How Dating Has Always Been Like Work

The author Moira Weigel argues that the various courtship rituals of the past hundred-odd years have reflected the labor-market conditions of their day.

Artwork made of rice plants at a paddy field in China's Liaoning province (China Stringer Network / Reuters)

Love, it turns out, has always been a lot of work.

While every generation will lament anew the fact that finding love is hard, history seems to indicate that this particular social ritual never gets any easier or less exciting. In Labor of Love, a new book documenting the history of dating in America, Moira Weigel, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative literature at Yale University, confirms this lament: Since dating was “invented,” it has always been an activity that required a lot of effort.

As part of her research, Weigel read dating-advice books from the 1800s and hundreds of articles on dating from teen and women’s magazines over the years, and she found two common themes: First, there is usually an older part of the population that perceives dating to be “dying,” or, at least, as not being done “appropriately.” Second, Weigel found that the way people date has almost always been tied to the market forces of their era.

I recently spoke with Weigel about her book, and a lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Bourree Lam: Your book begins with the fact that dating essentially started when women started working. So in a sense, are you saying that dating has its roots in women entering the workforce?

Moira Weigel: Absolutely. Starting in the 1890s and 1900s, a huge number of young Americans began moving to cities and a huge number of women in particular began working outside of homes—their own homes, or homes where they might have worked as governesses or maids. Previously, courtship rituals had taken place in private places, almost always chaperoned by relatives or other authority figures. If you were well off, the scenario might have looked like a Jane Austen or George Eliot novel. If you were working class, you might have met prospective partners at a factory dance or a church social.

But as women entered the workforce and hit the city streets, they gained new freedom to mix with men. Think what a big deal it is when one new man shows up in Middlemarch. Then, think how many men a woman who worked as a waitress in a busy restaurant might have met every single day. It must have been thrilling! Of course, this freedom brought new responsibility too. Your mother and aunts would no longer take care of courtship for you.

Lam: Has this social ritual been tied to work ever since? Both for women and for men?

Weigel: Yes, I would say that dating has been tied both to work and to the consumer economy ever since it was invented—in a number of different ways.

Perhaps the most obvious is that what people do on dates changes as the economy changes. So around 1900, the best date a girl working at Lord & Taylor’s in New York could have imagined might have been to go to Coney Island. As movie theaters got more and more popular, going to the movies became a classic date.

Practically speaking, the rhythms of our workdays change the ways we meet one another. In an era when most people had jobs that clocked in and out at regular times—old-fashioned 9-to-5s—it made sense to ask someone, “So, I’ll pick you up at six?” Now, in an era of flextime and freelancing we might be more likely to text a lover “u up?”

Often, trend pieces describe this kind of change as indicative of a decline of civilization—or, at least, of romance. But I believe that it follows logically from changes in labor patterns.

Lam: In the book, you mention that a booming economy led to the democratization of dating. Can you elaborate on that?

Weigel: One really interesting thing about the history of dating is that it starts out as a solidly working-class phenomenon. The working women I was describing earlier had more freedom to meet men on their own than middle-class women, still confined to their family parlors, did. But in many cases they also had to try to go out with men because their wages were so low that they could not afford hot food regularly otherwise—not to mention entertainment.

In fact, through the 1910s, you see Progressive do-gooders and police who believe that women who “make dates” with men to go to a bar or a restaurant are simply doing sex work. And the line between “straight” dating and sex work—I believe—always was and remains blurry. However, in the later 1910s and 1920s you start to see relatively wealthy people—the flappers and fussers we still read about in F. Scott Fitzgerald novels—imitating working-class ways. And as vastly more middle-class women start going to college in the 1920s, dating becomes thoroughly mainstream.

In the passage you mention, I am talking about the 1950s—the postwar boom years. In our current economic climate, it feels almost impossible to imagine how much richer America was getting during that period. Structural racism meant that the new wealth was far from equally distributed. But between 1945 and 1960, per-capita GDP increased by 35 percent. Young people, who were just starting to be called “teenagers,” had far more disposable income than ever before. And so the popular culture of that period tried to capture it. There was the explosion of fast-food joints, drive-in movie theaters, restaurants. So there were many new things for young daters to do. And for everyone to be able to participate, it made perfect sense that everyone needed a boyfriend and girlfriend. It was also a moment of egalitarianism, mass culture, full employment, and full participation. And I think those ideas seeped into how the culture thought about romance and dating as well.

Lam: I’m interested in the idea that wealthier individuals found it advantageous to imitate and adopt the rituals of the working class in the realm of dating. Are there ways in which this is also happening today?

Weigel: That’s such an interesting question. I am not sure whether I can think about examples that cross class lines, but I definitely feel as if we see something similar in current debates about cultural appropriation.

Lam: It came to mind because I think the stigma of giving birth before marriage, or being a single mom, has really changed in the last decade for wealthy women, particularly celebrities.

Weigel: That is fascinating. I think that’s absolutely right. I wonder how much of that has to do with economics. As privileged, college-educated women make great gains in the workplace, there has been an ethos of “empowerment” that prevails that definitely liberates us from some of the old sexual constraints and double standards. At the same time, we continue to see the shaming of poorer women who opt to have children outside of marriage.

The choice to have children without, or before, marrying is an increasingly common one. Indeed, the median age of first childbearing in the U.S. is now 25, whereas the median age of first marriage for a woman has risen to 27. So here, as in many areas of life, I think what we’re used to thinking about moral or cultural change may be driven by economics. The poorer unwed mothers are stigmatized and ostracized because the state fears their becoming financially dependent. Whereas wealthy women have more freedom to do what they want and we call that feminist empowerment.

Lam: You describe dating as having strong similarities to work itself, which reminds me a lot of the discussions about the unpaid work women do at home, which can affect their careers. But isn’t dating also inextricably linked to money in a sense? Even now, many people are still struggling with the simple question of who is responsible for paying the bill on a date.

Weigel: Especially if you live in a city like New York, or San Francisco, where I live now, dating can be a very expensive proposition! I forget who first coined the phrase “the makeup tax,” but that tax is real. If a straight woman even attempts to approximate the beauty standards that popular culture tells them they should maintain to be baseline dateable, she will be paying out the ears in time and money. Then of course, going out to dinner or drinks or a movie also adds up.

Without downplaying the importance of any of that, the subject I found most interesting while writing this book was the question of emotional work or emotional labor. Dating doesn’t only require us to spend money. It requires us to work on our emotions, manage our emotions. Not to mention our online presences and our apps.

If you happen to be a writer, or work in media or publicity, you may identify: Managing an OkCupid account can feel exactly like your job. And the pressures that conventional dating advice puts on women—I’m thinking of The Rules here, or, say, Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, the way these books constantly tell you that you have to seem warm but not too available, affectionate but never needy, that you basically can never spontaneously express any emotion or desires without managing them. That sounds like a service job to me.

I remember working behind a cash register in a bookstore when I was in college, having to be polite to every jerk who came in angry because we didn’t have the Harry Potter book he wanted for his daughter. I think of this any time I fly on an airplane now, watching flight attendants be warm but not meddlesome, or in a restaurant where a waiter must be attentive but not interrupt. The work of managing your emotions in dating often very closely resembles these forms of paid work. Which are, perhaps not coincidentally, often thought of as female jobs.

Lam: Economists often use the metaphor of a market to discuss dating and marriage, where people are making choices and mental calculations as they’re dating before they commit. It’s also where each gender and each person has stated and revealed preferences—what someone says they want, versus what they really want. Has this appeared in your research? Were there time periods where this is more prevalent?

Weigel: The idea that there is a marriage market is an old one and in many ways very literal. For centuries in the West, marriage has been seen as a legal institution, a contract freely entered by two individuals, to bind property. And in some respects it still is.

I think that dating makes the market dynamics of courtship very explicit—in an era of online dating and apps, sometimes painfully so. One thing that struck me at the very beginning, when I was working on this book, was how completely permeated our slang for dating is by market language—“on the market,” “off the market,” friends “with benefits,” “investing” in a relationship, etc. The other main kind of metaphor that our slang contains is of dating as a game—“player,” “baller,” “wingman,” “score,” etc. So as an activity, it occupies this weird terrain between work and play. These two sets of metaphors are gendered, by the way. I think that, while we’ve made a lot of progress—this is where dating’s original “prostitution complex” comes back in—people still tend to think of it as more like work for women and play for men.

On stated vs. revealed preferences, one thing that is very interesting is how sites and apps let us see the discrepancy between the two very clearly. In some cases, only the owners of the apps can see it. Just last weekend, I was talking to a gay friend who uses Scruff a lot, the men-seeking-men app. He said that he especially appreciates its “Insights” category. It actually lets you see other users’ actual preferences and not just the stated ones. The takeaway for me is that it’s fascinating how new digital tools are making it possible to keep all this dating metadata, which gives us new insights into what people want versus what they say or believe they want. It has probably always been the case that there are discrepancies, but now we have the analytics to prove it.

The downside is that I think these new technologies can lead us to get too tied up in matching games. As the philosopher and activist bell hooks says: “Love is a verb, not just a noun.” A relationship is a process, not a product. To this extent, I think that the market metaphors can be limited and work against our happiness. The dynamics of supply and demand do not govern loving relationships, and neither desire nor affection is a scarce resource.

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