The Importance of Dating, Part I

June 20, 2012

My favorite book in 1966.

In my recent post on the economics of the marriage market I quoted economist Betsey Stevenson, who explained the importance of dating as a part of socializing and maturing as well as shopping for a spouse:

Not all dating is about trying to find a spouse. There is a difference between what you might want in a date on a Saturday night when you’re 19 and what you might be looking for in someone to spend the rest of your life with.

I met my husband at 25, and he was my fourth boyfriend. I am certain that marriage to any of the first three would have been disastrous, though I am happy to say they all married and had families, and none have divorced. It was not that they were not suitable or good men, the problem is that we were not well matched enough to carry the ball for a lifetime. In my next post I will discuss what I learned from each of them, and why those relationships are in part responsible for my having been happily married for nearly 28 years to someone else. 

Today, though, I thought I’d provide a history of dating. It’s an interesting topic, as it intersects with American immigration, wars, and the mainstreaming of college education. While much has changed in the last 125 years, much of it is for the better, and most of it was inevitable. And there’s a surprise – our grandmothers shed their knickers while dating too.

A Brief History of Dating

According to Kathleen Bogle, author of HOOKING UP:  Sex, Dating, and Relationships on Campus, dating became the norm during the large waves of American immigration. 

In earlier Western societies the process for most young middle and upper class people to find potential mates was heavily monitored by parents, their families, and their communities. 

This was known as the calling era. Gentlemen with the honorable intention of marriage would come courting. This tradition is exemplified by portrayals in 19th century works of fiction, such as the works of Austen, Eliot, and Trollope. Currently you may see it portrayed in the television sensation Downton Abbey. 

The practice required a comfortable sitting room in which to receive guests, as well as a population of gentlemen free to come calling during the day. Young women, whose education included learning to sing and play the piano, were often expected to provide the entertainment. In less wealthy populations men might “come a courtin'” on a Sunday, and perhaps be allowed a stroll or a chaperoned ride in the family buggy. Women had very limited say in who they might marry, and suitors were generally encouraged by the mother, who prioritized their daughter’s being well provided for financially. When marriages did happen, they were often between acquaintances or even virtual strangers.

The calling era did not work well for the lower and working classes.  They did not have the means or leisure to provide for such forms of entertainment while observing the proprieties. In early 20th century America, large groups of young people immigrated and sought rooms in boarding houses, women’s hotels, or with relatives. With families no longer present to control the process, and receiving rooms in short supply, young people began to meet up in groups to socialize. Often dances and other activities were sponsored by churches and other community organizations. 

Two people who took a liking to one another could only spend time together by pairing up at functions, and then by going out on a “date,” which often consisted of dancing, a movie, or sharing a meal. Often young dating couples did marry, but marriage was not an obligatory ending to the process of dating, and was not assumed.

College men were particularly interested in dating numerous women before committing to one for marriage.  Bogle:

Courtship involves people of the opposite sex getting to know each other en route to marriage. Dating is not true courtship because the intent is not to marry.  These relationships were prevalent in college because students, especially men, wanted to delay marriage until they graduated and were settled into careers.

Between the First and Second World Wars, dating became a source of status in the college environment, with a focus on acquiring the best possible mate as a marker. Willard Waller, a prominent early 20th century sociologist who studied courtship and coined the term “the Principle of Least Interest,” called this the “Campus Rating Complex.”

[Waller’s study] of Penn State undergraduates detailed a “dating and rating” system based on very clear standards of popularity. Men’s popularity needed outward material signs: automobile, clothing, fraternity membership, money, etc. Women’s popularity depended on building and maintaining a reputation of popularity: be seen with popular men in the “right” places, turn down requests for dates made at the last minute and cultivate the impression that you are greatly in demand.

As one sociologist put it, “You had to rate in order to date, to date in order to rate. By successfully maintaining this cycle, you became popular. To stay popular, you competed. There was no end: popularity was a deceptive goal.”

According to Bogle, “Both men and women did not want to date someone who did not rank.  Students went to great lengths to rank high on the dating scale. Women’s prestige on campus would decline once they were no longer a fresh face on campus, due to indiscretions, or if they were too readily available for dates.”

Now we know where “hard to get” and “flaking” originated – women were rewarded for it! After WWII, the man shortage appeared to spell doom:

In June 1945, New York Times Magazine predicted 750,000 women who wanted to marry would have to live alone. Around the same time Good Housekeeping captioned a photo of a bride and groom descending church steps with: “She got a man, but 6 to 8 million women won’t. We’re short 1 million bachelors!” 

It was no longer possible for women to date large numbers of men at once.  At the same time, the postwar boom made it possible for men to afford to marry sooner than they could in the previous era.  The median age of marriage dropped, and the number of children per family increased. Over time, young people were encouraged to begin the dating process earlier.

One sociologist wrote in a July 1953 New York Times Magazine article that each boy and girl ideally should date 25 to 50 eligible marriage partners before making his or her final decision.

“Going steady” became a key feature of the new dating. Beth Bailey, author of From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America, explains how it worked:

In earlier days going steady had been more like the old-fashioned ‘keeping steady company.’ It was a step along the path to marriage, even if many steady couples parted company before they reached the altar. By the early 1950s, going steady had acquired a totally different meaning. It was no longer the way a marriageable couple signaled their deepening intentions. Instead, going steady was something twelve-year-olds could do, and something most fifteen-year-olds did do. Few steady couples expected to marry each other, but for the duration of the relationship, acted as if they were married. Going steady had become a sort of play-marriage, a mimicry of actual marriage.

Going steady usually involved the gifting (or lending, to be precise) a token of the guy’s – a class ring, a letterman’s jacket, etc. The relationship might last anywhere from a few days to weeks or even years, much like relationships today. And 9 out of 10 people had premarital sex!

More than nine out of 10 Americans, men and women alike, have had premarital sex, according to a new study. The high rates extend even to women born in the 1940s, challenging perceptions that people were more chaste in the past.

“This is reality-check research,” said the study’s author, Lawrence Finer. “Premarital sex is normal behavior for the vast majority of Americans, and has been for decades.”

Finer is a research director at the Guttmacher Institute, a private New York-based think tank that studies sexual and reproductive issues and which disagrees with government-funded programs that rely primarily on abstinence-only teachings. The study, released Tuesday, appears in the new issue of Public Health Reports.

The study, examining how sexual behavior before marriage has changed over time, was based on interviews conducted with more than 38,000 people — about 33,000 of them women — in 1982, 1988, 1995 and 2002 for the federal National Survey of Family Growth. According to Finer’s analysis, 99 percent of the respondents had had sex by age 44, and 95 percent had done so before marriage.

…Finer said the likelihood of Americans having sex before marriage has remained stable since the 1950s, though people now wait longer to get married and thus are sexually active as singles for extensive periods.

The study found women virtually as likely as men to engage in premarital sex, even those born decades ago. Among women born between 1950 and 1978, at least 91 percent had had premarital sex by age 30, he said, while among those born in the 1940s, 88 percent had done so by age 44.

Of course, the Sexual Revolution changed everything, though gradually. During the 70s when I was in college going steady was still the norm for most students. More than thirty years later, we find ourselves in the midst of this highly dysfunctional phase called hookup culture. The primary “innovation” of hookup culture is the reversal of the order of intimacy in dating. Physical intimacy now precedes emotional intimacy and is a prerequisite for further contact, though by no means a guarantee. Skip Burzumato, writing about the effect of current culture on young people:

[It] has caused cultural and relational vertigo — not knowing for certain which way is up or down, and not knowing in which direction to move. Do I date one person at a time or several people? How do I know when I’m going out with a person (meaning, dating them exclusively)? How do I talk to the other person about our relationship — in modern language? When do we have the DTR (defining the relationship) talk? And what about sex? What qualifies as sex anymore — only intercourse? How about oral sex — does that “count?” For many it’s utter confusion.

It is indeed. It’s not clear what the post-feminist paradigm will look like. There will be a correction of sorts, as so many young people are dissatisfied with the status quo. I think we’ll see a real bifurcation. Those who have rejected the hookup scene for the most part will return to more traditional forms of dating. I believe this is already happening post-graduation (though not on college campuses). Others will continue to pair off for brief flings and hookups, without fear of shame, for the most part. Some will move back and forth between the two groups, which means it will be extremely important for young people to filter for character and sexual history.