The Age

Wednesday 3 February 1999

The state of the date

By BETTINA ARNDT
The Age (Melbourne)

Ally McBeal, babbling nervously, is trying to explain. The dippy Boston lawyer and star of the blockbuster television series has ended up, as usual, in an emotional mess. Yes, she'd really wanted to have sex with him, she tells the amazingly well-hung model she'd met through her sculpting class. She'd enjoyed a hot and sweaty romp with him in the previous episode, but insists she'd never have bedded him if he hadn't told her he was about to go overseas.

So having defined him as a one-night stand, she belatedly acknowledges it wasn't fair that she became angry when she discovered he hadn't left town and even angrier when he opted out of the relationship after one more date. "I have a complex about successful women,'' he told her. And it certainly wasn't kosher for her to set him up for "a penguin'' - arranging to catch him bare-bummed in car headlights as he waddled awkwardly after a woman with his pants around his ankles.

This bizarre episode illustrates why Ally McBeal features so often in magazine stories on American feminism. Ally's struggle to master the post-feminist rewrite of the dating rules offers intriguing insights into new challenges facing women in today's single scene.

There's absolutely no doubt that dating rules are being rewritten. In Australia, the state of the date is in flux. Gone are the certainties that defined dating up to the 1970s - men doing the asking, women waiting for the phone to ring, steamy necking in parked cars and chastity preserved at all costs.

Gone are the days when only men were cads. Today, males are just as likely to be burnt. "I ended up staying at this girl's place one night. The next morning when I woke up, her flatmate had no idea where she was. She'd gone. No note, no nothing,'' says Mark 29, an air force officer.

Gone, too, is the notion that only bad girls have sex on first dates. "I don't know any girls who always manage to hold out. We try. You want to be good, but sometimes the guys are just so cute and they give you so much beer and wine you just can't help yourself,'' says Jackie, 26, a writer.

What's left is a rough set of new conventions - more tactics than rules, usually aimed at self-preservation. As the ultimate contact sport, dating has always had well-recognised power plays and definite winners and losers. But while once women held most of the cards, liberation has meant risks and rewards are far more evenly shared.

THE START OF THE ACTION

When it comes to getting things rolling, the task still falls mainly on men - much to their disappointment. Most men say they are rarely, if ever, asked out on a first date, while women usually acknowledge reluctance to take that initiative.

The exceptions are usually older women, who gain the confidence to be a little braver or else decide they haven't time to wait around. "I think you only really get one good chance,'' says Elizabeth, 34, a Melbourne librarian. She's one of a number of older women I spoke to who will make the move, although, like many, she usually takes the easy way out and simply suggests a casual date such as having a cup of coffee.

When women decide to take the risk, men say they love it. They confess to being flattered and relieved not to always have to put themselves on the line. According to many men, it's more likely to happen in the club and pub scene, which tends to attract women who are risk-takers.

"You dance until the club closes and then it's, 'Where are you off to? Why don't you come to my place?' Women will ask guys to come home with them or they'll give you their phone number and ask you to call,'' says Timothy, 25, a pastry chef.

These are the "dates'' - snippets of conversation shouted across crowded rooms, endless circling and stalking as pairs pick each other out from the pack - that are most likely to end up in casual sex.

"One-night stands are more likely to happen with girls you pick up at pubs, balls or parties, rather than someone you've met through friends. You're both a bit pissed, it's unplanned, unexpected, and you know it's not going to lead on to anything,'' says Chris, a 33-year-old investment banker.

THE ONE-NIGHT STAND

So the legacy of the sexual revolution, the casual, consensual coupling immortalised by Erica Jong's zipless f---, has found a firm place in the '90s. There's wide acceptance from both men and women that the one-nighter is here to stay. Robin, a 47-year-old secretary, says: "Sex is a very important part of life and, as a single person, you miss out. So, I don't believe in waiting long, certainly not for weeks or anything.''

"Why not?'' many women say. "If there's the right chemistry, I think, 'Go for it!','' says Jennifer, 30, a marketing manager. There is a new defiance out there, with single women from all age groups claiming a right to sex when the mood grabs them.

And there are plenty of men who seem to have rid themselves of the old double standards that once made women wary: "I would never make the judgment that just because we slept together straight away, that she's a slut,'' says Timothy.

But most women are still cautious. After a few years in the dating scene, they often run into the unpredictable vein of male conservatism, which breeds nagging doubts that make first-night passion a risky business.

"I don't on a first date, not any more,'' says Elizabeth. "I've found if you do, men mistrust you. One boyfriend told me he had an in-built distrust of me because he thought that if I had done it with him, perhaps I'd done it a lot and would do it again.''

It's the same old story. When a woman falls into bed wishing and hoping that this won't be just a moment of passion but the start of something wonderful, as often as not, she discovers she's cruelled her chances.

And it makes women hopping mad. "It pisses me off intensely that you still have to play games. I think, 'Hey, we're all big people here. We shouldn't have to play hard to get','' says Sue, 36, a teacher.

But she does so - partly to protect herself. "I'm happy to have a one-night stand, but I'd only do it with someone I didn't really think I'd want to see again. If it was someone I was interested in, I'd definitely make them wait for a couple of outings. If I really like them, and they turn out not to be interested in me, it's easier to deal with if I haven't slept with them.''

As for the men, some are honest enough to admit their prejudices. "She's probably not the girl I'm going to marry,'' says Mark when asked his opinion of a woman who beds him on the first night. "I assume I'm not so fantastic that I'm the only one she's done that with, and you don't want to think you'll go into a pub or bar and everyone's going to recognise your girl. And every time she talks about a male friend, you'd end up wondering ...''

PAYING FOR IT

It's mighty difficult to find a man willing to admit to expecting sex in return for an expensive date - although most say there are plenty with faith in the old equation. Some say such attitudes now suggest a certain lack of class: "Most of my friends are uni-educated. We're not into that sort of stuff,'' one tells me.

But when asked whether he expects anything in return for spending a lot on a woman, Steven, a 24-year-old construction worker blurts out: "A root!''

"A lot of guys I know think like that. They would expect her to pay in another way,'' was his revised story.

Yet the whole business of paying for dates has altered dramatically in recent years, with very few women clinging to the notion that the man always pays. Most women do now offer, eventually - but usually not on that crucial first date.

The exceptions are those living in mutual poverty - such as uni students who rarely spend much money dating and almost always share costs. But, in more affluent circles, most men report women are mute when it comes to paying for that first date. And many women say if they do offer, they usually expect to be refused.

"I expect them to go, 'No, no. Let me pay','' one woman confessed. Another recalled the time a man took up her offer to share the cost of an expensive dinner: "I thought, 'Damn it! That's that last time I do that'.''

Most men are now tuned in to the games women play about paying - "If the girl's ordering lobster first-up, I know she doesn't think she's paying,'' says one man with a wry laugh.

Some are quite willing to confront their dates on the subject. "If we were to go out three or four times and they never offered, I'd definitely mention it, because I'd think it wasn't fair. I'd feel they were taking me for a ride,'' says one man.

But on this issue, as with other intricacies of the dating scene, there are plenty just doing their thing. I spoke to women - usually from more traditional Asian or European cultures - who find it hard to accept that Australian women are now expected to pay their way on dates. "Oh yes, I'll offer. But it's a real turn-off for me if a man takes my money. In my culture that's rude," explains Mary, a 31-year-old nurse from the Philippines.

Equally, there are social groups where splitting the bill is routine. David, 28, a television producer, tells me his crowd - who mainly work in the media and other "creative'' fields - don't believe in males running the show. "With us, it's the expected thing that you'd split. The girls I go out with are pretty modern girls who'd be uncomfortable if I was spreading all this largess everywhere.''

THE NEW RULES

The more you talk to people from different social sets within the single scene, the harder it is to sort out the rules. David says many women he knows scorn attachment. "They want no-strings sex. If you have sex with them they might call you two weeks later and you'll get together again, but there's no requirement to have coffee or play tennis in between times.''

But other women say they wouldn't dream of behaving like that; their sights are set firmly on long-term commitment. Jane, 23, an accountant, started going out with her boyfriend at 15. Even when they split for a year or two when she lived in college at university, she ended up in another steady relationship.

"I'm very conservative compared to most of my girlfriends,'' she says. Indeed, many university students, particularly those living away from home, talk about casual sexual relationships, much drink, drugs, good times had by all. Yet recent research by Macquarie University's National Centre in HIV Social Research shows that more than 40 per cent of first-year students are still virgins - perhaps reflecting the fact that many are forced by financial constraints to live a quieter life at home with their parents.

Many issues are hard to pin down. "You should never have oral sex on a first date,'' one man tells me. A new dating rule? Not exactly. The verdict on oral sex was confused, with some seeing it as extra special, to be saved for long-term intimacy. "Oral sex is more intimate. You can have fairly dodgy sex where it's all hidden down below, but when it's with your mouth, yes, that's far more intimate,'' says one man. But others take the Clinton line, seeing it as less than the real thing.

Where there is firm consensus is on answering machine policy. The rule is leave two messages only, the men told me. A second chance in case the machine stuffed up, that's enough. Then you give up.

Males and females alike complain that the opposite sex is worse than they are about getting out of unwanted dates. Women say they are willing to let him know it's not working, but complain that men still lie and say they'll call. Yet men claim women still give them the run-around ... "Next week, oh, I'm busy next week ...''

Many men talk about the difficulty women have dealing with sexual rejection. When the man decides he's not interested in pursuing a woman's sexual invitation, "they don't like it at all'', says Jimmy, 29, a plumber. "They get real nasty, bitchy. 'What's wrong with you?' 'What are you, a poofter?' It can get ugly.''

Safe sex? Here, too, the picture is confusing, with some males and females insisting on strict rules, but everyone reporting that plenty are still prepared to take risks. It is an issue many use to sum up a new partner. Lisa, a 40-year-old book editor, reported one new lover's reaction to her insistence on condoms. "Oh, I knew you'd be like this'', he told her, in a somewhat miffed manner.

But Steven has doubts about girls who tell him not to bother about condoms. "If they say, 'Don't worry about it', you start to wonder. You say to yourself, 'This girl doesn't give a f---'. You think twice.''

So there it is - the single world is a complex and confusing place to be. Some hate it. Many of the older, divorced or long-time single crowd find the whole business hard to take. "Dating is just hideous, the pits,'' concludes one 43-year-old woman.

But there are still the old romantics who thrill to the chase, with hope in their hearts. As one man put it: "It can be awesome if you meet a girl you really like. If there's a chance this might be love ... or even lust.'

There's always that chance.

CHECK OUT THE ODDS

The single scene today is more crowded than ever, with more men and women marrying later or remaining unattached for much of their adult lives. In the past decade, there has been a dramatic increase in people remaining single through their early 30s and longer.

According to statistics produced by the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, in 1996, almost a third of men and women aged 30-34 remained unpartnered. By the early 40s, almost one in four men and women are still out there, but by that age, 63 per cent of the unattached females and 45 per cent of the males are divorced. It isn't easy for older singles to find a partner untouched by divorce and, by age 40, most of the available women are lone parents (55 per cent of 35 to 39-year-olds.)

As for the infamous male shortage, up to age 35, there are more available men than women. The Monash research shows that, in 1996, there were 175,299 unpartnered women and 202,580 men aged 30-34. But, past 35, there is a growing over-supply of available females. By age 40-44 there are more than 30,000 surplus unattached women.

According to research conducted by AGB McNair two years ago, well-educated, successful women are particularly keen on finding partners who are their equals or better. And that's where the figures really start looking grim. In 1996, there were more tertiary-educated, unpartnered women than men in all adult age groups, with more than [text omitted in online version].

GROUP DATING - THE TEEN SCENE

The younger generation has discovered a great way of taking the tension out of dating - they bring their mates along.

Group dating, usually involving a pack of boys and girls, has taken over from the nervous intimacy of the traditional Saturday night date. Today, it's all pretty casual stuff, with the usual crowd deciding to hang together on a Friday or Saturday night - lots of last-minute calls checking out where the parties are, planning who's getting the grog or deciding to see a movie.

Girls are just as likely as boys to be making the calls - parents of teenage boys get very used to confident young female voices seeking their sons.

But where girls still expect males to take the lead is in deciding to "go together''. "That's the boy's job,'' said Emma, 17, but she admits girls are adept at using friends to nudge a nervous boy into doing the right thing. Even once they pair off, most of the time the kids still hang with the group, only rarely going out on their own. "Even when we do, we usually arrange to meet with the crowd later,'' said Jesse, 17.

They like it this way. "It takes out heaps of the stress, anxiety ... those awkward silences,'' explains Len, 18.

And so do their parents, who assume there's safety in numbers when it comes to late-night travel and hope, often foolishly, that the crowd may put a brake on too much early sex. Most agree the kids' dating scene looks a lot more fun than the adult version.

Copyright (c) David Syme & Co 1999.