Dating is not a common practice in most countries. It is rare in China, India, South America, most countries in Africa, and forbidden in most Muslim countries. Only in the United States, Great Britain, Australia, and Canada is dating a common form of mate selection. Dating is just one stage in the courtship process.

    1. Mate Selection Cross-Culturally.

      In some cultures, mate selection begins as early as infancy, in others the process begins at 8 or 9 years of age, and in still others it begins in late adulthood. According to most of the cross-cultural literature on mate selection, methods of mate selection can be differentiated according to a traditional/nontraditional or industrialized/nonindustrialized dichotomy. Research has indicated that arranged marriages tend to be very stable. Political, social and/or economic change, especially industrialization, in cultures around the world has brought about some significant changes in mate selection customs. In nonindustrialized nations and often in rural areas within industrialized nations, mate selection continues to be predominantly arranged.

    2. Mate Selection in the United States: A Historical Perspective.

      Mate selection in the United States is based on notions of romantic love, a sentiment shared by both women and men. Dating has been described by some social commentators as a "courtship game" that has its own set of rules, strategies, and goals.

      1. Early U.S. Courtship and the Development of Dating: Mate selection in the United States has always centered on heterosexual pairing or coupling. Keeping company was very formalized, and unmarried couples were usually chaperoned. Marriage was considered to be important in bringing order and stability to life. Parents did not necessarily choose their children's spouses, but did influence the choices. Industrialization changed the dating patterns, and the mass production of the automobile had the most profound impact on mate selection in North America.

      2. Dating in the United States: The 1920s Through the 1990s: Dating has not remained constant over the decades. Because of the increased affluence and leisure of the white middle-classes, dating became the major method of mate selection in this country, as well as giving rise to a youth culture whose members were relatively free to pursue their personal and social life. Other factors such as the Depression, and World War II helped shape dating as we know it today. Dating was especially visible on college campuses. Dating was competitive, and involved rating prospective partners based on clear standards of popularity. During the 1940s and 1950s, dating spread and became a filtering process - people dated many different people before settling down. "Going steady" became popular. Traditional gender roles were stressed and a double standard was the norm. In the 1960s and 1970s, dating became casual, marriage was often delayed, and sexual intimacy became a common part of dating. Cohabitation became an extension of dating for many couples.

      3. Contemporary Trends in Dating: The Twenty-First Century: The term dating was less commonly used in the 1980s and 1990s, but the practice continues, albeit in different forms. There is a greater emphasis on mutuality and sharing than on traditional gender roles. Dating includes more casual sexual involvements and fewer committed relationships, includes not only the very young but also large numbers of older people. Due to its cultural diversity, the United States has a number of dating and mate-selection patterns.

    3. Functions of Dating: Past and Present.

      Of all the stages in the mate selection process, dating is the one that carries the least commitment to continuing the relationship.

      1. Socialization: Through dating, people learn the norms, roles, and values that govern heterosexual relationships. It is competitive, so people can refine interactive skills. It also provides for sexual experimentation and growth. If the dating experience goes well, it can have an impact on our self-confidence and self-esteem.

      2. Recreation: For most people, dating provides an opportunity to relax, have fun, and enjoy themselves in the company of someone they like.

      3. Status Grading and Achievement: Most Americans view dating in positive terms. Status grading and achievement in dating is a process whereby women and men are classified according to their desirability as dating partners.

      4. Mate Selection: Given the longer dating period today, dating continues to fulfill the function of anticipatory socialization, socialization that is directed toward learning future roles. Skipper and Nass have suggested that a person's motivation for dating can be placed on a continuum ranging from completely expressive (dating as and end in itself) to completely instrumental (dating as a means to some larger goal). In addition, a person's emotional involvement may range from no emotional involvement to complete emotional involvement. If the primary motive is mate-selection, the person will have a strong instrumental orientation and a strong emotional involvement.


    Dating, like all other social behaviors, is rooted in social as well as historical conditions.

    1. Dating Patterns Among African Americans.

      In the past, dating centered around the neighborhood, church, and school and was a casual process. Later, the school and house party became major centers for heterosexual fraternizing, particularly among the lower class. Dating patterns among the middle-class did not differ from those of the larger society. According to Staples, the historically low sex-ratio in the African American community has traditionally limited the dating and mate selection options of African American women. A notable characteristic of contemporary African American dating patterns is the significant increase in interracial dating, especially on college campuses.

    2. The Impact of Gender.

      Dating scripts are still basically gender specific. Men tend to plan and pay for the date and initiate sexual behavior. Women focus on enhancing their appearance, making conversation, and controlling sexual behavior. Women prefer well-educated men who are financially stable. Men place greater value on physical and sexual attractiveness.

    3. The Impact of Social Class on the Dating Process.

      Although dating as a method of mate selection is a universal practice in the United States, social class, like race and gender, profoundly impacts who we meet, who we are attracted to, and who is available to date.

      1. Upper Class: Dating is far more regulated than for any other class. Children are more likely to be socialized to delay gratification and focus on education and career preparation rather than romance and sex. Activities are closely supervised by parents or other adults. Dates are sometimes arranged by parents and partners almost always selected from within their own ranks.

      2. Middle Class: Going steady remains common and usually leads to engagement. Weddings are often elaborate and are often performed in a church or synagogue. There is less parental supervision. In some middle-class communities cruising is a popular pattern in the mate selection process.

      3. Lower Class: Dating is informal, the engagement phase is often skipped and progress directly to marriage.

    4. Lesbian and Gay Dating.

      Like heterosexual couples, dating is for recreational and entertainment purposes and for the development of love relationships. Finding a permanent partner is not always easy for lesbians and gays as many traditional places for meeting potential partners are closed off to them. Lesbians tend to meet their partners through lesbian friendship networks and mutual acquaintances. Lesbians tend to practice serial monogamy.

      1. African American Lesbian and Gay Dating: A study of middle-class lesbians showed that although two-thirds were in a serious relationship, only one-third lived with their partner; the average age at which women reported first being attracted to a woman was about 16, but the first lesbian experience did not occur until approximately age 19; two-thirds had at least one lesbian relationship with an Anglo woman and 39 percent with some other woman of color. The median number of sexual partners was nine (similar to white lesbians). Dating and mate selection among gays may be influenced by sociocultural factors. Black gays tend to be more bisexual than white gays and have fewer brief, anonymous partners. Over two-thirds reported that half of their partners were white men.


    A complete understanding of mate selection requires a theoretical framework that shows how these and other social, economic, and political factors are related and influence mate selection.

    1. Exchange Theories.

      Revolve around the notion that individuals attempt to maximize their rewards and minimize their costs to achieve the most favorable outcome. John Edwards refers to the "exchange theory of homogamous mating" in which people with equivalent resources develop relationships. The principle of least interest is a lesson in power: The person with the least interest has the advantage, and trades his/her company for the other person's acquiescence to his or her wishes.

      1. Stimulus-Value-Role Theory: A variation of the general exchange theory of mate selection. Bernard Murstein's theory states that mate-selection moves through three stages (stimulus, value, and role).

      2. Equity Theory: Another variation which proposes that a person is attracted to another by a fair deal rather than by a profitable exchange.

    2. Filter Theory.

      Klimek suggests that people use a filtering system that reduces the field of potential mates. Filter theories are sometimes called process theories.


    Finding a mate has become almost a national pastime in the United States.

    1. The Marriage Market and the Pool of Eligibles.

      Meeting prospective mates, choosing partners, developing a dating relationship, and falling in love are not random activities but are all predictable and are structured by a number of social and demographic factors.

      1. Marriage Market: A process by which we trade certain resources for the best offer we can get. In some countries a dowry is involved. Women are at a disadvantage in the mate-selection market.

      2. Pool of Eligibles: Consists of people of the same race, class, and educational level as ourselves.

        1. Homogamy: The tendency to meet and marry someone very similar to ourselves.

        2. Exogamy: Marriage outside a particular group.

        3. Endogamy: Marriage within a particular group.

    2. Freedom Versus Constraint in Mate-Selection.

      Our freedom to choose a mate is restricted by cultural norms that sort people according to race, ethnicity, religion, social class, residence, and related factors.

      1. The Marriage Squeeze: The imbalance in the ratio of marriage-aged men to marriage-aged women. Since World War II, there have been more eligible women than eligible men in the United States. African American women are particularly vulnerable. Different areas in the United States have higher or lower sex ratios. Age is also a factor. As women get older, the shortage of men becomes more pronounced.

      2. The Marriage Gradient: Informal norms require women to marry men of equal or higher social status. Because women marry upward and men marry downward, men at the top have a much larger field of eligibles than do men at the bottom. Women at the top have a very small pool of eligibles, whereas women on the bottom have a much wider range of men to choose from. This works to keep some of the highest-status women and the lowest status men from marrying (especially African Americans).

        1. Hypergamy: Marrying upward in social status.

        2. Hypogamy: Marrying downward in social status.

      3. Race: Dating, mate selection, and marriage are probably most endogamous and homogamous in terms of race. About 98 percent of marriages in the United States occur within the same racial group. Nevertheless, there is indication that attitudes toward interracial intimacy, dating, and marriages are changing. Polls suggest that people today are more willing to date someone of a different race if they were single.

      4. Social Class (level of education, occupation, and level of income): Americans tend to mate with people from their own socioeconomic class.

      5. Age: Informal norms operate to keep mate selection fairly homogamous in terms of age.

      6. Religion: Religious homogamy limits choices.

      7. Sex and Gender: Exogamous norms regulating behavior have been encoded into law to ensure that people mate heterosexually.

    3. Other Factors That Affect Mate Selection.

      Besides race, class, age, religion, and sex, propinquity, family, and peer pressure are also place constraints on mate selection.

      1. Propinquity: proximity or closeness in place and space.

      2. Family and Peer Pressure: Parents influence our choice of mate from the moment we are born. Peers can be powerful forces affecting both whom we meet and whom we decide to date.

    4. Personal Qualities and Mate Selection.

      The characteristics of the people we meet and consider as potential mates are factors in mate selection.

      1. Attraction: Physical appearance is one of the most important ingredients in mate selection for most Americans. Dating and marriage relationships tend to be endogamous for physical attractiveness.

      2. Companionship: Ramu identifies communication and sexual adjustment as the two most crucial personal attributes that contribute to companionship in an intimate relationship.

    5. The Life Cycle and Mate Selection.

      Dating is not limited to the young. Due to the delay in marrying, coupled with the large and increasing divorce rate, better health, and extended life expectancy, there is an increasing number of older adults who will enter or reenter into dating relationships.


    Single people in the dating market today face a great challenge in finding a significant other.

    1. School, Church, and Work.

      The high school or college campus is a traditional place where dating takes place. As church attendance has declined, religious institutions and services less frequently serve this purpose. Because the work women do is often sex-segregated, work offers only limited contact with eligible males.

    2. Singles' Bars and Gay Bars.

      Are rejected by many people as nothing but "meat markets."

    3. Self-Advertising: Personal Ads.

      An acceptable way to meet people, especially among educated people.

    4. Dating Clubs and Dating Services.

      Specialized dating clubs can be especially appealing because they cater to a specific clientele.

    5. Video Dating.

      Many singles now use videos to help in mate selection. Video dating is generally fairly expensive.

    6. Computer Dating.

      Clients complete a comprehensive questionnaire and the information is fed into a computer that matches it with other clients who have similar profiles.

    7. Dating in Cyberspace.

      Mate selection by way of the Internet has become pretty routine for a variety of singles. Single people today are looking for a match made in cyberspace. Unlike earlier computer introduction services, on-line modem-to-modem services let customers do the matchmaking, allowing them to jump into any conversation with whomever they choose. Some experts predict that by the year 2010, just about one-half of the U.S. population will be single.


    Dating will be around for some time to come, albeit in an increasingly modified form. Single people looking for that "right" partner will continue to use traditional as well as creative new ways to facilitate their search. As computer technology continues to advance, people will continue to find creative ways to use the technology to meet potential partners.


    Until the 1980s, the issues of date rape and violence received little public attention. Consequently, most people severely underestimated the extent of these problems.

    1. Physical Abuse.

      A review of dating violence research statistics shows that the rate of nonsexual, courtship violence ranges from 9 percent to 65 percent, depending on how dating violence is defined. It is has been estimated that one in three teenage relationships are abusive. Most victims are females, most remain in the relationship, and many victims and their offenders see the violence as an indication of love.

    2. Date and Acquaintance Rape.

      Although most rapes are date or acquaintance rapes, most reported rapes are stranger rapes. Many people still believe that a sexual encounter between two people who know each other cannot be rape. It is estimated that one in four college women have either been raped or suffered attempted rape at least once since age 14.


    Women initiate breakups more often than men, possibly because they must be more practical than men when choosing a mate. Some social scientists claim that breaking up before marriage is less stressful than breaking up after marriage.



After reading Chapter Five, students should be able to:

  1. understand mate selection from a historical and cross-cultural perspective.

  2. describe the functions of dating, both past and present.

  3. discuss the impact of race, gender, and social class on dating behavior.

  4. describe the dating patterns of lesbians and gays both white and African-American.

  5. describe the various theories of mate selection.

  6. understand and evaluate the constraints on choices for marriage partners in the United States today.

  7. distinguish between homogamy, endogamy and exogamy; and hypergamy and hypogamy.

  8. evaluate the influence of physical attraction and companionship on mate selection.

  9. discuss how people meet potential mates in the 1990s.

  10. discuss violence and abuse in dating relationships.



mate selection
getting together
going steady
anticipatory socialization
sex ratio
marriage market
pool of eligibles
marriage squeeze
marriage gradient
acquaintance rape
date rape



  1. "I think I'm in love." "We're thinking about moving in with each other." "I think I've found 'Mr./Ms. Right.'" Your students will be familiar with these expressions that may be important precursors to marriage, or, at least a more permanent relationship. Ask the members of your class to consider how people's feelings along these lines relate to the various theories of mate selection. For example, when a person says that he/she has found "Mr./Ms. Right," does this mean that the couple's needs are complimentary? Can people be "in love" and not be "right" for each other? How does one know when a suitable mate has been located? Is it possible to know?

  2. Most Americans place a great deal of importance on the process of being romantically attracted to another person and the process of falling in love. Indeed, romantic attachment is an important prerequisite to the mate selection process in our society. Read the following quotation to your students, thus illustrating how one young woman in India described her views of marriage:

    We girls don't worry at all... We don't have to go into competition with each other...Besides, how would we be able to judge the character of a boy?. . We are young and inexperienced. Our parents are older and wiser, and they aren't deceived as easily as we would be. I'd far rather have my parents choose for me (David and Vera Mace, We Can Have Better Marriages, 1974).

    Ask for student reactions to this point of view. See if you can get them to view arranged marriage in a positive rather than a totally negative point of view.

  3. "Is there a best way to select a life partner?" Probably every member of your class has seen at least one rerun of the popular television program, The Dating Game, or some cloned version of this show. Media presentations like these emphasize equivalent levels of physical attractiveness, "animal magnetism," "chemical attraction," and similar processes as the key to two people establishing an intimate relationship. On the other side of the coin, the class will be able to reflect on frequently heard precautions like "Just because you're good in bed doesn't mean you'll get along over the long-haul." Ask your students to evaluate this question: Do they have any confidence in the information we have available concerning how to choose a life partner? Why or why not?

  4. In keeping with the text's discussion, remind your students that in some societies, the courtship process is still very much controlled by parents and other adults. In the United States, we pride ourselves in having a "participant-run" courtship system. On the other hand, encourage the members of your class to think about the degree to which other people and various social forces control the courtship process in American society. Schwartz and Scott's discussion of modern mate-selection methods helps to illustrate these forces (personal classified ads, computer dating services, videotapes, etc.). Ask the class for reactions to such methods. Are these techniques in any way similar to arranged marriages?

  5. Ask your students to comment on how they feel about mixed marriages. Encourage them to rank the various reasons for endogamy according to their perceived importance. When individual students disagree, probe them in terms of what characteristics or experiences in their background account for their point of view about different forms of mixed marriage. This discussion should help to dramatize the origin of different attitudes toward homogamy, endogamy, exogamy, etc.

  6. The "marriage squeeze" (there are fewer and fewer "marriageable men" for women to choose from) is an important dimension of mate selection behavior in the United States. Ask your students to employ a functionalist perspective in analyzing the phenomenon of younger women marrying older men. In one very important respect, the age discrepancy in these marriage situations produces a dysfunctional outcome. Since women's life expectancy is higher then men's, women who marry older men are more likely to be widowed later in life. Remarriage becomes more difficult for these women because the older men within their "pool of eligibles" will be more likely to seek younger women to marry. Consequently, these widowed women may live out the balance of their lives alone. Encourage the members of your class to vocalize their points of view about the age-specific variables that accompany the "marriage squeeze."

  7. The marriage gradient has been in effect in most cultures throughout history. Given the changing role of women, should our views on hypergamy and hypogamy be reviewed? Discuss such factors as the economic independence of women today, differences in sexual peak periods, and life expectancy,

  8. Although it may be expected that many students will not feel comfortable doing so, ask whether anyone would be willing to vocalize what he/she finds attractive about a particular person who is currently the object of his/her affection. Use this description as a starting point for a discussion of mate selection criteria. Ask the students who speak up to provide details about the other persons: their age, race, religion, socioeconomic status, residence location, etc. If any characteristic appears to reflect heterogamy, explore the social implications involved.

  9. Most students tend to exaggerate the degree of "free choice" that they have in selecting others for intimate relationships, and, perhaps ultimately, a marriage partner. In order to illustrate the socially imposed limitations, first draw a funnel on the board; then, beginning at the widest part of the funnel, write in (moving toward the narrow part of the funnel) the following considerations: race, age, religion, socioeconomic status (including income, education, and occupational prestige), level of physical attractiveness, and residential propinquity. After doing this, have students assess just how small their individual "pool of eligibles" really is.

  10. Well-known family sociologist, Willard Waller, spoke of "rating and dating" in describing how certain elements of socioeconomic status are taken into account in dating behavior among college students. If you teach at a college or university where fraternities and sororities are commonplace, the "rating and dating" complex should be quite familiar to students. If not, you can dramatize how important levels of physical attractiveness really are in terms of who dates whom. In any event, students will benefit from discussing this "rating and dating" process in terms of understanding just how pragmatic the process of finding a mate really is in American society.

  11. It is a common misconception that premarital sex is a relatively recent phenomenon, however, comparisons between church records of marriages and baptisms prove that this is certainly not the case. Prior to 1700, there was a low 11 percent of babies conceived before marriage, but between 1761 and 1800 the rates jumped to over one-third. In pre-twentieth century America, about 1 in 5 first births were conceived before marriage. These data reflect actual pregnancies, not sexual activity and it has been estimated that as many as 40 percent of young women were sexually active before marriage. Given that the Puritan period of history is known for religious strictness and the Victorian era likewise is known for sexual repression, these figures usually shock students and can provoke a spirited discussion.

  12. An increasing number of American men and women have negotiated dating contracts, while others have employed detective agencies to investigate potential mates. These patterns suggest that some people, especially women, are trying to be less vulnerable in a society that is more anonymous, impersonal, and sometimes even physically dangerous. Ask the members of your class to comment on whether they would consider a "dating contract," or if they would actually hire someone to investigate someone they were dating. Query your students on how they feel these practices align (or fail to) with Americans' perceptions of love and trust in relationships.

  13. In light of the recent emphasis on date rape and acquaintance rape, most university Greek organizations have made efforts to address these problems. Invite a representative from one of the campus fraternities to discuss their organization's training seminars or workshops on sexual harassment or date rape.

  14. Over the past few years, stalking laws have been implemented in many jurisdictions. Much controversy has arisen over these new statutes and in some states, their constitutionality has been questioned. Relative to the text's discussion of violence in dating relationships, ask your students to consider whether laws prohibiting stalking are a good idea. What are some of the problems that are associated with such rules of conduct?



Courting, 1994, 27 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program examines courtship within the animal kingdom, culminating in a visit to a computer dating center. Courtship, it is concluded, is crucial for human beings and is an integral feature of social life.


Dealing With Teens: A Guide to Survival, 1994, 52 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). Although this presentation focuses on many different problems encountered by teenagers, it deals with dating and sexuality, thus providing insight into the dating process.


Date Rape: Behind Closed Doors, 1997, 45 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This informative program discusses the serious consequences of rape and includes interviews with rape crisis counselors and rape victims.


Date Rape, 1997, 52 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This unique documentary-drama takes us inside the story of a rape and follows the subsequent investigation. All of the professionals involved are real, with the other roles being played by actors.


The Rape Drug: A New Menace, 1997, 26 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program examines the growing use of the drug Rohypnol to sedate women in order to take sexual advantage of them on dates.


Let's Fall In Love, 1993, 25 min. (Filmakers Library). This presentation explores the singles scene, but with an emphasis on the ritualized "dating and mating" activities that represent unwritten codes of behavior.


Intimate Connections (Portrait of a Family Series), 1988, 30 min. (RMI Media Productions, Inc.). This presentation proceeds from the premise that the three most important things in a relationship are communication, communication, and communication. The program explores the basis for intimacy and how people deal with intimate relationships.


Pain of Shyness, 1985, 17 min. (Filmakers Library). This video taps into the text's discussion of meeting and getting to know others. The presentation examines how two out of every five Americans feel that they are shy and how severe cases of shyness can be handicapping in terms of people's relationships. The program is hosted by Dr. Phillip Zimbardo.


Looks: How They Affect Your Life, 1984, 51 min. (Insight Media). This video examines typical American standards of beauty, discussing the social and psychological effects of not meeting these standards.


Face Value: Perceptions of Beauty, 1992, 26 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program offers a cross-cultural interpretation of perceptions of attractiveness; psychologist David Perrett explains his controversial thesis: that these perceptions may be universal and biological: that certain features of the face may have an instinctive appeal which pleases through time and across culture. While this presentation may appear to conflict with some basic sociological insights, it offers an excellent forum for discussing physical attractiveness as a criterion for mate selection; it is sure to produce some spirited in-class debate.


The Marriage Market (Portrait of a Family series), 1988, 30 min. (RMI Media Productions, Inc.). This presentation approaches marriage as a decision and a choice to be made, examining the social variables that influence a person's choice of partners. This program addresses the phenomenon of assortative mating.


Interracial Marriage, 1991, 52 min. (Films for the Humanities and Sciences). This program examines how and why couples of different colors, religions, and ethnic roots are drawn to one another, how their differences affect their marriages, and how they deal with their families and friends.


Mixed Marriages: Homosexual Husbands, 1977, 13 min. (CBS; Carousel Films). This presentation explores a different kind of mixed marriage: one between a straight woman and a gay man. Examines two mixed marriages; in one, the couple considers themselves happily married, while in the other, the wife feels suicidal and demands a divorce.


Are You the One? (Choosing a Mate), 1968, 23 min. (BYU). This film explores the criteria involved in mate selection, stressing the need for compatibility of temperament, values, financial issues, role behavior, and personality. Although a bit dated, the presentation may still be useful in evaluating core ingredients in relationship compatibility.


Make-Believe Marriage, 1979, 33 min. (Highgate Pictures). On the assumption that people can "practice" for marriage, teenagers in a high school marriage class pair off, exchange make-believe vows, and practice dealing with various issues that married couples often face. The film follows one couple, who starts out with what they thought were no common interests, but then begins to develop a strong relationship.