Dating itself. The term date was originally borrowed from prostitution. Dating, which became widespread in America during the 1920s, inserted courtship into a money economy. The man asked the woman “out”; he paid for the entertainment, in return he received…? From the beginning, critics noticed an imbalance. Either a woman’s company was by definition more valuable than a man’s, or something else was required to balance the equation. As a teenager argued in 1943, “When a boy takes a girl out and spends $1.20 on her (like I did the other night), he expects a little petting in return (which I didn’t get).” The rise of the dating system offered American youth new opportunities for fun and for interpersonal and sexual exploration, but it also exacerbated the inequities between men and women in courtship.
Technical virginity. (While this confuses dating and sex, the confusion is, historically speaking, widespread.) Our prevailing nostalgia for simpler times has largely obscured the physical and intellectual contortions that presexual-revolution youth used to maintain female “virginity.” “Literally every caress known to married couples” (in the words of a 1950s sociologist) took place between unmarried couples on the bench seats of those enormous American cars, but as long as there was no actual “intercourse,” the woman remained, technically, a virgin. In this world the missionary position was the final frontier; oral sex didn’t count. Sound familiar?