In dating game, rules and roles are up for grabs


Saturday night is fast approaching and once again you find yourself dateless and lonely.

There's a glimmer of hope when a friend calls to offer a leftover pair of concert tickets; you've had your eye on a Cute Someone, and you suspect your interest just might be reciprocated.

Do you:

A) Invite this someone to accompany you to the concert?

B) Spend Saturday evening in front of the TV eating raw cookie dough?

In the brave new world of dating, it seems everyone has a different set of rules when it comes to making the first move, depending on your gender, age, whether you're a traditionalist or a cultural trailblazer.

"The truth is, in the '90s there are many norms," says Froma Walsh, a University of Chicago professor whose research focuses on couples and family relationships. "What the research shows is, while there has been some change, it's not as much as people assume."

Once upon a time, each of the players in the dating game had an assigned role. Men asked. Women waited to be asked and then decided.

He hazarded ego-bruising rejection but got to look bold and assertive in his overtures. She knew the pleasure of being the object of attention but ran the risk of not being asked at all.

But while the choreography of this dance is changing, some people prefer the same old steps, Ms. Walsh says.

"It may be OK for girls to make the first move," she says. But in reality, "there's still enormous social pressure for the boy to be 'aggressive' -- they should be the actors, not reactors."

Mary Harris, a psychology professor at the University of New Mexico who studies sex roles, agrees. "It's not unusual now to have women asking men out on dates," she says. But while men may be relieved at not having to be the ones always sticking their necks out, for women this role reversal may be fraught with anxiety. "Men may be very happy to be invited out on dates or have women make moves on them," Ms. Harris says, "but women risk being thought of as unfeminine, as well as being rejected."

That's because gender roles are up for grabs.

Ask Sharon Young, a 22-year-old college student in Albuquerque who says she's willing to ask a man on a date -- once.

"The worst thing that can happen is they'll say no and you'll be utterly humiliated," Ms. Young says.

Ms. Young says she'd never have initiated a date in high school. But in college she's learned, "If you wait on them, they don't ask. You just get sick of sitting at home."

What do men think of all this?

"It's very confused now," says Rob Martinez, a 30-year-old graduate student who moved back to Albuquerque last year from Los Angeles.

"I've had women approach me on that level," he says. "I don't really mind it. I think what people need to be is honest. There's nothing wrong with a woman saying, 'I like you, let's go out,' or if the man does it."

Alberto Leon, a divorced 37-year-old Albuquerque attorney, says that while women ask him out once in a while, "for the most part, there's still an underlying expectation where the man will make the first move."

That goes hand-in-hand with what he sees as "a return to the more traditional roles -- a more conservative approach to things than when I was a teen-ager in the '70s."

Nevertheless, "It's very flattering when a woman calls or pays attention to a guy. I don't think it makes them look trampy or cheap or anything like that."

As dicey as courting and sparking is for heterosexuals, it can be even more so for gays and lesbians, as 26-year-old Stephanie Thomas found out earlier this year when a long-term relationship ended and she resumed dating.

The question of who makes the first move is up in the air when both parties are of the same sex, says Ms. Thomas, director of the Los Angeles-based Show Coalition, an entertainment community political action committee.

"You don't really know what's appropriate and what is inappropriate, because you don't have a role model for what a relationship is supposed to be like," she says.

"I, generally speaking, would not go up to a woman and ask her to dance, because I'm a chicken," she says. "I don't ever remember asking anybody out -- they've always asked me out."

This is true even though Ms. Thomas says she usually finds herself being the more "butch" member of a relationship. She believes it ultimately comes down to a matter of which person is bolder.

Similarly, among gay men, "It's more like whoever's inclined at the moment pops the question," says Chuck Gurth, a 38-year-old Los Angeles psychotherapist.

Mr. Gurth, who dated women in his late teens and early 20s before he came out, says he's comfortable both with being pursued and being the one doing the asking.

"It's neat to be pursued," he says. "On the other hand, if there's someone I'm attracted to, then I'll make the first move."

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