During a casual date a few weeks ago, I screwed up my courage for an awkward conversation. I knew it needed to be said, and I knew I had to be the one to start the conversation, so I did. I told T that I really liked her and enjoyed spending time together, but that I wasn't sure that I was attracted to her. I said that didn't mean that I wouldn't be in the future (since I'm a slow-burning lad and my romantic/sexual feelings tend to develop over a long period of knowing someone (and yes, that has caused all sorts of problems in my life!)), but that right now I wasn't feeling it and didn't know if I would at all. I told her that I wanted to make my feelings clear, so that we would both know where we stood if we decided to meet again.
Now, my motivations were clear in my head. I like T, I think she's huge fun, great company, right on my wave length politically, and hilarious with it. I want to see her again. But we had met originally through OKCupid, where we were both looking for, amongst other things, romantic dates and casual sex. And something she said after the first time we met had made me think that she liked me 'in that way'. So I wanted, for both our sakes, to be totally honest about how I felt, so that if we decided to meet again, she wouldn't be disappointed if we didn't get romantic or sexual, and I wouldn't be worried that she'd be disappointed if we didn't get romantic or sexual!
T's response was unexpected but pleasing: she told me that she felt the same; that she wasn't sure if she was romantically or sexually interested in me, but enjoyed hanging out just the same. So the awkward conversation wasn't awkward after all - I was quite happy to believe that I had misread the situation and that T and I were cool to keep seeing each other, with no pressure on either side, and nobody would be disappointed if we remained non-romantic or -sexual. I think we're both happy with that - I met her earlier this week, as a matter of fact, and we had a lovely time chilling in the sun on the South Bank.
However, this situation has made me think about the generalities of casual dating, and the thin ice of 'honest' conversations in these contexts. I thought I was doing the responsible thing by making my intentions (such as they are) clear - I don't like stringing anyone along, and I hate the idea of unintentionally hurting someone by doing it by mistake. So, what's the solution? Tell people what you're thinking. Guilt-free dating, and nobody gets hurt. But flip that coin over, and what have you got? A selfish desire to have your cake and eat it too.
Bear with me. How can honesty be selfish? Here's how: by telling T that I like her, but don't like her, I am giving her a bald choice. I am laying down the law. "We can still see each other, but don't cross the line. The line is here - if you want to see me again, this is what you do." To me this sounds like pressure - pressure of the kind that I was, ironically, trying to avoid by being honest. Because, really, if T is interested, how can she respond to that? "I do fancy you, actually, but I guess we'll continue meeting up as friends and I'll keep my fingers crossed that you develop sexy feelings for me." Not such an easy thing to say, is it? Not if you're interested in keeping that casual vibe, or if you in turn don't want to put pressure on your date. Plus, come on, there's probably some embarrassment here. We're all very cool, very grown-up, and look at us talking about our feelings! - but there's a nervous kid in all of us, scared to put ourselves out there too much in case we're smacked down. Really, T would have to be super brave to respond to my 'I'm not interested' with 'I am interested'. So what I've done is force from T the only possible response to my declaration, regardless of how she actually feels. If she truly isn't interested, or isn't yet interested but thinks she might be in the future - great. If, on the other hand, she thinks she's interested, what I've done by making her aware of my lack of interest is ensured that she can't be honest about it. By telling her the truth, I can retain my 'casual, relaxed date' approach with impunity, having eased my conscience by 'being honest', but not actually risked hearing anything that I don't want to hear. See? Selfish.
The merit of demystification is a subject deeply entangled in progressive dating. I am in favour of honesty - all honesty all the time. But, alongside the various ethical questions that surround this approach (should I tell my friend I think their beard isn't doing them any favours, should I tell my boyfriend that I fancy his friend, should I tell my partner the details of my sex with other people etc) there is also a question about the romance of it. This comes up a lot in consent debates, too - is taking a 'plain speech' approach to consent sexy? (my answer: it can be, it depends on how you do it, and it sure beats the alternative whether it's sexy or not!) When it comes to casual dating, perhaps there's an optimum level of honesty, somewhere between coy glances, mind games and putting your hand in a strategic position hoping that they will take it, and "I fancy you, some sex would be great, can I put a date in my diary for our first kiss?"
In all seriousness, though, I don't know how casual this casual dating thing can be. I do like a bit of mystery - do they like me? what did they mean by that text? are they going to kiss me? - but at the same time, I feel we owe it to each other to be as gentle as possible, and sometimes that's going to mean making clear your feelings before somebody gets hurt.