GOING STEADY Is it ruining our teen-agers?

Long past the fad stage, the mock marriages of our high-school youth are troubling parents, teachers and social scientists. And the youngsters themselves seem perplexed. Does the system promote sexual promiscuity, encourage stifling conformity, blight individual development? Here is a summary of the latest evidence

Sidney Katz January 3 1959

GOING STEADY Is it ruining our teen-agers?

Long past the fad stage, the mock marriages of our high-school youth are troubling parents, teachers and social scientists. And the youngsters themselves seem perplexed. Does the system promote sexual promiscuity, encourage stifling conformity, blight individual development? Here is a summary of the latest evidence

Sidney Katz January 3 1959

In the age-long battle between adolescents and their parents, the two factions are now embroiled in what is perhaps their most turbulent and acrimonious controversy.

The subject at issue is “going steady,” a dating custom which made an immense leap in popularity just after World War II and has now reached epidemic proportions among our youth. “Going steady” means that a boy and girl— usually in the twelve to seventeen-year-old age group form a relationship which can best be described as a form of premarital monogamy. As long as their pact lasts, they vow tacitly or in fact to be “faithful” to each other. They don’t "cheat" by looking twice at, or going out with, another member of the opposite sex. If they live near each other, they walk to and from school together. They eat, study, play and go to dances and parties as a couple. They are, in matter of fact, as inseparable as a husband and wife and their union is regarded as inviolable by their contemporaries.

Going steady has kicked up a hullabaloo of astronomical proportions. In a recent Canadian High News poll, eighty-two percent of parents were opposed to their daughters going steady. Anxious parents are constantly seeking advice on how to deal with problems related to going steady. Steady dating is frequently discussed at meetings of organizations interested in youth and millions of words on the subject, pro and con, have appeared in print in the last few years.

Many parents are alarmed—especially if they have a daughter—by the chance that “something might happen.” They point to the inexorable law of nature that “biology plus propinquity equals intimacy.” They are supported by a statemen from a Roman Catholic theologian that “going steady is a proximate occasion of sin—a situation from which sin will almost inevitably result. It places too much strain on the moral fibre of the individual.” Apart from the danger of an “accident," parents dread the possibility of their youngsters drifting into early marriage long before they are economically or sociaIly prepared for it. An unprecedented number of teen-age weddings confirms the reality of this fear: since the outbreak of World War II, the proportion of teen-age brides (no doubt partly under the influence of better economic conditions) has increased by one third. Sociologists have completed several studies underlining the hazards of early marriages. A teen-age bride and groom, these surveys show, are twice as likely to be divorced as a couple who are married in their twenties.

On another level, many parents object to going steady on the grounds that it has a tultifying effect on the social and intellectual growth of their offspring.  One father told me, "It's a cut-and-dried, hidebound affair.  It has no excitement or freshness to it.  They don't have any fun. At the ripe old age of fifteen they're like a stolid middle-aged married couple - the girl is bored and the boy is henpecked. It's a nauseating and silly business all around."

Teen-agers who favor the institution of going steady react to these parental outbursts in puzzlement and anger. "Why do they get so hysterical over going steady?" an attractive fifteen-year-old brunette asked me. "Most of their views are ancient and idiotic-I get a good laugh out of them." Many girls go steady, I learned, "because everybody does it. If you don't, you're dead - an outcast." Having a steady automatically guarantees that you'll be going to all the parties and dances.  "You don't have to spend your time before every affair suffering with the jitters." They prefer a steady beau because they don't have to get all dressed up "and make an impression on a new fellow every week." They find it comforting to know somebody well enough "to confide in." As for the sexual dangers, they say, "Parents are filthy-minded and suspicious, that's why they think that way. A smart girl doesn't let things go that far."

While not as wholeheartedly sold on the idea of having a permanent attachment, many of the boys I spoke to had kind words to say about going steady. A shy fifteen-year-old, who had been going with a girl for three months, told me, “If you phone a few girls and they refuse you, the girls talk and the word gets around and you’re the laughing stock. This way I'm always sure of a date." A more sophisticated sixteen-year-old observed, “We’ve got a gang of about eight couples and the girls are always arranging parties. It’s an easy and inexpensive way to have a social life. If you take out a new date every time, you have to go to expensive shows and dances. Who’s got a million?” An added economic advantage is that the steady girl friend often pays half the entertainment bill.

Are the fears of parents about going steady justified? Are teen-agers being unfairly pilloried because of a harmless dating custom? To get the answers to these and several other pertinent questions, I have spent the last several weeks interviewing teen-agers, parents, teachers, youth leaders, clergymen, sociologists and psychiatrists. While nothing can be said which would be true of all teen-agers everywhere, here are my main conclusions:

• The vogue of going steady is largely due to the teen-agers’ almost pathological desire to conform to current dating practices. While they boldly defy their parents, they're terrified of each other. They recoil at the thought of being singled out as different in any way. Conformity is one way of acquiring a feeling of personal security.

• Going steady is not providing a large proportion of teen-agers with the security and satisfactions they hoped to get out of it. When Canadian High News polled steady couples in ten cities, fifty-three percent of the girls and forty percent of the boys reported, "My steady doesn't meet my requirements.” But they would rather go steady than not. One girl, who had described her beau as "a fuddydud.” asked me, "What do you want me to do—-leave him and put myself on the shelf?"

• Many of the steady relationships are psychologically unhealthy for both the boy and girl concerned. Some psychiatrists speak of them as “neurotic clutchings.” An example I encountered was the sixteen-year-old boy, dependent on his mother, who sought a substitute in his fifteen-year-old girl. She picked his clothes for him, decided what school courses he should take and became deeply involved in the frequent quarrels he had with his family and friends. It was weakening for the boy and the immature girl was trapped and betrayed by her maternal instincts. I found several other relationships where an insecure boy receives satisfaction by bullying and dominating his girl. A sixteen-year-old girl told me, “He even used to call me foul names in front of my friends. I was only fifteen then; he was seventeen. I was afraid of him. I didn’t have enough guts to walk out on him until a few months ago.”

• I found that another emotionally unhealthy aspect of steady dating is the aftermath of a "divorce.” It is the female who bears the brunt of the suffering. A pert blonde of fifteen told me how she felt "alone, adrift and scorned. None of the boys would come near me for a few months.” Parents told me of their daughters who cried for days after a breakup with a steady boy friend, and stopped eating and sleeping. A teacher told me of an excellent student who was jilted at Christmas time. Her marks steadily declined and she failed her year. "Divorced” couples often become enemies and avoid each other—even to the extent of refusing to go to the same parties.

• Sex play is an important part of almost every steady relationship. Whether the boy or girl kiss, neck, pet or "go all the way” can depend on the individuals involved, their family background and the area in which they live. I visited one low-income-bracket neighborhood where there are many broken homes. Youth leaders who worked in the district told me that “going steady” was synonymous with “sleeping together.” In some of the new suburban areas, where there are no established traditions of behavior, some couples hang out in groups where a variety of sex activity, including intimacy, is the expected pattern of behavior. One of their favorite games was a “kissing contest": the girl who could cause her boy's pulse rate to increase the most was declared the winner. The growing number of teen-age, unwed mothers—despite the widespread use of contraceptives — indicates that many adolescents are “going all the way.” One large urban social agency told me that the majority of the two thousand unmarried mothers they interviewed during 1957 were in their teens; over a hundred of them were fourteen years old or less. On the other hand, my over-all impression is that the vast majority of steady couples stop short of sexual union.

• The custom of going steady is largely a female device—initiated (however subtly), encouraged and perpetuated by the girls. It is the female answer to the “wallflower” problem. Under any other system of dating, most girls wouldn’t have as many dates. The boys go along with the system because it fills certain of their needs and has certain advantages. A woman youth leader observed, “On the whole, the girls seem to be smarter and more aggressive—many girls hold the boy captive like a rabbit in a snare.” Many girls complained to me about the growth of the matriarchal system and the lack of masculine aggressiveness among the fellows they knew. "You can lead most boys around by the nose,” said one girl. “They never assert themselves. They don’t want to be stronger and better than women any more.”

• Parents, despite their general opposition, have completely failed to halt the going - steady habit. Viewed as a class they seem to have lost their grip on children in the fourteen to seventeen year-old age group. “Nothing works any more," said one father, sadly. The teen-agers seem to have closed their ranks. Parents don’t seem to be able to reach their children; children don’t seem able to reach their parents. In one large scale American survey, seventy-six percent of adolescents complained that they couldn't discuss intimate matters with their parents.

• I found that many parents, when it comes to asserting authority, are paralyzed and immobilized. This condition is often due to real confusion in the parent s mind as to what’s right and what’s wrong. Part of the conflict can be traced to the torrent of psychological teaching during the past forty years—much of it contradictory—emphasizing the importance of the individual adjusting to the group. A father who refused to allow his daughter to see her “steady” for the fifth night of the same week, later had misgivings. “Do you think I’ll hamper her development?” he asked. Much of the psychological talk has filtered down to the youngsters who sometimes use it opportunely. “What are you trying to do—-make me dependent?” asked a fifteen-year-old boy who was told to be home from a party by midnight. Many parents, seduced by the current cult of popularity, have abdicated the traditional role of being wise and guiding elders to their offspring. They want their children to regard them as buddies and pals, rather than stuffed shirts and old fogies. Many teen-agers seem to resent the intrusion: they prefer friends of their own age. Despite their defiance, they want and need authority.

Among the numerous groups I interviewed, anywhere from one quarter to two thirds of the youngsters had chosen a steady mate, whether their parents liked the idea or not. The custom generally starts when the girl is thirteen or fourteen. Among girls, going steady seems to reach its peak somewhere between the sixteenth and seventeenth year. After that, many girls refuse to enter an alliance just for the sake of an assured date. They insist on liking to be with the person they're going out with.

Who goes steady? After many interviews with youngsters and youth leaders it is my impression that a relatively small proportion of the top echelon of boys and girls go steady; a relatively high proportion remain free-lance. The extremely attractive, intelligent, self-assured girls seldom lack dates. A sixteen-year-old, who definitely belonged in this category, told me, "You keep attractive by playing the field. You don’t get dowdy and careless.” Boys who are unsure of their masculine appeal are likely to seek steadies to assure themselves a social life. If they connect, they laud the steady system; if they fail, they loudly proclaim their disdain for girls. The attitude of most youngsters lies somewhere between these extremes. New-Canadian children are less likely to go steady because they are more directly under the influence of their parents. A German mother told me, "Going that way is only for couples about to be married. Anyway, they should be keeping their minds on their studies.”

There are different gradations of going steady. In order of seriousness and permanency, they are: playing the field, going around, going steadily, going steady, pinning, engaging, and marrying. Once a couple are seen together three or four times within a short period, it is assumed by their peers that they are going steady. This assumption often traps a boy or girl into forming an alliance. A fifteen-year-old girl explains, "If you date a boy a few times everybody else automatically drifts away so you have to go steady with him." For this reason, some girls who don’t want to commit themselves refuse to date a boy more than twice, even if they’re fond of him.

Although it is nearly always the boy who actually voices the proposal to go steady, it is usually the girl who has fostered and nurtured the relationship. This is not unnatural since the adolescent female is a year or two ahead of the male emotionally and biologically. "I took out this girl a few times because I liked her and the first thing you know it’s on a permanent basis,” a fifteen-year-old told me in a somewhat surprised tone. Some women are not as subtle. A handsome six footer complains (and his mother confirms the fact) that six girls have already proposed to him that he be their steady. One girl has been phoning regularly for three months.

The emotional tone of the relationship between steadies is usually misunderstood by adults. Steadies infrequently use the word “love": they are more likely to say that they "like” their partners. When I asked. Does going steady lead to an engagement or marriage?" most of them didn't think so. A boy will say of a girl, "She's lots of fun," or “She’s okay," while the girl will describe her swain as "a dream." A seventeen-year-old top high school student assured me that, from his observation, "going steady is not a deeply sincere thing." Undoubtedly in a small proportion of couples the emotions run deep and they exchange vows, privately, of love and marriage.

Once a couple have started going steady, they will often go to extraordinary lengths to be together. In the three-minute interval between classes, a girl may rush the entire length of the school to catch a glimpse of her beau. In some high schools, teachers are assigned to a daily "pigeon hunt” — patrolling the corridors and routing out the "hall pigeons," couples who have arrived as early as 8.15 a.m. to moon and to mug. As a symbol of belonging to each other, couples sometimes affect similar dress and styles.

The keystone of the going-steady relationship is “faithfulness” and the cardinal sin is to "cheat." Cheating usually means dating others of the opposite sex or, sometimes, merely showing a personal interest in them. One girl spent an hour in the school nurse's office, crying because her boy friend had been making eyes at another girl. A boy roundly chastised his steady because she stopped to talk to a male classmate in the corridor a few times. A mother told me that her son was forced to give up dropping in on a girl in the neighborhood, whom he had known since childhood, because her regular date objected. At dances, steady couples generally dance every dance together. If the pattern is broken, hard feelings and fist fights are likely. A boy or girl who cheats or who switches steadies more than once or twice a year can become the object of scorn and contempt. I was told, "That's cheap—they would be acting as badly as those people in Hollywood you read about.” One vivacious youngster who charmed a boy away from another girl was ostracized by her group for several weeks. Most boys, like one fifteen-year-old I spoke to, passively accept the system: "I wouldn’t dream of going after a girl who was going steady no matter how much I wanted her.”

 After several months of going steady the relationship may assume all the sparkle and spontaneity of a couple who have just celebrated their silver wedding anniversary. Dress and manners sometimes tend to become casual. One sixteen-year-old girl often receives her boy friend clad in a shabby bathrobe, her face covered with cold cream and her hair up in curlers. In the middle of the evening she may wander off to take a bath, leaving him with members of her family. She bawls him out for getting low marks in physics or for going out with boys who are known to drink. One anti-going-steady youth told me. "You see them driving in a car, not talking to each other: she’s looking out the window; he’s concentrating on his driving. They remind me of my parents.”

One good feature of this kind of unglamorized propinquity, in the opinion of some parents, is that it discourages sexual activity. “George is over at the house a lot,” one father told me. “He knows the whole family well. He sees my girl under all kinds of circumstances. She’s less likely to get into trouble than if she went out with a long succession of strange boys.” On the other hand, from many interviews it is my impression that kissing, necking and heavy petting are characteristic of many if not most going - steady relationships. Several girls told me, "Sex is the chief problem between my boy friend and me." Others said, "It’s up to the girl to stop it.” Several boys told me how they exercised self-restraint: “If you like the kid, you don’t want to get her into trouble.”

I found that many parents were making the mistake of assuming that then children know more than they actually do. One youth leader is often approached by teen-agers with elementary questions about sex, who preface their speech with, "I know I’m supposed to know all this but ...” A father, who was cautioning his fifteen-year-old son about the dangers of becoming aroused, was told, “It’s not that serious. It’s like a game. I see how far I can go and still keep control.” A thirteen-year-old pregnant girl explained, "I like this boy and I just didn't know how to say ‘no.’ ” A sixteen-year-old boy observed, “I’ve played around quite a bit but I didn't know you could get a girl pregnant that way.” Many parents are still sloughing off the responsibility of acquainting their children with the facts of life. At a recent meeting of parents in a comfortable residential district, those present all agreed that sex education was their job but the majority asked the school to undertake it.

Recently, with a social worker, I reviewed several hundred cases of teen-age pregnancy. Many of the couples had been seeing each other regularly, with little or no supervision. Most of the liaisons had taken place in parked cars, in homes where the girl was baby-sitting or at the homes of friends whose parents were out of town. The social worker observed. "Many parents place a burden on their children by trusting them too much." Another conclusion she came to was that many homes failed to emphasize acceptable standards of behavior and moral values. The result is that many adolescents feel no guilt about what they've done. Questioned about his knowledge of five teen-age pregnancies in a suburban community, a fifteen-year-old boy replied, "What's all the fuss about? We’re no worse than any other place." Later, he confessed that he was part of a gang that "went all the way." The gang set the standards; if you didn't adhere to them, you were “chicken.”

One highly qualified social scientist affiliated with a large Canadian university believes that going steady is the forerunner of a social revolution in sex behavior. He sees no harm in premarital relationships for adolescents if the social taboos and fears of conception are banished. He predicts that at least one of these barriers will soon be removed with the discovery of a foolproof oral contraceptive. He says, "Perhaps the future pattern of mating will be for each child, once he or she has reached puberty, to experience a series of temporary ‘pre-marital’ marriages. Finally, when they are mature in their twenties, they will settle down with a single partner."

But this view, of course, is far from general. And parents can find further reassurance in the fact that the average period of going steady is fairly brief. It often ends with the school year. Sometimes it doesn't survive the football season: the girl may be dazzled by a star fullback and disenchanted when he's no longer a public idol. Teen-agers give a variety of reasons for breaking up. One girl said. "He began to bore me. We used to talk on the phone an hour. Now a five-minute call is mostly made up of pauses. We've got nothing to say to each other." Another girl walked out when her boy friend insisted that it was her duty to allow him greater intimacies. Cheating, of course, is always sufficient grounds for a separation. When a boy ends an alliance it's sometimes because the girl has become too possessive. One lad rebelled when his partner insisted that he phone her every night; another when he was practically ordered to skip some of his basketball practices in order to spend more time dating.

When the bonds of steadyhood are about to part, girls are more apt to try and spare the boys’ feelings. Sometimes a personable girl will continue to go with a boy long after she’s ceased to care— an act of martyrdom which is admired by her friends. Unsophisticated kids of fourteen or fifteen, at a loss to know how to end a relationship, may simply blurt out. "You’re a jerk and I don’t want to see you any more.” Older teen-agers show more finesse and may spend hours exploring each other's feelings about the impending separation. Timid boys sometimes announce their "resignation” to their erstwhile beloveds over the telephone. If they're even more timid than that, they get a friend to phone.

While many teen-agers regard the end of a romance as a shattering tragedy, in most instances parents draw a sigh of relief. However, their worry-free days are strictly numbered; in weeks or months, daughter will have another regular beau. Parents frequently ask the experts in psychology, “What can we do about going steady—especially when we disapprove of the other child?”

Most psychologists would advise them to talk over the matter with the child in as calm and friendly a manner as possible. If it can be arranged — and this suggestion came from a bright sixteen-year-old girl—the discussion should take place during a period when the children are between steadies. The success of a heart-to-heart talk with a fifteen or sixteen-year-old depends on how successful parents have been in maintaining contact with their children. Parents are advised to keep close ties with their youngsters around the period of puberty and after—eleven to fourteen. That's the time when parents and children grow apart.

One course of action usually fails: forbidding the relationship. It leads to rebelliousness and builds an intense loyalty to the boy or girl. At any rate, judging by several of my interviews, the couple will continue to see each other clandestinely, at school, at a club or at a girl friend's home.

Several parents told me that they refrain from criticizing a boy they don’t approve but encourage their daughter to invite him to the house. One father recalls, "This boy spent two or three evenings with us playing ping-pong, cards and watching TV. He wisecracked, he was ill-mannered and his conversation was limited. None of us said a word but my daughter stopped seeing him shortly after. She was able to evaluate him in the light of her own background and recognize that he didn't fit in.”

For a more meaningful understanding of the custom of going steady, parents no matter how modern they claim to behave to realize that they and their children live in two different worlds. A publication of the U. S. Children’s Bureau, a government welfare agency, states flatly, "The very idea of parents being on the same level and sharing experiences as an equal with children is absurd!" Several teen-agers told me that they were shocked by their parents' suggestion that they go out with several boys. "It sounds like something immoral,” they said.

What is the nature of this new world inhabited by our adolescents? There is an almost obsessive need for security. Our children want everything settled and arranged in advance; they want to take no risks. It is significant that when several thousand American teen-agers were asked to name the main prerequisite of a happy marriage—and the results would probably be the same here—nine out of ten replied. “Money.” Children, evidently, have absorbed in concentrated form, the adult emphasis on security as evidenced by our own advocacy of health insurance, pensions and guaranteed annual wages. The teen-agers’ premature conservatism and excessive desire to conform are also symptomatic of their search for security.

Another characteristic of the new world is a growing unwillingness to struggle and make sacrifices. Reared during a cycle of prosperity, many youngsters have been robbed of the opportunity to strive for what they want. They tend to lack initiative and be passive — an attitude summed up by the password of the Beat Generation. "No sweat!” Thus, when many modern teen-agers reach the age when they’re interested in girls, they discover that going steady snugly fits in with their deeply felt need for security, conformity and passivity. **