Dr. Val Farmer
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Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Without Moral Absolutes, Modern Dating Creates Pressure, Confusion

August 18, 2003

What happened to old-fashioned dating? How did expectations of sexual relations get to be a part of the dating scene? Author Beth Bailey's book, "From the Back Porch to the Back Seat," describes different phases of dating and courtship patterns in American society. These phases offer distinct moral frameworks to guide young men and women in the process of courtship.

The back porch. During the 19th century, courtship took place in the woman's home or on other chaperoned occasions. The young woman's parents were expected to chaperon the activities of the couple.

To maintain respectability and her value as a desirable object of courtship, a young woman's duty was to keep the contacts with men within socially approved settings. Maintaining virginity until marriage was a strict value that determined her social value and indeed, her self-respect.

Going out for a date. After 1900, getting acquainted in the home was replaced by going out for a date. By the 1920s, this new style of courting was fully accepted. Dating imposed a new set of challenges for women.

The requirement to remain virginal was still in force. But now a young woman had to contend with the pressures for sexual intimacy and her own sexual desires away from the parental home. She had to do it while she was on his territory - in his car. Not only that, the male was expected to plan and pay for the cost of the dates.

A young woman had the responsibility of resisting and controlling any sexual overtures her date would make. This required a new level of assertiveness and self-confidence to maintain control in private settings.

Going steady. By the end of World War II, a new element into the dating game had been introduced - going steady. Prior to World War II, a woman could judge her popularity by the number of boyfriends she had. The task of maintaining her virginity consisted of resisting the advances of dates with whom she was in the process of becoming acquainted.

After World War II, the challenge was to deal with the sexual pressure of a steady date with whom she was developing some attachment. The prerogatives of "going steady" meant a blurring of sexual guidelines and trying to accommodate "petting" while "not going all the way."

The couple, through the process of going steady and engagement, worked out their lifetime commitments to each other before engaging in a sexual relationship. Commitment was the battleground with sexual access being the reward.

The sexual revolution. During the mid-60s, the goal of courtship was still marriage. However, the expectation that a woman be virginal at marriage was dropped. Steady dating with petting and exchanges of sexual intimacies had reduced virginity to a technicality, if not an improbability.

By and large, middle class females no longer felt the honor or value of virginity at marriage to be a sign of their worth as a marriage partner. Limitation or renunciation of sexual experience was not seen as an obstacle to marriage.

After the 1960s, the question of commitment was being sorted out after sexual relations had been introduced into the relationship. The connection between sexual relations and commitment was still powerful and expected. Now a young woman who tried to maintain her respectability and self-respect had to define her engagement in sex as part of a process of building a long-term relationship.

Situational considerations. Because virginity is no longer an absolute requirement, sexual decision-making is subject to situational considerations. Without a firm standard, a young woman has to make sexual decisions with each relationship and situation.

She has to weigh how she feels about the level of commitment she now enjoys or the prospects for a more lasting commitment. Sexual relations have symbolic meaning while the issue of commitment is being decided.

Not all females are successful in making decisions according to their own interests. One study of female courtship patterns showed 38 percent of the females surveyed had engaged in sexual relations when they really didn't want to.

The over-riding reason for this behavior was relationship maintenance. Women who engaged in unwanted sex were doing what they believed was necessary for the continuation of the relationship. They either wanted to be found appealing or, once the relationship had been established, maintain their partner's interest.

Modern dating. While writing her most recent book, "Why There Are No Good Men Left," Barbara Dafoe Whitehead interviewed single adults, especially young women. She found confusion and conflicting values. Modern singles are looking for "soul mates" and they fear divorce. But most also want mates who work out, eat right and have "some edge."

What seems to matter the most, she said, is "competitive physical excellence." Love is defined in terms of chemistry, emotion and sex. The hard work of "testing the relationship" comes later, often in living together arrangements. These relationships are equally confusing and have a 40 percent break-up rate and for those who marry, a higher divorce rate than for couples who didn’t live together.

Whitehead concludes that "In the sexual free-for-all of our age, it is the conservative, the more traditional singles - especially the women - who are going to get ditched. They are in the most vulnerable position, because the whole club and bar dating scene is just not going to work for them." She advocates that parents and clergy need to act to create places where serious, marriage-minded people can find each other.