Dating and Marriage Part 1: The History of Dating

The idea of dating is an issue that most of historical Christianity has not had to deal with.  Over the past 100 years we have seen a dramatic shift in what our world thinks about sex, dating, and marriage.  As a Youth Pastor, I'm constantly wrestling with how to instruct and teach my students how to handle themselves within the culture they live in today.  The Bible speaks indirectly about dating, but never directly.  The reason for this is rather simple; The concept of dating did not exist.  Over the next few blog posts this week I am going to look at Scripture and attempt to comment on how Christians should think about Dating.  Is dating permisable or should we just kiss it good bye?  If we decide to date, how should we conduct ourselves and what are some cautions of which we need to be aware? To begin the discussion I thought it best to provide a historical and cultural framework about dating.  Mark Driscoll in his book Religion Saves and Nine Other Misconceptions provides a good and helpful historical framework to discuss the dating issue.   The rest of this blog is an adaptation and edited portion of what he writes about the history of dating in the United States.

The past one hundred years have seen an incredible upheaval in male-female dating relationships. In 1896 the word dating was introduced as lower-class slang in reference to prostitution. “Going on a date” was a euphemism for paying for sex. By the early 1900s, “calling” was the primary means of marrying. Calling involved a young man, a potential suitor, scheduling a time to meet a young lady in the parlor of her parents’ home in the presence of her parents. These meetings were carefully overseen by the parents. Expectations for everything from formality of dress to food served and length of the meeting were spelled out in various books that defined proper courting.

Such a process protected young people from danger (e.g., abuse, rape), ensured the involvement of the entire family in the courtship of a young woman, allowed her father to keep away the wrong kinds of young men, minimized opportunity for fornication, and kept marriage as the goal of such relationships rather than such things as cohabitation. The major downside of calling was the expense, which made it impossible for many people in the middle and lower classes. They simply could not afford a sitting room or parlor designated for calling, complete with a piano, along with formal attire to wear and specific food to eat.

In the early 1900s young women were discouraged from going out alone with any male, even relatives, for fear of getting a bad reputation. That kind of cultural conservatism began to wane as women’s magazines hit the shelf (e.g., Ladies’ Home Journal had over 1 million subscribers by 1900). These women’s magazines began to inform women about men, and an entire industry of beauty products, clothing styles, and social norms was birthed, thereby weakening the influence of parents over young women.

By the 1920s, urbanization provided social outlets for meeting outside the home. Rather than calling at the woman’s home, singles were now able to go out together at places such as restaurants, movie theaters, and dance halls. This began to create new social networks for single people away from their homes and parents and opened up greater opportunities for such things as casual dating and inappropriate sexual contact.

Everything changed dramatically in the 1930s. At that time the automobile became widely available, thereby providing a new freedom for younger people to gather away from their parents’ home. This transition took the woman out of the home of her parents and into the world, where she was driven around by the man to places where temptations to sin from drunkenness to fornication were stronger than ever. Not surprisingly, by the 1930s dating overtook calling in prevalence, and money became the means by which a man could pursue a woman, taking her out on expensive dates. This altered the nature of male-female pursuit so that the best men were those with the most money (symbolized by which kind of car they drove) and therefore the most able to afford the nicest dates, and the most prized women were the most outwardly beautiful and sexual who could serve as the best trophy.

By the 1940s the prevalence of dating caused an economic view of male and female dating relationships that was, in principle, akin to prostitution in some ways. Since men were required to make good money, purchase a car, and treat a woman for a date, men began expect- ing sexual favors in return for spending money on her. Men often pressured women for sexual favors in exchange for an expensive date. Those women who refused such requests were often no longer asked out on dates, and looser women became more popular dates.

The 1960s saw one of the greatest social upheavals in the history of singleness in the Western world. The feminist and sexual revolutions of the day pushed for sexual anarchy of every kind (e.g., orgies, casual sex, homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality) in conjunction with a wide- spread drug culture that only fueled recklessness, resulting in increased perversion and disease. In the 1960s Playboy was the first pornographic magazine widely published and was kept behind the counter at select stores. Also in the 1960s the birth control pill was made widely available, thereby encouraging even more sexual sin without the same levels of fear about out-of-wedlock pregnancy.

By the 1970s Playboy was taken from behind the counter at selected stores and displayed on the shelf alongside Penthouse, which was an even harder version of pornography. In 1973, abortion was legalized so that those not wanting to assume the responsibility that came with their sexual activity could legally murder their child. In 1974, no-fault divorce was legalized so that some of the legal difficulties and social stigmas associated with divorce were diminished.

The result? A cataclysmic alteration of sex, dating, marriage, and children. No longer were these seen as connected, or even related, issues.