'He was charming...and he'd got the chat...he gave me positive attention.'
Dating, courtship, going out, going steady – whatever you called it, it was a different concept in the 1960s than the internet laden landscape of the 21st century. For the young women of the mid-century courtship and dating was a group affair. Getting to know the opposite sex frequently meant a gaggle of guys and girls hanging out at the ice rink, going to concerts or the cinema, having fun at someone’s house or mingling during an organized activity.
The women who participated in this project started ‘dating’ anywhere from 12 to 18. They met their beaus at schools and youth clubs, in jazz clubs, at work, at the bowling alley or just through friends. Dating meant hanging out with a boy, having him walk you home, and perhaps a kiss good night. But just as you or I might recount tremendously different dating experiences, so too did the women in this study. Some recalled themselves as being far more mature than today’s teens with greater levels of responsibility and fewer parental checks, while others believed themselves far more naive than teens today. Their naivety they often attributed to how little they knew about the opposite sex, the rituals of courtship, and most notably their limited knowledge about sex and contraception. These participants were the young women experiencing the shifting norms of courtship from a strict nuclear 1950s to the era of free love.
Experiencing that shift meant parents still expected a polite young man who would ring them for their permission and arrive with a corsage in hand. While pop culture was actually filling cave-like clubs with cigarette smoke, riotous guitar riffs and ever shorter miniskirts. Teens, just entering the world of sex and dating, were confronted with radical new social norms they were not entirely prepared for.
Some educational videos from the 1960s offered advice on what to expect when going out to dinner with your date, addressing questions about which fork to use or who should pay. However, if teens were struggling with the etiquette of how to order their food or whether they could apply powder at the dinner table, the notion of being prepared for what happens when they are cornered in the back seat of a car or empty bedroom after a house party is completely beyond the scope of helpful educational videos. Conversations around sex and contraception were not occurring in schools or in many homes, an unspoken rule was that young women were to be chaste, yet they were not told how to manage a sexual encounter when it did occur. Teenagers of the 1960s were exploring their new freedoms and discovering independence, however they were ill equipped to handle the repercussions of their encounters.
Whether going steady with their school sweetheart, dating an older fella from work, or juggling a string of suitors; each of these women came up short when their romantic endeavours resulted in unplanned pregnancies in an era with little support for single mothers and a heavy dose of shame. Told little or nothing about sex by parents raised with Victorian ideals, these women may have enjoyed the process of getting to know their beaus, but discovered pregnancy was a long and lonely path.
Courtship & Dating
What did dating mean to you?
'Just hanging around with somebody...it was mainly at the ice rink then. So, they would walk you home, kiss on the doorstep. That sort of thing.'
Can you tell me about your boyfriend?
'I can't understand what I saw in him now. He worked on the building site opposite where I worked..I was 17, he was 29 then...'