Teenage spinster

I'm turning 18 and about to enter college but I've never dated. How will I know what's going on?


Cary Tennis
January 30, 2004 1:32AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I'm a teenager, and all teenagers have self-esteem problems. At least, the interesting ones do. I've never dated. I just turned 18 last week, and I realize that mourning my impending spinsterhood is too dramatic for serious discussion, but the whole situation has begun to bother me.

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I'm arrogant enough to admit that I'm intelligent, reasonably attractive and somewhat amusing. I don't lead an exciting social life, but I'm not a hermit. My friends admit that they found me intimidating for about a month after they first met me, but I've consciously mellowed over the past year. My male peers simply don't seem very attracted to me.

I haven't had a string of unrequited crushes; boys my age probably wouldn't suit me, anyway. Maybe this is the crux of the problem. I know I can't be repulsive. For the past couple of years, plenty of older men have paid attention to me. In this case, "older" refers to men in their 20s, most under the impression that I am of a similar age. I usually shied away from anything other than pleasant conversations; I realized the madness of carrying any flirtations further. Now that I'm an adult (and still apparently invisible to my male peers), I don't see the harm in genuinely responding to others' interest.

I'll be attending college in the fall, which does give me some hope for the future. Still, if this problem is my fault, won't it persist no matter what the location? I'm even worried about future relationships. If I ever do start dating, with absolutely no experience, what happens next? How will I ever know what's going on? I always like to feel like I know what's going on (hence my large mental database of seemingly useless knowledge); the realization that I am entirely ignorant of the dating world is hardly a comforting one.

I know this letter makes me sound like some neurotic chick-lit heroine. It certainly makes me feel like one. Any comments, words of advice, hazy recollections of your own high school days, etc., would be greatly appreciated. Even an unoriginal but scathing, "Are you kidding me?" might help me out of this silly quandary I've constructed.

The Teenage Spinster

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Dear Teenage Spinster,

You sound like a delightful and intriguing young person, and I can understand why older men seem to like you.

The question of what it's like to be on a date is really the question of what it's like to be alone with a person, in public and in private, while there is sexual attraction between you. When you're not on a date, it's easy to deal with sexual attraction; you can ignore it or enjoy it in your mind, privately. You're not required to acknowledge it or do anything about it. But by accepting a date, you sort of tacitly acknowledge a certain attraction, and so it's in the air between you and you are required to deal with it. You can't pretend that it's not there. It is the burning question in the air: Are you going to kiss, are you going to make out, are you going to have sex?

Young men in college range in character from unscrupulous to princely. Some young men are remarkably grown-up by the time they're teenagers; they can identify their own feelings of tenderness and rage, they can be nurturing and protective as well as pursue their desires; they can imagine what it feels like to be powerless or abused, and this ability to empathize forms a moral center; it makes exploitation of others repugnant to them. So they can be trusted with the masculine power and strength that comes naturally as they approach adulthood. They also have been raised within some moral and ethical framework and can recognize the various customs that prevail in sexual matters among men and women.

Other young men of college age are barely more than boys who want their toys. They want their toys and they'll fight for them and take them from whoever has them. They may have been victimized themselves and see the world as primarily an arena of predators and victims; not wanting to remain victims, they become predators. Or they may have simply become accustomed to taking whatever they want, or being given whatever they want. Or they may have been raised to be bullies, or gangsters, or chief executives, without scruple or favor, in the model of the capo, the general and the capitalist mogul. Such young men may appear confident and attractive, but if you are inexperienced with men, you don't want to go out on dates with them.

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If you're capable of telling the difference, you will probably be fine: You'll meet boys who display sincere feelings and you'll date them and have a good time and things will proceed at a natural pace; you'll feel safe, aroused, excited, but in control. You'll have a good time and make smart choices.

Try to make friends with older girls who have been through a few relationships with men. Listen to them. Learn from them. If possible, go out only with men that they know. That's the ideal: Figure out who the jerks are, and don't go out with them.

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Cary Tennis

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