Keeping it Casual: The Implications of Modern Dating

My father read “Beautiful World, Where Are You?” by Sally Rooney this past fall and proceeded to text me a list of rules for dating and “correct” social behavior. If you don’t know any Sally Rooney novels, such as “Normal People” or “Conversations with Friends,” the author generally focuses on themes of isolation and loneliness that come with the new coded language of technology and informality in romantic relationships that creates a sense of parasociality.

Rooney’s books have become wildly beloved because of the accuracy in her depictions of modern social interactions. And I think these descriptions make us feel seen, because our generation normalizes a seemingly casual nature around dating and interpersonal relationships that prevents us from actually achieving the authentic relationships we desire. One of the professors I spoke to for this article, Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies Meika Loe, was able to articulate the experience best: “We’ve been stuck in the box of technology and everyone has to relearn how to be social beings outside of this box.” In a socially mediated world, a lot of what is witnessed and experienced is performative. It’s all about how we present ourselves, so people are stuck “yearning for a type of authenticity that can not be achieved through this type of performative culture.”

But I also think there’s an uneven, gendered impact of the newfound informality of intimacy and lack of communication in which women are more affected than men. Like every other cultural phenomenon, patriarchal constructs and norms are at the core. In a study from the National Institute of Health on gender differences in perceptions of sexual intent, stereotypical gender-based expectations of sexual intent are reliable, at least without considering the full situational component. The study goes on to mention that “they are most pronounced when the target is female; the target’s behaviors are mundane; the situation has the possibility of friendly or sexual outcomes; and the rater has pejorative attitudes about women, sex, and heterosexual relationships.” To put this in simpler terms, the stereotypical, gender-based expectation of men’s sexual intent is generally that intimacy is casual or commodified, and this is more likely to be factually correct if their “target” is female, they act ambiguously towards the target, and they look upon relationships or women with disdain. 

Even with these statistics, I knew that my evidence for this theory of casual relationships as discursively harmful to women was largely anecdotal. But regardless of the gendered implications, I still thought it was an important topic to explore because of how prevalent the discussion of social rejection and the downfalls of technological communication have become. Besides, Rooney’s novels wouldn’t be as popular without their relatability. So I talked to Professor Loe and Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology Rachel Dinero, who is a social psychologist by training, figuring they would have the answers.

I spoke to Dinero first, who I could tell was effortlessly cool and millennial from the small details of her warm tone and the massive pride flag that covers a wall in her office. Dinero explained, “Technology provides you an environment in which you don’t have to experience rejection face to face, but there are a lot more opportunities for rejection because you have more access to people.” Since there are more opportunities to be rejected, online rejection itself becomes more trivialized and unimportant. 

Dinero also discussed that the reason why these experiences of rejection might seem more prominent for women is because we’ve been socialized to attach more meaning to intimate experiences. We talked about how the informality of sexual and interpersonal relationships has been related to the downfall of patriarchal and puritanical structures: women don’t have to be escorted on dates anymore, there are less expectations that relationships will lead to marriage, etc. So now, we’ve taken away the structures that policed women’s relationships, but this doesn’t change the fact that “feminine-identifying people are socialized to buy into constructs of virginity and purity,” as Dinero mentioned.

Loe reaffirmed that, “Patriarchy is still a part of the atmosphere, men have more power in scenarios even in contexts that we want to find liberating.” She described that there are structures of power that shape who we can be and ideologies of who we should be that can be harmful if we are not part of the privileged groups. And this all exists under a guise of performativity and lack of communication in which we may be subconsciously digesting patriarchal expectations and norms.

Both of these conversations were liberating and also terrifying in the sense that I’ve internalized patriarchy as this lens through which I understand relationships. And I’ve started to question if my father’s disdain for casual relationships comes from his expectations of monogamy, which must be gendered in itself.

I think our generation has to start asking ourselves if we actually desire informality in our relationships or if it’s just an easy alternative to rejection. Not only because this could be a gendered phenomenon, some identity-based expectation that you’ve internalized, but it also prevents us from the authenticity we so desire. Continuing to talk to someone online, minimizing them down to the physical, not actually achieving in-person interaction seems a lot easier than getting to know someone for who they are and risking real rejection. 

Professor Loe said she has “radical optimism” for our generation, that we seem to be skeptical of online performativity and long for something real. That we are skeptics, who see through social constructs like gender, and their implications. I laughed, and replied, “But do you think that utopia is even possible, if the authenticity we’re longing for is something that is also inauthentic?”