In defense of romantic pursuit

Just look for the signs.
Just look for the signs.
Image: Getty Images/MirageC
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There’s a famous scene in the 1989 film Say Anything in which 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 fleeting scene that doesn’t actually move Cameron Crowe’s plot forward 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 from women and girls around the world, we’re right to look askance at societal mores and memes, and ask ourselves whether they’re promoting unhealthy romantic norms.

Still, as Valentine’s Day approaches, there has been a growing tendency to indulge in hand-wringing over romance itself, as some men misguidedly express concern that their every move will be misinterpreted. Lloyd Dobler certainly wasn’t perfect, but lately I’ve found myself feeling a little defensive of him—and of the notion of romantic pursuit in general.

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 makes a chivalrous hero.

The “thrill of the chase” and “playing hard to get” are outdated clichés that, taken too literally, can fan the flames of rape culture.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 often 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.

So how does one navigate those uneven waters with respect? How to be romantic without being a creep? In a word: carefully. But the good news is, it’s not actually that hard to be careful and thoughtful. 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.”

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 provided us with handy examples of 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, rules such as these need not dampen the flames of desire. On the contrary: “Confirming consent leads to much hotter sex.” 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.”

But the idea of checking in for enthusiastic affirmation as things heat up shouldn’t be limited to the bedroom. It’s also quite effective when it comes to 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?

Even if a relationship isn’t in the cards, communication of desires (and lack of desire) is key. In her recent piece for Quartz about the “Nice Guy Booty Call (NGBC),” Kristen Rae Lepore laid out a new, more 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, enviable biceps, or hilarious opening lines on Tinder—they’re just communication and attention. “People need to do the minimal amount of checking in with each other to make sure that this is something that both of them are going to feel gratified and good about,” Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist who co-authored a study about healthy relationships, told Lepore.

That’s good advice for the romantic pursuit, wherever it ends up. When making the first move, whether that’s on an app, at a bar, or even at work, be clear about what you’re asking, and listen carefully to the answer.

At Google and Facebook, if an employee asks a coworker on a date and is turned down, they don’t get to ask again. The policy acknowledges that, on one hand, expressing your interest in someone is not in itself harassment—or anything to feel ashamed of. On the other, if you persist after you’ve been rejected (and an ambiguous answer such as “I’m busy” counts as a no) then you have crossed a line. This isn’t just a good rule of thumb in the workplace, it’s also good manners—and human decency.

It’s also a good reason to make that first ask count. At the very least, make it clear—or if you’re feeling brave, make it romantic. Ask someone out on an actual date, rather than mumble about beers after work. Ideally, you’ll know them well enough to suggest an activity they’ll like (it’d be a shame to lose your one shot just because you asked a teetotaler out for margaritas). If not, give them the choice of a restaurant, coffee shop, or bar. If they say none of the above, there’s your answer.

There’s still room for romance this Valentine’s Day. The key is making it easy for someone to say yes—or no.