Dating is a ritualized courting process that developed in the twentieth century as a means for adolescents to engage in approved heterosexual activities. It emerged first in the United States in response to significant social and gender changes in schooling and work, family life, and recreational activities. During the twentieth century, dating spread to other Westernized societies, although it has become increasingly attenuated in the context of the revolution in premarital sexual behavior after the 1960s.

In the early modern world most courtship was supervised by family or other adult community institutions. Formally arranged marriage was never the dominant practice among most Americans, as it was among the European aristocracy and upper middle class, but informal arrangements existed which directed young people's desires toward suitable partners who remained within racial, class, and other boundaries. Most young people did not have either the time or the privacy to engage widely in experimental activities, and the importance of chastity for women among respectable people meant that girls and young women did not venture very far on their own without adult chaperones. These informal controls were able to adapt initially to the emergence in the nineteenth century of the ideal of romantic LOVE and to companionship as a replacement for patriarchy in marital values. More challenging were the dramatic dislocations that accompanied the urban and industrial transformations of the second half of the nineteenth century.

Among the wealthy elite, well-orchestrated rituals surrounding elaborate debutante balls and coming-out ceremonies largely assured that family choices would continue to define the horizons of adolescents and young adults as they moved toward a season of courtship. Thus eighteen- and nineteen-year-old girls were introduced to the proper society from among whom they could choose and be chosen. But among others, especially the large and growing middle class and the respectable working class, the fact that young men and women spent more time away from the watchful guidance of parents became a source of considerable cultural concern and anxiety in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, a concern most effectively articulated by social reformer JANE ADDAMS in The Spirit of Youth in the City Streets. Especially problematic was the new freedom of young women. Both boys and girls were now more often found mixing promiscuously in unsupervised work and play environments as adolescent girls went out to work in factories, shops, and offices. These young people often spent their money and free time in unsupervised commercial recreations such as MOVIES, dance halls, and amusement parks. Both male and female adolescents were also staying in school longer as new school attendance laws began to include more older children. The schools, pressed to engage their charges, provided more opportunities for socializing as they searched for ways to keep older and recalcitrant student populations at school. As schools became the arenas for extracurricular clubs, SPORTS, PROMS, and other events, they also became the site for spontaneous heterosexual socializing. Young people developed dating in these new work and educational contexts as a means to order mate selection and to contain the erotic possibilities that the new freedom from adult supervision made possible.

The apparent freedom of dating and its association with out-of-home and paired activities made the new practice seem risqué and daring in the early twentieth century. By the 1920s, however, it had become generally regarded as a legitimate means of interaction between young men and women during later adolescence and young adulthood. Some immigrant and religious groups still resisted and were appalled by the freedom that dating permitted between strangers, but most native white young people understood that while dating was not supervised by adults it nevertheless had clearly established boundaries enforced by peers that regulated respectability, eligibility, and the routines of sexual access. Moreover, the young not only defined what was attractive, permissible, and popular, but continued to maintain clear class, racial, and ethnic boundaries.

The vast extension of schooling between the world wars to the majority of adolescents (including immigrants) in public HIGH SCHOOLS, and to a substantial minority in colleges and universities, made these new peer definitions possible. The long hours at school and the shift of authority from home and work to youth-based institutions, along with the coeducational nature of the great majority of these institutions, made peer standards in dating dominant. At schools, a complex social system that included extracurricular activities, sports competitions, fraternities and sororities, literary activities, beauty contests, and other means to define identity and popularity regulated dating behavior. But the system was not closed since the young drew on nonschool institutions for inspiration in setting new nonfamily-based fads and fashions. These relied on both the heterogeneity of populations at school and the enormous expansion of popular culture, especially via movies, popular music, and sports, that provided sources and models for approved behavior, appearance, style, language, dress, and beliefs around which standards of popularity and datability revolved. In expanding the vocabulary of acceptable and proper behavior, popular culture idols helped the young redefine eligibility and expand the limits on sexual propriety in their dating behavior toward more liberated forms.

Starting in the 1920s, a date usually involved one or two couples going out together to a movie, a dance, a soda shop, or a roadside restaurant. In places outside of large cities, this increasingly relied on access to an automobile and became dependent on the outlay of significant amounts of cash to ensure that the treat for the afternoon or evening was acceptable to the dating partner. Commercial considerations were thus embedded into the very structure of the dating relationship, which required that the male treat the female to a good time. Women too were required to expend money on their appearance, wearing fashionable clothes and stylish hairdos, and relying on beauty treatments and up-to-date cosmetics. These consumer-based standards became crucial to the evaluations that each side made of the prospective date and the subsequent decisions about whether dating would continue. They were the basis for at least initial conclusions before other, more subtle, considerations could intervene.

In the 1920s and 1930s, exclusivity was not considered either essential to dating or its only necessary result. Instead, a dating-and-rating syndrome sometimes overwhelmed the long-term courtship objectives of dating, as young men and women of the middle class engaged in a whirl of heterosexual social activities which defined their status in a complex hierarchy of popularity and desirability. Class differences also surfaced, particularly in high school, with working-class youth more likely to see dating as part of marriage-partner selection, while middle-class youth engaged in dating more in terms of entertainment. At the same time, both dating which led to exclusive attachments and dating which was part of a busy social life included a variety of erotic practices that became a standard part of the expected sexual initiation of twentieth-century youth before the premarital sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Some historians have argued that in return for the expenses incurred by the male dating partner some sexual compensation was expected from the female. Whether the exchange was quite so direct and calculated or evolved from a set of expanded possibilities for intimacy and graduated expectations, dating certainly resulted in mutual sexual experimentation. In most cases, these activities fell short of intercourse, involving instead an elaborate pattern of sexual play that included hand-holding, kissing, petting, and fondling. It was well understood that within this evolving pattern women would define the limits of acceptable behavior, while men would try to push those boundaries as far as possible. Most studies of the 1920s and 1930s show that among those whose dating had become exclusive, especially those who were engaged to marry, intercourse would become an occasional or regular part of the dating relationship for about half of these couples. This was usually rationalized as a legitimate expression of the commitment to a long-lasting loving relationship oriented to marriage.

These newly established dating rituals were disrupted by America's entry into World War II, when dating was largely suspended for older couples in the context of a national emergency which emptied schools, colleges, factories, and offices of eligible young men. The war also encouraged more rapid sexual involvement and a rush to marriage. In a related way, war often led to short-term casual sex that some young women saw as their contribution to the war effort, but that seemed to liberate others from the artificial standards that had previously been in place. Among these were thousands of VICTORY GIRLS, urban camp followers who catered to men on short-term leave, and whom the army targeted as potential carriers of VENEREAL DISEASE.

Adolescents, though not so clearly affected by the war, were not entirely shielded from its effects, especially since older adolescents might be inducted as the war accelerated draft call-ups. More significantly, the war changed the pattern of delayed marriage that had become common for all classes and groups during the Depression of the 1930s and the postponement of first conception that had a longer twentieth-century history. After the war, the trend toward early marriage continued and in the 1950s a dramatic baby boom altered American family life in significant ways. While peacetime conditions allowed a return to earlier dating behavior, that behavior had now become more than in the past a matter of adult concern and intervention. It was also shorter since women now married younger than at any time in American history and began to contemplate the road to marriage throughout adolescence. Dating as a route to marriage became both more serious and more hurried. Younger adolescents and even preteens began to appropriate some of their older brothers' and sisters' behaviors, while serious relations became more common earlier in the dating process. Pinning (wearing the fraternity or club pin of a boyfriend), wearing a love anklet, and going steady became regular rituals of 1950s and 1960s dating behavior.

At the same time, adults became more clearly involved in these behaviors. The most obvious form this took was in the elaboration of advice in newspapers, TEEN MAGAZINES, and manuals for adolescents. Adult family and relationship experts, who drew on the increasing American infatuation with the science of psychology as a guide to daily life, intervened in this as in many other arenas of child rearing and self-development. But popular culture too began to reflect new concerns about dating, and a whole genre of movies, including films such as the teen classics Where the Boys Are, and Splendor in the Grass, were based on the erotic charge that resulted from breaking dating taboos.

This whole structure was fundamentally weakened in the late 1960s and 1970s when the rapid legitimization of premarital sexuality removed some of the need for dating etiquette, at least among young adults. For adolescents, too, the more open sexuality that developed during this period made dating rules far less stringent and enforceable. While dating certainly continued and continues to define many heterosexual relationships, the rules became much more flexible (and included the possibility of same-sex dating). The effective use of BIRTH CONTROL and the availability of abortion, even for adolescents, after the 1970s meant that rules which had been in place for most of the century and whose objective was always to maintain social standing during a life-cycle phase marked by sexual desire, were hardly as necessary any-more.

While dating has by no means disappeared even in the twenty-first century as adolescents and young adults seek to define just what is permissible and what is not in their mating behavior as they move toward adult life, it now coexists with a range of other activities. Some of these are less dependent on isolated pairing and include group activities associated with alcohol, DRUGS, and music. Matchmaking and dating services–many newly dependent on computers and the Internet–have also become much more common and acceptable. Dating has in the meantime shifted to older people, many of whom seek companionship and remarriage after divorce. Dating has become less obviously part of adolescence as age of marriage has once again shifted upward and taboos against premarital sexuality have become less harsh and judgmental.

See also: Adolescence and Youth; Life Course and Transitions to Adulthood; Sexuality; Youth Culture.


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