Courtship Scripts and What They Mean for Dating

We all use them, but what do they mean?

Think about your daily interactions with people. When you go to the store, for example, you follow a certain script—a series of steps—to interact with the cashier. These kinds of scripts are generally known by everyone within a culture when they are children, and they are intended to make social interactions easier. We don't need to think about what we should say or do in specific situations—we have scripts all ready to go in our heads. These scripts also apply to courtship and dating.

Courtship scripts are among the most tenacious and inflexible ones that we have.

For example, imagine that a man asks a woman on a date, and when the check comes, the woman pays for both of them. Although it's not unheard of, it might sound a bit weird. We all tend to expect that the man is going to pay, or at least that they're going to split the bill. These unspoken and assumed expectations around what is acceptable or "what people do" during a date are what courtship scripts are.

But courtship scripts are not always good for everyone. In a world where gender roles and relations are changing quickly, norms around dating are apparently not changing as fast. This has negative consequences for everyone, but mostly women. What can history and science tell us about courtship to help us make it more enjoyable for everyone?

Dating in the 20th Century

It's hard to imagine dating being any other way than what we know, but the 20th century actually saw a lot of changes in the way people date. Beth Bailey, a historian, writes about the history of the date and how it has evolved throughout history.

Dating and Rating

During the 1920s and 1930s, something called "the dating and rating complex" existed, and this is what framed the dating experience. People who wanted to date had to appear popular. To be popular, men had to show signs of wealth with things like a nice car and nice clothes. Women, on the other hand, had to appear as if they were overwhelmed with demands for dates. The busier her social calendar, the more popular she appeared, and the more likely she was to be asked for a date.

Men had to ask women out weeks in advance, and women had to appear shocked at any last-minute request for a date. In this system, marriage was not the goal. This eventually changed, but dating was not meant to help you find a partner to marry. It was previously about participating in youth culture.

Going Steady

After World War II, things changed drastically. Instead of the social butterfly, the ideal dating scenario became "going steady" for couples. Post-WWII, marriage became idealized as the end goal of dating. Teenagers in high schools began developing "steady" symbols, like a girl wearing a boy's letter sweater. These symbols were very different from school to school across the United States.

Dating was seen as preparation for marriage at 18 years old for girls and 20 years old for boys. This meant that children as young as eight years old were encouraged to date. This is when the idea that men and money would equal women's sexual attention took root in dating culture.

With the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, however, those rigid conventions of decades prior started breaking down. Although we still contend with the idea of equating money and sex today, this is less of an accepted rule now than it was before the 60s.

Have we reached fully equal courtship scripts yet? Not quite.

Changing Gender Roles

In a journal called Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, dating is defined as "a publicly-expressed practice undertaken by romantically interested partners for the purpose of getting to know one another better." The purpose of Eaton and Rose, authors of this research, was to evaluate whether dating has become more egalitarian over the last few decades.

In short, dating has not become more egalitarian. For heterosexuals at least, courtship and dating are still rigidly defined along gender lines. There are certain things that men and women must (or must not) do.

Eaton and Rose found only slight variations in the script when women ask men out for a date, but otherwise, the gender roles remain unchanged. Women are expected to resist sex for at least a couple of dates. Men are expected to pay for the first few dates and to pursue the woman.

The Problem

When looked at from an egalitarian perspective, courtship scripts as we know them today support many sexist beliefs.

Some of these beliefs include ideas around men being "aggressors" and sex-oriented, while women should be "picky" and limit sexual activity until a man is invested. Women are advised to let men make the decisions unless they really have to object. If a woman does dare to ask a man on a date, there is a script that indicates she is only looking for sex.

In other words, traditional gender roles of men as providers and aggressors, and women as nurturers and passive recipients of advances are still assumed within dating and courtship scripts. This hurts people of both genders.

A woman who acts too aggressively is easily labeled as a "slut," for instance, and a man who lacks aggressiveness instantly becomes "less of a man" in the eyes of both his male peers and the women around him.

Believing in specific datings scripts, especially the sexual double standard, has been linked to sexist attitudes in both men and women by more research by Paynter and Leaper in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research.

This means that people who act according to these scripts are more likely to believe things such as the idea that women should stay at home with the kids, or men cannot show emotions other than anger.

Changing the Script

Thankfully, when you know about the script, you can change it. When you start dating a person, it's important to talk about your beliefs and assumptions about what men and women should be or do. If you have an open discussion with your partner(s) about what kind of dating you'd like to engage in, it's easier to make things work for you than if you just act according to unspoken assumptions.

A Word From Verywell

Scripts are useful for smoothing out social interactions, but they can be harmful. When it comes to intimate relationships, it's worth taking some time to assess what sorts of expectations you have and to figure out whether or not they are sexist. If you truly want to respect and treat your partner(s) like an equal, it's important to get rid of sexist attitudes.

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Article Sources

  • Bailey B. From Front Porch to Back Seat: A History of the Date. OAH Magazine of History. 2004;18(4):23-26. DOI: 10.1093/maghis/18.4.23

  • Eaton AA, Rose S. Has Dating Become More Egalitarian? A 35 Year Review Using Sex Roles. Sex Roles. 2011;64(11-12):843-862. DOI: 10.1007/s11199-011-9957-9

  • Paynter A, Leaper C. Heterosexual Dating Double Standards in Undergraduate Women and Men. Sex Roles. 2016;75(7-8):393-406. DOI:10.1007/s11199-016-0628-8