Is Dating Dead?
Looking for love has become a risky business
Dick and Jane are two ideal—that is, fictional— North American teenagers, circa 1960. After a particularly strenuous glee-club practice one day, they eye each other over sodas at Pop’s, the local teen hangout. Dick likes the way Jane looks in her white angora sweater; Jane, in turn, likes Dick’s crewcut and his sporty letter sweater. Back at school, Dick approaches Jane by her locker. “Wanna date?” he asks sheepishly. Jane responds promptly: “That would be very nice.” A date is set, and Dick, wanting to
impress Jane, shows up at her parents’ house in his shiny old convertible. They go to a drive-in movie and watch Rock Hudson and Doris Day in Pillow Talk. Afterwards, back at Pop’s, the two order one soda and two straws while Johnny Mathis sings Chances Are on the jukebox. They are home by 10. After a few more successful outings, the big moment comes. Dick gives Jane his sweater, meaning they are now going steady. What happened to that simple vision of romance, North Americanstyle? It seems as out of date today as tailfins and bobby socks. Chances Are has been replaced by Salt ’N’ Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex, which promises that chances are pretty good indeed. McDonald’s put Pop’s—or places like it—out of business years ago.
Boys have not given girls their letters since Jack Paar went off the air. Rock Hudson is dead of AIDS.
In the realistic, disillusioned 1990s, Valentine’s Day survives, but dating in the traditional sense faces a litany of challenges. People’s finances are still in the doldrums, and they are working an average of 165 hours more a year than they were 25 years ago. Even those with time to date may wonder what the point is—the divorce rate is around 40 per cent. And there are more immediate disincentives, from the threat of
date rape to the spectre of AIDS, all scrambling the codes of sexual relations.
True, single men and women—and men and men, and women and women—are still meeting and kissing and falling in lust, not to mention love. But they are doing it in different ways.
Some adults are logging on to love from the safe distance of computer bulletin board services, while others approach it cautiously through newspaper classifieds
and voice-mail dating (page 44). At the same time, even as a vocal minority of teens preach the virtues of virginity, others are fast-forwarding through the preliminaries and heading straight for sex.
Is dating dead? No. But it sure has changed.
In the simplest terms, dating is the first step towards propagating the species. Back in the days of Dick and Jane, it was a way for the sexes to ge to know each other, while ostensibly abiding by the strict moral code oJ the era. Young people in the late 1960s dashed those traditions in favor of free love, and that generation in turn produced today’s impatient teens. According to Sue Johanson, host of a nationally syndicated penline radio program on sexuality, whirlwind romances are now the norm for teens. Johanson maintains that the old cycle of dating—“first date, you hold hands; the second date, you hug; the third date, you may kiss; the fourth date, you’re into French kissing”—has accelerated so that all those steps (and more) may be covered in a single night.
Emotionally, too, teens are leaping into love more auicklv—going steady after two or three dates. One reason, she adds, is the increasing aggressiveness of teenage women, thanks in part to have-it-all role models like Madonna. Girls now are confident enough to ask boys out. “But is it confidence, or is it bravado?” asks Johanson. “And how much of it is desperation, that you have to have a boyfriend?”
Candice Angel, a Grade 11 student at West Vancouver Secondary School, says she has “gone out”—the accepted term for an established relationship—with three boys over the past three years. She met the latest about five months ago. On their first date, they went for dinner (he paid) and then walked up and down Robson Street—only to discover that the young man’s car had been towed away. ‘We laugh about it now,” says Angel, “but it wasn’t funny at the time.” Within 24 hours—after he got his car back—they were “going out.”
Increasingly, teenagers become a confirmed couple first, and get to know each other later. That frustrates t 17-year-old Mia Robert, a Grade 12 student at West Vancouver Secondary. Although she went out with about 12 guys over the past two years, Robert says that what she really wants is just an old-fashioned date, without the instant strings. Part of the problem is the school grapevine. Typically, mutual friends find out that so-and-so likes so-and-so; numbers are exchanged, someone makes the call and, almost right away, “you’re going out,” says Robert. “You’re automatically boyfriend and girlfriend without knowing each other. I can’t wait to get out of high school so I can go on a date.”
Birin Singh, a Grade 13 student at Waterloo Collegiate Institute in southwestern Ontario, agrees—but for different reasons. Singh’s parents, from India, had a traditional, arranged marriage. And they do not want him to begin dating until university. Singh, 18, says he agrees with his parents, but “it bothers me, in a way, that I haven’t done more.” And he is looking forward to dating. “There are many good reasons to go to university,” he adds, “but that is a good reason for sure.”
But for other teenagers, dating seems to have lost its allure. “You know, most people don’t really date," says one Toronto 18-year-old with an air of worldweariness. (Like many others, she asked that she not be identified.) She had been seeing the same man for the past eight months—but “it wasn’t really a relationship relationship.” So they were never really girlfriend and boyfriend? “We never called each other that—it seems too teeny-bopperish,” she explains. They recently broke up, but they remain friends. “I like being friends,” she adds wistfully. “I don’t have very good relationships—they just don’t seem as successful as friendships.”
To hear cynics tell it, romance is just a holdover from the Renaissance notion of courtly love—a way to gain economic or political power. Radical feminist Andrea Dworkin says it is “rape embellished with meaningful looks.” But other analysts take a less judgmental view. In her 1992 best-seller, Anatomy of Love, American anthropologist Helen Fisher suggests that whatever the cultural influences, courtship rituals are rooted in evolution. The dinner date, for instance. “Around the world,” Fisher writes, “men give presents [of food] prior to lovemaking.” And not only humans: when the male black-tipped hang fly wants to mate, he catches a tasty bug and then emits an odiferous secretion from an abdominal scent gland. That attracts a female, who sets to munching on the morsel he has captured. Meanwhile, he copulates with her.
Fisher, whose book is the basis of a Canadian-produced documentary series, Anatomy of Love, to be aired on the Discovery Channel in early March, also suggests that certain “courting cues” underlie a “universal mating dance.” Citing research conducted in singles bars during the 1970s and 1980s, Fisher breaks the dance down into five steps. First is the “attention-getting” phase— men strut about with chests thrust forward; women proffer coy looks or twist their hair. Next is the “recognition” phase—eye contact. Third, and perhaps most crucial, is conversation, usually small talk like “Do you have the time?” If the couple gets past Stage 3, they go on to incidental touching—Stage 4. The last stage is body synchrony: sipping from their glasses at the same time, crossing legs at the same time. “Couples that achieve total body synchrony,” Fisher writes, “often leave the bar together.”
Doing what comes naturally has rarely been more difficult than in the 1990s. Diane Ackerman, author of A Natural History of Love, says that the AIDS crisis has “brought back people who are attaching a sense of fright to sex. That’s a shame, but perfectly understandable. We live in a time of plague.”
The effect on dating is subtle, yet pervasive. On a recent afternoon in the Grabbajabba Fine Coffee shop, a modern-looking Halifax eatery, 22-year-old Benno Russell, a student at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, sips cappuccino with a friend. He explains how dating—something he says he does not really do—is not all it was cracked up to be. “When I was growing up, I used to hear all about dating,” says Russell, who sports slicked-back hair above his black mock turtleneck. “But I never really understood what it was about. Now, I’m not sure I ever will.” Fear of AIDS, he explains, has taken away the spontaneity of relationships. “It’s just too risky,” he adds.
Beside him, 22-year-old Sarah Mitchell says that she has recently returned to the singles scene after ending a three-year relationship.
But she is cautious. “I don’t want to go out on a date with someone I don’t know,” she says. “Nobody sees anyone unless they’ve been referenced and cross-referenced with friends.”
When AIDS became a major health issue in the early 1980s, many observers assumed it would make monogamy a practical necessity for gay men. In Vancouver’s gay community, that is partly true. Older men in particular are more circumspect—eschewing the clubs and bars in favor of meeting through friends or at parties. And many gays and lesbians are turning to telephone personals ads and computer bulletin-board services. “You log on, get to know their interests, and you decide if you want to meet this person,” says Cindy Filipenko, editor of the Vancouver gay and lesbian newspaper Xtra West. Another benefit: “It’s much easier to sign off on someone than it is to say, ‘No, I don’t want to see you,’ ” she says.
Still, bars remain the preferred place for younger gays to meet other men. Henry Koo, a Vancouver community AIDS worker, notes that for many gay men, the club scene remains the doorway into sex after
years of denying—or being persecuted for—their sexual orientation. “By the time a young gay reaches the clubs,” says Koo, “he is bursting for love and affection. He finally meets someone and that person doesn’t want to wear a condom. What does he do? He might say, ‘I want to get this guy in bed—to hell with a condom.’ ”
One 28-year-old junior lawyer in Toronto puts it this way: “I’m pretty much a guy who doesn’t really date at all.” The reason lies in economic reality. “I just can’t afford to look for something serious right now,”
he says. “Maybe in a few years, when I’m established____”
The argument makes sense. Canadians are getting married later than they used to: the average age of marriage for women in 1993 was 26.7 years, compared with 22.5 years in the 1960s; for men, the averages were 28.8 and 25, respectively. Young people are concerned about employment prospects, and women’s inroads into the job market have meant that they increasingly put their love lives on hold until their 30s or 40s. The result is that they go searching for a mate later in life.
And then there is divorce, which now ends four out of 10 marriages in Canada. Divorce’s survivors, many of them in their 30s and 40s, are back in the singles game—and often surprised by
what they find. Kim, 38, a manager of publications for an Ottawa arts organization, who separated from his wife in late 1993, started dating again last spring. Of his dozen dates—he has since met someone through work and is seeing her regularly—Kim says that women are more independent now. “They aren’t looking for sugar daddies as much as they may have in the past,” Kim adds.
But there are exceptions. One woman asked if he had a car and, when he replied that he did not, she dumped him. Another took the
pre-dating preliminaries to heart. “Over coffee, she started with the questions,” Kim recalls. The woman asked the correct spelling of his name, where he worked, how long he had been working. “It was one thing after another,” he says. Kim assumed that she was about to run a credit check on him. They never went out.
Joanne, a legal worker from Old Chelsea, Que., has never been married, and at 36 she is a little tired of the hunt. “Do you really want to spend the only Saturday night you have in a week going out on a date that might not pan out?” she asks. A male friend, she recalls, once told her that “even if nine times out of 10 it’s the wrong one, maybe the last one will be it.” But, she adds, “you have to add it all up. You spend nine Saturdays in a row trying to find that? When you get older, that gets tougher.” In the meantime, Joanne dates infrequently, and says she believes that some day, fate will intervene and bring the right man to her. “There’s no point looking for him,” she says.
Many singles are less willing to abandon their love lives to chance, opting instead for a method that seems to promise some scientific validity. In Canada’s major cities, dating services have become something of a boom industry. Peter Crocker, author of A Consumer’s Guide to Dating & Introduction Services in Ontario, lists some of the reasons for their popularity: increased mobility, meaning that people have fewer ties to community; urbanization, giving people a sense that they are “alone in a crowd”; the fact that everyone is working longer hours, with less opportunity to meet. “The stigma against dating services has certainly changed dramatically,” adds Crocker. “It’s a lot more acceptable.”
D’Arcy Halligan, a self-described “outgoing guy,” began using dating services soon after moving to the Toronto area from the Northern Ontario town of Elliot Lake last July. “I wanted companionship,” says the 54-year-old business professional, recently divorced from his wife of 27 years. “And the bar scene? It hasn’t changed in 30 years—except that the complications can be a lot worse.” Dating services—he belongs to three—offer a way to meet nice people,
Halligan says. “The people you meet,” he adds, “are there for the same reason you are, for a meaningful relationship.”
So far this year, Halligan has spent about $500 on dating services—which is comparatively cheap. Some charge more than $4,000 for referrals and a money-back guarantee of satisfaction. But in the dating industry, customers do not always get what they pay for. Patricia, 51, a single mother from Brampton, Ont., first signed up with a dating service in 1990. “I don’t work, and it seemed the best way to meet somebody who had been chosen for me. Ha ha ha—that was my first mistake.” In the past five years, Patricia has joined six dating agencies. Total cost: more than $3,000. And she is suing one service because it re-
neged on a guarantee. After more than 50 dates, Patricia says that she is disillusioned with dating services and with men her age. Men, she says, want somebody 15 years younger than themselves—and she is not interested in 65year-olds. “I’ve reached a total impasse,” she adds. “I just don’t know which way to turn now.” But Patricia still plans to keep looking. “I have to, don’t I? Who wants to be alone?”
Larry Zolf had seen Barbara Diakopolou before at his favorite Toronto hangout, the Time Out bar in the city’s Greek area. The 60-year-old CBC broadcaster and humorist remembers seeing her there—“this very attractive woman, arguing in Greek with five or six men.” And, he recalls now, “I said in the back of my head, ‘There’s a woman I would like to meet.’ ”
They met, finally, on Valentine’s Day two years ago—two single people who had been through the romance wringer
before. Zolf, separated now after 35
years of marriage, and Diakopolou, a caterer in her 40s who has been twice-married, might seem to be the oddest of couples. She is a vivacious Greek national with a fiery temperament; he is the son of a Hebrew teacher. They had both been dating, without much success. But when a waitress at the Time Out introduced them, they talked for hours about, of all things, Macedonian independence. And before she left—for another date—Diakopolou asked him out for dinner some time.
“Going home, I felt really great,” recalls Zolf. “I felt like I was a highschool kid again—a fulfilled high-school kid.” After that, the couple say it was a game of mutual pursuit. And now they are living together—happily— in Zolfs cozy downtown flat. “We have become very close,” he says. ‘We argue, yes. But in a weird kind of way, we live as one person.”
DATING-IN DOLLARS In today’s dating game, women often pay their share —a matter not just of sexual politics but of economics Some typical costs today and 40 years ago, not adjusted for inflation: 1955 1995 Two movie tickets $1.50 $ 16.00 A dozen roses 5.00 45.00 A fancy dinner for two (without wine) 7.50 78.00 A pair of top-of-theline theatre tickets 8.00 182.00 Domestic beer on tap (12 ounce glass) 0.23 2.95 A bottle of French champagne 13.00 85.00
Zolf probably did not know it when he left that bar, but his brain may have been saturated at the time with a substance called phenylethylamine—PEA for short. Although the theory is not widely accepted by psychologists, some research suggests that the amphetamine-like molecule may play a role in the psychological effects of infatuation—absentmindedness, giddiness, increased sociability. When people fixate on a beloved, the thinking goes, their bodies begin breaking down phenylalanine, an amino acid found in food, into PEA at breakneck speed. PEA then spreads throughout the body, concentrating in the brain. The result is that hepped-up feeling of romantic bliss. Maybe it is only coincidence, but chocolate, the traditional gift of lovers on Valentine’s Day, contains high amounts of phenylalanine.
Everyone knows the feeling: the sweats, the shakes, the utter anticipation of seeing the beloved. For all the pressures of the 1990s, dating in all its manifestations remains a search for something wonderful but undefinable—it, whatever it is. People will never stop looking for it. After all, it might be love.
With JOHN DeMONT in Halifax, LUKE FISHER in Ottawa, PATRICIA CHISHOLM in Toronto and ROBINAfELLO in Vancouver