In a changed world populated by post feminist women and new men, dating is not as simple as it used to be. Let us explore the ins and outs of post-modern romance.
'Going on a Date' - Its a curious, technicolour-tinged expression, somehow more evocative of fumbling innocence and teen tentativeness than grown-up social interaction. Something that we grow out of, file away under Experience and replace with a less rule bound approach to finding a partner. We insist that we know the difference between love and infatuation, between wanting a relationship and scoring status points among the peers. Dating, we tell each other, is something you do when you are still learning, something you scrunch up and throw away once you start to notice its elaborate, unreal ritualism. Or do you?
Certainly, when you're older you don't get on, or get off for that matter with people the same way you did when you were younger. No one does. These days you're in a world of careerists and power brokers, of new men and post feminist women - or as they have been rather more accurately dubbed, New Lads and New Babes.
It's a world where men are expected to uphold solidly right-on values chickwise, yet still determinedly acknowledge that there's nothing wrong with having a lustful conniption at the sight of cleavage, a stocking top or spike heel. Similarly, women feel, quite rightly, that they should be treated as equals, while still feeling free to acknowledge the sexual and romantic appeal of 'traditional' male roles.
The boys want to look after the sexy girls sometimes. The girls want to be looked after by the sexy boys sometimes. The modernity of it all comes from the way that we acknowledge the roles we're insisting upon and responding to. We're equals in that we're all equally certain of that we want, what we expect. And if all the cake in the entire world were gathered together, we'd expect to eat it, even if we threw up afterwards.
This requires of dating a whole new approach, or at least something that looks like a whole new approach, even if it's the old approach dressed up in a new set of clothes. For example, when enquiring around about who should ask for the date in the first place, the knee-jerk reaction is that it really doesn't matter, that if you see someone you like it shouldn't be left to the male to make an approach. And yet, when quizzed further, most women admit that they like the man to make the first move. As one friend said,”It could just be their own insecurity, and scared of rejection if one asked, of putting oneself on the line, even though men have had to face that risk all along. And it's nice to feel desired. If a man makes the effort to show that he's interested, it's flattering".
Men tend to admit that it seems more 'right' to make the first move and ask for the date. There's much to be said for a girl who makes straight out and admits that she'd like you to go out with her somewhere. The distantly echoing laughter of a girl and her mocking friends as we trudge back from blurting out a genuine request for a date cuts deep into the male psyche, testosterone or steam. Having said that, there is a balance to be achieved.
"I remember one girl," a male friend tells me,”who came on to me really strong. She took me out, invited me home, leapt on top of me kissed me and what not", "Part of me was thinking. This is how women should be - assertive, strong of what she wants - but another part of me was terrified. Next time I saw her I ran away as well", he tended to run away the next time he saw her.
Another male friend agrees that there should be a balance. "I like strong women, but I don't like women who think that power means taking on the worst of male values. An aggressive domineering woman would scare me on a date, but I'd also be ashamed of myself if I behaved like that. It's like that phrase, 'a woman with balls.' I don't want a woman with balls. if I wanty one, I'd ask out a transvestite."
The thrill of a date comes from the uncertainties, not just from the romantic uncertainty that hovers, literally, at its heart, but also from the relearning and the redefining of the rituals that coddle it. For example, if you're on a dinner date, who pays?
"I like the man to pay," admits a female friend, "but only if I want to encourage him. It's hard to say exactly why, but there is an element at play that if I let him pay I'm suggesting that I'm interested. It's the same if a man opens a door for me or carries my bag. If I'm not interested in him, I'll open it or carry it myself, but if I want to flirt, then I'll let him. All these things are signals. But while I'd ideally prefer the man to pay, in reality my expectations are not that high. There's a difference between what you want and expect, and what you get and accept."
It's the bag and baggage, if you'll pardon the expression that is automatically taken on board by such unspoken signs that cause so many problems for men. You want to carry a bag or open a door as a sign of tenderness and curiously respect but you don't want to appear to be treating a girl like she's handicapped. You want to pay for a meal, but you don't want her to think that you're trying to buy her favors.
Julia Roberts may be sexy as hell, but submitting any date to a Pretty Woman routine is frankly, unlikely to pan out. Inevitably, everyone has different demarcation lines. As one male friend remembers,”I went out with a girl once who said that all men should pay for everything and that they should open doors and stuff. She wasn't a simpering, submissive type, but she said that it was the way it should be. A couple of days later I was on a bus and I got up to give my seat to a middle class woman, and the woman started shouting at me in front of everyone, saying that she was perfectly capable of standing up. I guess when you're in the private world of a date you're allowed to do those things, because they're very obviously aimed at one person rather than at women in general. It is difficult, though, to know exactly how to behave."
In the face of all these problems, it's often easy to forget exactly why you're on a date in the first place. Perhaps that's the way we want it to be. Love, lust, infatuation, whatever, gets pushed under the table-cloth, shrouded by etiquette, nervousness and most importantly, a desire by both participants to refrain from acknowledging the nub of proceedings. Often, the determinedly romantic excitement of a date comes from the resistance to blurt out the reality of mutual attraction, from playing cat's cradle with each other's heartstrings while talking about the weather. The worst date in the world would be one where someone kicked off a conversation with: "So do you fancy a shag?"
Another male friend remembers his best date. "We went for this long meal in this tidy little restaurant and we talked for ages about everything except each other. But all the time there was this incredible tension just bobbing beneath the surface. We got outside bided Good-bye and neither of us was the slightest bit surprised about what we were doing."
Ah, the cab home, another knotty problem. In these post-liberation days, sleeping together on a first date is far from inevitable. High-powered jobs that necessitate getting up early in the morning, the stop-and-think mentality engendered by AIDS and the simple desire to elevate the proceedings beyond the more skuzzy implications of the one-night stand, all add up to the conclusion that people are starting to get off on romance rather than just getting off. And the good-bye kiss before you wander off alone into the night can be charged with far more eroticism than instant sexual abandon. I remember one such date which concluded with something less than a snog but more than a kiss which even now makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, while sexual encounters with other girls have faded into monotone.
"It's all about the suspense, about telling each other that something is going to happen, but that it's not going to happen this time, that you're both going to get a thrill from anticipation rather than consummation. And all without saying a word." that's the thrill of a date.
And where do these unspoken collusions take place? The Restaurant Date remains the first-choice location for a variety of reasons, not least its neutrality. The fact that you're asking someone to go for a meal alone with you signifies more than casual interest but allows you the luxury of a certain privacy, a seclusion from The Date as Spectacle to be watched by others; As a shared experience it's hard to beat for intimacy and, while the actual act of eating rarely reaches and levels of fulfillment, the food provides an instinctively comforting centre around which you can weave your increasingly tangled webs. And, since neither of you are on home turf (unless you make the rather daunting gesture of taking a date somewhere where you know the entire staff on first name terms), you've nowhere to seek refuge from any nervousness except in each other's company. Even culinary disasters can be bonding, since neither of you is directly to blame. Toss in a bit of humor and you've got the perfect date.
Art galleries and exhibitions are apparently reserved for Moody intellectual wannabes but a trip to the cinema resonates with promises of flickery fumblings and inevitable journeys of physical unexpectations.
Long walks are good and it's fun deciding exactly when you are going to hold her hand as are long drives to romantic locations like beaches and hilltops. Sporting events are fine as long as both people are taking part. The jury is still on whether to take a date to a private club or bar where you happen to be a member. On the plus side, it allows you to show off not only to your date but also to the bartender, to your friends and to anyone who will be impressed by your good taste. And with luck, you can convince your date of your desirable social standing and convivial grace.
Those plus points can easily turn themselves inside out however. Among friends the date can become the cynosure of all eyes. Some contend, however, that the Modern Date has become part of a larger social gathering. "Definitely," admits one girl, there's a lot less pressure when there's other people around and you can still flirt with each other, then if you decide you don't like them you can go off and talk to your friends. As long as it is pretty informal and they don't try and push you together, it's the ideal date.
Dating may well be supposed to be an art, that is too romantic, to be described on paper. Relearning the subtly defined intricacies, rediscovering the half-forgotten thrill of uncertainty, innocence, flirtness and, if you're lucky, love & marriage is finding more and more advocates. And, even if the date fails, remember, when it's good, it's brilliant and when it's bad, it's never bad enough to stop you going back for more. Good Luck!