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Heterosexual women of a progressive bent often say they want equal partnerships with men. But dating is a different story entirely.


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After going to college on the East Coast and spending a few years bouncing around, Jacob moved back to his native Oregon, settling in Portland. Almost immediately, he was surprised by the difficulty he had meeting women. Having lived in New York and the Boston area, he was accustomed to ready-made social scenes. Jacob was single for two years and then, at 26, began dating a slightly older woman who soon moved in with him. She seemed independent and low-maintenance, important traits for Jacob. Past girlfriends had complained about his lifestyle, which emphasized watching sports and going to concerts and bars.

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Americans are now considered prime candidates for dating from age 14 or younger to close to 30 or older. For an activity undertaken over such a long period of time, dating is remarkably difficult to characterize. Sixth-graders claim to be dating when, after extensive negotiations conducted by third parties, two of them go out for ice cream. Dating can be used to describe exclusive and nonexclusive relationships, both short-term and long-term. The purpose of dating is not much clearer than its definition.

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The potential spouses assessed each other in the privacy of her home, her parents assessed his eligibility, and either they got engaged or he went on his way. Over the course of the 20th century, such encounters became more casual, but even tire kickers were expected to make a purchase sooner rather than later. Five decades ago, 72 percent of men and 87 percent of women had gotten married by the time they were Bythe situation had basically reversed: 78 percent of men and 67 percent of women were unmarried at that age.

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The obvious reason for declining marriage rates is the general erosion of traditional social conventions. A less obvious reason is that the median age for both sexes when they first wed is now six years older than it was for their counterparts in the s. InJeffrey Arnett, a developmental psychologist at Clark University, coined the term emerging adulthood to describe the long phase of experimentation that precedes settling down. But vetting and being vetted by so many strangers still takes time and concerted attention.

Like any other freelance operator, you have to develop and protect your brand. You cannot be sure where things are heading, but you try to gain experience. If you look sharp, you might get a free lunch.

We are in the early stages of a dating revolution. The sheer quantity of relationships available through the internet is transforming the quality of those relationships. Though it is probably too soon to say exactly how, Witt and Weigel offer a useful perspective. Nor are they part of the rising generation of gender-fluid individuals for whom the ever-lengthening list of sexual identities and affinities spells liberation from the heteronormative assumptions of parents and peers.

Weigel, a Ph. His confidence that he was entitled to what he desired even if what he desired was to be indecisivecompared with her inability to assert her own needs, dismayed her. How retrograde! The sexual revolution had failed her.

To understand how she, and women like her, came to feel so dispossessed, she decided to investigate the heritage encoded in the rituals of dating. Witt, an intrepid journalist and mordantly ambivalent memoirist, looks forward rather than back. Adopting the role of participant-observer, she moves through an assortment of sexual subcultures. Many of these are artifacts of the internet, from online dating to sadomasochistic feminist pornography sites to webcam peepshows such as one called Chaturbate.

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She hopes to find clues about what relationships might look like in a postromantic, postmarital age. Neither Witt nor Weigel is naive or nostalgic. They understand that mating practices have always reflected economic conditions and been openly transactional for women whose lives and livelihoods depended on their outcome.

I imagine the two authors as undergraduates writing papers about the romantic ideal as an ideological construct and bridezilla weddings as its death throes. Both of them want to discover more-authentic ways to bond. As Weigel tells itdating is an unintended by-product of consumerism. Nineteenth-century industrialization ushered in the era of cheap goods, and producers needed to sell more of them. Young women moved to cities to work and met more eligible men in a day than they could ly have met in years. Men started taking women out to places of entertainment that offered young people refuge from their sharp-eyed elders—amusement parks, restaurants, movie theaters, bars.

Romance began to be decoupled from commitment. Trying something on before you bought it became the new rule. Then as now, commentators fretted that dating commercialized courtship. Weigel worries that the naked mercantilism of recreational sexual encounters coarsens us and reinforces stereotypes.

Those who try to wriggle out of the old gender roles end up skittish and confused. You did your best. Women must cope with two intense time pressures: to make a good impression in a matter of seconds, and to pair off before the biological timer runs out. Witt, too, is impatient with the failure of gender equality to create sexual equality. Oddly, though, the free love she finds is rarely free. Witt mostly trains her attention on sexual interactions that are explicitly commercial. The exceptions are a polyamorous threesome and Burning Man, the sex-and-drugs-and-self-actualization festival held yearly in the Nevada desert.

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She wants to know whether women who use sex to make money, or who exploit men for pleasure, somehow develop more sexual confidence, have a greater sense of sexual agency. A writer of many registers, Witt conveys amusement, bemusement, disgust, and sympathy all at once. She fights her reluctance to go on dates arranged through OkCupid, and ends up enjoying some of them. Witt lets one of these women talk her into doing her own show, though Witt is too nervous to do more than chat with a man who is lying in bed naked except for a pair of Ray-Bans.

She goes further at OneTaste, an organization that sells workshops on something called orgasmic meditation, which is meant to train people, particularly women, to focus on their own sexual pleasure without the distraction of emotions, expectations, and inhibitions. Witt s up for stroking sessions—15 minutes of clitoral manipulation—which she receives at the hands of Eli, an Apple employee turned OneTaste staff member.

The indexes on fetish-specific sites include big clitchubbypuffy nipplesfartinghairy pussyfat matureand ugly. Witt is taken aback by her own positive response. But what about the road toward greater sexual equality?

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I doubt many people will share her hopes for the future of marriage and love. Marriage could be downgraded to a t custodial venture for the raising of children. They would meld their bodies seamlessly with their machines, without our embarrassment, without our notions of authenticity. But then what? She has no brave new world to propose, just some fixes for the current one. As her historical survey makes clear, love will never rid itself of economic considerations. Only then can they focus on making the change that counts: approaching romance not as a consumer but as a would-be producer.

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What would they produce? Popular Latest. The Atlantic Crossword. In Subscribe. From our November issue Check out the full table of contents and find your next story to read.