Skip to main content

Coed Confidential

June 2024
2min read

In September, college students returning to campus found their sex lives to be the subject of intense nationwide scrutiny. For the last several years, novels and stories from F. Scott Fitzgerald and a host of cruder imitators had depicted American college students as a group of abandoned thrill seekers with little regard for traditional morality. Smoking, drinking (which was illegal, of course), dancing, slang, cosmetics, and various extremes of attire elicited much comment in the press, but to no one’s surprise, the greatest attention was devoted to the habits of the new breed of coeds, particularly their fondness for “petting” and “necking.”

The journalist Eleanor Rowland Wembridge found distressingly lax moral standards among the women she spoke with. “One pleasant college Amazon, a total stranger,” she reported, ”…asked if I saw any harm in her kissing a man whom she liked, but whom she did not wish to marry. ‘It’s terribly exciting. We get such a thrill. I think it is natural to want nice men to kiss you, so why not do what is natural?’” Another coed panted: “When I have had a few nights without dates I nearly go crazy. I tell my mother she must expect me to go out on a fearful necking party.”

The reporter Ernest Mandeville told of drinking parties where “together with the boys, before the evening is out [coeds] have reached the ‘I don’t care’ stage. ‘Dirty’ stories are reveled in by both sexes, and the whole show can only be described by the word ‘rotten.’” Chaperons were of little use; even the most conscientious could do little more than knock periodically on the doors of dimly lit rooms. At the other extreme was one “lady chaperon” at a Pennsylvania college who, according to Mandeville, “had shown considerable capacity as a drinker herself, and told blandly of affairs with several of the undergraduates.”

Not all college women were libertines. Some exercised a demure selfrestraint, like the one who said, “As a matter of fact, there are lots of fellows I don’t kiss.” But at Trinity College (later Duke University), a student editor declared, “There are only two kinds of coeds, those who have been kissed and those who are sorry they haven’t been kissed.” A semester later the same editor, evidently something of an expert, said, “Although a girl will not always let you kiss her when you ask her, she usually appreciates your asking her, often so much that she has to tell her friends.”

In response to these trends, the mayor of a Midwestern college town launched a “fall publicity campaign against necking parties.” The University of California sought to keep its coeds under control by banning “too generous use of rouge and lipstick” and “hose rolled below the knee.” The University of Chicago, intellectual as always, had a different solution: It offered a class in social ethics. The teacher was James Hayden Tufts, a distinguished philosopher and the dean of the faculties. Close observation had revealed to Tufts that college students “think and talk a great deal about sex,” though fortunately “this speculation is honest and decent and with no intention to disturb the virtues.” Under the influence of his class, he said, “their study in college leads them back to the same answers to moral questions which they had in the beginning”— this time, however, with a firm grounding in instrumentalist philosophy. Unfortunately, a student at another Midwestern university revealed a difficulty with this approach—the pesky problem of academic freedom: “The Professor of Psychology tells me that chastity is only a secondary motive from the idea of property, so it doesn’t seem much worth thinking about, does it?”

In the end, commentators agreed, the decline in college women’s morals could be traced to the source of most other troubles in American life: democracy, and specifically the opening of colleges to all social classes. As Wembridge sadly noted, “The sex manners of the large majority of uncultivated and uncritical people have become the manners for all.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.