A Confusing Conundrum in Our Culture

In a previous column, I suggested that real communication is often more difficult than we imagine, especially when it comes to topics such as sex or romance. Kissing, for instance, is by its very nature a way of communicating with one’s body the message that “I am interested in a serious relationship with you.”

If one does not actually have that intention, then one ought not to be kissing, for to do so is a kind of “lying” with one’s body, not much different from giving someone the “thumbs up” to indicate the water is deep enough to jump in when one knows it is not, or from someone saying “I will return this book,” when one in fact has no such intention. There are many ways of lying. Lying with words is only one of them, because using words is only one way we humans have of communicating or “signifying.” Words are one type of sign, but there are others.

When a culture shares a sense of moral propriety – that is to say, when we all have a sense of what the proper limits and boundaries are – and when a society has a shared understanding of what certain actions signify, this makes human interactions much less complicated, because when one party or the other does something, both parties know what that act is supposed to mean. Problems and misunderstandings arise, however, precisely when we lack these shared understandings.

So when a girl invites a man for coffee, if he interprets “coffee” to mean she wants sex, when what she really wants is to have coffee and talk, they’re in trouble. So, too, if a man invites a girl to dinner and pays for dinner (as he ought), and by that act thinks he is now “owed” sex (which he is not), we’ve got some very serious trouble. By the same token, if a man and woman get married, and one says to the other:  “Did you mean you wanted sex too?” now we’ve got trouble – and grounds for an annulment.

One of the only ways to resolve this potential for confusion when there is this sort of lack of a shared understanding is by constant, painstaking attempts to clarify matters through conversation.    

That sounds nice, of course, but in practice, it can be rather awkward. Courtship and romance should be like an exquisite ballroom dance where one is carried away by the sound of the music, the beauty of one’s partner, and the glow of the night. It’s not quite the same if the partners have to discuss each step in advance: “Is it acceptable for us to move left?” “Are we agreed that I should twirl you now?”  It’s possible, I suppose, but awkward, and not exactly the stuff dreams are made of.

Thus a key question that has to be faced in the inscrutable and often nerve-wracking give-and-take of modern romance is when and how to have “the talk”?   Most young people who aren’t “hooking up” will know what I’m talking about. You’ve met a person who seems “interested” – maybe – although it could be he/she “just wants to be friends” (oh no, not that again).

      Courtship as it was then . . . and should be now.

No one dates anymore so you can’t tell exactly what the other person’s intentions are. But you start seeing each other more frequently, and then one day, it happens:  The young man or woman finally shows some interest in kissing, which means there may be some actual romantic passion, and not merely the usual “we’re just sorta’ hanging out” thing going on.

If the young couple is lucky and warm-blooded, that kissing will be (we hope) something rather passionate and delightful. The music has begun. The question now is whether both parties are doing the same dance. If one party hears a waltz playing, while the other assumes it’s the opening notes of the horizontal flop, then there will be trouble.

But here’s the problem:  It’s often diplomatically (not to mention socially) “odd” to have “the talk” about sex and romance and all the rest with a person who isn’t really interested in that sort of thing with you. But you often can’t know whether a person is interested in “that sort of thing with you” until after you’ve kissed. (And even then, with some people, you can’t really be certain.)  And this is just downright awkward, because once the romantic kissing has begun, well, as they say in the south: “the horse is already half-way out the barn door.”

But until we can retrieve practices – shared non-verbal signifiers – that signal each partner’s romantic intentions (like, say, dating, where two people can actually get to know one another), then this is the rather awkward, and in many ways unromantic position emerging adults will often find themselves in: kissing passionately, and then having to stop, in order to have “the talk.” It’s awkward, but what happens if they don’t?

In Walker Percy’s wonderfully prophetic book Lost in the Cosmos, you can find the following “letter to Dear Abby”:

I am a twenty-three year old liberated woman who has been on the pill for two years. It’s getting pretty expensive and I think my boyfriend should share half the cost, but I don’t know him well enough to discuss money with him.
She lets him inside her body regularly, and she can’t talk to him — about something as relatively unimportant as money?  Has she been lying to him by lying with him?

Navigating the twisted, confusing roads of romance isn’t easy in the best of times. But many of today’s emerging adults have to drive blind, no headlights, no windshield wipers, in a driving rainstorm, along dangerous mountain roads. It should be no surprise, then, that too many of them crash and burn.


Randall B. Smith is a Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas. His latest book is From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body.