Though the term "petting" may seem quaintly archaic in the sexually frank latter days of the twentieth century, it reveals a lot about sexual attitudes in the earlier part of the century in which it was coined. Describing pre-intercourse sexual acts, or foreplay, the word petting manages to capture both the innocence and the euphemistic repression that we identify with the 1950s and early 1960s.
This post-World War II period, which is loosely referred to as "the fifties," was characterized by coded and metaphorical references to sex, the baseball metaphor being one of the most common. There are regional differences in the meanings of the bases, but one common definition describes first base as passionate kissing, second base as touching the (girl's) breasts, third base as touching the (girl's) genitals with the (boy's) hands, and home base as intercourse. Likewise, the definitions of necking and petting have been a subject of intense debate, especially among those engaged in the activity, but necking is generally described to be passionate physical contact occurring above the neck, while petting comprises attention to the parts of the body below the neck. Evelyn Duvall, author of a much-used sex education guide of the 1950s, Facts of Life and Love for Teenagers, defines petting as, "the caressing of other, more sensitive parts of the body in a crescendo of sexual stimulation." She also warns, "These forces are often very strong and insistent. Once released, they tend to press for completion."
This, then, is the true "fifties" meaning of petting, the unleashing of forces within the body that may then spiral out of control. This idea encapsulates decades of fear of sex, which has its roots, for both sexes, in the church and notions of mortal sin and—for young men—perhaps a latent fear of women as well. Almost all of the sexual metaphors of the era describe heterosexual sex where the male is the aggressor and the woman the defender. The very word petting implies a passive recipient, a "pet" receiving attention from a "petter." If the feelings aroused by petting were to get out of control, they could lead to the most feared result of all—pregnancy out of wedlock, with the attendant stigma that might bring harsh social condemnation, even ostracism, and possibly lead to suicide. That situation, too, was euphemistically couched as "getting in trouble." Sex was viewed as a dangerous force, a threat to young people, to society, to civilization itself. Since boys were largely viewed as slaves to their raging libidos, it was up to girls to control the sexual urge. Most sex education of the time revolved around the general theme expressed in the title of one popular book, How to Say No.
Though this was the conventional morality of the 1950s and early 1960s, it had not always been that way. F. Scott Fitzgerald had described ribald "petting parties" in the 1920s, and, in fact, conventional morality often had little to do with people's actual experience even in the 1950s. The Kinsey Report on women's sexuality, released in August of 1953, scandalized the conservative society of the time with its statistics compiled from interviews with women. Kinsey reported that 99 out of 100 of female interviewees born between 1910 and 1929 had petted by the age of 35. In the same age group, one third of the unmarried women were no longer virgins by the age of 25, and a sizable percentage of those had had several sexual partners. There was, and is, so little awareness about women's sexuality at mid-century that these figures remain surprising. Kinsey's statistics challenged the notion that women were by nature less sexual creatures than men. It was not women's nature, but the will of 1950s society that demanded sexual repression. Interestingly, many girls found they preferred the partially permitted petting to the totally forbidden intercourse for purely sexual reasons. Petting was focused on the female body and often led to orgasm for young women, while the self-involved male fumblings of early intercourse seldom did.
The social meaning of petting and other forms of introductory sexuality is explored in Obie Benz's documentary film, Heavy Petting (1988), which juxtaposes representations of sex in the media of the 1950s with sex education materials of the time and the reminiscences of celebrities who came of age then.
Landers, Ann. Ann Landers Talks to Teenagers About Sex. New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1963.
Peterson, James R. " Playboy's History of the Sexual Revolution: Something Cool." (Part IV, 1950-1959). Playboy. Vol. 45, No. 2, February, 1998, 72.