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Bad Romance

Sunday Times author pictureLove is a game I’ve lost. So now I must date, which, if you ask me, is an exhausting, undignified, seemingly neverending bout of musical chairs. One day the music will stop, and if I don’t want to end up alone, I must run round and round, trying to snag a man before they all disappear.

Everything is speeded up, exactly like it was when I was an asthmatic six-year-old, and instinct dictates that I should drop to the floor, refuse to move, stick my fingers in my ears and howl: “But I don’t want any of these chairs. I want that shambolic excuse for a recliner over there, which isn’t even part of this damned charade, since another girl’s bloody sitting on it.”

But to confess to such thoughts, or act in such a way, is stupid. Hopelessly defeatist. Everyone tells me I have to get up and carry on. So I sprint faster and faster. Become dizzier and dizzier. Feel sicker and sicker. As everyone else stares and points and mutters: “Good grief, I’m glad I’m not her.”

There must be a better way, I thought, casting about for inspiration. So how about this for a heartening tale..?

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8th October 2017

Halfway through London Fashion Week, the Millennial and I fell out. Before this (hot as hell, confirmedly gay) roommate of mine moved in, I could sprawl about all day half-naked, eating mango chutney from the jar, obsessively writing and rewriting my own sentences. But it is such a sad little existence, he begs me to desist.

He’s also fed up with me on the matter of ZZ, the man I “refuse” to stop mentioning. I try to tell the boy that when a man finally arrives in your life and causes you to understand, once and for all, the meaning of Bonnie Tyler’s power ballads and the oeuvre of Bryan Adams, it might be impossible to forget. But the Millennial is much too young, and much too cool, for (Everything I Do) I Do It for You…

1st October 2017

When you fall in love with another woman’s man, you curse fate and shake your fists and scream at the sky. If only you had met him first, you’d be living out At Last by Etta James. But you didn’t, so you’re trapped in a Sylvia Plath poem.

It was the strangest thing. It had never happened before. It has never happened since. The instant I fixed on his peculiar eyes I knew he was the greatest thing alive. I wanted to spend all my time just looking at him. I’ve known handsomer men. I’ve known cleverer men. But I was addicted to his jokes and his beautiful face.

Love is the drug. I was completely off my tits…

01_Cover1AA_oct2017.inddI force myself to go on dates because that is what I must do if I want to find love in the 21st century. Or so society insists. And so I’ve spent countless evenings staring at men I’d like perfectly well – if they were my dentist – trying to stave off the realisation that I’d have spent a more thrilling evening at home, flossing and spitting blood down the sink. My single girlfriends and I know – from experience – to expect nothing better. But for those not used to the dating game – with no idea how to distinguish a potential bore from an actual psychopath – it can prove a terrible shock.

Take Ruth E. Valentine, whose 100 dates over a five year period were so traumatic she wrote an entire book about them. Her first date seemed perfectly wonderful – until he pulled up his suit trousers to reveal fishnet stockings. The second chap turned out to be married. The next revealed that his dead brother was sitting next to him in an empty chair. ‘Another guy I dated for three months,’ she continues. ‘Everything seemed perfect until he announced he had a court case coming up and might be going to prison for 12 years.  Last I heard he got locked up and put on the sex offenders list.’ One does not have to get anywhere near the end of ‘The Life & Times of an Online Dater’ to conclude that it was all downhill from there.

This month marks two years since Vanity Fair declared the Dating Apocalypse had hit the States, thanks to the dating app Tinder. But no one thought to tell poor Ruth whose dating life only continued to degenerate until she gave up last week. In 2017, her case is not unusual. All we ladies (who remain single past the age that Jesus died) privately trade grimmer and more gruesome stories because dating apps have done to love and romance what the machines did to humanity – in the Doomsday scenario from Terminator II. Tough young millennials, who grew up after civilisation ended, do claim to feel liberated by a situation in which boring old human ‘emotion’ has been replaced by animalistic rutting. But for those of us who want to get married and – heaven help us – breed, the situation is petrifying.

My friends and I, our biological clocks a-ticking, ought to be stepping up our efforts: pasting on Dior war paint, arming ourselves with the latest in killer heels, downing cocktails for courage. Instead, we hug each other in foxholes, reassuring one another that it is A-OK to still be nursing wounds from the last time we ‘put ourselves out there’. In the age of Tinder, a typical first message is: ‘Hey. To be honest unless we’re having sex on the first night I’m not really interested… Let me know. x’ Followed by an entirely unsolicited dick pic. This is not what we want. And it is not what we need. It’s time we rose up and declared, en masse: ‘No Tinder, please, we’re British.’

As Beth McLoughlin, a 40-year-old editor complains: ‘When I was younger this thing called ‘dating’ didn’t exist here. Why is it necessary? If we could just abolish it, we could go back to just connecting people naturally with people we liked.’ Ideally, we’d revert to the antiquated system of ‘rounds in the pub,’ whereby Brits who previously had no idea they even fancied each other, staggered home one night only to wake up five years later married with three adorable children. First, we fell in like, then we fell in laugh; and – bam – we fell in love.

Back in the Nineties, this idiosyncratic approach was still de facto and Bridget Jones was our heroine. She now reappears on our screens every Bank Holiday to remind us of when Britain did things best and jumped out of planes wearing Union Jack parachutes just to prove it – much like James Bond. Carrie Bradshaw may have dated her way across Manhattan with a handbag stuffed full of ‘ultra-textured Trojans with a reservoir tip’ but our Bridget trusted to the contraceptive qualities of her giant knickers. She made love.

Dating belongs in America, where it sprang into being alongside out-of-control capitalism and Coca-Cola. The term ‘date’ was first used in 1896 in a column written about ‘working class lives’ in which a young man, whose girlfriend was growing tired of him, lamented ‘I s’pose the other boy’s fillin’ all my dates.’ The convention of a man paying arose because women were paid half what a man would get for working the same job. So, if a girl wanted to go out for dinner her ‘date’ would have to pay for it.

Dating is an industry that has been inextricably linked to time pressure ever since. According to Moira Wiegel, who last year published Labor of Love: the Invention of Dating our mating habits still reflect the labour market. So whereas in the era of ‘old fashioned 9-to-5s it made sense to ask someone, “So, I’ll pick you up at six?” She explains. ‘Now, in an era of flexitime and freelancing we might be more likely to text a lover “u up?”’

Tinder is the very embodiment of the free market when it comes to sex. As Vanity Fair’s Nancy Jo Sales put it, ‘online, the act of choosing consumer brands and sex partners has become interchangeable.’ It is easier for a man to get laid than at any point in history – but the quality of sex is suffering for us women. According to the Kinsey Institute, women are twice as likely to have orgasms in the context of a relationship. But since ‘relationships’ have been replaced by a never-ending regimen of dates, young girls kept asking Sales ‘what’s a real orgasm like? I wouldn’t know.’

Some new phone apps – such as Bumble – claim to liberate women from all this Tinder bullshit. But in effect it just deludes us into thinking we have some control over the product, when we don’t. On Bumble, a woman has to message a man first and within 24 hours, after which he’ll disappear forever (like a bargain resisted in the January sales).  But it’s the men who benefit. My best male friend has used it to juggle eight different women simultaneously. And he’s ginger.

Using apps to find love doesn’t even make sense. Tinder has a vested interest in keeping us single. Otherwise, it’ll disappear like MySpace, Bebo and Friends Reunited. Even those with positive experiences of the app see it as an extension of their working life – just one more thing to achieve. ‘Dating’ is ‘a numbers game’. You ‘only get out what you put in.’ What most scares me is the prospect that – even if I do, against all odds, couple up, I’ll still have to go on ‘date nights’. A fitting British response to the whole concept is as Nicholas Lezard puts it: ‘Let’s split up. It’s more dignified.’

For as Ruth E. Valentine eventually concluded, there is nothing more dismal and depressing than dating. ‘Every time I thought I had met a nice guy they were all either married, liars, cheats, psychos, mentally deranged, abusers, transvestites, criminals, druggies, alcoholics or mummy’s boys.’ Ultimately, dates are about one thing: sex. So it’s time to say: down with dates! Leave them to the Americans. Somehow, we have to bring back old fashioned British confusion and abashment. For even in the 21st century, there’s still no more beautiful way – to fall in love.  

Emily Hill is the author of Bad Romance, which will be published on Valentine’s Day, 2018.