Peggy Fletcher Stack’s Salt Lake Tribune article “Why young LDS men are pushing back marriage” got my thinking. For now, I’d like to leave aside the exaggerated extent of hookup culture and the anxiety over dates as marriage auditions and focus on questions of intimacy. (I am also assuming a heterosexual setup for purpose of conversation; I would appreciate that, if that setup and wording throughout upsets you, you read into the following what gender pronouns and specifications you wish.) What follows is going to be a muddle of thoughts and obviously flawed sociology, but I’m just trying to get a few thoughts and questions out in the hope that I can spark discussion.
Despite my reservations about alarmism concerning new technology , I think the article does bring up an interesting issue: if one already knows so much about one’s potential romantic interest from digital communication and social media, what does one do on a date? For one, I wonder to myself whether apostles would have been alarmist about other mediated communication, such as letters, in the past (“Can you really presume to know the soldier who’s been serving in the Pacific for four years, young ladies, when all you’ve done is written each other in that time? I am worried for this envelope-addicted generation.”). On a more significant note, however, it raises a very important question about intimacy.
The question assumes that one must enter a potentially romantic relationship with significant holes in one’s knowledge about the other person; courtship must entail getting acquainted, even with things that seem to be the matters of small talk on a first date. If this ignorance of the courted person’s identity is compromised, however –say, by “meeting” him or her on social media – the topics of conversation on the date will have been prematurely exhausted and courtship will be stunted forever. In this conception, group dates, hanging out, and social media threaten the foundation of marriage: premarital starvation with regard to emotional intimacy.
As it stands, this idea of courtship and marriage argues that in intergender social relationships (pairings that could, potentially, become romantic), non-romantic (and non-sexual) emotional and personal intimacy threatens the potential for romantic intimacy later on.
First, I think we might be witnessing a social shift wherein non-romantic intergender friendships, even outside of professional spheres, might be more and more socially acceptable. The very fact that men can complain, in various degrees of unjustifiability, of being “friendzoned” is evidence of this shift; those that complain of such things are experiencing the tension between an older conception of intergender relationship wherein emotional intimacy was invariably a precursor to romance/sex and a newer conception that denies that invariability. In past years, friendships would be almost exclusively homosocial: men with men, women with women, and the only emotionally intimate cross-gender relationships were marital ones. Now, they can be otherwise. Friendship, however, carries with it by definition a degree of non-sexual, non-romantic emotional intimacy. In this newer notion of friendship, one can experience emotional intimacy with the opposite gender outside or before marriage. Is cross-gender friendship itself objectionable? (I hope not.)
Second, maybe we’re witnessing a shift in emotional intimacy overall: we can express ourselves more openly in public through social media. Does this openness, this public self-revelation, impair us in our in-person relationships that should be intimate? Do we have a finite measure of emotional intimacy to expend? Does baring one’s soul relatively impersonally frustrate baring it personally? While there might be some degree of truth to this, I think that cracking down on premarital emotional intimacy has a particularly gendered aspect. It is expected in American culture that men be emotionally closed, that they deny excesses of feeling or negative sentiments that might be deemed weak or womanly (anger is more okay than depression, for instance), that they put up a tough front to other men, while women are not socially penalized for enjoying emotional intimacy with their “girlfriends.” (I recognize that this is a generalization mitigated in some contexts by LDS culture, which allows men a more open expression of emotion in matters of family and spirituality.) If we denounce premarital general emotional intimacy, men might suffer more than women, as they would lose a potential outlet.
Third, if we agree that cross-gender non-/pre-marital non-romantic emotional intimacy is possible and acceptable, then we will have to redefine romantic intimacy differently. No longer would a date necessarily mean small talk. What is romance, then, in an era of cross-gender friendship? What can we share with a romantic interest or partner that we do not with friends? In many non-LDS settings, this is easily settled: sex. However, in an LDS context, one can have asexual/celibate romance; in fact, one must have it, as sex is reserved for marriage, which comes only after romance. Is romance a matter of opening up parts of oneself to the romantic interest that are closed to others? In a monogamous society, it seems that personal openness is a hallmark of an exclusive romantic relationship. What, then, do we close to our friends that we open to our lovers and our fiancés? Where is the line between cross-gender friendship and romance? What can a date become in this new world?
 I’m one that’s skeptical of alarmism about technology in general. I’m not sure if the quality of one’s relationships decreases through use of new technologies, or whether relationships are just reconfigured and adapt. For example, while chatting and social media can open up the opportunity for the rather impersonal sharing of thought and information, they can open up the opportunity for the rather impersonal sharing of thought and information, which is really cool! People have the opportunity to explore and express in ways that would have been impossible before the internet. While this can cause problems (for example, Mormons finding troubling Church history), it can also be awesome (Mormons incorporating that history into narratives of human-divine interaction)!