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From the Family Parlor to the Back Seat to #MeToo: How We Got Here

Cropped shot of a couple holding hands while outside

The Washington Post reported this week that men are having a difficult time navigating the dating scene in the wake of recent sex scandals and the #MeToo movement:

[Geoffrey] Knight, a 25-year-old Washingtonian, is sleeping with someone new. He is asking “Can I touch you here?” “Can I do this?” every step of the way, and his partner wants to know what is with all the questions. She prefers a more proactive approach.

Knight is well-prepared to date in the #MeToo era. He has completed a two-month discussion class on how to reject toxic masculinity. He still has his “Consent is sexy” T-shirt from freshman year of college. He has thought about how men have the power in courtship, and with that, the ability to abuse it. So when he meets a woman while out at a bar, rather than ask for her number and potentially make her feel pressured to give it, he will give her his number and wait for her to text.

Yet he is still thoroughly confused. “It’s tough for me to know where the line is,” Knight says, “because it changes from woman to woman.”

This is what it is like to date in 2018. Plenty of heterosexual men are confused about how to make a first move in a way that is confident and mindful of a woman’s boundaries. Even the guys like Knight who are pretty sure they are not harassers are walking on eggshells.

It would be a mistake lay the blame for this phenomenon solely on recent events in the news. A look back at history explains how the problems began to evolve at the outset of the 20th century.

A book titled From the Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America documents the radical societal shifts in the relationships between men and women at the turn of the century. One point that's often lost in discussions about female empowerment is that women, by gaining unprecedented freedom in American society, ceded much of their power over courtship rituals. Beth L. Bailey writes:

The [shift in the] dating system also shifted power from women to men. Calling, either as a simple visitor or the elaborate late nineteenth-century ritual, gave women a large portion of control. First of all, courtship took place within a girl's home -- in the women's "sphere" as it was called in the nineteenth century -- or at entertainments largely devised and presided over by women. Dating moved courtship out of the home and into a man's sphere -- the world outside the home. Female controls and conventions lost much of their power outside the women's sphere. And while many of the conventions of female propriety were restrictive and repressive, they had allowed women (young women and their mothers) a great deal of immediate control over courtship. The transfer of spheres thoroughly undercut that control.

As a result, courtship morphed into dating, with couples venturing from family parlors and front porches to dance halls and, yes, the proverbial back seat. The parlor courtship rituals had been, of course, dependent on one's family actually having a home with a parlor. As a result of the industrial revolution, families increasingly lived in tenements and apartments that lacked such amenities, so the shift was as much forced by the demographic shifts in the U.S. as by changes in cultural mores.

But that wasn't all that changed. "Dating," as it came to be known, came at a cost, both in terms of financial obligations and in the power structure of relationships.

The centrality of money in dating had serious implications for courtship. Not only did money shift control and initiative to men by making them the "hosts," it led contemporaries to see dating as a system of exchange best understood through economic analogies or as an economic system pure and simple. Of course, people did recognize in marriage a similar economic dimension -- the man undertakes to support his wife in exchange for her filling various roles important to him -- but marriage was a permanent relationship. Dating was situational, with no long-term commitments implied, and when a man, in a highly visible ritual, spent money on a woman in public, it seemed much more clearly an economic act.

The shift was meteoric, thrusting men into the driver's seat, placing women at a disadvantage:

Dating, like prostitution, made access to women directly dependent on money... What men were buying in the dating system was not just female companionship. True, the equation (male companionship plus money equals female companionship) was imbalanced. But what men were buying in the dating system was not just female companionship, not just entertainment -- but power. Money purchased obligation; money purchased equality; money purchased control.

While women have, to some extent, regained a measure of economic control and egalitarianism in the hundred years since the shift (depending on how you define those terms) what's replaced it has had devastating societal implications.

...advisors warned that "free" sex was destroying centuries of "painstakingly built-up safeguards" against men's polygamous nature. The new freedoms, they argued, destroyed the only security women had, and would end by returning all women to "slavery to male whims."

It used to be that men (for the most part) married so they could a) have sex regularly, legally, and with the permission of the church and b) produce offspring. Women, on the other hand, married for the promise of provision and protection — and based on the desire to have children (again, with the approval of the church and the community). None of that precluded genuine love and sexual satisfaction in marriage, but utilitarian purposes were at the forefront of the decision making process. It then became a matter of supply and demand. According to Bailey, by limiting "free" premarital sex, women created a scarcity of a commodity that only she could provide to men. Prior to the dating revolution, she maintained her value (in an economic sense) by maintaining that scarcity. That gave her enormous power at a time when women weren't primary (or even secondary) breadwinners. That's not to say there weren't abuses — there certainly were — but the abuses were never baked in the system that God designed in the first place. Those, in fact, were a departure from the model God outlines in the Bible.

The cultural upheaval we're seeing in relationships is now reaching its logical conclusion. Women willing to have sex outside of marriage are as close as a swipe on a man's phone. A man doesn't even need to buy a woman a cup of coffee anymore to have his sexual needs fulfilled. If he can't find a real woman, he can turn to pornography or even a sex robot as a substitute for the real thing. And an alarming number of men are eschewing marriage altogether out of a fear of retribution should the union end in divorce.

Financially and culturally empowered women are likewise ditching monogamous relationships, increasingly choosing careers and sperm donors over marital fulfillment. Women no longer need the protection of a man — or his income. Traditional families with single incomes and the woman staying at home to care for the children are increasingly rare.

In a 1988 epilogue to her book, originally penned in 1954, Bailey laments that the new freedoms "had a profound impact" on relationships.

Freedom made courtship less certain. It undermined the rules. Metaphors of economy offered a wonderfully coherent system: models based on cause and effect clear and logical rules. Metaphors of revolution are the opposite. They offer change and struggle as a way of seeing. Conventions are no longer so coherent, their meaning no longer so clear.

The uncertainties, she concludes, are "staggering, complicated enough for those who observe, possibly debilitating for those who participate."

Thus we find ourselves in confusing times. Men and women, unsure how to respond to one another, are increasingly acting out and checking out.

Where do we go from here?

Obviously what we're doing isn't working. Neither men nor women are empowered — let alone fulfilled — by the current system. While I wouldn't argue that we need to turn the clock back and return to our former inegalitarian dating conventions, I believe that some of what was good about the past could be applied to the present. It would benefit us to rediscover some truths our forefathers and mothers understood both intuitively and as a result of experience.

For starters, let's admit that serial dating that extends into one's 30s or 40s is an ineffective strategy for creating a lasting monogamous relationship. It teaches people to move on once a relationship has lost its sparkle and the so-called romance has faded. That, quite frankly, is a recipe for selfishness, which is a marriage killer. Ditto for living together before marriage.

Second, the "right person" for you is the one you promised God on your wedding day you would love, honor, and cherish until death parts you. Once you sign on the dotted line you should look at it as a lifetime commitment, not something to walk away from when the going gets tough.

Finally, and most important, the only way to truly fix relationships and marriages is to return to God's design for the institution. A man should leave his mother and cleave to his wife (Gen. 2:24). A woman should respect her husband (and biblically submit to him) (Eph. 5:33) and a man should love his wife as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). Both should consider their spouse more significant than themselves and put the other first, ahead of their own needs (Phil. 2:3). Women shouldn't be quarrelsome nags  (Prov. 25:24) and men must not be domineering or "lord it over" their wives (1 Peter 5:3). (Yes, those rules apply to both, but the Bible recognizes our natural gender-specific sinful tendencies.) Sex should be reserved for marriage — and should be a regular part of the relationship (1 Cor. 7:5). The husband should provide for and protect his wife and children (1 Tim. 5:8) and women should be industrious and of noble character (Prov. 31).

Finally, we need to recognize that no amount of pontificating by the #MeToo or men's rights crowds has the power to transform relationships like the power of the Gospel in action.

Follow me on Twitter: @pbolyard