Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Perspective on Dating and Courtship

When I think of dating, I think of courtship. Every few years, one or another of the big magazines is sure to run a cover story asking, "Is Courtship Dead?". The magazine will claim that's a serious question and to prove it's a serious question, they will point to some recent poll in which 67% of the respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 adamantly declare courtship means nothing to them. It's something their grandparents might have done in their day, but today's hip 18 - 24 year old has no use for it, etc. etc. etc.

You might recall from your studies of social history that "radical thinkers" in every generation within the last 150 years have declared courtship dead. Courtship is always being declared dead by people. Yet, every generation courts. Why is that?

"Why is that?" would have been a hard question to answer accurately back in the good old days. In this case, the good old days are the 1970's when everyone in academia seemed to believe that humans were born with a "blank slate". That is, the predominant paradigm in nearly every field back then was that humans were born with no innate behaviors -- nor even any predispositions to behaviors -- and that all significant human behavior could be explained as learned behavior.

On the other hand, today, it's very well known that humans are genetically predisposed to some behaviors. Contra the old 1970's paradigm, not everything humans do is entirely learned (although learning does play a role in most everything). Most likely, courtship has never died out -- despite all its obituaries -- primarily because we humans are genetically predisposed to court.

More specifically, it seems courtships follow a certain general pattern, and that pattern is what we're genetically predisposed to follow. For instance, a graduate student in anthropology discovered that women are more likely than men to initiate successful courtships -- at least in bars. One of his methods was to attend campus town bars where he could record the exchanges between mostly undergraduate men and women. He found that women initiate courtships nonverbally, with their eyes. In other words, they offer "come on looks" to men who interest them. The grad student noticed that courtships initiated by women were more successful than those initiated by men. Success in this case was measured by whether the people engaged in the courtship left the bar in each other's company. What the graduate student discovered was part of the general pattern of human courtship.

A while back, I read of two psychologists who had concluded that dysfunctional courtships -- courtships that do not follow, or that slight, the general pattern of human courting -- almost invariably result in dysfunctional relationships and marriages. If that's true, the importance of courtship in humans is clear.

I have a strong hunch, but based only on anecdotal evidence, that when dysfunctional courtships result in sex, one, the other, or both partners is very apt to feel exploited, abused and even humiliated by the sex. From what I've seen, it seems courtships prepare us emotionally and psychologically for sexual intimacy. Without a good courtship, we are not prepared for that level of intimacy, and our feelings afterwards often show it.

So far as I know, there is nothing in our genes that prescribe we must be married to have a healthy sex life. But if the anthropologists, biologists and psychologists are right, then our genes might indeed prescribe we must have a healthy courtship to have a healthy sex life.

Last, I think courses taught in the public schools on human sexuality should include a section on courtship. If dysfunctional courtships lead to dysfunctional relationships and marriages, it might be wise to teach kids what the value of courting is and something about how to go about it.


amuirin said...


David Rochester said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David Rochester said...

One has to wonder whether deliberate courtship designed to result in sexual conquest leaves the exploited party feeling any less exploited than a too-many-beers one-night-stand would have done.

Personally, I tend to feel that courtship rituals are the human equivalent of a mating dance, and just as meaningless. I don't advocate emotionless sex, but I think people sometimes become too attached to the external rituals of courtship, and don't really go deeper than that. You hear about that all the time, really . . . some of the most dysfunctional relationships are those out of which the "romance" has faded because the male of the couple followed prescribed courtship rituals which he promptly abandoned after attaining the desired goal.

At least the no-courtship method is, to some extent, more honest.

On another note, I wish this site permitted comment-author editing, so I wouldn't have to delete and repost a comment just to fix a really bad typo.

Paul said...

Thank you, Amuirin!

Courtship is indeed the human equivalent of a mating dance, David, but whether one feels it is meaningless or not is a personal matter.

It seems to be a fact that we are to some extent genetically programed to court each other. Of course, that doesn't mean that every popular courtship ritual is genetically programed in our genes. But certainly, things like a woman's "coy glance" seem to have a genetic component.

Of course, I agree with you that some humans do at times try to deceive others about their intentions in courting them. We are a lying, cheating, deceptive ape at times -- even our politicians cannot be trusted! :)