Dating 101: Film takes aim at America’s hookup culture and the death of courtship

The shock of reading Laura Sessions Stepp’s 2007 book, “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” hadn’t worn off when I was offered the opportunity to view an advanced screening of “The Dating Project,” a film about modern relationships that will be released nationwide—for one night only—on April 17. Both are a wake-up call for Americans, many of whom are in the dark about how dramatically dating has changed.

So dramatically, in fact, that it no longer exists. Dating is officially dead.

“Dating is a drain on energy and intellect,” a young woman named Alicia tells Stepp. “We are overworked, over-programmed and overcommitted just trying to get into grad school, let alone get married. I don’t even know that relationships are seen as an integrated part of this whole ‘future’ idea.”

Enter “The Dating Project,” which conveniently picks up where Stepp’s book left off. “Our premise was to follow five single people trying to figure out dating in the age of social media, texting, hanging out, and hooking up,” writes Catherine Sample, one of the film’s producers.

Those five people include Matt and Shanzi, two college students; Cecilia, a twentysomething woman who’d been single for years; Rasheeda, a thirtysomething television producer who put work before relationships; and Chris, a fortysomething actor who felt commitment “limited” him.

The social environment young people inhabit feels akin to a brothel. What they seem to know how to do best is have sex, or some version thereof. What they don’t know is Courtship 101, or how to develop an actual romantic relationship. They just skip to the end and wonder why they’re dissatisfied.

The anchor of the film is Kerry Cronin, Ph.D., a Boston College philosophy professor who was alarmed by the lack of dating on campus and the substitution of ‘hookups,” a vague term that can mean anything from two people watching television together to having sex. What it definitely does not mean is having any kind of real relationship, or genuine human connection, with a member of the opposite sex. Thus, Cronin began assigning her students to go on traditional dates. The result is “The Dating Project.

The film is short, engaging and very well done—you will love the music, the cinematography and the dialogue. But to be honest, it struck me as immensely sad. The social environment young people inhabit feels akin to a brothel. What they seem to know how to do best is have sex, or some version thereof. What they don’t know is Courtship 101, or how to develop an actual romantic relationship. They just skip to the end and wonder why they’re dissatisfied.

Indeed, it’s not an exaggeration to say the entire process of dating—getting excited about someone you meet and letting him or her know via flirtation, waiting for the man to make the first move and then the woman accepts and the two go out somewhere for the evening—is gone. Gone. Instead, young people text each other to come over and “hang out.” Then they get naked.

“Relationships and marriage is probably one of the most important things you’re going to do in your life, right? But people don’t spend any time doing anything about it,” notes Chris Donahue, another one of the film’s producers.

That’s because young people are no longer groomed for marriage, which is essentially what dating is (or was): a necessary selection process for the purpose of making a final choice in a mate. With that process gone, young people are lost. They forge ahead with the sex because that part’s easy. But love eludes them.

“I can say for myself that it was empowering to question the status quo of hookup culture and the relationship ideals we are bombarded with today,” writes Sample.

And just what are those bogus relationship ideals? Here are three:

1. For women, being sexually “liberated” and obsessively self-reliant is better than being emotionally attached to a man. There are three aspects to most people’s lives: education, employment, and marriage & relationships. Until recently, the latter has always been understood to be the most important of the three. But for decades now, women have been told that marriage and relationships should take a back seat to their careers. What we’re left with is a generation (or two) that’s skilled in the marketplace but illiterate in love. Yet it’s the state of our love lives that will have the most effect on our happiness and well-being. What sense does this make?

2. Casual sex is both normal and good. Casual sex is neither normal nor good. It’s a disaster. Men may have an easier time with it overall, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying for both sexes. “People treat sex like it’s casual. It’s not,” notes clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson. “Sex is unbelievably complicated. It’s dangerous. It involves emotions. It involves pregnancy. It involves illness. It involves betrayal. It reaches right down into the roots of someone. You don’t play with something like that casually. Well, you can, but you'll pay for it.”

By “paying for it,” people assume we’re always talking about pregnancy and disease. “The Dating Project” shows that ‘paying for it’ has equally unfortunate implications.

3. You deserve the best. Never settle. “I am so used to the amount of choices and the expectation that there’s someone better around the corner,” says Chris. This is the mindset of the modern generation, who’ve been raised in a disposable society and who try—in vain—to apply this worldview to love. But the Green Grass Syndrome, or the tendency to believe there’s something better “out there,” is debilitating. No one gets everything they want wrapped up in one person. Moreover, it’s arrogant. As Chris eventually concedes, he’s just as flawed as the women he dates. Who is he to expect perfection?

All of these narratives—combined with social media, the decline in religion, rampant divorce and a transient lifestyle—keep love at bay. They are largely to blame for why more than 50 percent of America is single.

And, I would add, sad about it. Cecilia, who hadn’t had a date in years, tells a story about a date she went on in which the man did nothing more than touch her arm. But Cecilia had forgotten what it’s like to have genuine physical contact, so when the man made this gesture she “wanted to cry.” As she tells her story, she chokes up and asks the film crew to “cut” by waving her hand in front of the camera.

This moment of vulnerability speaks volumes: For a host of different reasons, Americans are broken. They want love, but no one has shown them the way. That’s what makes “The Dating Project,” in my estimation, the most important documentary in recent years—for what jumps off the screen is our culture’s abdication of love as even a concept, let alone a reality. What could possibly be more important to address than that?

Thankfully, the film ends on a hopeful note that things can be turned around. And I couldn’t agree more. It will not be easy, and there is much work to do. But it’s time to get started, and “The Dating Project” is the perfect place to begin.

Suzanne Venker is the author of five books on marriage, feminism and gender politics. Her latest book is "The Alpha Female’s Guide to Men & Marriage: HOW LOVE WORKS." Find her on Twitter@SuzanneVenker.