I was thinking last weekend about rituals that may have fallen out of fashion. I was thinking about the whole ritual of dating, of what the current social rules are for being out with someone.
I wonder if we're less honest now than we were a generation or two ago, if we've gone back to the days of the 1950s, if we have to insist once again that the reason behind asking someone out doesn't include sex, or at least include the idea of flirtation and seduction. It's somehow regarded as offensive again to think of asking someone out as the first step in a dance that leads to the bedroom.
When I was very young, there was an assumption that dating was about finding someone attractive. Asking someone out or accepting an invitation--- those things were statements about who you found attractive and desirable. Going to a film or a dance or to dinner could be part of a date, but it was accepted that those things were a prelude to making out. The ritual of the date was very mannered, very formal. If you were male, you made the first overt move, made the phone call or asked someone in the halls at school. The girl needn't be utterly passive, of course. There were all sorts of ways to signal that she was receptive to the invitation. These days I'll compare it all to eighteenth-century diplomacy, which is a comparison I wish I had time to expand on. I like the comparison, though, and it makes sense to me.
I'm always in favour of rituals and formality. These days, my young companions will meet me out at a favourite coffeeshop or bar, or come by my rooms. We may walk together through neighbourhoods we like, or emerge downtown for drinks and dinner, but it's not dating in the classic sense. Making that first move was terrifying sometimes, but if the girl accepted your invitation, you knew exactly what to do next, step by step. It was taken as a given that if a girl went out with you, then she liked you enough to at least make out for a while at the end of the evening. There were carefully calibrated levels of what was likely to happen on a first or second or third date: kisses and caresses, top on or off, front seat or back. But there wasn't any question that there would be at least some making out. That was the point of it all, of course. Everyone understood in his or her bones that dating was about desire. You didn't have to talk about it or agonise over it. There at the heart of things was physical desire. That much was clearly understood.
The rules of the game called for the girl to get in to your car (and, yes, you opened the door for her: this was in the American South) and sit against the passenger door until you'd left her parents' driveway and driven down to the end of the street. Then she'd slide over against you so you could put an arm around her or put a hand on her leg. All these years later I recall the first night a girl did that with me. We were talking about something utterly unconnected--- what was on the radio, what film we were going to see ---and she just slid across the car and pressed herself against me. She never said anything about it--- she just did it while talking of other things. I was thrilled, of course. She'd agreed to go out with me, and she'd worn something short and summery. I understood that there would be kissing later, or at least understood it in some abstract sense. I knew about the car seat rule, but it was still a thrill when she actually did that. I'd seen her at school, spoken to her two or three brief times. Having her accept my invitation, having her slide against me--- I did feel valued, and I felt like the desire I felt for her wasn't something I had to hide or be ashamed of.
There was kissing later that night, with her leaning back across me. We'd seen some film at a little uptown cinema, then parked my parents' car by a lake in a park. I remember her as having shoulder-length light-auburn hair and grey eyes, with a light spray of freckles across her nose. There was kissing, and her top was pushed up a bit, though not all the way. (No, no navel ring. This was long, long, before body piercing. She was very slender, though, and tallish for the day. My tastes haven't changed.) We talked a bit during the evening, though not of anything deep. We stayed in that parked car 'til midnight, and I drove her home and walked her to her door. We went out a few more times, and there was always that spot by the lake in the park. We went fairly far. She was more experienced than I was, and I was happy to follow her lead at some things. The ritual of the date let us each have a partner and gave us a set of markers for moving the evening toward making out. We were both Southern-born, and we'd been taught how to be polite and make conversation. There wasn't any real awkwardness about what we were doing. See a film, go someplace for pizza, try to acquire a couple of illicit beers, go parking. It was all pleasant enough, and we both understood what the purpose of the date was.
I'm not sure that you're allowed to have dates like that these days. I have no idea what high school rituals are like, of course, but there's a whole social mood that does regard the idea of dating as problematic. Some of that is dislike of the presumed passivity dating imposes on girls--- having to wait 'til asked. A lot of it is just a dislike of the idea that dating is a mating dance, that a very basic physical desire underlies the whole reason for a couple being out. We're not supposed to admit that these days. Asking a girl out simply because you find her hot is ideologically suspect. Sex is no longer regarded as an acceptable key reason for asking someone out. Doing so is regarded as somehow demeaning or degrading the person asked, though that's not a position I've ever understood.
There are fewer and fewer rituals designed to make the mating dance easier for both parties. It's less and less acceptable to think of male-female interactions as a mating dance. That's sad, of course. Ritual and formality are there for a reason. They remove the need to agonise over decisions; they remove the constant need to worry. You can let the ritual carry you along, let the steps of the dance take you. I like that, of course. You decide to join the dance and then all you have to do is follow the steps. I like that. It's honest, mind you. It admits that sex is a valid reason for things, and that there's nothing wrong with the idea of a mating dance. Pleasure and desire are fraught; that's the human condition. The rituals exist to make those things easier to reach and enjoy.
Despite what the current moral arbiters say, the rituals are honest. They allow you to admit what you want and they exist to help both parties get there with some grace and with less anxiety. I think the language of the rituals is something we need to value, and we need to once again be honest about what the dance does.