Valentine’s Day—and a recent home screening of the 1989 film Say Anything—got me thinking about romance this week.
In the movie’s most famous scene, Lloyd Dobler, a lovesick, aimless high-school graduate played by John Cusack in an oversized trench coat, stands defiantly outside the window of the woman who has recently dumped him, holding a boombox over his head with Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” on blast. It’s a brief moment that doesn’t actually advance Cameron Crowe’s plot much, but it became an archetypal example of persistence in the pursuit of romance (and of Cusack’s general excellence as an offbeat romantic hero).
In more recent years, the scene has also been referenced as an example of rom-com behavior that in real life might be creepy, dangerous, or even illegal. As the #MeToo movement continues to reveal an ungodly pile of stories about unwanted sexual attention, harassment, and assault, we’re right to ask ourselves whether societal mores and memes are promoting unhealthy romantic norms.
Still, there has been a growing tendency toward hand-wringing over romance itself, as some men misguidedly express concern that their every move will be misinterpreted.
Several centuries ago, the word “romance” referred to a story, written or told aloud, of the adventures of a chivalrous hero. In 2018, it still does, but we’re redefining those stories and what qualifies as chivalrous behavior. Lloyd Dobler certainly wasn’t perfect, but lately I’ve found myself feeling a little defensive of him.
After all, romance is a pursuit. The “thrill of the chase” and “playing hard to get” are outdated clichés that, taken too literally, can fan the flames of rape culture. But the truth is, people are hard to truly get—and indeed, they should be. Relationships, especially in their nascent days, are a tricky dance. It’s rare that both parties are equally ready to move forward at precisely the same rate—whether that means with sex, a second date, or even just a second drink. One person is usually more enthusiastic than the other, especially at the outset.
But it’s not that hard to navigate those uneven waters with respect. It’s basically about communicating clearly, and being receptive to the verbal and non-verbal signals you get in return. Just listen! And the word or response that you’re listening for is “yes.”
Yes, yes, yes. Recently, viral stories such as The New Yorker’s “Cat Person” and Babe.net’s deeply problematic, pseudonymous account of a bad date with Aziz Ansari demonstrated just how terrible sex can be, even when a person hasn’t explicitly refused it. In recent years, states including New York and California have passed laws that change the standard surrounding sexual activity on college campuses, requiring that everyone engaged in the act give “knowing, voluntary, and mutual consent,” also known as affirmative consent. These days, we’re replacing the guidance “no means no” with “only a yes means yes.”
As Ann Friedman wrote in 2014, these rules need not dampen the flames of desire. On the contrary: “Confirming consent leads to much hotter sex.” By way of example, she cited Thomas MacAulay Millar’s brilliant (if explicit) run-down of the myriad ways of asking for a “yes”: “If you lean in to kiss someone and they lean in to kiss you back, that’s yes. If you ask someone if they want your cock and they say, ‘I want your cock,’ that’s yes, and if they put their mouth on it, that’s yes, too. If you’re fucking someone and holding them down and you’re both sweating and maybe bruised and you lean in and your hand is on their throat and you say, ‘can you still say no?’ and they say, ‘yes,’ that’s yes.”
Affirmative consent isn’t just for the bedroom. The idea of checking in for enthusiastic affirmation as things heat up shouldn’t be limited to sex. It’s also effective in those awkward, early days of a relationship unfolding—when you’re not quite sure if someone is into you, down for a booty call, or trying to put you in the friend zone. Just ask: Is this okay?
The NGBC. Even if a relationship isn’t in the cards, communication of desires (and lack thereof) is key. For Quartz, Kristen Rae Lepore recently wrote about the “Nice Guy Booty Call (NGBC)” as an enlightened approach for a connoisseur of casual sex: “He’s thoughtful on apps, he plans dates, he asks questions, and he pays attention to body language.”
The most valuable tools available to a NGBC are not his (or her) smoldering gaze or hilarious opening lines on Tinder—they’re just communication and attention. When making the first move on an app, at a bar, or even at work, just be clear about what you’re asking, and listen carefully to the answer. It’s scary, but man, you’ll stand out for doing it!
Here’s a good policy. At Google and Facebook, if an employee asks a coworker on a date and is turned down, they don’t get to ask again (and an ambiguous answer such as “I’m busy” counts as a no). It’s a good policy in general, and a good reason to make that first ask count. At the very least, make it clear. Ask someone out on an actual date. Ideally, you’ll know them well enough to suggest an activity they’ll like. If not, give them a few choices. Art galleries? Cocktails? Coffee? If they say none of the above, there’s your answer.
The key is making it easy for someone to say yes—or no. There’s still room for romance.
Have a great weekend!
A paradigm shift in the cookie universe. I was oddly resistant to baking the salted butter and chocolate chunk shortbread cookies from Alison Roman’s Dining In. Maybe it was that Roman had the audacity to pose them as a replacement for old-fashioned chocolate chippers. Maybe it was their Instagram virality. Maybe it was that I had to buy salted butter and Demerara sugar. Whatever it was, I was wrong to resist. These cookies are nothing less than the next generation, blonde incarnation of Dorie Greenspan’s viral salted, dark chocolate World Peace Cookies. Both chocolate chunk-studded shortbread cookies are chilled as dough logs before they are sliced and baked. And a tin of either—or better yet, both—will make you an MVP of a party guest, co-worker, lover, or friend. (Or just a first-class solo cookie eater.) Here is the full recipe.