Issue February 10, 2009

Stimulus package

My date with Dr. Sex

“Would you like to dance?” Johnny Castle asked as he extended his hand in my direction. His eyebrows arched, his pearly whites gleamed inside his smile. I lunged for my reporter’s notebook, wielding it as my shield. Why is he asking me? Can’t he see I’m working? Where was he in junior high, when I stood, back against the gymnasium wall, hoping to hear those same five words? I never did. I never have. Until now.

I blame Professor James K. Beggan for this. He’s the reason I ended up at a ballroom dance on a cold February night. Sex. That was the point of the date. Isn’t that the point of all dates? I haven’t had a date in months. But this was a working date, and I was a working girl. The assignment was tossed in my direction without time for consent. Go talk to this U of L professor who teaches a course on human sexuality. Ask him about sex, dating, relationships. Hang out with him in different social settings and analyze the behavior of the Louisville scene.

I gave Dr. Sex a call and we made a date — Wednesday, 7 p.m., O’Shea’s. It’s pint night. Even better. Hopefully lots of horny dudes will be there and we can point, laugh and dissect their crude, animalistic behavior as they compete for the same hot chick. Dr. Sex has been teaching psychology and sociology for nearly 20 years at U of L, so I anticipated an evening of deep scientific discussion. I wasn’t let down.

“There are a few terms we use when looking at relationships,” Dr. Sex began. “Symbolic interactionism is how you interact with someone through symbols. The biggest symbol people use is language. You can’t really date without communicating. Men and women don’t necessarily have the same system of symbols and codes.”

OK, so I guess we’ve started. I sat, scribbling down notes, as Dr. Sex set forth his knowledge. I sipped on the beer of the night, an Italian lager, while he stirred his brandy and ginger ale with regular ferocity. I was going to unlock the secrets of relationships, a social phenomenon I know nothing about. That’s right. I took this assignment with an ulterior motive in mind. Little did I know, Dr. Sex had an ulterior motive in mind as well — I should have caught on at his first mention of dance.

“Dancing is a metaphor for romance,” he casually said after defining sociobiology, which is an evolutionary look at relationships. Since it’s harder on women to reproduce, women are more selective. Back in caveman days, it wasn’t beneficial for women to sleep around. Pregnancy was so risky and dangerous. So it’s likely all the slutty cavewomen died off? “Yes,” Dr. Sex laughed. “The things that made them willing to have sex more often were counterproductive to the stability of having the child. So you could say the slutty cavewomen died out, and the slutty cavemen are still around.” That could explain my 20s.

Back to the dance. His choice, not mine. It always came back to the dance. “A guy who is a good dancer is also a good boyfriend,” he said. “Good leading is not like forcing you to go somewhere, it’s guiding, it’s gentle, not forceful. You have to think ahead about what moves you’re going to do. Look out for her interests. Be responsive to her. There’s a bit of old-fashionedness to it. And then again, you may not like the person, but it’s only three minutes.”

I had to pry. So do you dance?

“My strong suit is my verbal skills, and anything other than that I am bad at. I’m not athletic — I exercise but I have never played sports, I work for U of L but I don’t care if they win, to this day I don’t know who played in the Super Bowl,” he proudly declared and then launched into a story about how he and his girlfriend even went to a Super Bowl party and managed to avoid hearing the teams’ names. “Did the Eagles win?” he asked me. Um, not this time, I said.

“I’m good with verbal things but not spatial things,” he continued. “So it was sort of like, ‘Dammit, I’m going to solve one of my problems.’” Dr. Sex took a ballroom dance class, which he highly recommends for singles. Soon he found swing, met up with the Louisville Swing Dance Society and is now teaching classes on Thursday nights at Jim Porter’s Good Time Emporium. If you’re wondering, yes, his dance classes come with a syllabus. “It started out as a personal challenge, then it became a fun, social activity, and then it became something that was psychologically interesting to me as a social scientist. It’s become part of my identity,” he said.

Little did I know Dr. Sex had his dancin’ shoes in the car and knew of a little mixer in St. Matthews.  

Alas, I was still on a mission and only halfway done with my beer — tell me interesting stuff about sex. Make me blush.

“Blushing is a curious phenomenon,” he said, delving into a topic I didn’t mean to get into. “It occurs when you do something socially inappropriate. When you blush, though, you draw more attention to it. Sometimes people won’t even know you’ve done something but will ask why you’re blushing. The argument that was made by Darwin is that people blush as a way of apologizing. You acknowledge that you made a mistake, so blushing is a sign of acknowledgement and admitting that you’re embarrassed. It’s a public display of apology.”

I’m going to have to be more specific here. What do people find attractive?

“The thing that people find attractive is being attractive,” he said. “With women, physical attraction is associated with looking young. From a sociobiological evolutionary point of view, the incentive for that — why men find that attractive — is that those are women who can easily reproduce. You want to find a woman who is old enough to have sex with, or reproductively viable, but then not old enough that she would have mated with somebody else.”

He then offered the obvious: Men are attracted to looks. Women are attracted to status, wealth and power.

Dr. Sex shared a story about this girl he dated a few years back: “In this weird-professor way, I drove this 17-year-old car. And she said that the car was almost a deal-breaker. It wasn’t quite, because we did date. But it made her pause. For me it was reliable, and I kinda liked the idea that if I came out of a bar and the car was gone, I didn’t care, because it was only worth $500. But that’s a cue women use — why is this man driving around a crappy car? Does he have a job? Then what’s wrong with him? Is he cheap? Does this mean he won’t spend money on me or my offspring? Or maybe he has a mental problem — I don’t want a guy with a mental problem.”

Dr. Sex stirred his drink as his feet tapped under the table. My pursuit for relationship advice continued. So I asked him something that I struggle with every time I spot a potential suitor — how does one get the balls to ask someone out?

“Not as a scientist but as a guy, there’s that hump, which is fear of rejection, that you have to get over,” he said. “It’s interesting, because logically, why would you care? You hit on them, if they reject you, then you move on. But people are sensitive to group criticism. The argument would be, people evolved in social settings where they depended on the group, and if they were ostracized, they would die. So I think you can say that we have this thing of not wanting to look bad to other people. Going up to a girl and asking her on a date or for her number and she says no, of course you’re going to feel bad. It’s a threat to how you’re perceived by other people. It’s the guy’s ‘walk of shame,’ the walk back to your buddies after the girl has turned you down.”

So I shared my own story. I’m a pussy, plain and simple. I met someone a few months ago while doing the robot on the Pink Door dance floor. She was charmed, naturally, as anyone would be seeing someone do the moonwalk to a Beyoncé song. We talked about our jobs, our friends and our sweaty, loud environment. And then I balked. It was time to go. I didn’t get her number or ask her out. I was too afraid. Frightened like a child watching “Poltergeist.” I didn’t go toward the light. I didn’t put a ring on it. And I’ve kicked myself ever since.

What happened, Dr. Sex?

“The scenario of asking someone out is approach-avoidance conflict, because you want to approach the person to get a date, but you want to avoid punishment, which might be the rejection,” he said to try to make me feel better. “On any given night, you can go for it and you don’t lose anything, other than feeling bad or feeling embarrassed. Or you can just sit there and not ask her out, and you’ll never know what could have been. But you’ll save yourself from the rejection. It fits the Game Theory approach — you can go with the instant freedom from feeling bad, but then the long-term loss is never having a date. The short-term cost of asking people on dates is getting rejected, but then the long-term benefit is establishing a long-term relationship, or at least [you get to] have sex.”

Salt, meet wound.

And then it happened, when the conversation once again turned to dance.

“Even in the 21st century, women still wait to be asked to dance or on a date,” he said. “When I started getting better at dancing, I realized that no girl ever asked me to dance, but then, no girl ever turned me down when I asked her to dance. They are usually happy to be asked. I think it’s interesting. … By the way, since there’s not much of a scene happening here, we should go check out Saints, where there’s some dancing going on.”

Busted! I’d suspected a hidden agenda. But I was curious. Dr. Sex was obviously taken by the dance, so I wanted to observe him in his element. The scientist is now the guinea pig — a guinea pig who can rumba and cha-cha with the best of them.

I stopped taking notes right about there. My plan was to simply watch and learn. Watch human interaction on a dance floor. Observe Dr. Sex’s theories at play. Somehow make this story into a metaphor for dancing and sex. And then that ridiculous John Michael Montgomery song played in my head as I reached for the Britney to drown it out.

As we entered the Sky Bar at Saints, three couples were already swaying around the floor in front of a 12-piece band, called Speakeasy. Dr. Sex and I took a seat in the back so we could observe and he could down a salad to fuel his moves.

“See her?” he said as he pointed to Girl Next Door. “She’s here by herself and she dances with everyone. She’s a great dancer.”

And then I spotted them: Johnny and Penny, the two best dancers in the room. It was straight out of “Dirty Dancing.” They’re the hot, young couple everyone wants to dance with, and they swap partners often, which is a common occurrence in dancing, Dr. Sex explained. “The more people you dance with, the better dancer you become.” I understood this to be strictly dance-code. I think.

As the steady line of participators came over to say hi to Dr. Sex, I met Turtleneck Sweater, who teaches ballroom dancing when she’s not playing piano at nursing homes; there was Bible Guy, who was in seminary school; Gangster Hat, who made the place feel like a ’30s speakeasy; Skipper and Ken, who also brought their own shoes; and Dancy Smurf, who tried but failed to teach me the cha-cha.

The salad was done in five and Dr. Sex was on the floor in 10, after slipping on his suede-bottom shoes, of course. The plus side: I got to see Dr. Sex in his element. The downside: This left me alone. The ratio: more males than females. The point: The men were eager to dance, and I am not a dancer. I fought them off as best I could with my notebook. “Thank you, but I’m just watching.” “I can’t dance.” “I have no rhythm.” “Where were you in junior high, seriously!?”

I had to turn Johnny down. He was the best dancer in the place and I was the worst. It would never have worked. I knew it, he knew it. It just wasn’t meant to be. We’re two good people who wouldn’t be good together. I love dancing but I’m not in love with dancing. It’s wasn’t him, it was me. But we’re still friends.

After an hour or so, I left Dr. Sex and the dance behind. He needed to thrive in his environment, and I needed to stop rejecting people for karmic reasons. While I’m not sure how many secrets I truly unlocked, I learned an awful lot about a man who studies sex for a living and loves to dance.

I: waved goodbye and sauntered down the stairs. He: partnered up on the floor. Me: making an exit and entering the cold, cold world alone again. Us: Naturally.

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