woman in a pink dress(Photo: Chris Craymer)

...Be Wildly, Passionately Pursued

Sounds outdated, but you deserve it. Here's why.

by Caitlin Flanagan

When I was dating, my friends and I would not in a million years have asked a man we met at a party or a bar for his phone number. If you met someone you liked, you had to stand around passively, hoping that he might ask for your info. It didn't matter how interested you were in him; we young women wouldn't have dreamed of appearing so aggressive -- or so desperate -- as to ask for something as simple as his telephone number. You would grow up and spend your middle years bumping into men whom you'd been crazy about back in the day, only to discover they'd been wild about you, too, but hadn't had the nerve to call. And now it was all too late.

Young women have gotten rid of that limiting old system, and it still impresses me when I see a woman confidently punching a man's number into her cell phone without even considering whether to wait for him to ask first. Even girls do it: Last spring I had to pick up my 13-year-old son from a bar mitzvah party, and when I went into the ballroom, I found him surrounded by a mob of little ladies thrusting their phones at him with demanding gestures. I'm his mother, of course I think he's adorable, but I was struck by how much they wanted that number -- demanded that number -- just as they would later demand their slice of cake and favor-filled goody bag. They knew what they wanted and how to get it. As I stood back and surveyed the scene, I know I should have been marveling at how far girls have come. But instead I thought, Wow, those girls will never be pursued.

That was the upside of the old system. If a guy liked you, he had to pursue you. Because we were so unlikely to show our hand, women ended up seeming like mysterious creatures. Once, in college, I was the object of affection of a perfectly nice guy whom I had no romantic interest in and whom I got to cool his jets (or such was my intention) by telling him that for the next week, I would barely be emerging from my room because I had to study for an art history midterm. Every morning when I opened my door to head out to the common bathroom, there were flowers and an encouraging note from him.

I know that many modern young women would say I didn't have a suitor; I had a stalker. I know plenty of others who think that he was simply courting me -- and that these days men have completely forgotten everything about courtship and don't have a clue how to accomplish it. To the first group: He wasn't a stalker. He was just a very nice and very besotted young man who'd had the bad luck (we've all been there) to be taken by someone who didn't return his affection. As for the second theory, sadly, I think men probably have forgotten how to court women. They don't need to anymore. The flowers and notes and carefully planned dates were always in support of men getting together with women, which today doesn't require so much work.

I don't give up hope of the old system's occasional return, however. Men value things they have to work hard for, and they tend to become very creative when the straight-ahead approach isn't helping. I would never advocate going back to a time when women were passive, but one thing every woman owes herself, at least once -- for the sheer romance and surprise of it, not to mention the delicious boost of ego that comes along with it -- is the chance to be pursued: desperately, wildly, with complete abandon.

Throughout the course of that long-ago week, after all, as the wilting bouquets piled up on my desk and as my stack of note cards on quattrocento painters grew steadily larger, what I gained about myself was a kind of confidence. The boy was a bother, the flowers were an annoyance (I didn't have a vase, and after sticking the first lot in my toothbrush cup, I was out of options), but my sense of myself changed a little bit. I was going to ace that test; I was going to have many more flowers from many more boys; I was going to make something of myself. At the end of the week, I relented and went out to one dinner with him. On the walk back to my dorm, he bought me a children's book -- it was part of a joke we'd been having -- and I still have that book, with its funny inscription and his signature. He dodged a bullet. I was a complicated and troubled person in college. But seeing myself, briefly, through his eyes -- as someone wonderful, someone worth any amount of hassle -- gave me something that nothing else could have.

Caitlin Flanagan's new book, Girl Land, comes out in January.