Courtship, Etiquette, and the Adolescent Male

I had to apologize for my species again today.  Not the usual apology for the species that one has to give to the global-warming and population bomb crowd.  But the usual apology for my species that I as a male am accustomed to giving to adolescent females, especially when it comes to the behavior of their adolescent male counterparts.  Yes, I have to tell them, young men can be spectacularly foolish.  And yes, it is true, females just mature faster than males.  History suggests that has been true from time immemorial, but recent developments have surely exacerbated the problem.

It used to be (long before I was born) that adults tried to prepare young men for adulthood by teaching them how to treat young women with respect.  They conditioned them by having them do little acts of kindness throughout the day to show respect.  Sometimes these were small, relatively unimportant things such as opening doors or letting a young lady go first.  Sometimes they were relatively more important things such as not shoving them around or forcing them to do things they didn’t want to do.   Most (indeed, nearly all) of these bits of behavioral conditioning tended to be directed at young men.  They were intended to get them accustomed to how an adult man should treat an adult woman. As such, they were part of an overall project of turning testosterone-driven male lust into meaningfully directed male courtship. And then they were meant, in large part, to get the adult male not to treat his spouse the way most males have throughout history: namely, as property.  As something to be disposed of at his whim.  As merely a part of his life project, like the make and model of his car or the color and look of his business card.

What’s strange is not so much that the rules of respect have been dispensed with – it’s hard in the best of circumstances to keep a reign on adolescent male hormonal rage. What’s strange is that these rules weren’t done away with by men – even young men – but largely by women.  As for that, I’m not sure what they were thinking.  Did they really believe that by making young men open doors for young women, they were encouraging young men to think that young women couldn’t open doors for themselves?  Do such people imagine that young men in those days thought that young women, upon coming to a door, merely stood there helpless until a man could come along to open the door for her?  I think not.  I remember as a child being told by my rather “old-fashioned” mother that I should hold a door open for a lady.  I thought it strange because I had seen ladies open doors for themselves all the time.  “Why should I? I asked my mother.  “They can open the door for themselves.”  “That’s not the point,” she gently scolded.  “Well I’ll be darned if I can see the point, then,” I remember saying to myself as I skulked away.  At that age, I couldn’t quite see why you shouldn’t punch girls either.  I punched (and got punched by) my guy friends all the time.  What was so different about girls?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Well, as it turned out, there was something different about girls, but I didn’t really get the idea until much later.  In fact, I don’t think I really got the idea until I resolved it was time to get married.  Now that I’m married, I’m pretty sure I still haven’t quite got the idea yet, but I’m at least working on it.  (Or perhaps it would be better to say, my wife is patiently teaching me.)  Women, as far as I can tell, don’t want to be “put on a pedestal,” as it were, and they do want to be friends with men.  But then again, when they get past a certain age, they don’t necessarily want to “rough-house” anymore or be “one of the guys.”  There’s an oftentimes subtle difference there, but it makes all the difference in the world.  You could say it just comes down to this: women want to be treated with respect.

But to be honest, I’m not sure how helpful that is to young men.  Young men think of themselves as treating their guy friends with respect all the time, even if they’ve shoved them around on the basketball court, sworn at them to high heaven, and told them how ridiculous their ideas are.  For some strange reason, young women generally don’t see it that way.  For some reason, women tend to get offended when you shove them around, yell at them, and tell them how stupid their ideas are.  Strange, I know, but it’s just a fact of life, so we’d better get young men used to it early, or we’ll find them, as we find them so often today, utterly baffled as to why so many young women in their lives are offended and upset all the time.

He created them male and female

But look, I’m not so silly (nor was my adolescence so pure) as to suppose that young men aren’t aware that young women are different from them.  Oh no, they know alright.  It’s an awareness that comes with a vengeanceWhat they are aware of, however, is merely the physical difference, and the difference that makes in how they feel around young women.  What they often aren’t aware of, sadly, is that along with the physical changes, there have been certain internal mental and emotional changes taking place in young women as well.  It used to be said that young women were looking for marriage, while young men were looking for sex.  It’s harder now to claim that what young women are looking for is marriage – they’re not really allowed to say that out loud or even admit it to themselves – but what they do tend to be looking for is stability, commitment, and the kind of benefits that come from stability and commitment: a person one can depend on; a person who shows up when he says he will; a person who will be kind and gentle and thoughtful, but not whiny and full of complaints and excuses.  In short, they want a man, not a boy.

Which brings us to the other reason for all those rules of etiquette for young men.  They were part of a process of teaching young men to start looking at women not merely as play mates (in either the playground or Playboy sense of the term), but as a potential spouse.  Nothing aggravates the young women I meet more than the fact that the young men in their lives don’t know how to date.  “What do they do?” I ask.  “They play lots of video games,” is a standard answer.  Or they watch a lot of sports.  Or they go to the bar and look for a hook-up if “the mood” strikes.  This probably isn’t the best training for a future as an adult man in an adult marriage with an adult woman – something which requires virtues like patience, the willingness to pitch in and help, and the ability to put others before oneself.  Given the lives they’re leading, the adolescent boys I know (and that would include all of them from 15 to 35) aren’t exactly readying themselves for marriage.  Or for the life of a citizen in a democratic republic.  Or for adulthood, for that matter.

Unfortunately for such foolish young men, there are still foolish young women around who will indulge them as playmates or surrogate mothers and thereby risk ensnaring both in an unhappy marriage.  Such foolish young women are the second most frequent cause of aggravation among the sensible young women I know – right behind the immaturity of boys.  (“How could he be so stupid as to be attracted to her?”)  Perhaps, then, it was this potential for foolishness among young women to indulge the silly adolescent fancies of young men that brought about those other “old-fashioned” set of rules of etiquette: the ones that applied not to adolescent boys, but to adolescent girls; the ones that bid them not to allow themselves to be treated as property; the ones that encouraged them, rather, to demand respect for their dignity and worth.  Those were principles of behavior that used to be instilled in young women by their mothers.  Now I fear the culture-at-large is more interested in teaching young women to use their “sexuality” as a source of power over men.  That’s all well and good, I suppose, as long as you can stay strong and stay on top.  But when the most intimate sort of human relationship becomes the front line in the on-going battle to attain dominance in the war between the sexes, expect the casualties to be widespread and especially grim.

Personally, I’d prefer a kinder, gentler set of relationships: more like the give-and-take of an elegant dance than the rough-and-tumble of the full-contact sport that is the modern hook-up culture.  For that to happen, however, parents would have to remember that teaching their children how to dance, how to date, and how to court and be courted is their job.  No one else is going to do it.  And the results when they don’t do it are really very tragic and sad.  There are many things we college professors can teach your children, some of them might even be moderately helpful to them.  But one thing we definitely can’t teach them is the one thing that every study shows will be most important to their future happiness and flourishing:  how to meet someone, marry, and stay married.  If your son or daughter doesn’t know how to date and how to act on a date, you’re probably leaving them to the wolves.  Please don’t.  I’ve seen the wounds.  They’re not pretty.


  • Randall B. Smith

    Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology and current holder of the Scanlan Foundation Chair in Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. He was also the 2011-12 Myser Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.

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