The process of social and cultural processes whereby one attempts to gain another as a mate.
Courting as we know it has gone through a drastic change in the last century, with an almost insurmountable level of change in the past decade due to technology. The word courting itself is old fashioned, bringing images of ice cream socials in the 1950s – now we commonly use words like dating. Once upon a time, and currently in some cultures, a man and a woman did not choose to spend their lives together, their bond was chosen by parents or other authority figures. When mateships are decided upon by outside people, there was/is no courting necessary. In modern times (with some exceptions), this tradition of having a mate chosen by an outside party has gone by the wayside and has been replaced with courtship – a period of time wherein a couple gets to know one another, often wherein one person (usually the male) competes for the attention of the other.
Courting, or dating, comes down to a much more simple concept than it immediately appears – courting and dating is the human equivalent to the procurement of a mate for reproductive purposes. Courtship, or dating, is the modern human equivalent to sexual selection and the displays that certain species engage in when seeking a mate. Much of evolutionary psychology is focused around the attainment of a mate – how it is done for different species, how the attainment of a mate has changed over time, and what sort of variables affect mate attainment.
Humans are no exception to the rules put forth by Trivers’ (1972) theory of Parental Investment – the sex which possesses a larger minimum investment in offspring is the sex that chooses a mate, while the sex which has a smaller minimum investment in offspring competes for access to mates. In the context of humans, like most species, females hold the larger minimum investment (9 months gestation and labor at the absolute minimum), thus they are the sex that gets to choose mates, while males (whose minimum investment is the ejaculation of sperm) hold the smaller minimum investment is the sex that must compete for access to the females through intrasexual competition. What all of this investment and competition information adds up to is quite simple: men compete more for access to women, while women are choosy in picking a man to mate with. In dating terms, this simply goes together with the generally accepted gender roles associated with human dating – men pay for meals and compete with access with other males for female attention. A clear and concise way to understand and remember courting practices and their ultimate goals is to realize that, especially in the animal kingdom (particularly with non-human species), courting is merely a series of events that must occur in order for copulation to be allowed, agreed upon, or desired.
Human courting varies dependent on historical context, religion, cultural norms, and family norms. Currently, in a Western context with a secular religious emphasis, males and females seek each other out for dates and exhibit a long courting period before (if) marriage happens. Previously, males and females used courting as a prerequisite of sorts for marriage – courting was used to determine whether a male and female were a good fit for marriage, marriage being the ultimate, paramount goal. Now, it is common for humans to date for the sake of dating, without marriage as an ultimate or proximate goal in mind. It is particularly interesting that, while the goal of dating may have gone from ultimate (marriage is the point) to proximate (dating for the sake of dating), the gender roles devised by biological differences such as minimum parental investment have not changed – even if a man is not courting a woman to test her for marriage material, he is still the one seeking and competing, while she is the one who makes decisions about whether or not she wants to date the male, and what type of relationship she is willing to have with him (short-term – sexual, or long-term – committed).
Another important variable when discussing human courting is perceived sexual intent – the “friendzone” is somewhat of a joke on sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother and Raising Hope, often discussed more seriously in the bowels of the internet where men who perceive themselves as “nice guys” lament over the “friendzone” and how they are always placed in it despite their best efforts. The “friendzone” is a fictitious place where men go when they befriend a woman and take too long to make their move, thus appearing as nothing more than a friend in the eyes of a female. The friendzone is mentioned as an easy way to understand perceived sexual intent. When males and females begin to court one another, in modern times where women and men are friends (and modern cultures, where women are allowed to be in the presence of a man without a male relative with her for protection), there is not always clear sexual intent. The question “could this individual only want to be my friend, or are they interested in a copulatory relationship with me” is often raised in the minds of individuals beginning a courtship. One can plainly see how a misunderstanding of sexual intent could lead to trouble: from mere discomfort between the two individuals to the possibility of sexual assault or misconduct (see subsection below).
Operational Sex Ratio
There are numerous variables that affect dating behaviors. One such variable that drastically changes behavior in dating is operational sex ratio (OSR). Operational Sex Ratio is the ratio of reproductively viable males to females in a given mating market. It is important to understand the logistics of mating markets in order to better understand mating and dating behaviors. Operational sex ratio generally is divided into three major categories: equitable, wherein there are an even number of reproductively viable males and females in a given market; female disadvantaged/male advantaged, wherein there are proportionally more females than males in the mating market; and female advantaged/male disadvantaged, wherein there are proportionally more males than females in the mating market. It makes sense from a simple supply and demand point of view that operational sex ratio would affect dating habits and behaviors. Males and females have different wants and desires, and it stands to reason that male wants and desires would be put ahead of female wants and desires in a male advantaged/female disadvantaged ratio, and vice versa. Because of this, we do see behavioral changes in courtship and dating across different OSRs.
Human courting is an incredibly complex process that has evolved with us over hundreds of thousands of years. Many factors can affect the outcome of a relationship between two individuals, especially Paternal Investment and Operational Sex Ratios in their immediate environment. Though humans display indices of Parental Investment our courting behavior can still be incredibly plastic depending on a multitude of variables, including environmental factors.
- Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company.Google Scholar