the era of calling, belonged exclusively to women — to mothers and their daughters. When a girl reached a certain age, it was her mother who decided which young men would be allowed to call on her. As the young woman grew older, she herself was allowed to invite young men to call on her — provided, of course, that they had been properly introduced at a dance or dinner party (at which other mothers had controlled the invitation list). Extended family and friends might also bring eligible bachelors to call.

Young men who broke the rules and called without permission soon discovered that the daughter of the house never seemed to be “at home.” Thus, it behooved a young man to do everything in his power to impress a young woman — and her mama — in order to secure that all-important invitation to her home.

But the twentieth century had scarcely arrived when your great-grandparents began to supplant calling with dating.

Upper class women, who were beginning to invade academic and professional worlds, began demanding their places in public accommodations, as well. They wanted to be able to go out dining alone with a man, for example, without damage to their reputations. Besides, youth from high society were attracted to the excitement and the freedom dating represented, Bailey says. They went slumming in the dance halls, delightedly mixing it up with the lower classes their parents wanted them to keep clear of.

Couples from the lower classes began dating for more practical reasons: Between 1890 and 1925, as they moved from the farms into the cities, young women no longer had parlors into which they could invite gentlemen callers; young factory girls and their families were usually jammed together in one or two rooms. In other cases, young working women boarded together in rooming houses where parlors were not available. As a result, “A ‘good time’ increasingly became identified with public places and commercial amusements,” Bailey writes.

As dating became standard operating procedure for conducting courtships, the consequences were far-ranging and sometimes tragic. First, Bailey says, “Dating moved courtship into the public world, relocating it from family parlors and community events to restaurants, theaters and dance halls. At the same time, it removed couples from the implied supervision of the private sphere — from the watchful eyes of family and local community — to the anonymity of the public sphere.”

Second, Thus, Bailey says, dating “not only transformed the outward modes and conventions of American courtship, it also changed the distribution of control and power in courtship … shifting power from women to men.”

Men, not women, were now the “hosts,” and men “assumed the control that came with that position,” Bailey says.

Whereas in the old days men had to wait for women to invite them to their homes, now women had to wait for men to invite them on dates. In the 1920s, etiquette books advised men that it was NEVER acceptable to call upon a young woman without obtaining her permission to do so. By the 1950s, the shoe was on the other foot: Girls were warned to NEVER invite a boy to her home or anywhere else; to do so would be an infraction of the rules, and put boys off. Third, Bailey writes, dating “moved courtship into the world of the economy. Money — men’s money — was at the center of the dating system.”

While calling on ladies was free, Bailey notes, “Access to the public sphere cost money. One had to buy entertainment, or even access to a place to sit and talk. Money — men’s money — became the basis of the dating system and, thus, of courtship.” Young factory women “whose wages would not even cover the necessities of life became dependent on men’s ‘treats,'” Bailey writes.

This led men to a view of “dating as a system of exchange best understood … as an economic system.” When a man spent money on a woman, Bailey writes, it seemed like an economic act. Dating, “like prostitution, made access to women directly dependent on money.”

During a dating situation, both the man and woman offered companionship — but men alone were also required to open their wallets. In a sense, the woman was “selling her company to him,” Bailey says. In the man’s eyes, “dating didn’t even involve exchange; it was a direct purchase.”

The implications of this thinking became evident in the chilling results of a survey taken a few years ago by the American Medical Association. According to the AMA survey, more than half of the boys polled (ages 11-14) thought that forced sex is acceptable if a man had spent “a lot of money” on his date.

Maybe this is why, throughout history, care has been taken to ensure that courtship was NOT grounded in economics. Consider the novels of Jane Austen. In Austen’s world, courtship consisted of gentlemen calling on ladies in their homes, or meeting them at private dances or picnics or parties. Men were not allowed to spend money on ladies.

The reason for the warnings against bringing cash into courtship was made even more clear by Margaret Mitchell in her novel, Gone with the Wind. Mitchell describes how, in antebellum society, young girls were warned never to accept anything but a small, impersonal gift from a man — or the man might be tempted to take improper liberties. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a passage in which Rhett Butler — who took pleasure in breaking society’s rules — tempts Scarlett O’Hara with the highly inappropriate gift of a Parisian hat. When Scarlett accepts the hat, both she and Rhett understand that an economic exchange has taken place, and that she now “owes” him something in return:

“I don’t want any money for it,” [Rhett] said. “It’s a gift.”

Scarlett’s mouth dropped open. The line was so closely, so carefully drawn where gifts from men were concerned.

“Candy and flowers, dear,” [Scarlett’s mother] had said time and again, “and perhaps a book of poetry or an album or a small bottle of Florida water are the only things a lady may accept from a gentleman. Never, never any expensive gift, even from your fiancé. And never any gift of jewelry or wearing apparel, not even gloves or handkerchiefs. Should you accept such gifts, men would know you were no lady and would try to take liberties.”

“Oh, dear,” thought Scarlett … I simply can’t tell him I won’t accept it. It’s too darling. I’d — I’d almost rather he took a liberty, if it was a very small one.”

Rhett — perfectly aware of Scarlett’s dilemma — watches her in amusement. He later warns Scarlett: “I am tempting you with bonnets and bangles and leading you into a pit. Always remember I never do anything without reason and I never give anything without expecting something in return. I always get paid.”

If that American Medical Association survey is correct, today’s men expect to “get paid,” as well. But sadly, today’s women are not receiving a gift — or even a date — in return for what they’re giving up to men.

On the average college campus, the biggest complaint is that nobody dates anymore. Instead, collegians hook-up. Men and women attend huge drinking parties, get acquainted with someone of the opposite sex, and after a suitable interval (an hour or two) the couple departs for a private place in which to copulate. (For a comprehensive discussion of how hooking up has replaced dating, see Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty.)

Part of the problem, of course, is that men and women no longer think of courtship as something that applies to them — at least, not until they graduate college and establish themselves in a career, and make some money. We now have a whole generation of college men who don’t understand the need to learn courtship rituals — of why they should even bother attempting to impress a woman to whom they are attracted. After all, marriage is 10 years or more away. And if the girl in question is perfectly willing to bed down with him without demanding anything in return — well, why bother buying flowers and taking her out to dinner? Without marriage, courtship rituals makes no sense.

Even when today’s man is ready to woo a wife, his courtship bears a stronger resemblance to a corporate merger (right down to insisting on a prenuptial agreement to protect his wealth) than the delicate mating dance our great-great grandparents enjoyed.

What’s the answer?

A couple of solutions come to mind.

First, as Wendy Shalit suggests, women must relearn the seductive power of just saying no — no to seductive clothing, to hookups, to premarital sex — no to anything less than traditional courtship and marriage.

Second, college women should find ways to make dating a non-economic proposition. Like those factory girls of a hundred years ago, most college coeds today have no parlor in which to invite men to sit and visit — even if they wanted to go back to the days of sitting with their beaux on the porch or in the parlor.

But you have plenty of other options that cost little to nothing: Taking walks across campus, taking in a free concert or lecture, attending church activities or getting together with other couples for ice skating in winter or hikes in summer.

If you want to do something that does cost money, consider going “dutch” — just in case the young man is, like Rhett Butler, thinking of taking liberties. (Make sure he understands why you’re doing this: It’s not because you’re an “I have to be in control” feminist. Just the opposite. You want to pay your own way because you’re a true traditionalist.)

When the weather warms up, you might consider doing something else, as well: Pick up a copy of Amy and Leon Kass’s book, Wing to Wing, Oar to Oar: Readings on Courting and Marrying. Take it out under a willow tree this spring, along with a picnic lunch, and read it,if possible, out loud, to a pleasant acquaintance of the opposite sex. You’ll want to read Beth Bailey’s essay, of course. And then, over a latte, read some of the book’s selections on love, courtship and marriage: “Courtship,” by Erasmus; Levin’s proposal to Kitty in Tolstoy’s Anna Karanina; the courtship of Emile and Sophie in Rousseau’s Emile; Shakespeare’s sonnets and Miss Manners’ “Advice on Courtship.”

Economic courtship plus emancipation from parental control has led to more than just embarrassing episodes like the one Carrie experienced with Trent. It’s led to tragic social ills: exploitation of underage girls by oversexed men, sexually transmitted disease, out-of-wedlock pregnancy and childbirth and abortion. But as we begin the 21st century, we can begin to change that tragic pattern by imitating those horse and buggy couples who lived and loved at the beginning of the 20th century.

As we celebrate Valentine’s Day, I wish all you young lovers the best, most romantic gift I can think of: The same cash-free kind of courtship your great-great grandparents enjoyed.

Copyright 2000 Anne Morse. All rights reserved.