Love’s Labors Lost?

My 18-year-old daughter who is a freshman in college texted me the other day that she had a date for Saturday night. I texted her back that I thought college kids didn’t date. She replied that yes that was true and she had been complaining about it just the other day, when lo and behold she got an invitation to dinner out with a boy she knows. As far as I know, this is her first date since going off to school in late August, although she had been to the requisite number of parties and “hung out” with young men and women of various sexual proclivities. She was psyched. I laughed, but so was I.

My son, who is 24 and also in school, hasn’t had much luck with women lately. Although he had a fairly serious relationship with a great young woman a couple of years ago, distance and other things broke them up. Since then, he has seen a couple of women, but none of them seem quite right, he says. What he would really like is to fall madly, completely in love. He’s a romantic that way. The bad thing is that he isn’t even dating much: what with school and work his time is limited; he knows that but still he longs for that big love.

I thought about my kids when I read Charlotte Alter’s poignant Modern Love column about how hard it is for her generation to date, find love, have romance, all the things she envies in women of my generation. She fears that her generation has forgotten how to love.

If my own children are any example, I don’t think the younger generation has forgotten how to love as much as they just aren’t sure how to go about getting it. There is the fact that casual hook-ups seem the norm and manners are deeply distrusted as somehow being inauthentic. But more than anything, I think my generation, the baby boomers, may bear some responsibility for our children’s disaffection with love.

We fought hard for equality; some of us so much that we wouldn’t allow men to open our doors, carry our bags, or pay for our dinners. We began to make love with the kind of fervor and abandon that had, previously only been the privilege of men or “loose” women. “Good” girls didn’t have sex right away, and certainly not unless they had a steady boyfriend. But by the time I went to college in the early seventies all that had changed. I had steady boyfriends with whom I had sexual relationships, but it was clear I didn’t have to have a boyfriend to have as much sex as I wanted, and sometimes I did. In addition, the term “slut” no longer had the kind of power to hurt women as it once had. We were emancipated, we were free women; we could major in anything we wanted, go to college, be whatever we chose to be….and we could sleep with whomever we chose, too.

But the thing was, there was still romance. Men still invited me out on dates, thought up interesting things to do, and paid for my dinners and events, mainly because back then they made a whole lot more money than I did. And my men were sweet and kind and faithful and endearing, almost to a man. I have love letters, and dozens of memories of extraordinarily romantic gestures from all of my serious relationships, from a man, who when we were out walking, bought me a new pair of shoes because my feet hurt, to another who swept me away for weekends. Like the mother of writer Alter, I can regale my kids with stories of the men I have loved and who have loved me, including their father. I have been lucky in love, even if my marriages have not lasted a lifetime.

But until my latest relationships, I didn’t have the internet to contend with, the easy availability of pornography and on-line encounters. I didn’t have to contend or compete with explicit television shows where sex was as easy as buying groceries. I didn’t have to worry about the bombardment of images of women to which I could not even hope to complete. There was the telephone, landed, the mail where real letters were sent and received. No texting or messaging, no distractions during dinner or dancing or sex. When you were with a man he was with you, not gazing at a variety of devices that offered him other options.

Just because I am a feminist and believe that men and women should be equal in the marketplace in terms of salary and opportunity, doesn’t mean that I don’t think the niceties of dating shouldn’t be observed. Plans should be made in advance, the romantic gesture, whether it is a home-cooked meal, flowers, the planning of a trip, should be observed. By both parties. But what has happened in response to feminism’s push for equality between the sexes is the same kind of backlash that Frank Rich writes about in his most recent article for New York magazine: violence has erupted. Just because charges can now be pressed against abusing men, even if the woman recants (something so recent I remember the day in Virginia when the law changed), doesn’t mean domestic violence has lessened. Just because women can have sex doesn’t mean that they won’t still be punished for it. Judges will throw out rape charges based on a woman’s “reputation” and the way she dresses, forty years after we began to push for change. Misogyny abounds: from many of our candidates for office, from the men who run our country’s banks and businesses. Why else would Obama have had to pass the Lily Ledbetter law just three years ago?

We have “won” the right to speak our minds, get out from under the thumb of men (both literally and figuratively). We have won the “right” to have sex like a man, to take as many partners as we wish, but with that freedom has come brutality, disease, violence and fear. Automatic respect for womanhood is long gone, but what has taken its place? Images of women we cannot imitate but which experts believe is badly affecting the expectations of lovemaking; easy hook-ups which leave most women I know who have had them feeling empty and lost; and a disaffected youth who isn’t sure love will ever find them.

I wouldn’t trade the experiences I have had for anything; I would never wish to go back to the way women were treated in the last century. But as far as we have come, there is still so far to go. Men and women need each other. They need to believe in love and its possibility and they need to go out of their way to be kind and generous and romantic about it, all while remembering that each of us is to be treated respectfully and honorably. And it wouldn’t hurt any of us women to be honest about what it is we really want before we tumble into bed with the next attractive stranger.

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