What dating was like in the 90s and what we can learn from it

By Katherine

Ah, the 1990s. That smoky-skied time when cell phones weren't a thing (but pagers were), when you actually went out to the movies on dates, and when platform slides were THE footwear of choice. Nirvana and Alanis Morisette, teased bangs and pegged jeans, and computers were big clunky desktop models that lived in your parents' living room... Let's go back to the 90s and remember what it was like to date in a time prior to social media, texting, and dating apps.

Getting in touch was HARD

Back in the 90s, we had to wait by the phone. Sometimes it was a pay phone! Occasionally our potential romantic interests had pagers which we would dial on our landlines and wait for them to ring us back. We often had to make awkward small talk with parents and siblings in order to get through to the person we wanted to talk to (because there was one house phone with one extension that everyone in the family shared, unless you were rich and you had your own personal extension installed). We endured a lot of hearing "WhooooOOOOOO, your GIRLFRIEND is on the PHONE!" We had to leave messages on answering machines in full knowledge that other people would be able to hear those messages when they were played back.

What we can learn

In the 90s, if we wanted to get hold of someone, we had to be persistent. We couldn't afford to give up if someone's annoying younger sibling didn't give them a message from us. We had to get creative. We passed notes to each other. Told friends of friends to pass info along. Wrote letters and mailed them with actual stamps. Communication was a bit more intentional in some ways. We're not advocating for persistently contacting someone who doesn't want to talk to you - no means no, including when it comes to contacting a crush - but we did definitely have better conversational skills. Nobody would call someone, say "Sup", and then hang up and wait for them to call back to say "Sup" in return.

We were heavily influenced by gender roles

Have you ever heard of the book The Rules? It was published in 1995 and purported to be a guide for women to land Mr Right. Summary: It encouraged women to wait for men to pursue them (be easy to be with but hard to get). It was an offshoot of purity culture, which encouraged (mostly) women to wait until marriage to have sex. (Men were encouraged to sow all their wild oats before settling down with one of these Rules Girls.) Oh, there was a fair amount of victim-blaming when it came to sexual assault. Men were supposed to be White Knights and women were supposed to be Fair Maidens in need of rescue. We read a lot of paperback romance novels that enforced this trope. Feminism was something we studied in school but not something we actively practiced in real life (much).

What we can learn

Honestly, that part of the 90s can just be thrown in the trash. We don't want to go back to those times. Sexuality, gender, and identity are fluid and should be celebrated and supported. Equity should be prioritized over patriarchy. What we can learn is what NOT to do.

It was harder to fake it... Sort of

Consider the analog 90s, without social media or tiny pocket computers (haha, math teacher who said I wouldn't be able to use a calculator whenever I wanted! In your face!). Without ready access to photo editing, lack of social media, and the inability to obsessively curate our online personas or meticulously edit our profiles, we had to rely on face-to-face interactions to gauge compatibility. Yes, we talked on the phone and over email, and even in online chat rooms. But generally, relationships were conducted primarily in person. And when you're with someone, they can see what you're really like, how you behave, whether your persona matches your promises.

What we can learn

It's okay to keep your connections online for longer while you get comfortable with someone, and to be selective about what you share - we are advocates of safe dating, and keeping your personal information personal while you build trust is key. Don't rush to meet up with someone the way we did in the 90s. We didn't have the luxury of video chat and texting. Take your time and get real when you're ready to get real. At the same time, be aware that online dating does allow people to hide behind the persona they create, and you might be falling for someone who doesn't exist. Exercise caution, and prioritise your own safety and wellbeing.

We had to go OUT

Dating in the 90s meant going someplace. Movies, bowling, eating pizza (Pizza Hut used to be an actual restaurant), walks in the park, fancy restaurants if things were a bit more serious. Have you watched episodes of Friends? Of course you have. The friends rarely sit around in their apartments with their dates; they go places. They go OUT. When we were at home, we were cooking dinner for our date, or ordering takeout (which was definitely a splurge, as there was no Uber Eats), watching a movie we'd rented during an earlier trip to the video store where we chose together.

What we can learn

Modern dating takes place in a convenience-driven culture where grabbing a drink or a quick coffee is the norm, but can feel quite shallow. Can you really get to know someone in the half-hour between work and your spin class? It's actually fun to put in some effort to plan an actual date - it doesn't have to be elaborate or expensive; think picnic in the park where you eat lunch and then feed the ducks while talking about stuff that interests you. It may sound trite and old-fashioned, but it works, helping both parties to relax and enjoy themselves instead of feel anxious about needing to impress in the first five minutes and then jumping straight into bed. Shared experiences build moments of connection, so invest in them.

Protection was still a pretty taboo subject

In the 90s we endured awkward "health class" taught by our phys ed teachers and showing grainy videos from the 1970s which touted abstinence as the only option, teenage pregnancy as the girl's fault, STIs as a death sentence, and childbirth as a complete horror show designed to put us off sex forever. Occasionally a more "progressive" teacher would show us how to put a condom on a banana (until parents complained and put a stop to that). So we didn't know a whole lot about contraception or protection from STIs. We got our info from other people's older siblings and pamphlets from Planned Parenthood (which was and still is awesome, shout out!).

What we can learn

Protection and contraception, STI testing status and reproductive rights, are all a part of normal healthcare and deserve to be treated as such. Abstinence-only sex education doesn't work. In fact, it might cause more harm than simply just not being effective: One study found that youth who had been subjected to abstinence-only education were "significantly less likely to report that condoms were effective in preventing HIV and other STIs". Yikes. Nowadays, we know that safety is sexy, and part of building trust and connection with someone is knowing they're being safe and they're concerned about our safety, too.

It was just a different time... Or was it?

Yeah, the 1990s were a different era in so many ways, but dating was still about finding someone you liked enough to take things further with. The dating landscape has evolved significantly, and some people would say for the better, but like most things, it's a mixed bag. Technology and advances in society have created an environment where we have more choice than ever before, but we could stand to look to the past for some lessons about connecting, communicating, and safety. But maybe we can skip the platform sandals? They were never very comfortable to walk in.

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