Until recently, I never considered myself a romantic person. In fact, I was practically born jaded when it came to courtship. From a young age, I prided myself in being a guy’s gal, always proving that I was impervious to girlish fantasies and acts of mushy devotion. I rolled my eyes at rom-coms. I pretended to forget anniversaries so I wouldn’t have to celebrate them. Once, a stranger told me, “You’re beautiful; I want to paint you.” I laughed in his face. Even my first Internet presence was anti-romantic — when I was a smart-assed tween, the personal summary on my MySpace page simply read, “I enjoy long walks on the beach, candle-lit dinners … and SARCASM.”

Of course, I was so opposed to “romance” because my definition was pretty lame. When I thought of the word, I pictured stupidly expensive dinners in poorly lit restaurants, girls quaking over boxes of coconut-filled chocolate and women draped honeymoon-style across the arms of men in suits. None of that sounded like me.

For one thing, these images were all boring and very uncool. Tradition may be brimming with nostalgia and grandeur, but it’s predictable as hell. Romance also sounded sexist for all parties involved. My definition hinged on dudes doing all the legwork while ladies cooed helplessly from the sidelines — which could be demeaning for women and exhausting for men.

There also seemed to be a lot of unspoken agreements made in the classically romantic world. A man has bought my dinner in a date-like way only twice, and I felt squeamish both times the check arrived at our table. It just didn’t seem fair that he should have to pay for a meal I consumed. Plus, did purchasing my salmon sashimi mean I owed him something else in return—a mixed tape, a quick handie, full-on intercourse? These questions made our dinner seem like an under-the-table transaction, not an act of affection. I was so caught up in the rate of romantic exchange that I couldn’t enjoy my food or his company, which only reinforced my disdain for the whole system.

“I can just buy my own damn salmon.” I thought, “It’s easier that way.”

However, I’ve realized I don’t have to follow this gendered script if it’s not what gets me going. In other words, tradition says that romance should comprise big red hearts, white linen tablecloths and doing it on a bearskin rug. But like in sex itself, we’re actually free to decide what’s pleasing to us and then define romance on our own terms. So, if going topless to a monster truck rally is ideal for you, then that’s just swell — forget the flowers. Courtship can entail whatever you want. It doesn’t have to be about one gender catering to the other — in fact, like spooning and chivalry, romance is at its best when it’s reciprocal between partners and both genders — and it doesn’t have to be lame, either.

A few unplanned and tender moments I’ve experienced over the past year have also helped me understand that I haven’t been doing myself any favors by keeping courtship at an arm’s distance. I won’t go into the sappy details, but I will say that moonlight, running deer and an exchange of letters have been involved, and I did not puke. In fact, those experiences were invigorating. I felt admired and empowered. That’s one thing I’ve learned about romance: It can make you feel really good.

The other thing I’ve learned is romance takes courage. Through all my years judging the pants off of hopeless romantics, I never gave them enough credit for their bravery. In order to court another person, you have to make it super clear that you’re interested in them and immediately risk rejection. Showing your kindness like that takes real guts. But that’s also what makes romantic attention so sexy. Everyone likes feeling special and it doesn’t take much. You don’t need to spend any money or sign unspoken sexual contracts. Just slip a note into someone’s book. Deliver a few earnest compliments. Willingness to make a fool out of yourself just to prove your attraction is a feat that should not go unrewarded. I only wish more people would take those small risks.

Emily Pittinos can be reached at pittinos@umich.edu

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