What is Dating?

Adam, a 30-something professional, posed this as a serious question recently.

“When are you allowed to say that?” he continued. “When are you dating? When are you friends-with-benefits? When are you just sleeping together and not even friends-with-benefits? It has come to the point where people ask me ‘Are you two dating’ and I saw, ‘I don’t know.’ I say, ‘We’re hanging out,’ because that seems to be the failsafe answer.”

“There are no boundaries,” sighed Adam. It is Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdomeout there.” Adam isn’t alone in his frustration with modern courtship. Single Utahns in the thousands are desperately trying to find love or something that passes for it in a strange new landscape.


Dating in the 21st century is hard, even in tradition-bound Utah. Meet someone at a bar, a coffee shop or through friends or at church? No more. It’s all online and through phone applications now. What used to be a fairly straightforward mating game has become far more complicated and nuanced digital cat-and-mouse game.

Swipe left. Swipe right. Wink. Like. Match. Message. Poke. Be charming. Be smart (but not too smart!). Flirt (but don’t act like a slut!). Be agreeable, but have opinions (not too many opinions, am I right, ladies?). And gentlemen, please be at least 6-foot-1 with a six pack. Ladies, make sure you’ve got a yoga butt and perfect hair. Isn’t dating fun? No pressure, everyone!

And even as dating apps congratulate themselves on having blended the human rainbow, sites pop up prism-like to subdivide Utahns into Jewish singles, Christian singles, Mormon singles, elite singles, farmer singles, single-parent singles—even a Utah-based white singles site.


But what app developers promote as the best of times for singles is becoming the worst of times for couples. Once you’re past the initial meeting and seeing each other on the regular, things should get easier. Everything should fall into place; a routine should begin. Ordinarily, you’d be in a romance, or at least a “relationship.”

But, when the entire dating population of the city is still at your literal fingertips, you wonder. Is someone better just a swipe away? Authentic relationships are rare as everyone keeps looking for the next best thing.

And, to Adam’s question, what defines “dating” these days? Like everything else with courtship and sex, it’s a bit of a negotiation.

“When you go out and have dinner with a woman and then you go back to her place and have sex, I would think that constitutes a date,” says a Salt Lake high school teacher. “I was doing that with one woman for three months, but she insisted we weren’t dating.”

Linda, a petite social worker, puts it bluntly: “If I’m sleeping with you, I might not be dating you. But if I’m not sleeping with you, I’m definitely not dating you.”


In Victorian times, courtship was strictly regulated with comforting rules for both sexes such as: “No physical touch is to be permitted between the sexes before marriage, excepting a gentleman offering his hand on an uneven road.” The 1990’s had so many dating rules that women turned to a book, simply titled, The Rules. Advice within included: “Don’t accept a Saturday night date after Wednesday,” and “Don’t call him and rarely return his calls.” The Rules, such as they were, were simple: Be coy, coquettish, play hard to get and you will land the Big Fish. (Note to men: In this scenario, you are a dimwitted fish to be hooked.)

But the dating landscape has evolved drastically in the last two decades. With the advent of smart phones and texting, it’s easy—and often expected—to be in constant communication with your partner. But how soon after meeting a new someone do you text? How soon after a date? Should you mark time after a text arrives before responding to it, or risk looking needy? After all, you’re a busy person doing very important things—definitely not checking your phone every five minutes, right? And if he or she doesn’t text you back, well, you’re obviously a hideous monster. Or they’re dead. It could go either way.

“Nobody knows what the new rules are,” says Dr. Claudia Geist, a sociology professor at the University of Utah. “Because there are no clear rules.” Oh well, that clears it up.

And is it true that we’re all just jumping in bed with each other all the time? Well, yes and no. And is that a bad thing? Again, yes and no. “The shift in gender relations has made it much easier for women to own their sexual agency,” Geist says. Hooray!

But wait! Geist warns there’s still the same old double standard in the way women who sleep around are treated compared to men with the same behavior. And, she says, “one of the things we don’t know yet is the link between casual sex and relationships.” In other words: Researchers don’t yet know if we are entering lasting relationships with people we’re having sex with or if casual sex is even conducive to healthy relationships at all.

So, will he still respect you in the morning? The data is inconclusive.


Jon Birger, author of Date-onomics, sees things a bit differently. He told Salt Lake magazine the current dating revolution is happening because there are more women than men on the market (It’s woefully out of balance for Mormons, page 80). Right now there are more college-educated women than there are men and, Birger says, people like to date within their socio-economic class. When the male-to-female ratio is out of balance in species from penguins to people, evolution pushes everyone into promiscuity.

Birger says it’s no coincidence that the Roaring Twenties came on the heels of World War I casualties—resulting in a shortage of young men. Nevertheless, a Georgia judge blamed the party era on the automobile, a “house of Prostitution on wheels.”

In other words, society will always skip a complex issue of biological imperatives to blame the latest technology for anything seen as moral slippage. Birger argues the current state of dating probably isn’t the fault of the iPhone or Tinder—it’s just 21st Century socio-economic gender imbalances.

Dating has always been hard. Dating in the digital world is insane. Read more about #dating here:

Illustrations by Savvy Jensen