Moira Weigel Talks Love and The Invention of Dating

labor of loveIf you’ve ever wondered about the origins of dating, Moira Weigel’s book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating is for you. She goes into the history (hint: dating hasn’t been around that long) and shares insights along the way (for example: people have always been skeptical about the ways men and women meet and pair up).

Today, Weigel’s book releases in paperback and to celebrate, I caught up with her to talk a little about how the history of dating can inform the way we think about relationships today.

What got you interested in dating as a field of study?

I was in graduate school at Yale and what I was studying had nothing to do with dating, but of course as a single woman in my twenties, quite a lot of what I spent my time talking about with friends had to do with relationships and how we felt about our experiences. When I was around 25 or 26 I had this moment where I thought—why isn’t this a thing that we take seriously? I was like ‘We’re all developing these huge intellectual tool kits, why aren’t we using them on the stuff that we really care about and talk about all the time?’

I also noticed, this would have been around 2012, 2013, I felt like all of the sudden in the media there were a lot of conversations—and I hadn’t done my research yet so I didn’t know that this wasn’t new—but there seemed to be a lot of conversations that were either about dating culture panic and how the rise of mobile phone apps was changing dating culture and/or about this idea that Hanna Rosin, from the Atlantic, famously called The End Of Men, the idea that there weren’t any eligible men, or people weren’t dating right.

I think in 6 months, The End Of Men was a book that came out, there was a book called The End Of Sex, and there was a New York Times article called “The End Of Courtship,”and both as someone being trained in historical research and as someone who hoped to have sex with men, and courtship, I hoped it was not the end of men, sex, and courtship. Those seemed like very big claims.

I got curious though about why. That can’t possibly be true. Do we really think that the human race is going to end because of Tinder? I was like: ‘why is that such a compelling story, that’s literally leading the headlines?’ What it sounds like is that human courtship was the same for all of history, you know cavemen and cave women were this way and then all of a sudden the iPhone 6 came and now it’s over. I was like ‘Well, that doesn’t seem like that can be right, I want to investigate what’s actually going on and why there’s so much anxiety about gender roles and relations and courtship, and then also like why is this such a compelling story to people, why is it such a popular form of click-bait?’

So I was doing some research and poking around and made this discovery — which is that this whole idea of dating which we take for granted now and think of as pretty natural — is a relatively new invention. It only really becomes a thing that people do—this idea that you go out into public and find your own mate and that it’s not someone your family chooses or your Rabbi or your priest chooses, but it’s someone that you choose—that that only really gets started when women enter the workforce. So, as a feminist, that was super interesting to me, that was the origins of my interest.

How has studying the history of dating informed your perceptions about modern dating?

I don’t know if this is encouraging or super depressing, but the biggest takeaway is just: it’s always been hard. What’s really fascinating, and I get into this at the beginning of my book, you go back the word—‘dating’ starts to be used in the 1890s—dating in that period is looked at with extreme suspicion and is indeed thought to be a kind of prostitution. People are arrested for going on dates, and really ever since they were arresting women for going on dates there has never been an era either when parents and older people are like ‘Oh it’s great what the kids are doing, they are doing it just right’ or when people were like, ‘Dating is awesome, I’m killing it.’ Every single historical era you see, on the one hand, adults and older authority figures fretting that young people are not meeting and getting to know one another in the right way and also people who are engaged in dating saying like, ‘Oh God I’m not doing it right, I’m anxious’ ‘Does he like me? ‘Does she like me? ‘Should I not have bought that lemonade for her?’ or whatever. So anxiety  — both big, cultural anxiety and personal anxiety is a constant feature of dating ever since it was invented.

In terms of the kinds of advice I would give friends or how I would apply this kind of historical research to personal life, I think one thing that’s really striking in the contemporary advice industry is how much advice is basically about telling people to suppress their feelings. I think of The Rules franchise as sort of the prototype, the most dramatic or famous example of this. It’s literally like, ‘Oh do you like a guy? Don’t tell him.’ ‘You feel like calling him? Don’t.’ ‘Would you like to have sex? Don’t do that.’

It’s so often about telling people not to express their feelings and I think that that it’s certainly not a good idea to express all of one’s feelings all of the time, but I think that there’s really a very detrimental aspect to this—first of all it makes people quite neurotic. It also makes people so focused on strategy and tactics that it becomes very hard to express what you want, and I think you might even lose track of what you actually want. It’s easy to become so wrapped up in that advice that it’s hard to even know if you actually like someone or just like being liked. So I think that it was very interesting for me to see, in my view, how this pattern of telling people, and particularly straight women, not to express their feelings, it was interesting to see how that was tied up to a history of trying to control female behavior. Because I think that basically—this is very straightforward advice, but I think it’s usually better to express your feelings, and to communicate much more openly than most of the advice suggests.

My hope for the book is that having this historical context sort of puts this emphasis on the tricks and the rules and the games into some perspective, and lets people see the ways in which those tricks and tactics aren’t necessarily so much about making you individually happy as perpetuating certain ideas about how a man should act and how a woman should act.

Another thing that was so striking in my research—I think that we have all of these ideas in the culture that men are this way, and women are this way, and basically, it’s like men have no feelings and never want feelings they’re just trying to get sex, and it’s like women don’t like sex and they only want feelings and they trade sex for affection, or something. I really don’t think that’s true. My unscientific-sounding conclusion is that I think that actually most humans want mostly the same thing, which is a combination of respect and intimacy and communication. I think that many men and women have different communicative styles or attachment styles, but it is just absolutely not true that most men don’t feel anything around sexual or physical intimacy or don’t desire relationships and intimacy, and I think that that myth that they aren’t supposed to makes very men unhappy. I think in the culture we often talk about how certain expectations about gender roles are bad for women, but I think they are also quite bad for men.

What surprised you the most about the history of dating?

I think that the fact that for the first ten or twenty years of the history of dating, making a date was something you could get arrested for, that it was totally seen as the same thing as prostitution, really surprised me at first. When I did a little bit more research, it makes total sense because there just wasn’t any context where a man and woman would spend time together and something would be bought or sold. When you think about the Jane Austen scenario or the church dance that people in the country would have done in the late 1800s, you would meet someone, you would court someone, but there was never a situation where someone would buy or sell something. Reading about all of these women who got arrested for going out to what we now consider the most traditional date—like going out to dinner and a movie with someone—that was a big surprise to me.

There’s also a section of the book about the history of this idea of the biological clock and anxiety about women reproducing. I was very surprised to learn how recent the term biological clock, and this idea that women kind of have to race time to find a partner and settle down and get married is. That term was coined in March of 1978—much more recent than I had thought.

There’s a lot of negativity in the media about the present and future of dating and romantic love. How would you encourage people who are looking for love in the trenches based on your research and experience?

I think that the most encouraging thing that I can say is maybe also the depressing thing which is: it has always been this way. I think that it’s helpful to step back and be like, ‘why is this such an evergreen story?’ Well, it offers something to everyone. It’s sort of titillating because it’s about sex, it prods people who are single to panic. It’s like when my mom used to send me these articles before I met my husband that were like, “Why Millennial Women Will Be Alone Forever.” Click. So I feel like they are such constant media stories because they are click bait. I don’t think that it reflects real reasons to be deeply pessimistic about love.

It is true that the role of marriage in our culture is changing and that gender roles have changed dramatically over the past hundred years and the expectations, the ages people get married at, the class profile of marriage, or whether people get married at all—those things have all changed. But I think that to people who feel stressed out by those articles, as I certainly did, I think that I would just remind people that this is a way of selling things, whether it’s advice books—because if the advice were like, ‘Hey communicate openly about your feelings and expectations and try to stay in touch with yourself about what you want’—that’s not the basis of a billion-dollar self-help industry.

It is true that the role of  marriage in our society has changed, and people’s expectations have changed, but it is not true that love is dead, and there’s absolutely no empirical basis for that kind of claim. So I think that that would be my encouragement: it’s always been hard, love has never been easy, there’s no historical period where everyone is saying ‘Oh, this is a snap.’ People ask me if it’s a self-help book, and I think it’s not, but my hope is that by giving people some perspective on those questions it will help relieve some of that anxiety about feeling like we’re doing it wrong or that we are really in trouble because things have changed so dramatically that it’s hopeless.

There are a lot of things that are way better than they were in the past, too, and the internet has made it easier than ever. I mean the internet fuels anxiety on the one hand, but the internet has also made it way easier to find a lot of people who might be into what you’re into. I think that there’s a lot of reasons to feel positive about those possibilities, as well as anxious. I would argue that the boundary between on and off line life is increasingly nonexistent. I joke that all dating is online, because whether or not you met on a website, you always probably looked each other up on Facebook or Google. so I think that the boundaries between those two ways of meeting are increasingly insignificant.


Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.


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