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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Feminist Case for Courtship

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Karen Lehrman Bloch
Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic; author of The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World (Doubleday) and The Inspired Home: Interiors of Deep Beauty (Harper Design); Editor of International Political Affairs at The Weekly Blitz; and curator of the book and exhibition Passage to Israel (Skyhorse).

One of the unintended consequences of the #MeToo movement is that it has given those of us who have been out of the dating world for a while a sense of what today’s post-romantic hookup culture is like.

To be blunt, it’s not pretty. 

Hurt feelings, misread cues, wandering eyes, unilateral one-night stands. Sure, much of that happened before, when we were under some version of that antiquated word: courtship. But perhaps most ironically, the new post-romantic culture hurts — disempowers — women the most. Which is why the original feminists, 100 years ago, had no issue with courtship. 

So, as a hopeless romantic, I hereby offer up the feminist case for returning to courtship:

Courtship is based on the immutable fact that there are biological differences between the sexes. In my 20s, I, like thousands of women, desperately tried to treat dating like a typical guy. From initiating interest to one-night stands, I followed the prevailing feminist wisdom. And then the next day, when the guy inevitably didn’t call, I tried, desperately, to will away all negative feelings: I can do this, I would say to myself, over and over again. 

But I couldn’t. I felt really lousy the next day, even if he did call. At this point, I need to offer up the Bell Curve Proviso: Of course there are some women who can do this sort of thing and not think twice; they can completely separate their emotions from their bodies. But they are in the minority. Credit God, evolution, or some combination of the two: Most women are hardwired to put up stop signs against unwanted children.

Feminists in the past 50 years have tried to make us believe that these stop signs are cultural implants, that they can be willed or legislated away as easily as men who never do the dishes. Today we have so lost the distinction between biology and culture that inane “gender” theories percolate hourly.

Courtship weeds out players. Courtship takes work and fortitude. A guy has to call a woman; ask her out; plan a nice evening; and (often) be satisfied with a peck on the cheek afterward. Players have no interest in work and fortitude. They just want to have fun. And they will surely find plenty of women who, especially in their 20s, just want to have fun. 

But courtship is not geared just for marriage. It’s geared for long-term relationships. And even if most women put off marriage till their 30s, they still prefer to be in long-term relationships.

Men interested in the long haul act differently than those who aren’t. They just do.

According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, courtship has historically served as a perseverance test. Basic aspects of courtship — males wooing females with gifts of food — turn up throughout the animal world. The male common tern presents a fish to his lover; the male roadrunner, a lizard. Perhaps men should be grateful that sometimes a pizza will suffice.

Men interested in the long haul act differently than those who aren’t. They just do. 

Courtship creates gentlemen, and gentlemen are sexy. Both courtship and chivalry train men to act like gentlemen, and whether today’s “gender feminists” can admit it or not, self-obsessed emasculated men are not sexy. 

Gentlemen don’t push women to have sex before they’re ready. Gentlemen are genuinely interested in a woman’s needs and desires. Gentlemen don’t intentionally lead women on. Gentlemen call the next day. There is nothing less sexy than a man who abuses, uses or harasses women. Least sexy of all? Men who procreate and run.

Of course, courtship is hardly a surefire test of a man’s character and interest. Human history is filled with crafty Lotharios; seduction and deception can go hand in hand. And an overly rigorous courtship test could punish the man who is shy but who would nevertheless make a great boyfriend or husband. But courtship winnows out ambivalent men — and for a multitude of reasons, including the hookup culture, ambivalent men now seem to be more the norm than the exception.

One hundred years into feminism, I think we can safely return to the notion that biological differences in no way imply inferiority. Moreover, not recognizing differences undermines feminism and leaves many women miserable. Can we please return to romance — and reality?


Karen Lehrman Bloch is an author and cultural critic.

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