Retro Moral Panic: “Sexual Behavior Among Teen-Agers”


In the wake of graduation I started working part-time as a Personal Assistant and Organizational Consultant. Last weekend, one of my clients decided to purge an interesting and sizable book collection. The biggest perk of my work? First pick of the donation-destined books.

My client pulled a tattered, yellowing paperback from the shelf and grinned. “You might like this one from the 60s.”

"Sexual Behavior Among Teen-Agers"

My jaw dropped and I might have drooled a tiny bit. I tucked the book safely into my take-home pile, eager to peer into the perspective of 1960s psychiatrists and panicked adults.

Notice the newspaper clippings on the left? "4 Girls Held In Sex Orgy Quiz." Uh, woah.

Turns out, it’s the same tired tune sung by today’s pop-psychologists and panicked parents: Our girls are having sex! We must DO something! The fabric of society! Morals! Ad nauseum!

The book title says teenagers (er, teen-agers) but means young females. The entire book is about rising promiscuity among girls in the 1960s. Misleading title FTW.

From the introduction:

“There were murderous machetes, home-made zip guns, lethal revolvers, all kinds of knives and daggers. But the most dangerous plaything of all- the one which got most of the city’s juvenile gangs into trouble- wasn’t any one of these. It was, declared Arthur J. Rogers, a New York City Youth Board Official, a human weapon- the girl delinquent.”

Ladies. More dangerous than a murderous machete.

The book devolves into insanity from there, discussing “Nice Girls” versus the slatternly fallen sexual girls, petting and necking on lover’s lane. I don’t know where to begin, so how about some passages picked at random?

From page 31:

“Chastity is the only sure protection for the unmarried woman. The unmarried man rarely has anything to lose by a casual sexual encounter, which is why he is all in favor of it. But the girl or woman who gives herself to a man, this side  of a wedding ring, may pay for her foolish impulse with years of regret.

That is why the enemies of chastity are wrong.”

My, what compelling evidence you have there. I understand that contraceptives were less accessible in 1961 but, by the book’s own admission, many teens resorted to necking and petting (making out and hand jobs) instead. No pregnancies or STIs need apply!

Page 68 wants to tell you about how poor people are horny idiot metaphorical drug addicts with no self- control!

“The very background of poverty encourages licentious behavior. If you are forced to live in depressing slums, one way of escaping them is through sexual indulgence, which might be compared to a form of opium in that it affords a temporary transfer to a rosy and bright land rich with sensual pleasures and excitement.”

How is that description supposed to deter teens from engaging in sex? It feels amazing! Don’t do it!

Page 125 considers the sad lives of “free love” females:

“Any girl who coolly considers the additional disadvantages of free love will quickly reach the conclusion that sex without a wedding ring isn’t worth it. As an illicit sex partner she is forced to meet, and be with her lover in secrecy and stealth, always in the shadows of life. She must live in constant dread of exposure and disgrace, which may cost both her reputation and her job. She cannot dare to think and plan for her future… because all it holds for her is a lover’s desertion.”

Illicit sex partner? Enough with the drug metaphors. And if your non-spouse partner is just going to leave you, maybe you should review your dating criteria.

Finally, page 154 warns teens that there is no in-between of sexual activity: either you go all the way into slut-land or you refuse and become the worst thing of all: a tease.

“Perhaps the benefit you hope to gain by petting is to please your date, to win his approval by submitting to his roving hands. If this is your motive, we’re afraid you know very little about the psychology of boys. In the first place, petting without going to the limit leaves a boy even more frustrated and unhappy than you. Boy have a name for girls that “lead them on” and then stop short. They call such a girl “teasers.” A teaser is resented and disliked.”

The messages in this book are not astounding to me. The fact that these messages are still present is cause for a good *headdesk* slam. Girls lives will be destroyed by sex! Boys only want sex! You’re either Nice, Slutty or a Tease! Boys never have consequences with sex!

One of my colleagues did research on sexuality related headlines in major news media outlets and found that the majority of the time (about 80% or more) the stories centered on young females. When we talk about teen sexuality we focus on young females. They must heed the warnings, suffer the consequences, prevent rape, get birth control, watch what they do, and control their own desires along with their partners.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

6 thoughts on “Retro Moral Panic: “Sexual Behavior Among Teen-Agers””

  1. I think this is an incredible angle on modern sexuality. But you have to admit that we did, for a brief decade or so from the mid 60s to mid 70s, had begun to move away from this double standard, and toward a more open sexuality. And in 1973 or so, the APA lifted its fatwah on gays and lesbians. And then as if we needed a new excuse to become puritanical, AIDS came along.

    I think we as a society do try to change, but we struggle against opposing forces.

  2. Ummm…. there is a double standard. It’s called male and female. It’s biology that men want to spread their seed and women want to hold onto one man. But I don’t want to go into that, because it offends PC people. Anyway, puberty happens so that people can start having sex. That’s the point. Teenage years are for exploring your own sexuality and identity. It’s society’s fault that teenagers are no longer economically self sufficient or mature enough to raise the children they accidentaly create like they were 500 years ago. In the rennaissance times, people got married at thirteen and had sex right away. That’s a long way from the hypocrisy that infects the modern era. It all comes down to socioeconomics. Biology hasn’t changed, the time it takes to raise an economically independent child has. There is absolutely nothing wrong with sex, in or out of marriage. The only negative effects are accidental births, STDs, and depleted vigor from excessive sexual activity. And all three are easily avoided. But I digress.

    1. @Sulyeman

      “depleted vigor from excessive sexual activity.”

      Would you care to elaborate what you mean by this?

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