Brooklyn Boro

A journey through the history of love, sex and dating with Brooklyn author Moira Weigel

Brooklyn BookBeat

May 10, 2016 By Scott Enman Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Author Moira Weigel is pictured near the Gowanus Canal. Photo: Joni Sternbach
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Does anyone date anymore?

That is the question that Cobble Hill native Moira Weigel examines in her book “Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating.”

In “Labor of Love,” Weigel guides her readers through the lively history of dating and inspects how Americans have approached the public and private activities of love and sex.

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Throughout her book, Weigel — in addition to providing her readers with a fresh perspective on dating — mixes in entertaining anecdotes from her own dating life, as well as a plethora of hysterical stories from her family and friends.

Her research unveils that since the word “date” was first used in an 1896 Chicago Tribune column, critics and parents have declared dating to be dead or dying. She finds, however, that dating is not vanishing, but rather is ever-changing with the economy and times; dating, according to the author, is the form that courtship takes in a free-market society.

Weigel ends her book’s introduction with a clever comparison: “If marriage is the long-term contract that many daters still hope to land, dating itself often feels like the worst, most precarious form of contemporary labor: an unpaid internship.”

Ahead of the book’s May 17 release, the Brooklyn Eagle had the privilege of sitting down with Weigel to discuss “Labor of Love,” Brooklyn and the borough’s dating scene. Following are edited excerpts from the Eagle’s conversation with Weigel.


Eagle: What was your inspiration behind “Labor of Love”?

Weigel: I was reading all these articles that were claiming that “dating is over” and that “romance is over.” One specific New York Times article called “The End of Courtship?” said that traditional dating — which is to say calling someone and asking them on a date — was dead. So I asked myself, what is supposed to be this great thing that isn’t happening anymore? That was the starting point to want to write and look into the history of dating.


Eagle: What were your most interesting findings from your research?

Weigel: That everything in dating was connected to women working outside the home and women breaking into the workforce. In the early 20th century, when people really started to use this word “date,” that was when women started working, which makes complete sense — because before then, your family, priest, rabbi or community would arrange meetings between young men and women. They did not have opportunities to go out and get together on their own. 

I also learned that in the early days of dating, in the 1890s and early 1900s, the practice was considered sleazy. There was no precedent for so-called “nice” girls going out on their own; many people assumed that a woman who was out anywhere on her own or without a male relative was a prostitute. Women would often be arrested and sent to jail or these really scary reformatories if they were known to make a date with a man. So, a lot of my early research focused on police reports and vice squad write-ups.


Eagle: Can you talk about your thesis of the book?

Weigel: Part of the thesis of the book is that dating is always tied to the economy. There are so many metaphors for dating that are economic metaphors. For example, “on the market,” “off the market,” “hard to get,” “friends with benefits” and “invest in a relationship.” All these ways we think about dating are economic. I’m also interested in how people brand themselves for online dating sites or even just for a social media audience.


Eagle: How did you organize the book?

Weigel: Each chapter is named for an idea. For instance, the first chapter is called “Tricks,” and it talks about women being arrested and how today’s dating apps like Tinder or Seeking Arrangement blur the boundaries of dating and sex work. Part of what makes people uncomfortable about dating is this transactional element — the question of who’s getting what, in return for what, is often in the background. 

The second chapter is called “Likes” and is about how we now think that someone who likes the same songs or movies as us is a predictor of who you should be with romantically. That would have been a totally weird idea back in the day. I talk about women who worked in department stores in the 1920s who would often try and impress rich men by dressing in knockoff designer clothing, or imitating the ways that wealthy customers spoke and acted. Today it’s how we define ourselves online on Instagram and try to get online “likes.”


Eagle: Do you include any stories from your own dating life? 

Weigel: Yeah, the chapters aren’t just past to present. Each chapter goes back and forth and includes a bit of personal memoir and reporting or anecdotes. Some are from me and some come from other people, but I tend to keep the others anonymous. So I’ll cite “a professor in her 40s who lives in New York” or “a sex worker in her 20s I met in San Francisco.”


Eagle: Did you ever use Tinder? 

Weigel: Not really. I joined all the dating apps for research and I actually loved playing Tinder, but I wasn’t actually trying to find someone to be in a relationship with. I didn’t go on any dates myself, but I did chat with a lot of people. I spent a few nights out with friends on Grinder and Tinder, accompanying them as they hopped from bar to bar, in addition to interviewing a range of people about their use of dating apps. 


Eagle: How is Brooklyn’s dating scene unique from other dating scenes? 

Weigel: Everyone young lives in Brooklyn. People who are trying to make it come here, and I think a lot of dating in New York can also feel like it’s about selling yourself in this competitive way.  When it gets warm in the summer in Brooklyn, the theater of the streets and cafes and art openings is unique. There’s this young, sexy energy that is romantic. The thriving bar and restaurant scene definitely contributes to that energy too. 


Eagle: Why would Brooklynites enjoy “Labor of Love”?

Weigel: Brooklynites tend to be smart, liberal, intellectual and open-minded. There is a lot of curiosity and critical thinking here but Brooklynites also like going out and having fun. I love how literary Brooklyn is. The book engages readers in a fun way and appeals to a Brooklyn sensibility. It lets them think more deeply and critically about how they go out and do things in pursuit of romance, sex and love.


Eagle: What were some of your favorite dating spots in Brooklyn?

Weigel: I love to walk around Brooklyn. Walking in Prospect Park is a lovely date spot — and actually probably one of the oldest in the borough. In some of the earliest accounts I read of dating, people talk about going to hang out in the park. Parents wouldn’t want you to go to a dance with a guy but you could go sit in the park because there are other people in the park. Brooklyn Bridge Park can be a great date spot also.


Eagle: Can you talk about some of your Brooklyn events coming up in May?

Weigel: I’m having my first reading at BookCourt on May 18. I’m so excited. I grew up playing with Zack Zook, the owner’s son, and I learned how to read in the old kids’ room at the store and worked there for a summer during college. So it will be really moving and exciting to read from my first book there. 

For the lead up to the official publication date, I helped curate a film series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), which is such a cool Brooklyn institution. We’re going to show 20 terrific movies over two to three weeks that are all about dating from different periods. On the final night of the series, May 17, I am going to be speaking with Leslie Jamison, an old friend and a tremendous writer, who now lives in Brooklyn.


Eagle: Do any of the movies you’re presenting have a Brooklyn connection?

Weigel: Yes! One of the movies I’m presenting is called “It” from the 1920s and stars the 1920s celebrity Clara Bow — who is from Prospect Heights — that was made extremely famous by this movie.

One fact I love is that she was a huge star in the silent era before movies had sound. When sound was introduced in the late 1920s, she had this really terrible Brooklyn accent that people thought was déclassé. It’s funny that she was famous and then when movies got sound people were like, “Oh, God, listen to her Brooklyn accent. She can’t be a glamorous star!” 

* * *

“Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating” will be available on May 17.

Weigel will speak at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) on May 17, perform a reading at BookCourt in Cobble Hill on May 18 and take part in a debate and launch party at Verso Books in DUMBO on May 21.


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