In it, Jake the dog explains “some junk about dating”: “Right now, you’re at tier 1, which is hugging, but pretty soon you’ll be at tier 2, which is smooching. Then–”
[dated pop culture reference redacted]
Incidentally, “junk” was a good choice of words there, because this paradigm represents a set of norms that should be thrown out.
Upon seeing this image set, I immediately thought of the physical touch escalator, a concept articulated in this post from The Thinking Asexual. The general idea is that if you engage in one form of physical contact with someone — especially, under a heteronormative point of view, if this is a cross-gender interaction — it’s expected that you would consent to an additional form of contact which is viewed as “the next step”, escalating to the point of intercourse. Within the confines of a romantic relationship, many people believe something similar holds true: if you’re dating someone, you “progress” from early steps, like holding hands, to the eventual goal of penetrative sex. This is framed as an index of relationship health and intensity. If you don’t want to do “more” than the current step you’re on, that’s viewed as the stagnation or termination of a relationship.
You don’t have to be on the asexual spectrum, nor celibate, to complicate this model.
Maybe the standard relationship staircase as you understand it is more or less an accurate representation of what you want, but with the caveat that you may want to skip certain steps altogether, or customize the steps, or take some of them from a different direction. Or maybe you want to date someone with minimal touching and no hugging at all. That’s all valid, and you have a right to set custom boundaries.
I can’t find the post, but I recall one person saying that they liked receiving kisses on the neck, not the lips, which is an example of a touch preference you would never know about if you followed the relationship staircase model and just assumed — without asking — that lip kisses are where you “should” start, as opposed to asking after what would make your personfriend happiest. While the staircase may represent at least one person’s preferences, Jake presents it as a general guide “about dating”, as if we can assume — supposing the relationship lasts long enough — that all the steps will be reached, in that order, in that way.
Maybe the proliferation of this idea wouldn’t be so harmful except for the fact that it does get generalized and enforced. If you fail to conform and take all the stairs, you get told that your relationship is invalid or that you are unjustly holding out on what is reasonably deserved. This can be seen in what has become the infamous example of an asexual woman’s romantic relationship being laughed at as an instance of “friend-zoning.” The concept of the friend zone is a needless one anyway, as has been laid out elsewhere, but what this demonstrates is how a romance can be socially demoted to a friendship if one party declines to “continue” up the stairs. This same paradigm can be seen in many narratives of rape within romantic relationships, as well as in the arguments of rape apologists. The relationship staircase becomes the justification for what you should “expect”, what you should want.
Funny, and here I was thinking that these forms of touch — hugging, kissing, canoodling — were supposed to be motivated by something as simple as wanting them, not a societal mandate. They’re supposed to be fun, right? They’re supposed to feel good? Then why do we need strangers stepping in to say, “you have completed insufficient amounts of having fun”? Are we supposed to be trying to fill some sort of quota here?
If you’ve ever had someone get mad at you for not wanting something, you know it’s crap.
This entire worldview — that you can rightly assume what forms of touch will come after others in a relationship — rests on the belief that you can know a person’s preferences without asking, and even restaurants know better than that.