Courtship is part of our everyday speech. We follow the rules of courtship, we enter into courtship, we follow the courtships of the rich and famous, and sometimes we end a courtship. While it may sound like a quaint antique of European language, the word still appears in our daily media headlines proving that the modern imagination remains in its thrall.
So what exactly is this thing we call courtship? To answer that we are going to have to dig into its history, and the best place to start is with the etymology itself:
The etymology starts with a reference to a courtier, whom Dictionary.com defines as “a person who seeks favor by flattery, charm, etc.” Next we read that the paying of attentions is from a man to a woman “with the intention of marriage” – there is no explicit requirement for a woman to do something for a man. The scenario given here is clearly one-sided in terms of who must make the effort, and who will be the recipient of that effort. Courtship is, in a word, gynocentric.
But just in case we have narrowed the definition of courtship to an anachronistic conception of it, let’s take a look at modern dictionaries to see whether they too paint a uni-directional picture of courting – ie. of men catering to women:
The Free Dictionary by Farlex:
Noun 1. Courting: a man’s courting of a woman; seeking the affections of a woman (usually with the hope of marriage); “It was a brief but intense courtship.”
Noun 1. Courting: a man’s courting of a woman; seeking the affections of a woman (usually with the hope of marriage).
There we have two popular online dictionaries verifying the gendered expectation inherent to the term. Other dictionaries however have de-gendered the definition in line with the modern practice of denying gendered customs and behaviors, but this does little to change the phenomenal reality – practices which continue to be gendered despite the refusal to acknowledge them as such.
Studies of courtship have confirmed that men’s habit of demonstrating various kinds of attentions toward women amount to a gynocentric contract. Drs. Timothy Perper1 and Monica M. Moore2 have independently discovered, contrary to popular beliefs, that courtship is normally triggered and controlled by women and driven mainly by non-verbal behaviours to which men respond. That gynocentric pattern of power is supported by other theorists who specialize in the study of body language.3
For those unsure as to whether courtship remains a gendered expectation, the following advice by columnist James Michael Sama provides a modern example.
In many of my articles I refer to “courtship” or “courting women,” when discussing chivalry and romance… and why do I think we should work to keep it alive? Here are five reasons:
1. You’ll develop a stronger relationship.
It is traditionally so that the man in a new relationship will be the one who is courting a woman. As men, we are the pursuers, both naturally and societally. I have often heard men ask “what’s in it for me?” Well, first of all if you’re performing acts of kindness for the sake of a reward (see #3 in the definition above) then it is not true kindness.
Real kindness comes from the goodness of your heart without the want for reward but it should also be noted that courting a woman will bring two things into your life:
The type of woman with the maturity and dignity to only accept advances from a man who treats her with respect. The ability to therefore grow a stronger and longer lasting relationship with the woman in question..
2. You become better in all areas of life.
Courtship is (read: should be) a selfless act. It requires you to put in effort for another person’s enjoyment, learn about them and learn about yourself in the process. When committing one’s self to efforts such as these, one cannot help but to develop internally as well. We become more aware of the world around us, what people want and need in order to be happy, and how we can help give it to them.
3. You will gain her trust.
One of the biggest factors in relationships failing these days is lack of trust. Either lack of trust during the beginning stages, or even after commitment has been established.
If a man takes the time to court a woman, it requires him to build a foundation for the relationship. Relationships do not simply appear out of thin air. They take time, energy, and commitment to build, much like a house. But a relationship without this trust and friendship is like a house built on sand. It may look good from the outside, but it will have nothing to keep it standing when the weather gets rough.
If a woman has a clear view that you’re willing to build this foundation with her, it will limit her insecurities and help build her confidence in you.
4. You will intensify your intimacy.
Through the process of courtship, men and women tend to develop a stronger emotional connection than if they had simply jumped into a relationship or a “friends with benefits” scenario. What many people don’t realize is that a stronger emotional connection, especially for a woman, translates to a stronger physical connection.
5. You will find the right person for YOU.
The right type of person will appreciate small details, the kindness you exude to those around you, and the effort you put in specifically for them. Through the courtship process we learn if a woman (or man) is going to be appreciative of what we do for them and how they will respond.
If we jump into a relationship, as many do these days, we are left complaining about how they “changed” after a few months of being with them, and then breaking up. In reality, nobody changed at all – you simply learned who they truly are.
If we take the time to practice courtship, we will eliminate these surprises down the road and truly learn who we are building a relationship with at the proper time to do so : in the beginning.
Show someone your respect for yourself as well as for them, by keeping courtship alive.4
This example indicates that men are still expected to carry the lion’s share of courting labour for the new couple. Clear too is that this is not a mere animal reflex as some would suggest, which clouds the idiosyncratic culture customs which gave it form. We tend to confuse cultural concepts of courting with biological mating impulses of animals, when they are logically distinct motivations with the one having its center of gravity biological reflexes, and the other in rituals, customs and taboos of a given society.
The blue wren never learned about chivalry and courtly love in order to know how to build a nest, does not rely on cultural customs to know nest design. Men and women on the other hand learn much of their repertoire of courtship, going down on one knee, or expecting chivalric deference from men, from the cultural mores that grew up around them. And unlike the blue wren, a serious study of cultural history can snap us out of our unconsciousness and open us up to potential new models for building relationships – like ones based on mutual effort and respect as opposed to the one-way street of courtship.
 Perper, T. (1985) Sex Signals: The Biology Of Love, Philadelphia, ISI Press.
 Moore, N (1985). “Nonverbal courtship patterns in women: contact and consequences”. Ethology and Sociobiology. 6: 237–247.
 Pease, A. and Pease, B. (2004) The Definitive Book Of Body Language, London: Orion Books.
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