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teens, dating, friendship, and school dances

When I read the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of why teens have eschewed dates for school dances, I wanted to scream. This shift has nothing to do with “the way young people view personal relationships in the age of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter” (and not just because teens don’t use Twitter in significant numbers yet). And this is certainly not because teens are being “shaped” by these technologies such that they “consider friendship the highest form of compliment, making dating, and sometimes even high school love, irrelevant.” Even in the context of the article, the supposed experts and teens are voicing very different explanations for what’s going on.

School dances have traditionally been structured around mating rituals, dating back to a point in time when parents encouraged teens to go on such structured dates in order to find the ideal partner. This is no longer the era in which we live. Parents are no longer encouraging serious relationships in high school; quite the opposite. Even teens are no longer treating high school as the place to find their future husband/wife. Decades ago, teen dating turned into a different kind of ritual, one driven by status and validation and decoupled from pair bonding. While not having a date had long been stigmatized, the cost became purely social rather than marriage.

For decades after school dances were about pair bonding, teens scrambled to get dates to school dances purely as a form of plumage – a prom date was simply proof that one wasn’t a social pariah. Many teens went to school dances with people with whom they had no sexual relations whatsoever. Yet, by the 1990s, LGBT pressures started mounting actions against heteronormative dynamics at school dances. Some schools started allowing same-sex partners to go to school dances together. In some places, teen girls started repurposing this “freedom” to opt to go to the school dance with their best friend even though there was no romantic interest involved. The date-based school dance ritual began crumbling decades ago in different ways across the country. Thankfully, schools caught up and many stopped requiring dates to attend. This, in turn, motivated many teens to eschew dates altogether.

If you’re an adult, think back to your own teenage years. How many of you hated your homecoming or prom date? How many of you went with a friend of the opposite sex with no romantic feelings? How many of you stressed about finding a date, keeping a relationship going long enough to make it to the dance, or otherwise dealing with the potential dramas of being single for the dance? Now, imagine if the school said that you no longer needed to have a date. And imagine if the social norms caught up so that not having a date was not a stigmatized reality. Would you have gone with friends and simply had a good time? Hell yeah you would’ve.

What’s happening is not a radical shift in teen friendship practices. It’s about the collapse of an outmoded, outdated mating ritual. It has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with social norms relieving unnecessary pressures that no one liked anyhow. Teens aren’t going date-less because friendship is suddenly more important. Teens are going date-less because it’s socially acceptable and teens haven’t wanted the pressure to have a date for decades. Dating is much simpler when you don’t have to secure a date for an important night months ahead of time and then fret about the possibility that that tenuous relationship might fall apart. Even teens who are dating would prefer to buy a single ticket, go with their friends, and meet up with their significant other at the event.

Why this is so shocking to people is beyond me. Teen dances are finally looking more like 20-something dances than images of dances from the 1950s. How do 20-somethings to to bars, clubs, and other events that involve dancing? They gather with their friends, and go out en masse. Those who are dating include their significant other in the group and there are often networks of connections to other groups going out. The fact that teens are modeling 20-somethings should not be surprising to anyone. Teens have long modeled up. Why shouldn’t they be modeling contemporary practices instead of those that only exist in the movies?

Please… can we get real about teens? Can we please realize that what they’re doing is totally logical given broader societal norms and not some radical cognitive change?

PS: Teens are still dating and many find having a significant other to be important. Some value that sig-other more than they value their friends, but the old sayings of “bros before hos” and “chicks before dicks” still stand in most communities. But to think that teen dating is gone is completely foolish. Just because teens don’t want “dates” doesn’t mean that they don’t want sig-others.