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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.