Continuities in Heterosexual Culture
Attempts to get at the meanings of adolescent sexuality and not just the frequency of intercourse seem to elude family planners and sex researchers. One review of reported studies on adolescent behavior from the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s warns "that we know little about normal adolescent sexual behavior," that existing data is incomplete and subject to numerous reporting and other errors (e. g., teenagers’ tendencies to exaggerate or fantasize, or their misunderstanding of critical terms such as "sexual intercourse").18 Nevertheless, even with sparse data, we may assume that, for teenagers as for adults, sexual experience includes not only genital intercourse but a wide range or continuum of erotically stimulating experiences and social situations—oral, anal, autoerotic, homosexual, "touching," as well as genital and heterosexual.19 Seen from this broader understanding of sexuality, the historical significance of current rates of teenage pregnancy, abortion, or even heterosexual intercourse is much less clear. At the least, the notion of "promiscuity," its ebbs and flows, is grossly simplistic. How does one draw a moral line, or a quantitative line, between a single incident of intercourse on the living room sofa in the 1970s and the intensely eroticized "petting" in parked cars that typified white middle-class teenage life in the 1950s—even if you didn’t "go all the way"? What basis is there for asserting, from this perspective, that teenage sexual activity has increased or for maintaining that the difference between the present and the past is "promiscuity" rather than pregnancy?
To assume that the teenagers of the 1940s and 1950s were "sexually inactive" because they "abstained" (but not always) from heterosexual intercourse or got married to legitimate it is absurd. Rather than point to a "sexual revolution," this analysis suggests an "evolution" over the past thirty to forty years.20 In fact, the variety of sexual forms that young people put into practice in the past may have been as erotic, imaginative, and absorbing as any practiced today; the difference is that they were less visible, and therefore more acceptable, to adults. The popular custom of petting, for example, which according to studies of Kinsey and others increased significantly during the 1920s (with the spread of the automobile), then "stabilized in the mid-1930s and persisted through the 1950s,"21 involved an intricate hierarchy of codified pleasures, usually enforced by the girl, and doled out in portions that advanced with the status of the relationship.22 Like "bundling," its long-ago precursor, petting was (and is) an exciting form of erotic play. Undoubtedly, the teenage girl of the 1950s learned the sexual code from wiser peers or older sisters;
it was passed down as custom in a closed and secretive teenage sex subculture, structuring the popular reality ("folkways") of teenage sex even as the image of the "unwed mother" structured its moral and political discourse.23 Burkhart found the petting custom alive and well among today’s teenagers:
. . . although it’s not talked about very much, many [teenagers] make decisions about a great deal of sex that stops short of genital union but is very exciting, passionate and satisfying. In our culture, people for many generations have remained "virgins" and still found sexual satisfaction in hours of erotic play that involves everything from kissing to exploring each other’s mouths with their tongues, to petting and massaging one another, to "dry humping"—simulating intercourse but with clothes on—to oral sex and mutual masturbation. All of this sexually exciting play can lead to orgasm that involves no threat of pregnancy.24
Yet the petting culture probably represents a specific historical reality and a specific class reality. One might speculate about the extent to which it grew out of not only an attempt to accommodate traditional morality to sexual desire and the parsimonious mentality of the middle class (waiting and saving) but also the material availability of the automobile as a private and secretive space in a sexual culture whose requirement was secrecy above all else. While working-class and lower-class youth of the 1920s through 1950s attempted and were expected to accommodate the same dominant morality, they usually did not have cars, and they lived in more crowded and less private conditions, which made sex unavoidably more visible. A classic study of adolescents in a midwestern town in the early 1940s makes it clear that the "principle of secrecy" and professions of chastity were as important to lower-class boys and girls and their parents as to middle-class ones, although in reality the modes of accommodation may have been different. Heterosexual intercourse played a larger role than petting among the lower-class youth, resulting in a much higher proportion of unwanted pregnancies, high school dropouts, and "shotgun weddings."25 Mainly because of economic circumstances, secrecy and discretion were simply less possible among working-class and lower-class teenagers. (The haste toward marriage in case of an "accident" was itself an effort to maintain a veil of silence over sex.)
Access to birth control and abortion have brought important changes in the conditions of sexuality for young unmarried women, especially among the middle and working classes. We saw in Chapter 4 how those changes were part of a larger set of transformations that involves delaying marriage and childbearing in favor of education and work. But growing numbers of teenagers who use birth control and get abortions, and even higher rates of heterosexual intercourse, do not necessarily indicate "revolutionary" changes in the experience and meanings of sexuality. The continuities in teenage sexual culture may be as important as the changes in behavior, which quantitative studies often exaggerate.
In a comparison of "Middletown" families in the 1970s with those studied by the Lynds in the 1930s, sociologists emphasize that the values and relational contexts surrounding sexual behavior have remained surprisingly constant: "Monogamic heterosexual marriage is still the nearly universal norm, and most nonmarital sexual behavior involves the possibility of eventual marriage."26 The principal changes in sexual attitudes and practices among "Middletown" residents since the mid-1930s are (1) the appearance of XXX-rated film houses, massage parlors, porn shops, and easily available "soft pom" magazines; (2) the enrollment of one – third of the county’s teenage girl population in the local Planned Parenthood clinic, where the "pill pick-up" scene has the casualness of a gym roll call; and (3) numerous sex education and other activities of Planned Parenthood in local schools and other "community settings."27 It is fascinating that these are the "sexual changes" the recent "Middletown" study highlights. Of course none of them is about sex as sensual experience or as relationships; rather, it is about historically particular and public ways of displaying, organizing, and regulating sex. Fifty years earlier the Lynds had observed that "Middletown" residents feared sex as "a force" that "might break loose and run wild," and so had tried to keep it "out of sight and out of mind as much as possible."28 In the 1970s and 1980s, sex has become visible through certain political-economic and cultural mediations: birth control and abortion services for young, mostly poor and working-class, women; commercial pornography; and a gay culture that is "out." It is hardly an accident, then, that abortion and teenage birth control, pornography, and homosexuality have become the focal issues of sexual politics in the public arena. But what about sexual relations? Is this public battleground all there is of sex, or has there been a revolution in sexual values and practices, especially among unmarried teenagers, since the 1950s?
To feminists of the 1960s and 1970s, claims about a sexual revolution were a male fantasy. Historically, we can know little about sexual values or behavior from quantitative data such as illegitimacy rates. Looking particularly at France and England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (when a tremendous rise in illegitimacy did occur), feminist historians show that upturns in illegitimacy or even sexual activity often reflect, not the quest for adolescent "self-discovery," but the greater vulnerability of young working women to seduction because of increasing social mobility and the proletarianization of male workers; deteriorating economic conditions that hinder marriage; and the breakdown of community customs sanctioning nonprocreative forms of erotic play (e. g., "bundling").
Under such conditions, out-of-wedlock pregnancy may represent an ”expression of the traditional wish to marry," but in circumstances that weaken the normative and the economic enforcements of marriage.29 The lesson of history is that the sexual behavior and values of young people may change little, whereas the social and economic context in which sex occurs—the security of a marriage promise or the social consequences of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy—may change a great deal.
Feminist social scientists interested in explaining contemporary patterns of noncontraception and rising abortion also criticize the myth of the sexual revolution and stress the persistence of traditional sexual values in the midst of changing conditions. Luker and Zimmerman document the pervasive view among teenage and other unmarried young women who got abortions in the 1970s that "sexual activity should occur in the confines of a permanent or potentially permanent relationship" (read, "love") and that sexual planning or premeditation—signaled by pill or diaphragm use—by a noncoupled woman advertises her as "loose" or "available."30 These are two sides of a single ideological coin, ways of accommodating different realities to the dominant value of heterosexual monogamy. Nearly all the qualitative studies of unwanted pregnancy and abortion in the 1970s stress the association between contraceptive use patterns and the nature or intensity of the sexual relationships in which the women are engaged. Studies of both black and white unmarried young people have indicated that a relational context that is stable and steady is more likely to generate regular contraceptive use than is a context of unstable or "casual" relationships or infrequent sexual encounters.31
The intimate association for many women between a sense of their own sexuality and the emotional quality of sexual relationships ("she gets more emotional and falls head over heels while he could give a damn") is undoubtedly a product of a particular sexual and gendered culture. It is nonetheless deeply rooted. Studies of abortion patients find two patterns, the two heterosexual realities mentioned above. In the first, the women were involved, or claimed to be involved, in monogamous relationships with men; their nonuse of contraception, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, grew out of a desire to test the love or commitment of the male partner, or even of themselves, and sometimes an expectation of marriage. Its basis was the traditional culture of the romantic heterosexual couple and the woman trying to please or hold on to "her man." Here, the sexual act and its consequence are primarily signifiers in the playing out of "the relationship," rather than events with purpose in themselves. Using sex, and the risk of pregnancy, to test the limits of commitment helps define the future (which may indeed be precarious) and creates an aura of romance in which "a willingness to accept the possible consequences" becomes a test of one’s "faith in the relationship."32
The second pattern involved women who were not in such relationships, whose sexual encounters were either casual or infrequent. These women, usually younger teenagers, maintained a "conviction of the inappropriateness of contraceptive preparedness."33 Contraceptive nonuse and unwanted pregnancy grew out of a clear sense that while sexual pleasure for women is all right within the confines of a "steady" relationship, a woman who pursues her own pleasure outside of "a relationship," as evidenced by regular birth control use, is "bad" and makes herself vulnerable to sexual exploitation:
. . . contraception forces a woman to define herself as a person who is sexually active. Planning specifically suggests not only that a woman has been sexually active once, but that she intends to be so again. A woman who plans is actively anticipating intercourse; in the terminology of the women interviewed, she is "looking to have sex." . . .
If she is frankly expecting sex, as evidenced by her continued use of contraception, she need not be courted on the same terms as a woman whose sexual availability is more ambiguous. For many women, the loss of this bargaining position outweighs all the benefits of contraception.34
Both situations represent anything but a posture of sexual revolt; rather, they reflect the persistence of a sexual ideology and social reality that persuades women that the only true measure of their worth/existence is a romantic attachment to a man. The ironic conclusion to which we are led is that it may be the young women who are most faithful to conventional morality, rather than the liberal-minded or consciously fern – minis t ones, who predominate among women getting abortions. These young women are apparently caught in a double bind; they are trying to accommodate a traditional morality about "love" and feminine virtue, yet are pulled in another direction by their sexual curiosity, the entreaties of boys, and social conditions—including the availability of birth control and abortion—that devalue early marriage and childbearing and place few sanctions on males for "lack of commitment." The contradictions in young women’s consciousness about sexuality flow out of continuities with traditional morality as much as from changing opportunities for contraceptive use and abortion.
Recent interviews with 150 teenage girls about their sexual experiences found that they never mentioned anything concerning pleasure (although they might say "it didn’t hurt"). Rather, the meanings of sex that they talked about were entirely bound up in the "story," the relationship—what happened with the boy, their girl friends, and so on. This was true even though most of them seem to have accepted heterosexual intercourse as a normal or predictable event in their lives, a matter of course.35 Another set of interviews with 250 teenagers across the country in the 1980s reflects similar contradictions in consciousness about sexuality. These girls, from different class, racial, and geographic backgrounds, generally evince an expectation that they will engage in premarital sex, and not only with the person they intend to marry or an exclusive partner.36 Their attitudes about sex are remarkably wide-ranging and frequently characterized by openness, self-confidence, and sophistication about their bodies and a variety of erotic pleasures; some even demonstrate the kind of bravado and rivalry about sexual conquests traditionally typical of teenage (and older) boys. At the same time, these "liberated" attitudes coexist with many traditional-sounding expressions of guilt and shame, and the persistence of the belief among some that one ought to be a virgin when one marries. Many of the girls retain a gnawing fear of pregnancy, which interferes with their sexual enjoyment, despite the availability and their use of contraception. Some even put off having intercourse because of that fear, citing stories about contraceptive failure or the side effects of the pill and the IUD as reasons for "not taking any chances."37 Is the threat of pregnancy or medical side effects being used as a defense by some girls to stave off pressures (from peers, boys, popular culture) to have sex before they feel ready? Or is it a kind of internalized punishment, an echo of centuries of the double standard?
The social patterns as well as the norms of adolescent sexuality exhibit continuities with a presumably more "disciplined" past. For example, Zelnik and Kantner’s 1976 study showed that by far the most frequent place where teenagers have sexual intercourse is at home (their own home or their partner’s).38 This reflects a material reality—dependent teenagers have few resources of their own—but also an understandable ambivalence about "leaving home." Moreover, whatever variations it takes, teenage sexuality seems to generate its own quasi-familial structures and moral codes. In her interviews, Thompson found that peer groups dictated rules for permissible and impermissible behavior that, while differing regionally and by class and race, nevertheless provided a set of limits on sexual activity (e. g., in many cases oral sex was considered taboo, even though intercourse was not). While the content of the rules may have shifted, it seems clear that such peer-group rules may be working as effectively among teenagers today as did the charivari in nineteenth-century Europe or the petting codes of the 1940s and 1950s to restrict sexual behavior. Thompson also mentions the elaboration, through sexual activity, of quasi kin networks involving boy friends and girl friends, former boy friends and best girl friends, in a triangle or nexus that reconstructs a family form rather than reflecting an abrupt separation from it.
The ambiguity in the teenage girl’s sexual situation is enormously encouraged through the media and popular culture. First, even as a preteen she finds herself—or her idealized counterpart—commercially sexualized in films, advertising, and television. The image of the "promiscuous" teenage girl, as young as twelve or thirteen, is an outgrowth, and an ancient one, of a male-dominant culture. Its recent propagation through the media, child pornography, advertising, and the multi-billion-dollar packaging of Brooke Shields proceeds in tandem with the paternalistic fervor of the New Right and the courts, who seek both to "protect" young women from the ravages of abortion profiteers, pornographers, and seduction, and to punish them for succumbing. Patriarchal societies have traditionally served up a double mystification of women—mother and temptress, virgin and whore. Like its more traditional counterparts, the current commercial image of preteen sexuality is not one of female self-assertion or sexual autonomy but one of availability to fantasized male desire. To the extent that young women attempt to conform to that image, it does not reflect a radical change in sexual values or practices but a variation on the old patriarchal theme of "pleasing Daddy."
At the same time, teenagers have become the market for a multi – million-dollar bonanza of the publishing industry: paperback romances with titles like Dreams Can Come True, P.5. / Love You, and Flowers for Lisa. The formula for these books, based on similar ones published in the 1950s, is devoid of not only sex but race, class, and, for the most part, working mothers. Girls never make the first move; they wait to see what boys will do. And boys—a "relationship"—take priority over all else in life.39 Feminist writer Brett Harvey aptly identifies these teen romances as a reactionary literature to the more sexually explicit teen fiction of the early 1970s; the new romances are "morality plays," whose message is that sex goes with marriage (or, at least, the "real thing") and "a woman is incomplete without a man."40 The persistence of these traditional sexual values alongside the ambiguous social position of teenage girls—independent in some ways and dependent in others—compounds the conditions leading to unwanted pregnancy and abortion: "The ‘problem’ is not an absence of ‘morality’ among teenagers, but rather the persistence of a morality based on the sexual restraint of women presumed to be independent and responsible."41
On the other hand, if teenagers today exhibit complicated attachments to the sexual morality of the past, those of an earlier generation may have engaged in a degree of sexual inventiveness and subterfuge that rivals the sexually active teenagers of today. In his 1940s study, Hollingshead captures the sense of this dynamic complexity in his distinction between the "mores" and "folkways" of sexuality; between what people adhere to as beliefs and what they do and know in practice; between formal lines of moral authority and informal grids of complicity:
. . . [many] play an intricate game of outward conformance to
the publicly professed sex mores while they violate them in secret.
… In this game some adults aid and abet the adolescents, while others work against them and attempt to maintain the mores; one sex plots against the other, not infrequently males outwit males and females hoodwink females; adolescents defy adults, and children their parents. The churches try to uphold the mores; the taverns and public dance halls aid in their circumvention. Although the police are charged with the maintenance of the mores, they regularly compromise between their strict enforcement and their open violation.42
In this analysis of an earlier generation, Hollingshead suggests that the conspiracy of silence and verbal adherence to the prescribed code is more important than the actual prevention of a taboo behavior. Thus, while marriage was the normative goal of sexual relations, in practice it was understood that ”going together" did not have to lead to marriage; while "nice girls" were not supposed to like going to "petting parties," in practice many did; while parents and authorities were expected to censure teenage sexual activity, in practice they loaned the car or looked the other way. These perceptions are useful when we attempt to understand the sexual and reproductive politics of the 1980s, for it would seem that those politics are aimed once again at silencing, reprivatizing, the outward signs of sexuality (most conspicuously, abortion) more than its actual practice.