In Vain Pursuit: How Courtship Culture Trained Us to Disregard Consent

by Whitney Evans Harrison | April 28, 2021

Editor's note: This is a CBE 2020 Writing Contest honorable mention. Enjoy!  

Yet may I by no means my wearied mind
Draw from the deer, but as she fleeth afore
Fainting I follow.

—"Who So List to Hunt, I Know Where Is an Hind" by Sir Thomas Wyatt

It was a few years after I graduated college that I sat exhausted and tearstained on my couch at 1:00 a.m., the dull throb of spent emotion pressing up behind my eyes. “Why does this keep happening?” I’d asked my friend. He was older than I and close friends with the man I’d spent the last six months hoping to date. Things had gone well at first, then gotten chillier and chillier as I’d responded in kind to his friend’s attention—the same story as with every man I’d been interested in for several years. 

Why does this keep happening? 

Well, my friend said, it’s that men want to pursue. They want to do the work and have the chase and win the woman. “If you’re pursuing,” he told me, “then he’s going to run the other way.”

That stuck in my gut. Why was that a rule? What is it about my interest that kills his? Why does acknowledging my desire mean that his disappears? Why is my voice unwelcome in a relationship that is supposed to be built on mutual affection?

The Thrill of the Chase

We are indoctrinated in the narrative of the pursuing male since childhood. Especially in the conservative Christian subculture, this pattern has been baptized as a moral imperative. From I Kissed Dating Goodbye to Elizabeth Elliot, from Eric and Leslie Ludy’s books and conferences to James Dobson’s rule of law, to the shelves full of prescriptive Christian romance novels, the allure of “courtship” flowed everywhere in the waters of our upbringing. 

The consistent factor in all of these, as in many youth group breakout sessions and mentors’ advice, was to emphasize that the woman’s job was to wait patiently and “God’s man” would arrive to pursue. “And, girls, when he’s the right man,” a summer camp speaker said with a wink, “then nothing’s going to stop him from getting you! And isn’t that comforting?” 

This was God’s way to do it. When God Writes Your Love Story, as one book titled it, we prepare to submit to godly husbands by being the inactive agents pursued by godly men. Men who were, we were told, designed to desire us this way. It was the thrill of the chase, the allure of the hunt. All the boys in the band want a Barlow girl.

Whose Consent?

Intrinsic to that brand of godly dating was the early and intimate involvement of parents in the couple’s burgeoning romance. For a hunter to pursue the hind, the lord of the estate must first grant access to his property.  Likewise for the pursuing male, the father’s blessing of the proposed courtship would thereby take the place of, and in some cases override, the consent of his daughter. She may express an inclination or preference, but ultimately is expected to submit to his rule. 

The language of Christian courtship tells this story clearly. A father is framed as his daughter’s “hedge of protection,” reminding us of the hedge surrounding an estate, a boundary protecting a man’s property. She is to pass from the hedge protection of a father’s household to that of a husband. She is taken by one authority at the permission of another.

It is the men who deal in consent. 

A Woman’s “No”

How can there be a true conversation around consent in this framework? Does the hind ever give permission to the hunter? No, she is to lead him ever on, tripping nimbly away from his arrow. The more challenging the chase, the greater the hunter’s achievement. Her reticence is what stirs his desire, solidifies his will.

When we teach boys to equate flirtation and dating to the thrill of the chase, we teach them that a woman’s “no” is meaningless. She, like the hind, is to run ever before and play her part in the game by never giving an inch. His is to never tire and to pursue with faithfulness and surety until she is won. And when we moralize this by hitching it to the roles of so-called biblical masculinity and femininity, we (consciously or unconsciously) communicate to Christian men that a woman’s agency compromises his “call to lead.”

Her “no,” either implied or stated outright, is understood as modest disinterest that spurs on his desire. If she showed otherwise, she would be too forward, she would be encroaching on the man’s role of pursuit. It is by withholding her “yes,” in fact, that she is to bring about his interest. Unless she is hunted, there is no trophy to be won. Unless he leads, he is subverting God’s will by relinquishing his authority.

A woman’s refusal, in this context of courtship, is just another hurdle in the chase. The true hunter is taught not to be deterred by her reticence but emboldened in his pursuit. She is an even more valuable prize for her elusiveness. He is the powerful hunter, the “godly pursuer,” whose refusal to accept her “no” is counted not as a transgression against her consent, but as a sign of his steadfast ardor. 

Why was it that my mutual pursuit killed the relationship I was mourning? Because in a system built on the consent of men, my agency stripped away his power.

Changing the Script

For many of us, this script may be familiar but past. For others, we’ve heard of it from friends and experienced the effects from outside, while never participating directly ourselves. Whatever the case, we need to take account of where it still appears in our assumptions and language around dating, especially in the church.

I hear these echoes regularly in conversations with friends who would simultaneously say they want nothing to do with courtship culture or the submission of women. And yet,

I just want to be pursued.
You have to play hard to get.
He asked my parents’ permission to date me because he respects me.
Men like initiating, so let them.
If you stop wanting it, then the right person will show up.
He’s offended if I ever want to split the check—he treats me like a princess!
If she acts too interested, she’s desperate.
I think it’s romantic if he asks my dad’s permission before proposing.
Don’t initiate or you’ll scare him away.
Who gives this woman to be married to this man?

Our romanticizing of these scripts, even when we believe we have shaken off the vestiges of courtship culture, continues to uphold these systems. 

We dismiss them as just “thinking tradition is romantic” or being “old-school.” There are many scripts people can use to form happy and fruitful relationships, we are told. But if a script has its root in transferring a woman’s consent to the men surrounding her, if a tradition is a tradition of non-agency, then surely that script is contaminated by the system it serves. 

In a subculture that places so much value on identifying itself in opposition to how the world does things, evangelical Christianity’s adoption of the hunter/prey courtship metaphor tells us more than they intend about their true priorities. What does courtship teach us to oppose? Women’s agency. Even more telling is what it teaches us to preserve: the lordship of men and the passivity of women. 

Who benefits from the chase? Certainly not the hind. The hunt tells the achievements of the hunter and glories in his victory. The hind, ever fleeing, never consenting, ends as a hunter’s tale. When we continue to use these courtship scripts, to smile and nod when they are trotted out, or to dismiss them as “perfectly fine, even if it’s not the way you or I would date,” we are serving that same system and affirming that relationships which center male-only authority are not problematic. Worse, we are accepting that framing those in a biblical context does not need to be challenged. 

The language we use and the traditions we classify as romantic speak volumes to our sons and daughters. It is not enough to assert that we personally have moved past the courtship culture of our upbringings. We must also be willing to challenge the assumptions of that framework when we hear and see them in the culture around us, and sometimes this will mean difficult conversations with friends. But it is important that we stop accepting courtship as a valid script for Christian relationships and instead be open about why it is not just a narrative we find unappealing, but an actively harmful system that seeds the ground for disregarding women’s consent.

In fact, to do less than that is to dismiss women’s agency as an optional script.
 

Photo by @tekang on Unsplash.


 

Related Reading

Lessons from Eliezer: What an Old Testament Matchmaker Has to Say About Egalitarian Dating
Smart Women and Fragile Men: How Patriarchy Shapes Identity and Romance
Hey Church, We Need to Talk About Consent