views updated Jun 08 2018


Although traditions of courtship have existed in cultures across the world since the beginning of recorded history, the ritual of dating is in many ways a distinctly American, distinctly twentieth-century invention. In the most general sense the term refers to the practice of two people exploring mutually held romantic and erotic interests through one or more casual meetings that typically involve joint participation in some form of leisure or recreational activity. Common examples include dining out, seeing a movie, attending a live performance, or, in certain special cases, engaging jointly in some rare or extreme experience, the very rarity or extremity of which is intended to mark the occasion as exceptionally memorable or meaningful. Rides in hot air balloons, skydiving excursions, and impromptu trips to tropical beach resorts figure prominently in what has become a relatively cliché-ridden popular consensus regarding what constitutes a super-romantic date.

In modern parlance the term dating is often also used to refer to an extended period or established condition of exclusive romantic and sexual commitment between two people. Although there are no hard and fast rules governing the appropriate duration of such a period or condition, dating of this sort is widely understood to be an exercise in prolonged personal exploration through which two people assess whether or not they are truly well-suited to one another in an emotional and sexual sense. In other words, dating in this sense often serves as a means of practicing emotional and sexual fidelity and as an opportunity to test the durability of love and erotic attraction over an extended length of time. In the context of heterosexual relationships especially, people who are dating in this sense often regard the experience as being preliminary to formal engagement and marriage. Of course dating often serves a similar function in the lives of many lesbians and gay men as well. But the fact that same-sex relationships are currently ineligible for federally sanctioned, formal recognition in the United States means that the term dating is sometimes used by those involved in same-sex relationships to describe romantic attachments of any duration simply because there is no formally contractual or socially legitimated condition into which such relationships can eventually graduate.

Given its considerable flexibility, the term dating has more or less superseded in common usage all other words and phrases in English that denote the act of engaging in recurring romantic appointments with another person. This is probably because many of the available alternatives carry subtle but significant connotations that render them inaccurate or inappropriate in one sense or another. The term courting, for example, registers as old-fashioned or archaic, whereas the term seeing registers as slightly tentative or euphemistic. By contrast, the phrase going out with carries a slightly juvenile connation, possibly because it so closely resembles going with, a phrase that has enjoyed considerable popularity among American primary and secondary school students for some time. Since the 1990s American youth culture has either produced or adopted a whole range of related expressions, including hooking up with and getting together with. But insofar as these expressions are imbued with a sense of vulgarity, and to the extent that they tend to describe furtive sexual liaisons rather than planned romantic encounters, they are in many respects more closely related to the dizzying array of slang terms that exist for sexual intercourse than for dating as such.


Because dating in the modern sense tends to involve expense of one sort or another, the casual, elective, and public nature of the practice also marks it, in some regard, as a decidedly middle-class ritual. Unlike the extremely wealthy who have tended to approach courtship and marriage instrumentally as a means of protecting or strategically augmenting existing family fortunes, and unlike the extremely poor who have enjoyed only limited access to the money and leisure time required to fully engage in the ritual, members of the middle class have wholeheartedly embraced dating precisely because it accords so well on so many levels with the popular American ideals of meritocracy and laissez-faire philosophy.

For example, insofar as dating in the modern sense can be understood as a ritual practice in which particular individuals vie against one another for the purpose of winning the romantic and sexual attention of women or men of quality, dating is a competitive activity—one that mirrors the free market economy in a structural sense. At the same time, it is also a markedly bourgeois tradition insofar as those who have the means to engage in dating tend to view the ritual as being primarily about ostensibly apolitical matters such as taste and feeling rather than the servicing of particular social and economic interests. Nevertheless, and despite popular resistance to the notion that dating primarily serves as a mechanism for sorting society into pairs whose individual members serve one another's social and economic interests in various ways, there is a general consensus that the ritual itself can be both highly rewarding and utterly exhausting in emotional, physical, and financial terms.


In many ways the history of dating is merely one chapter in a much larger history of the rise of capitalism in the United States. Indeed, in some respects what most distinguishes dating from earlier forms of American courtship is the extent to which this modern ritual depends upon and is enacted through participation in various forms of consumption. As noted above, dating in the United States in the early twenty-first century almost always involves purchasing something: dinner at a restaurant; admission to a movie, concert, play, or other special event; a particularly flattering outfit; or popular romantic accoutrements including flowers, candy, wine, or other small gifts. Although gestures of courtesy have probably always played some role in rituals of courtship in the United States and elsewhere, going out for the purpose of consuming conspicuously has not always defined romantic engagements in the way that it does now.

During the nineteenth century, courtship in the United States tended to take place in the context of a largely home-centered and female-controlled system known as calling. In this system, historian Beth Bailey explains:

Women designated a day or days at home to receive callers; on other days they paid or returned calls. The caller would present her card to the maid (common even in moderate-income homes until the World War I era) who answered the door, and would be admitted or turned away with some excuse. The caller who regularly was not received quickly learned the limits of her family's social status, and the lady at home thus, in some measure, protected herself and her family from the social confusion and pressures engendered by the mobility and expansiveness of late nineteenth-century America.

                                 (Bailey 1988, p. 15)

For whatever its functional similarity to the modern ritual of dating, calling also differed from it in some very important ways. First and most significantly, calling was, in one sense, considerably more private than modern dating. Despite the fact that calls were often complicated exercises in etiquette and social nicety, they were, nevertheless, private affairs in the sense that they occurred within the confines of domestic rather than commercial space and in terms of familial graciousness and hospitality. At the same time and precisely because calls took place within the home, they also entailed considerably more involvement on the part of parents acting as chaperones than is typically the case where modern dating is concerned. So in this sense calling was also a more—or at least differently—public experience than modern dating.

Calling remained the primary mode of formal courtship in the United States throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when dating began to emerge as both a practice and a colloquial expression. Many factors contributed to the demise of the old system of calling and the rise of dating as the primary form of courtship in the United States, but two factors contributed most: widespread urbanization and the advent of the automobile. Twentieth-century urbanization resulted simultaneously in a dramatic increase in the number of unmarried women and men living within arm's reach of one another in American cities and a dramatic decrease in the size of their respective living quarters. This in turn prompted American city dwellers of all ages, but particularly the young and single, to develop new ways of using public space for essentially private purposes, including courtship and the pursuit of sexual pleasure.

Indeed, as historian George Chauncey (1994) has noted in a slightly different context, privacy could often only be found in public in many densely populated American cities during the early twentieth century. For most working-class and many middle-class women and men, restaurants, cafes, theaters, public parks, and even public sidewalks necessarily served as alternative living space in overcrowded cities. Under such circumstances, it was almost inevitable that aspects of intimate life such as courtship would begin to spill out of the Victorian parlors where they had once occurred and into the streets. The most extreme example of this dialectical and somewhat counterintuitive relation between public space and the experience of privacy is undoubtedly the culture of cruising and public sex that emerged among homosexual men during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in most American cities. In many ways, though, the now familiar and wholly normative ritual of heterosexual dating was also an outgrowth of these same developments in the structure of American urban life.

Of course this is not to suggest that dating should be understood only as a solution of last resort to the romantic problems inherent to urban overpopulation. For even if American cities had not become so densely populated that cramped apartments no longer provided sufficient space for romance, it seems highly unlikely that urban youth culture, including the culture of courtship among the unmarried, would have remained indoor activities for very long. During the early twentieth century, especially, urban spaces teemed with alluring commercial venues offering inexpensive services and various forms of cheap amusement. To many city dwellers, including younger unmarried city dwellers, these attractions of modern urban life were simply too irresistible to ignore. Unlike calling, dating provided an excellent reason to go out and experience everything the city had to offer.

Among men the shift toward dating in the modern sense was regarded with some ambivalence, at least initially. While many middle-class men were happy to be able to avoid the hours of highly stylized social ritual that had played such an important function in the system of calling, they were also often surprised and overwhelmed by the added expense that dating entailed. Of course even in the 1920s American men were quick to explore and exploit the many benefits that came along with courting in public and being out of their parents' line of sight. Chief among these pricey benefits was the opportunity to press the limits of premarital sexual experimentation. For their part, many working-class men were simply happy to have the opportunity to compete for a woman's affection at all. Under the calling system many would simply never have made it through the front door. In dating, however, men of working-class or men who came from less than desirable families had an improved chance of meeting a desirable women and earning her love and devotion before confronting anxious and judgmental parents, many of whom continued to exert pressure on their daughters to marry up to whatever extent they could.

Whereas men benefited in some ways in the shift from calling to dating, it was arguably women—particularly working-class women—who benefited the most. As historian Kathy Peiss (1986) has shown, working women in cities such as New York used the highly gendered protocols associated with dating in order to expand their ability to participate in America's burgeoning consumer culture. Rather than wasting their own paltry wages on dinners out and admission tickets, many working women chose to spend their limited financial resources on cosmetics, fashionable clothes, delicate lingerie, and other items that might make them more attractive to men. In so doing they were effectively investing their money in the hopes that an attractive new skirt or coveted pair of nylons would yield a profit, both figurative and literal. As many working women correctly calculated, the value of a night out on the town with a particularly well-heeled and generous date could be considerably higher in terms of both fun and dollars than simply staying in or paying one's own way.

The other major development that contributed to the emergence of dating was the arrival of the automobile. As a cause for dating's victory over calling, the automobile's significance has probably been somewhat exaggerated. For in point of fact the shift from calling to dating was already well under way by the time Henry Ford's manufacturing revolution managed to park a car in every American driveway. Nevertheless, automobiles did play an increasingly important role in the practice of American courtship as the twentieth century progressed.

Precisely because the automobile splits a certain kind of conceptual difference between the privacy of the home and the publicness of the street, it very quickly became a refuge of sorts for young people seeking a place to go where they might enjoy some modicum of privacy in public. Ironically, the place that many found to be most convenient in this regard was actually the backseat of a car. In rural and suburban areas, especially, the fact that cars were also legitimate modes of conveyance had the added benefit of expanding the size of the territory in which Americans might seek romantic partners. But where this history of dating is concerned, the importance of automobiles in motion actually pales in some respects when compared to the importance of automobiles at rest, or when parked, as couples would often seek out secluded areas in their automobiles for the purpose of furtive lovemaking.


As American youth gained increased independence from their parents and as nineteenth-century traditions of formal courtship and socially mandated chaperonage began to erode, new variations on dating emerged. In many cases these variations preserved particular aspects of nineteenth-century courtship, which had been useful to someone in one sense or another. For example, by the mid-twentieth century nervous parents had grown especially fond of the institution of double dating because it satisfied their children's desire for social independence, while simultaneously preserving some aspects of chaperonage. As Beth Bailey points out, "Petting and necking would still go on, but weren't as likely to get out of hand with another couple sitting in the front seat" (Bailey 1988, p. 84).

Similarly, blind dating—a practice in which individuals allowed family members or friends to set them up on dates with people whom they had never met—preserved some aspects of traditional matchmaking, while simultaneously jettisoning the idea that it was appropriate for the facilitating third party to be involved in the affair beyond making initial introductions. In any case, whether it was done in groups or in pairs, by acquaintances or virtual strangers, the ritual of dating continued to be governed throughout most of the twentieth century by a number of largely unspoken social and cultural conventions, the most notable and consistent of which was the generally accepted belief that it was both normal and appropriate for men to both initiate dates and pay for them.

Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, it was this highly gendered convention regarding the propriety of who should ask and who should pay within the context of modern courtship that ultimately transformed the terms date and dating into extremely useful euphemisms within the professional argot of prostitutes and other sex workers in the United States. In the early 2000s the word date is routinely used to describe a paid sexual assignation in the language of American sexual commerce; similarly, the term dating is often used to describe an ongoing business relationship between a sex worker and a particular client. Indeed, precisely because it is still so widely accepted that men should demonstrate their social and economic privilege by paying for dates with women, and precisely because it is implicitly accepted that a date may end up leading to a sexual encounter, the choice that many sex workers make to refer to themselves as escorts and to their work as professional dating is both understandable and rather ingenious. Among other things, it exploits both the logic and language of social and cultural traditionalism where the gendered etiquette of courtship is concerned for the express purpose of blurring further the already rather blurry line that separates dating—that most venerable of all American traditions—from prostitution.

Of course as American traditions go, prostitution and other forms of sex work are as old as the hills—far older, in fact, than dating itself. Still, it is in many ways telling that most modern Americans consider dating and prostitution to be two radically different things despite the fact that both institutions in their most recognizably traditional forms essentially involve men compensating women, whether in cash or kind, for their otherwise categorically undervalued affective and sexual labor.


The practice of dating has been further transformed in the twenty-first century as a result of significant shifts in the social and economic order of American culture. For example, feminism and the sexual revolution have altered the gender dynamics of dating in some important ways. Among other developments, the highly gendered conventions of dating described above—conventions that dictate that men should bear the primary responsibility for initiating and funding dates—are increasingly giving way to a more egalitarian worldview in which women are equally entitled to ask men out on dates and equally obligated to pay when they do. Similarly, casual sex has increasingly come to be seen as a legitimate part of casual dating.

In some respects these developments represent welcome if belated concessions to the demands of some second-wave feminists who argued that antiquated traditions of masculine chivalry were actually sugarcoated reassertions of men's privilege and prerogative in a patriarchal society. From another perspective, however, both can also be seen as manifestations of what historian and cultural theorist Barbara Ehrenreich (1983) has characterized as American men's "flight from commitment" during the second half of the twentieth century. After all, to the extent that American women are still generally overworked and underpaid relative to men, equality (where the obligation to fund the culture of romance is concerned) actually constitutes a new and unequal burden for women who previously benefited in financial terms from men's traditionalist sense that they had a duty to pay. Similarly, while the liberalization of attitudes toward premarital sex has had the desirable effect of allowing many American women to claim their rights to sexual pleasure and bodily self-determination, it has also in some respects underwritten men's increasing refusal to compensate women for sexual access in the form of material gifts, or to insure against the potential costs of unplanned pregnancy in the form of established personal and financial commitments.

Of course this is not to say that increased cost sharing, where the expense of romance is concerned, or sexual liberalization are unwelcome developments from a feminist perspective; but it is to suggest that gender equality in a truly meaningful sense entails far more than either allowing or encouraging women to conduct themselves on precisely the same terms that men do. Rather, in a society where men are often effectively overcompensated in advance in the form of a family wage, women's ability to survive is always contingent to some degree on their ability to recover their share of unequally distributed resources through de facto mechanisms of economic redistribution such as marriage and dating.

Beyond these significant but largely undertheorized shifts in gendered and sexual decorum, the nature of dating has also been transformed by the arrival of the personal computer and other major advances in information technology including, most notably, the Internet. During the 1990s, for example, online dating services gained huge followings among members of the professional elite who, strained by the growing demands of their careers, increasingly claimed to have little time or energy to invest in casual romantic encounters that were unlikely to pay off in the form of a meaningful long-term relationship. Additionally, many Americans began to express trepidation about the prospect of becoming involved romantically with someone who might eventually prove to be incompatible on some significant but unforeseen level.

Online dating companies took excellent advantage of these feelings of cynicism about, and intolerance toward the inconveniences of, modern dating by marketing their services in a few specific ways. It's Just Lunch, a company founded in Chicago in 1991, claims to lessen the pressures of modern dating by reintroducing a sense of low-stakes informality to the process and, notably, by minimizing the costs in terms of time and money that are typically associated with casual dating. Other popular online dating services such as eHarmony and market their services by claiming to streamline the dating experience by matching singles using an almost scientific process. Economies of scale, they argue, improve the chances that customers will be able to locate someone who is perfectly compatible.

Additionally, many companies also claim that their services greatly improve the likelihood that dating will yield success in the form of a meaningful long-term relationship. Indeed, at the time this entry went to press actually offered prospective clients a six-month guarantee promising that paying customers would find someone special in six months or would not have to pay for the service. Clearly, dating in the twenty-first century is not only an exercise in the consumption of commodities; it is, in fact, a highly commoditized process itself—one that paying clients increasingly expect will carry a customer-friendly guarantee in much the same way that groceries are expected to be guaranteed for purity and freshness or consumer electronics are expected to be warranted against manufacturing defects.

For all the many virtual solutions that have arisen in response to the problems of dating in the twenty-first century, there have also been a number of more material innovations in the way that courtship is conducted in the United States. For example, speed dating emerged in the late 1990s as an alternative to the more traditional slow form of the ritual. In effect, speed dating is a kind of structured game in which individuals are given the opportunity to introduce themselves to multiple people in a single evening. Typically, speed daters talk to one other participant in the game for anywhere between five and ten minutes. Then, when the event moderator gives a signal, participants switch dates in round-robin fashion until everyone involved has had the chance to meet everyone else. At the end of the evening participants indicate which dates interested them most. If two speed daters identify one another, then they are left to move their newly inaugurated relationship forward using more conventional means.

Organizers of speed dating events are often quick to argue that this variation on the familiar courtship ritual serves the particular romantic needs of busy middle-class professionals whose harried pace of life makes it absolutely imperative that they get the most out of every hour dedicated to the project of finding that special someone. Still, the fact that speed dating resembles nothing so much as musical chairs suggests that dating in the modern sense may actually be seen by many as a recreational end in itself rather than a means for finding a permanent mate. This may also explain, in part, why dating has become something of a spectator sport in the United States. Building on a tradition that began in 1965 with ABC's The Dating Game, reality-based television game shows such as Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? (2000), The Bachelor (2002), The Bachelorette (2003), and Joe Millionaire (2003), have flooded airwaves during the first decade of the twenty-first century, winning enormous viewing audiences. In 2006 the Lifetime network's Gay, Straight or Taken? (2006) managed to collapse the entire panoply of issues surrounding gender, sexuality, and courtship in the United States into a single episodic game show demonstrating, perhaps more persuasively than anything, that dating has entered a very new, very strange phase in its almost century-old history.


Bailey, Beth L. 1988. From the Front Porch to Backseat: Courtship in Twentieth-century America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chauncey, George. 1994. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle B. Freedman. 1997. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. 1983. The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Peiss, Kathy. 1986. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure and Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Rotundo, Anthony E. 1993. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books.

                                        Colin R. Johnson


views updated May 17 2018


Dating, from casual to serious, is likely to involve romance and sexual activity, which distinguishes it from social outings between people who consider themselves merely friends (Newman 1999). It is related to two broader processes—courtship and mate selection. Historically, the term courtship has been applied to situations where the intent to marry was explicit and referred to the socializing between young adults on the path to marriage (Rothman 1984). The term mate selection refers to how we choose someone to marry and involves structural and social factors such as the nature of the "marriage market" (the persons from among whom we select our partners), and considerations such as age, race, class, education, religion, and cultural ideas (Schwartz and Scott 1955). The vast majority of daters are unmarried, and most studies of dating have used samples of college students who are more diverse than in the past, and are more like the general population than a group of social elites.

In contemporary North American society, "dating is the recognized means by which most people move from being single to being coupled" (Newman 1999, p. 176). However, it is not necessarily the route to couplehood in all societies. David Newman draws a distinction between individualist cultures (e.g., western Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia) and collectivist cultures (e.g., China, Vietnam, and Japan), pointing out that because the former allow free choice of potential spouses, they are more likely to include dating than are collectivist cultures.

In collectivist cultures such as China, young people (especially in the larger cities) may "go out" together, but this is probably courtship rather than dating, because their coupling has been prearranged and the goal of marriage is fixed. Another example is India where marriages are still arranged by families or trusted go-betweens. When young people are chosen for each other, it is not considered necessary that they know each other well before marriage and love is scarcely a consideration. When a meeting is arranged, following an exchange of photographs and a resume, it is not a meeting that may be followed by dates. Rather, it is a meeting to answer the question, "Am I going to marry this person?" Thus, dating, as Westerners understand it, is not applicable. Letters and flowers may be exchanged, but the couple may not spend much, if any, time together. Love is expected to grow after marriage. Faith in religion and in the wisdom of those who arranged the pairing is the basis for this system. The system prevails among Muslims in America as well as in India (Ettenborough 1998).

A third non-western example is Japan. Only about 10 percent of matings are prearranged, and others may avail themselves of "dating parties," members-only bars (where men pay steep fees and women merely register), or cell-phone dating network services (French 2001). China suffers from a huge lack of marriageable women (men outnumber women nearly two to one) and this gap will become more severe "as the first wave of people born under China's 'one-child policy' hits the marriage market. In the near future . . . countless young men may have little or no chance of landing a wife" (Chu 2001). One result is the abduction of women by "fixers" who sell them to men as wives. Under these circumstances, which have already affected thousands of Chinese women, there is neither dating nor courtship.

In marked contrast, dating in Western societies is for the most part similar to the North American pattern, which began only in the last century. Starting around 1900, the selection of dating partners began to become more autonomous (less under family supervision) than before in the United States. This was partly due to the rise of city life versus the previous predominantly rural background of most Americans, and to the related expanded employment opportunities for both sexes in the cities. Choices were less affected by considerations such as wealth (i.e., the ability to support a family) than by personal qualities such as character. Then, from about 1920 to World War II, a system of dating evolved in which there was considerable "playing the field" to demonstrate one's popularity (called casual dating), which might gradually become more exclusive (called going steady). Going steady might in turn result in an engagement or in marriage.

By the 1950s, a youth culture had developed in which dating started at earlier ages than before (e.g., among pre-teens). Moreover, the sexual exploration (ranging from kissing to sexual intercourse) which had previously been part of the last stage of courtship (engagement), now often occurred earlier, even among very young couples.

The "youth revolution" of the 1960s was partly about the right of unmarried people to express themselves sexually and partly about the widespread rejection of the belief that a woman's value lay in her virtue (virginity). The revolution was a struggle for power, freedom, equality, and autonomy, but the gains in freedom undermined the old rules; that is, courtship, and dating within it, began to lose coherence as the what, why, and even how became less clear (Bailey 1988).

Today, self-help books proliferate in response to that lack of clarity; for example, Dating for Dummies (Browne 1996), The Rules (Fein and Schneider 1995), and Mars and Venus on a Date (Gray 1998). Some of these guides are highly traditional, counseling that daters should behave in accordance with pre-1960s gender roles. Some are semi-egalitarian and semi-traditional. Still others, intended primarily for women (such as Lerner's The Dance of Anger, 1997) are egalitarian, rejecting the man-superior/woman-subordinate traditional view. Curiously, scholars who have studied dating behavior report that both men and women who claim to be egalitarian behave in traditional ways on dates (Laner and Ventrone 1998; 2000).


Some aspects of dating are competitive in nature (i.e., a win/lose relationship in which each partner tries to get her or his own way). Researcher Mary Laner (1986, 1989) points out that competitive behaviors can be of three kinds: pleasant, unpleasant, or abusive/aggressive. Pleasant competitive behaviors consist of such tactics as using charm or diplomacy to get one's way (i.e., to win). Unpleasant competitiveness includes tactics such as using sarcasm or deceit to get one's way. Finally, abusive/aggressive tactics include displays of anger, the use of insults, and various forms of violence. Laner (1989) reports that although daters prefer cooperative (egalitarian) behaviors and attitudes, dating is rife with both pleasant and unpleasant competitive behaviors. Pleasant tactics are virtually undetectable. Unpleasant tactics, however, are associated with the likelihood of violence between the partners (such as hitting and grabbing). When asked whether such relationships are violent, fewer men and women say yes than those who identify conflict or disagreements as causing problems. The tactics themselves, however (such as slapping and punching) are reported surprisingly often by these same daters (Laner 1990). Evidently, the power struggle behind the competitiveness remains unrecognized.

Another competitive aspect of dating can be seen in the way men and women deal with potential rivals. Researchers David Buss and Lisa Dedden (1990) report that daters attempt to manipulate others' impressions of them by derogating ("putting down") suspected competitors. Men do this by making derogatory remarks about other men's strength, financial resources, and goals: all traditional masculine characteristics. Women, in contrast, put down potential competitors by derogating their attractiveness and sexual activity (calling them promiscuous), and by questioning their fidelity (e.g., "she cheats on her boyfriend"). Buss and Dedden point out that the tactics men use are more likely to be successful in keeping competitors at bay than those used by women.

Dating has been likened to a market in which the buyer must be wary and in which there is not necessarily truth in advertising. Persons compete, given their own assets, for the most status-conferring date. Willard Waller and Reuben Hill (1951) warned many years ago about the potential for exploitation in both casual and serious dating. Indeed, critics of traditional dating have decried it as a sexist bargaining system in which men are exploited for money and women for sexual favors. The superficiality of dating, its commercialization, the deceit involved, and the high levels of anxiety it can provoke are additional drawbacks. Since status differentials still characterize men and women (although women have gained status in recent years), dating may be seen as a contest in which a struggle for power and control between partners is part of "the game."


The sexual aspect of dating has affected how women and men judge one another's desirability. Susan Sprecher and Kathleen McKinney summarize these attitudes: "a moderate level of sexual experience in a potential partner is more desirable than either extensive sexual experience or no experience at all" (1996, p. 41). Further, they report, men's and women's standards differ somewhat— men want a dating partner with more experience than women want. Studies like theirs are among those based on never-married college students. However, dating following separation or divorce differs from premarital dating in that it may involve a more liberal sexual ethic, be less leisurely, and may include additional considerations such as arrangements for child care.

Delights and Discontents

When daters are asked what's good about dating, they identify the following topics (Laner 1995):

  1. Companionship and communication;
  2. Friendship;
  3. Intimacy;
  4. Freedom of choice;
  5. Good times and having fun;
  6. Love and romance;
  7. Feelings of security;
  8. A sense of specialness;
  9. Learning about another person;
  10. Sharing (mutuality);
  11. An opportunity for personal growth; and
  12. An opportunity for sexual contact.

When asked about problems associated with dating, all of the same topics are identified. Thus, they each have their good and bad aspects. The list shown here appears in sequence—that is, companionship and communication were most often mentioned and sexual contact was least often mentioned. Yet, in terms of problems associated with dating, "a large number of questions were raised about several sexual dilemmas. They focused on problems relating to infidelity, and to differences between men and women regarding sexual attitudes, feelings, and behaviors" (Laner 1995, p. 182).

Communication and Deception

It is interesting that communication is at the top of the list of good things about dating and also high on the list of problematic aspects. A study of taboo topics among unmarried couples reveals that several areas of potential conversation are avoided by partners, primarily for fear of destroying the relationship. The more romantically involved the couple (versus merely platonic friends), the larger the number of topics to be avoided. Avoided areas include almost any that might induce conflict, as well as talk about past partners, and revelations about one's self that could be seen in a negative light (Baxter and Wilmot 1985).

Another aspect of communication that makes dating problematic has to do with deception. Sandra Metts (1989) asked almost four hundred college students about their relationships and 92 percent admitted that they had been deceptive at least once with a dating partner. Lying was most frequently used form of deception (versus distorting or omitting the truth). Metts reports that a plurality of the reasons for lying amounted to blaming one's partner—specifically, "to avoid hurting the partner."

Making Initial Contact

At the beginning of the dating process, we must first be aware of one another and then make a successful contact that results in going out or hanging out—the latter a less formal form of dating—or even hooking up (which is extremely limited, usually indicating a one-night date in which sexual activity is anticipated).

Who makes the initial contact? It is traditionally assumed to be the man. However, when Monica Moore (1985) and her colleagues observed women sitting alone in singles bars, they recorded some fifty-two kinds of flirting behavior that resulted in male contact within fifteen seconds of the behavior. These included smiling, skirt hiking, primping, pouting, and hair-flipping. According to Moore, women who signal the most often are also those who are most often approached by men.

Chris Kleinke, Frederick Meeker, and Richard Staneski (1986) categorized the opening lines that men and women use when meeting a potential date into three types: cute/flippant, innocuous (harmless), and direct. For lines used by men, the least preferred were the cute/flippant lines ("I'm easy, are you?"). For lines used by women, however, men liked both the cute/flippant and the direct lines ("Since we're both eating alone, would you like to join me?"). Women liked the innocuous lines ("Does the #5 bus stop here?") but men didn't. Women who use cute/flippant lines may be setting themselves up for unpleasant situations since many such lines have a sexual connotation. Since virtually no one liked men's cute/flippant lines, their persistence is curious. It may be due to a lack of social skills, reinforcement of such lines by television shows and movies, or fear of rejection.

Dating Scripts

Suzanna Rose and Irene Frieze (1989), who have studied men's and women's scripts for first dates, point out that the behaviors expected of men form the more rigid script. For this reason alone, men may dread asking women out or making mistakes, thus anticipating rejection more than they otherwise might. As noted earlier, men were traditionally expected to be the initiators, the planners, and the decision makers about dates. Women primarily reacted to men's actions. In Rose and Frieze's study, men and women disagreed about only two of forty-seven script items (twenty-seven for men, twenty for women) which suggests that the expectations for each sex are well known by members of both sexes. It also means that first-date behavior is highly predictable and, as also noted earlier, tends to follow traditional lines from beginning to end (i.e., man calls for woman at her home; man attempts a good-night kiss).

Why is it that dates are so highly scripted especially in individualistic cultures like that of the United States, which appear to value openness, naturalness, and spontaneity? First, scripts help daters to make a good first impression (without which there would be no second date). Second, they ease whatever awkwardness daters may feel in view of the fact that they are probably relative strangers.

Following first dates, what motivates daters to continue to go out together? Bert Adams (1979) has identified some of the conditions under which the relationship is likely to continue: (1) if significant others react favorably to the relationship; (2) if the partners react favorably to one another's self-disclosure; (3) if the partners have good rapport; (4) if the partners agree on values; (5) if the partners are at about the same level of physical attractiveness and have similar personalities; (6) if the partners are role compatible (e.g., both traditional or both egalitarian); (7) if the partners can empathize with one another; and (8) if the partners define each other as "right" or even as "the best I can get."

Variations and Changes

Not all traditionalist societies subscribe to arranged marriages in which there is no parallel to "free choice" dating systems. In some (e.g., Borneo, and among the Tepoztlan of Mexico), young men initiate relationships themselves (Ramu 1989). However, contacts that follow are, as in China, not dating but courtship. Among second generation immigrants to the West from collectivist societies, customs may be changing—more or less rapidly depending on the culture of origin and certain other factors such as education. Muslim Arab Americans, for instance, see western dating practices as threatening to several requirements of their patrilineal families. However, their boys are given more latitude to date than are their girls, and in general, group dating is preferred (DeGenova 1997).

In individualist societies, certain aspects of dating are changing. Forms of meeting and getting acquainted now include "video dating services, introduction services, computer bulletin boards, and 900 party line services" (Strong et al. 2001, p. 229)—often called cyberdating. What their effect will be is not clear, but certain changes can already be seen. For instance, in face-to-face meetings, physical appearance is the initial basis of attraction while in cyberdating, face-to-face contact is replaced by conversational skill as the basis for the initial impression. The consequence of this and other changes, however, is as yet unknown.

See also:Attraction; Cohabitation; Communication: Couple Relationships; Love; Mate Selection; Relationship Initiation; Relationship Maintenance; Sexual Communication: Couple Relationships; Sexuality; Singles/Never Married Persons; Social Networks


adams, b. n. (1979). "mate selection in the united states:a theoretical summarization." in contemporary theories about the family, ed. w. r. burr, r. hill, f. i. nye, and i. l. reiss. new york: free press

bailey, b. l. (1988). from front porch to back seat:courtship in twentieth century america. baltimore, md: johns hopkins university press.

baxter, l. a., and wilmot, w. w. (1985). "taboo topics inclose relationships." journal of social and personal relationships 2(3):253–269.

browne, j. (1996). dating for dummies. foster city, ca:idg books.

buss, d. m. and dedden, l. a. (1990). "derogation ofcompetitors." journal of social and personal relationships 7:395–422.

chu, h. (2001). "china's marriage crisis." los angelestimes, march 3.

degenova, m. k. (1997). families in cultural context.mountain view, ca: mayfield.

ettenborough, k. (1998). "muslim courtship a family affair." arizona republic, june 6.

fein, e., and schneider, s. (1995). the rules: time-testedsecrets for capturing the heart of mr. right. new york: warner books.

french, h. w. (2001). "japan's lonely look for love innew ways." new york times, february 18.

gray, j. (1998). mars and venus on a date. new york:harpercollins.

kleinke, c. l.; meeker, f. b.; and staneski, r. a. (1986)."preference for opening lines: comparing ratings by men and women." sex roles 15:585–600.

laner, m. r. (1986). "competition in courtship." familyrelations 35(2):275–279.

laner, m. r. (1989). "competitive vs. noncompetitivestyles: which is most valued in courtship?" sex roles 20(3/4):163–170.

laner, m. r. (1990). "violence or its precipitators: which ismore likely to be identified as a dating problem?" deviant behavior 11(4):319–329.

laner, m. r. (1995). dating: delights, discontents, anddilemmas. salem, wi: sheffield.

laner, m. r., and ventrone, n. a. (1998). "egalitariandaters/traditionalist dates." journal of family issues 19 (4):468–474.

laner, m. r., and ventrone n. a. (2000). "dating scriptsrevisited." journal of family issues 21(4):488–500.

lerner, h. ([1985] 1997). the dance of anger: a woman'sguide to changing the patterns of intimate relationships. new york: harpercollins.

mccornack, s. a., and parks, m. r. (1990). "what womenknow that men don't: sex differences in determining the truth behind deceptive messages." journals of social and personal relationships 7:107–118.

metts, s. (1989). "an exploratory investigation of deception in close relationships." journal of social and personal relationships 6(2):159–179.

moore, m. m. (1985). "nonverbal courtship patterns inwomen: context and consequences." ethology and sociobiology 6(2):237–247.

newman, d. m. (1999). sociology of families. thousandoaks, ca: pine forge press.

ramu, g. n. (1989). "patterns of mate selection." infamily and marriage: cross cultural perspectives, ed. k. ishwaran. toronto: wall and thompson.

rose, s., and frieze, i. h. (1989). "young singles' scripts for a first dates." gender and society 3(2):258–268.

rothman, e. k. (1984). hands and hearts: a history ofcourtship in america. new york: basic books.

schwartz, m. a., and scott, b. m. (1995). "mate selection: finding and meeting partners." in diversity and change in families, ed. m. r. rank and e. l. kain. englewood cliffs, nj: prentice hall.

sprecher, s., and mckinney, k. (1995). sexuality. newbury park, ca: sage.

strong, b.; devault, d.; sayad, b. w.; and cohen, t. f.(2000). the marriage and family experience, 8th edition. belmont, ca: wadsworth.

waller, w., and hill, r. (1951). the family: a dynamicinterpretation, rev. edition. new york: dryden.

mary riege laner


views updated Jun 08 2018


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 servicesmany newly dependent on computers and the Internethave 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.


Addams, Jane. 1972 [1909]. The Spirit of Youth in the City Streets. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Bailey, Beth L. 1988. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship ind Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bailey, Beth L. 1999. Sex in the Heartland. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fass, Paula S. 1977. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press.

Glenn, Susan A. 1990. Daughters of the Shtetl: Life and Labor in the Immigrant Generation. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hine, Thomas. 1999. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager: A New History of the American Adolescent Experience. New York: Bard.

Modell, John. 1989. Into One's Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 19201975. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Peiss, Kathy. 1987. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Rothman, Ellen K. 1984. Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America. New York: Basic Books.

Tentler, Leslie Woodcock. 1979. Wage-Earning Women: Industrial Work and Family Life in the United States, 19001930. New York: Oxford University Press.

Paula S. Fass


views updated Jun 11 2018


A leisure activity related to rituals and practices of courtship and unsupervised by parents, dating developed in the twentieth century in response to changes in generational relations and gender, schooling, work, and entertainment practices. It is strongly embedded in the changes associated with the new consumer economy. Largely, though not exclusively, linked to heterosexual mores, dating came to define adolescent and young adult relations through much of the twentieth century, first in the United States and then also in other Westernized societies.

The Evolution of Courtship Practices

In the nineteenth century, ideals of romantic love came to define courtship values aimed at choosing compatible marriage partners. As the stress on companionship between marriage partners eclipsed the earlier emphasis on patriarchy, new practices grew to replace the various forms of arranged or family-facilitated marriage that dominated marital choices among members of the middle class and the respectable working classes. Many of these were still adult-supervised and took place in social settings such as the home, churches, picnics, and other gatherings that included different generations.

At the same time, as the society industrialized and became urban, young men and women spent more time away from the watchful guidance of parents and other responsible elders. Adolescent girls spent time outside the home at work and at school. Both male and female adolescents now went regularly to schools that were expanding their age-required attendance upward into the teen years. And they went to work in impersonal factories, stores, nonfamily-based workshops, and offices. They also were frequently found in a variety of commercial amusements that proliferated in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cities, such as amusement parks, dance halls, cafeterias, vaudeville houses, and movie theaters. Many of these arenas where young men and women mixed promiscuously became suspect for encouraging female immorality and challenging class boundaries. All these issues became especially acute in the context of growing immigration in the early twentieth century and the heterogeneity that threatened older limits on courtship behavior. They were also a threat to the mores of many immigrant groups, most of which were still patriarchally organized, and among whom access between young men and women was very restricted traditionally. These groups now saw their children go off to work in mixed social settings. Dating developed among young working people in response to these conditions. It was also developing simultaneously among young people at schools and colleges.

Dating Comes of Age

Still daringly modern in the early twentieth century, dating was, by the 1920s, an established and widely recognized ritual among older adolescents and young adults. It became the means by which private and unsupervised behavior that revolved around sexuality could at once remain within respectable limits and still provide a legitimate means to experiment with the new intimacy now available for an exploration of mutual interests and sexual pleasures. Dating was not supervised directly by parents or other adults. Rather, it was an activity whose clearly defined limits on personal expression were patrolled by peer enforcement of standards that limited eligibility and datability, while establishing hierarchies of evaluation. The young often introduced new standards of attractiveness and glamour into these evaluations, by which they measured a potential dating partner by incorporating models from the popular culture. But dating still enforced class, ethnic, and racial boundaries.

Largely because of the extension of education to the majority of adolescents (including immigrants) in the 1920s and 1930s in public high schools, and to a substantial minority in colleges and universities, these new peer definitions became effective. The long hours away and shift of authority from home and work to youth-based institutions and the coeducational nature of most of these settings made peer standards in dating dominant. The school social system was based in many extracurricular activities, such as sports competitions, informal and formal social events, and fraternities and sororities. These activities and groups established the networks that regulated dating behavior. But it was the enormous expansion of popular culture media, especially the movies, popular music, and sports that provided the new sources and models for peer-defined standards of style, dress, and language around which judgments about popularity and datability revolved. The new media idols not only altered the vocabulary of acceptable and proper behavior, but as popular culture relied on overt and latent sexual themes, this helped the young to question former limits on sexual propriety in their dating behavior.

Dating rituals were fairly standardized by the 1920s, and they increasingly involved recourse to commercial recreations such as a movie, a soda shop, or a roadside restaurant. Dancing also became a part of many dates as school-sponsored dances or hops and more formal proms became common. Among wealthier young people, local hotels became favored spots for dances and dates. In places outside of large cities, dating relied on access to an automobile, and everywhere it 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. Commerce was thereby embedded into the very structure of the dating relationship, which almost always meant that the male treated the female. Women, in turn, spent money on their appearance, including fashionable clothes, stylish hairdos, cosmetics, and beauty treatments. This emphasis on external criteria of success questioned former standards that highlighted inner virtues such as piety, thrift, and reliability. New consumer standards replaced these in the evaluations of possible life partners as each side made decisions about the prospective date and whether the dating would continue.

Courtship also changed in the 1920s and 1930s because exclusivity was not considered either essential to dating or its only necessary result. Some observers noted that young people had become the victims of a datingand-rating syndrome, which 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. Driven by considerations of status rather than companionability, it became part of a complex hierarchy of popularity and desirability. Other youth, especially those from working-class backgrounds, adopted dating for the more permanent courtship possibilities it offered as selection among dating partners narrowed earlier into committed relationships. Both dating that led to exclusive attachments and dating that was part of a busy social life included a variety of erotic practices that became standard in twentieth-century youth before the premarital sexual revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s, among them kissing, petting, and fondling.

The expenses incurred by the male dating partner have led some historians to conclude that there was an established understanding about the exchange that men expected from their female partners, as they sought some sexual compensation for expenses incurred. Whether the exchange was quite so direct and calculated or it evolved from a set of expanded possibilities for intimacy, dating did result in new and looser norms about sexual experimentation. In most cases, these activities fell short of intercourse, and it was understood that women bore the responsibility for defining limits while men would try to push those boundaries as far as possible. Among those whose dating had become exclusive in some form of official engagement, studies from the 1920s and 1930s agree that intercourse would be a likely outcome for about half of the couples. This intimacy was understood as a legitimate expression of the commitment to a loving relationship oriented to marriage.

The Impact of World War II

World War II abruptly changed the dating routines as the national emergency left schools, colleges, factories, and offices empty of young men. The imminence of departure also encouraged more rapid sexual involvement and a rush to marriage. For the thousands of those called "Victory girls," who engaged in promiscuous relations with servicemen, the war led to short-term casual sex for unmarried and even married women, who came to value immediate over longer-term considerations. Catering to men on short-term leave, these women were targeted by the army as potential carriers of venereal disease.

During the long depression of the 1930s, most social groups delayed the time for marriage. The war radically changed this pattern, and, after the war, the trends toward early marriage continued and were soon accompanied by a dramatic baby boom that altered American family life and the preparation for marriage in significant ways. The return of the peace encouraged a return to the dating behavior established earlier, but it was now far more than in the past an active matter of adult concern and intervention. Adults manifested their concern by offering advice columns in newspapers and teen magazines, as well as in manuals for adolescents. This was usually offered by the new relationship experts who drew on the high valuation Americans placed on the science of psychology that was also involved in other aspects of child rearing.

Dating also had a shorter duration since women began to marry younger than at any time in American history. As a result, adolescents began to contemplate the road to marriage more seriously and at younger ages. In the 1950s, younger adolescents and even preteens appropriated some of the behaviors of their older brothers and sisters, and serious, "steady" relations became common in the dating process. This issue caused considerable concern to parents and experts who saw how its privacy and exclusivity created more occasions for sexual intimacy. "Going steady" was often accompanied by tokens of alliance such as pinning (wearing the fraternity or club pin of a boyfriend) or wearing a love anklet or name bracelet of a steady boyfriend.

The Youth Culture Changes Dating

Dating as either a youth-initiated ritual or an area of adult guidance became less significant by the 1970s when the rapid changes in sexual mores that accompanied the youth culture of the 1960s removed some of the reasons for dating etiquette by legitimizing premarital sexual intercourse. This change affected young adults especially since it altered the pacing of marriage and the sequencing of premarital courtship behavior. Couples now more frequently engaged in the whole array of sexual behaviors before marriage, and they experimented with living together as couples. Monogamous lifetime partnerships were less common for those looking toward marriage, as well as for married couples, as divorce became much more common. For adolescents, too, the more open sexuality that developed during this period made dating rules far less stringent and enforceable.

After the 1970s, dating as a form of socializing and courtship continued, and it still defined many heterosexual relationships, but older sexual norms were no longer a guide to personal behavior, and all rules had become much more flexible. In a similar way, same-sex dating became a possibility as such relationships came out into the open. The effective use of birth control, the availability of abortion, even among adolescents, and the greater tolerance for personal sexual choices after the 1970s meant that the rules that had been in place for most of the century and whose objective was to maintain social standing during a life-cycle phase marked by strong sexual drive were hardly as necessary anymore. Dating was no longer the expected means for heterosexual leisure activities nor the only route that could lead to steady coupling. Other possibilities, including group activities associated with the use of intoxicants and large music "raves" have grown up as alternatives. In these new social contexts, sexual enforcement (especially toward more experimentation) is provided by overt group regulation, not through internalized rules of dating practice. In these contexts, too, sexuality is often divorced from intimacy, which had been the dominant association in dating. And as the Internet became a part of social life, courtship and marriage services that rely on the computer have become more acceptable means to facilitate marriage choices.

Dating is still a vehicle to establish relationships in the twenty-first century among adolescents and adults. While its significance appears to have declined among adolescents, dating has remained a common adult activity. For a generation of adults who take divorce for granted, dating has become a necessity as they seek to establish new partnerships. But the dominant twentieth-century restrictions on sexuality, which harshly defined what was and was not permissible, that once defined dating, have given way to a much more benign form of entertainment, an entertainment in which commerce and money are still an essential component of having a good time.

See also: Cyber Dating, Hook-Ups, Men's Leisure Lifestyles, Teenage Leisure Trends, Weddings, Women's Leisure Lifestyles


Addams, Jane. The Spirit of Youth in the City Streets. New York: Macmillan Company, 1909. Reprint, Urbana.: University of Illinois Press, 1972.

Bailey, Beth L. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

——. Sex in the Heartland. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Fass, Paula S. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Hine, Thomas. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager: A New History of the American Adolescent Experience. New York: Avon Books, 1999.

Modell, John. Into One's Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 1920–1975. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Peiss, Kathy. Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

Rothman, Ellen K. Hands and Hearts: A History of Courtship in America. New York: Basic Books, 1984.

Tentler, Leslie Woodcock. Wage-Earning Women: Industrial Work and Family Life in the United States, 1900–1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Paula S. Fass


views updated May 14 2018


Dating works to meet the needs of both identity achievement and the development of intimacy (both of which are chief tasks of adolescence), in that as one gradually becomes closer to another, one becomes more self-aware. In coming to know the self, adolescents begin to move away from the known world of family relationships and toward the world of peers. In doing so, adolescents become aware of differences between self and others as they work to develop a system of personal values and beliefs, honing a sense of who they are and who they wish to be. In this search for self, dating can have a positive impact on self-esteem and self-image.

This exploration also includes coming to know the sexual self, by exploring aspects of sexuality in terms of both dress and behavior. As adolescents work to find their place in the adult world, they develop a more distinct sense of ownership of their bodies and how that body functions. In addition, they become more aware of those to whom they are attracted, what they find sexually pleasing, and how it feels to be involved both physically and emotionally with one person.

The capacity for intimacy is initially developed in same-sex friendships and then extended into opposite-sex relationships. For females, dating typically provides a context for further expression of intimacy, while the experience provides for males a context for further development of intimacy. In general, intimacy skills of the average young adolescent are poorly developed; consequently, the art of managing close relationships tends to develop through a process of trial and error. As the individual matures and acquires more dating experience, she becomes more comfortable with aspects of self-disclosure, emotional closeness, and the experience of being cared for by a member of the opposite sex.

Who Dates When?

Children develop crushes early on, and report "going together" as early as fifth grade. However, middle school seems to be the more typical time when adolescents begin developing an interest in members of the opposite sex.

Even while chaperoned dating has virtually disappeared, the median age at which dating begins decreased from sixteen in 1924 to thirteen in 1990. Most females begin dating by fourteen years of age, while males begin between fourteen and fifteen. Initially, dating takes the form of mixed-gender groups involved in common activities, with dating as a couple delayed until approximately fifteen or sixteen years of age. By sixteen, more than 90 percent of all adolescents report having had at least one date, and by their senior year in high school, 50 percent of adolescents report dating more than once a week. The majority of teens report having had at least one exclusive relationship during middle adolescence, lasting several months to perhaps a year. And even though females tend to be more assertive, males continue to initiate most dating encounters.

Steady versus Multiple Dating

Dating relationships range from informal casual dating to involved, steady relationships. Steady dating is more common among older adolescents, with 30 percent of males and 40 percent of females between the ages of sixteen and eighteen indicating that they are going steady. Many argue it is not advisable to allow adolescents younger than fifteen to date intensively, as it appears to have a negative effect on interpersonal development; dating may limit their interactions with others and lead to social immaturity. Debra Haffner, in her book From Diapers to Dating, argues that middle-school children should not be permitted to date someone more than two years older than themselves, as research indicates young teens who date older teens are more likely to become involved in high-risk behaviors. In addition, involvement in dating too early and too intensely may impede opportunities for same-sex relationships and casual opposite-sex relationships, both of which enhance the development of intimacy at later ages.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both steady and multiple dating (going out with more than one person). While the most serious long-term disadvantage of going steady appears to be early marriage, dating a single person on a steady basis can provide a sense of security for the adolescent and meet emotional and social needs. In addition to feeling popular, adolescents who date steadily tend to be those who report the highest self-esteem. Nevertheless, adolescents who have clear educational and/or vocational goals tend to go steady less often, and females who have higher levels of self-esteem tend to date frequently, but are less likely to go steady. Finally, multiple dating often involves the adolescent in more superficial relationships and provides fewer opportunities to develop the interpersonal skills that are involved in getting to know one person well.

Consequently, a moderate degree of dating with more serious involvement delayed until late adolescence may be the optimal balance. Haffner recommended that parents set limits for children regarding dating by deciding when, if, and under what circumstances the child may date and then supervising and monitoring dating behavior. She advised parents to talk with their children when they come home from group or single dates, ask open-ended questions, and listen without judging. Most importantly, she argued, parents must take their children's feelings seriously.

Dating and Sex

Dating is a major arena for exploring sexual activity, and studies indicate that sexual behavior among adolescents has increased. Jane Brooks reported in The Process of Parenting that approximately three-fourths of teens believe sex before marriage is acceptable if two people love each other, although females more so than males link intercourse to feelings of love. The genders agreed, however, that having a reputation for being sexually active and going to the male's home when his parents are not there clearly implies the expectation of intercourse.

According to Brooks, about one million girls between the ages of fifteen and nineteen become pregnant annually. Haffner reported that among teens in grades seven to twelve, strong parental and family connections and perceived parental disapproval were related to the decision not to have intercourse. More specifically, adolescents who felt close to their parents were more likely to postpone intercourse, had fewer sexual partners, and used contraception more reliably when they did have intercourse than were teens that were not close to their parents. Haffner encouraged parents to talk with their children about abstinence, as well as birth control and sexually transmitted diseases, to better inform them about which behaviors the parents feel are age-appropriate and which are not. She cautioned against being too restrictive, however, citing evidence that teens with very strict parents are more likely to become pregnant. Most importantly, she contended, the child needs to know the parents want him to come to them, or another trusted adult, if he is beginning to think about the possibility of sexual activity.

Avoiding unwanted sex is also an issue for this age group in that dating may lead to sexual activity that is coerced or forced. Larry Bennett and Susan Fineran found that 43 percent of high school students reported having been victimized by sexual or physical violence within a one-year period; frequency estimates indicate that between 15 and 25 percent of high-school-aged females have been the victims of date rape. These forms of violence among high school peers tend to be influenced by relationship, gender, effects on the victim, and apparent beliefs about male role power and personal power. Since many adolescents do not report their victimization, those closely involved with adolescents should be attentive to behavioral indicators of sexual abuse: depression, psychosomatic illnesses, irritability, avoidance of men, loss of confidence, nightmares, fears of going outside/inside, and anxiety.

Not Dating

Although romantic relationships are an integral part of adolescence, approximately 10 percent of male and female high school seniors report having never dated. Adolescents who do not begin dating at a time similar to their friends may be dropped from peer groups, and adolescent females who do not date demonstrate delayed social development, increased dependence on their parents, and feelings of insecurity.

Similar issues exist for gay and lesbian teens. While it is common for the preadolescent teen to be attracted to or develop a crush on someone of the same sex, research indicates that sexual orientation typically emerges by eighteen years of age and that homosexual youth report feeling different at an early age. With far fewer opportunities for dating and minimal support for developing same-sex romantic relationships, teens in this group may be deprived of the opportunity to date those to whom they feel most attracted. This social disapproval may interfere with the development of intimacy, and lack of participation in satisfying relationships may lead to feelings of inadequacy, which could in turn impair development of friendships as well as other relationships later in adulthood. Parents of homosexual teens need to let their children know their love is unconditional as they demonstrate their support and acceptance.


Dating during the years of child development clearly affects both personal and social growth as the individual works to acquire skills related to interacting with others. While not without its challenges, the dating experience can provide positive feedback to adolescents as well as a sense of interpersonal attachment with their peers. Relationships gained through dating then prepare adolescents for continued emotional growth into adulthood.



Adams, Gerald, Thomas Gullotta, and Carol Markstrom-Adams. Adolescent Life Experiences, 3rd edition. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1994.

Bennett, Larry, and Susan Fineran. "Sexual and Severe Physical Violence among High School Students: Power Beliefs, Gender, and Relationships."American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 68 (1998):645-652.

Brooks, Jane. The Process of Parenting, 4th edition. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1996.

Conger, John, and Anne Petersen. Adolescence and Youth, 3rd edition. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Dacey, John, and Maureen Kenny. Adolescent Development, 2nd edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Dusek, Jerome. Adolescent Development and Behavior, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1991.

Furman, Wyndol, and Elizabeth Wehner. "Romantic Views: Toward a Theory of Adolescent Romantic Relationships." In Raymond Montemayor, Gerald Adams, and Thomas Gullotta eds., Personal Relationships during Adolescence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994.

Haffner, Debra. From Diapers to Dating: A Parent's Guide to Raising Sexually Healthy Children. New York: Newmarket Press, 1999.

Jaffe, Michael. Adolescence. New York: Wiley, 1998.

Levy-Warren, Marcia. The Adolescent Journey: Development, Identity Formation, and Psychotherapy. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson, 1996.

Miller, Kristelle. "Adolescents' Same-Sex and Opposite-Sex Peer Relations: Sex Differences in Popularity, Perceived Social Competence, and Social Cognitive Skills." Journal of Adolescent Research 4 (1990):173-189.

Rice, F. Phillip. The Adolescent: Development, Relationships, and Culture, 9th edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999.

Savin-Williams, Ritch. "Dating Those You Can't Love and Loving Those You Can't Date." In Raymond Montemayor, Gerald Adams, and Thomas Gullotta eds., Personal Relationships during Adolescence. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994.

Seifert, Kevin, and Robert Hoffnung. Child and Adolescent Development, 5th edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Sorenson, Susan, and Patricia Bowie. "Vulnerable Populations:Girls and Young Women." In Leonard Eron and Jacquelyn Gentry eds., Papers of the American Psychological Association on Violence and Youth, Vol. II: Violence and Youth: Psychology's Response. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 1994.

Steinberg, Laurence. Adolescence, 2nd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989.

Thornton, Arland. "The Courtship Process of Adolescent Sexuality." Journal of Family Issues 11 (1990):239-273.

Vicary, Judith, Linda Klingaman, and William Harkness. "Risk Factors Associated with Date Rape and Sexual Assault of Adolescent Girls." Journal of Adolescence 18 (1995):289-306.

Youniss, James, and Denise Haynie. "Friendship in Adolescence."Development and Behavioral Pediatrics 13, no. 1 (1992):59-66.

Rebecca J.Glover