Dating in the Fifties, Sex in the Sixties

Probing thoughts from Kenneth Woodward, long-time religion correspondent for Newsweek (as in 1964–2002!), in his fascinating memoir, Getting Religion:

Most adolescents in the Fifties were raised to observe certain sexual limits—just as lovers did in the movies from which we took our cultural cues. Like them, we kissed and groped in the backseats of cars, or at night on the beach, but hardly anyone I knew had intercourse. The thrill of the erotic, we learned, extended all along a line that still fell short of “going all the way.”

This mix of social taboo and personal inhibition, I want to argue, was enormously freeing for adolescents, as all good social conventions tend to be. It allowed us to date as adults did, two by two, and to explore our sexuality without “having sex.” It also encouraged the serial ritual of “going steady” and breaking up so that by the time we were old enough to marry we had a pretty good idea of the kind of mate we wanted. A generation later, as I watched my own teenagers ripen, adolescents socialized in groups, in large part because by then there were few ritual guidelines, much less social taboos or ingrained sexual inhibitions, that teenage couples dating solo could readily count on. Without them, coping with adolescent sexuality was reduced to a game of all or nothing at all. President Bill Clinton thus spoke a Sixties truth when he said of his White House affair with Monica Lewinsky, “I did not have sex with that woman.” We Fifties kids new better.

To be clear, I don’t think the groping or going steady were good (though I’m far less opposed to the latter), but the very idea of “ritual guidelines,” of community norms that no one and everyone is in charge of—that’s useful. Not all social taboos are bad, because not all of the results of bad sexual choices available to teenagers can be explained to them. Sometimes “good social conventions” are what’s needed to guide and restrain human impulses, even and especially in the Christian community.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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