Told by Kimba Stahler
From Going Steady to Dorm Room Love: Commercialization, Intimacy, and Sexuality in the 1960s and 1970s
In 1955, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Pat Alaveni took her first breath. Twelve years later, she stepped into the world of dating. As a “boy crazy” child, she was aware of boys and had admired construction workers through the windows of her home.1 While watching 1940s movies, she imagined romance as “finding the perfect person.”2 Human intimacy was the most important aspect Alaveni’s sexuality, and she understood dating as the opportunity to get to know someone.
Over the course of the twentieth century, American dating culture and ideas about sexuality changed. At the close of the nineteenth century, romantic love formed the basis of American sexuality, and by the middle of the twentieth century, the idea of companionate marriage intertwined sexual fulfilment and intimacy into marriage. However, commercialization seeped into sexuality which threatened to obscure intimacy and emotional connection.3
Alaveni’s experiences dating illuminate the tension that existed between romantic love and commercialization in American sexuality. When her partners did not define sexuality through intimacy, or when their relationship lacked it, the couple struggled to overcome that tension. She was aware of this tension and that her peers did not always privilege intimacy in their own sexuality. Upon reflection, she realized, “it was possible I had boyfriends and dates that weren’t actually friends.”4
In the seventh grade, Pat Alaveni began searching for that perfect person. As a member of the baby boomer generation, Alaveni and her peers married earlier in life and before graduating high school they went “steady.”5 Her and her first boyfriend hung out in the neighborhood or at her house since they were too young to drive and their parents did not take them to date night activities.6 As many young boys did, her first boyfriend gave her a friendship ring to signify their status as “steadies.”6 During high school, Alaveni went steady with a “warm” and “friendly” boy for two years, even after he left Harrisburg for college.
Although this new concept of going-steady was a drastic change from the 1940s dating culture, it did share one significant similarity. For her parents’ generation, young adults went on dates frequently with different partners to raise their popularity in a system called “dating and rating.”7 Dating and rating and going-steady were commodified sexualities rooted in scarcity and competition. As American soldiers fought in World War II, men were scarce, and a woman who had a social calendar full of dates was a popular woman indeed. When going-steady, women were scarce because they were taken. Scarcity brought value to an individual’s sexuality because it increased their popularity. A woman’s sexual value declined if she did not have many suitors in the 1940s or if she was single during the 1950s.8
Dating brought teenagers into American consumer culture because couples entered the market place when dating left the home. Part of a longer trend which stretched back to the beginning of the century, consumption interwove itself into sexuality through “the date.” Couples patronized entertainment establishments, where boys spent money. Girls bought clothes and cosmetics to make themselves desirable to men.9
Going on a date provided couples with access to privacy since it took place without parental supervision. Alaveni and her high school boyfriend went on a hayride for one date where “everyone was making out in the corn fields.”6 Access to privacy allowed young couples to stretch the definition of respectable sexuality beyond heterosexual marriage. For Alaveni’s peers, “making out” or petting, but not always intercourse, intertwined love and sexuality into going-steady.10
When Alaveni enrolled in the California Institute of Arts during the early 1970s, her classmates no longer went steady. Instead, they would “pair off”: two people would leave a social gathering together at the end of the night.((Alaveni, Skype interview, Oct. 22, 2019.)) Sexual liberalism, which had divorced sex from reproduction but still contained respectable sexuality within heterosexual marriage, began to break down by the end of the 1960s. Her generation did not define pre-marital sex as a disrespectable behavior as the previous generations had. The sexual revolutions took numerous forms including “free love,” the increased visibility of gay and lesbian relationships, access to the birth control pill, and earlier intercourse for many people. In some cases, youths divorced sexuality from love and connected it to “socially bonding capacities.”11
While in college, Alaveni struggled to reconcile a commodified sexuality with her own definition. At a student event, a “mysterious” man caught Alaveni’s attention, and he slipped away before she had a chance to meet him. Knocking on his dorm room door, she introduced herself and disclosed that he intrigued her: she had to know him. Perplexed, he confessed, “I don’t know what you want from me,” and “I don’t have anything to offer you.”((Alaveni, Skype interview, Oct. 22, 2019.)) Baffled, she told him she did not want to “own him” or “take anything from him.” Through their interaction, Alaveni discovered that he was not so mysterious after all and the way he viewed sexuality resembled a form of consumption did not appeal to her. Ironically, he wished to spend more time with her. She rebuffed his request because he was “a boring person.” In retrospect, she found “secret delight” in the fact that he had failed to “charmed” her.6
Dating in college proved to be difficult, on top of the stress of deadlines and final projects, Alaveni grew disenchanted with the idea of dating after her experiences. Ultimately, she invested herself in a relationship with a man that she did not like. When she first saw him, he made fun of her pink suit that she had made herself. Ironically, this was the only man that she remarks on his appearance: “he was attractive, but an asshole.”6 One night in the dormitory lobby, they were commiserating about difficulties in college dating culture. Alaveni told him she was beginning to believe that, “maybe you should be in a relationship with someone you don’t like.” He seemed to have agreed with her. “Well, I don’t like you,” he reminded her. Inviting her up to his room he asked, “do you want to see my pencil case?”6
Refusing to participate in public dating disconnected their relationship from the forces of commercialization. This couple refused to “date” in the same fashion their peers did. For six months, they did not go-steady or pair-off. They promised to keep their relationship confined to the privacy of his room, and they committed themselves to not liking each other. For this couple, privacy protected human connection and intimacy from commercialization. Although this affair began as one tied to sexual gratification, after thinking back, Alaveni calls it an “intellectual” relationship. She loved him, but never told him. Years later, after he had married someone else, he confessed that he had fallen in love with her too.6 A sexuality detached from love and one tied to romantic love could coexist and lack a definitive boundary.
As access to privacy increased sexual activity, it also interwove sexuality with human connection and intimacy. The advent of coed dormitories, which provoked fears of promiscuity among parents, created space for such relationships to flourish. Some college students believed that coed dorms would allow men and women to develop friendships as a part of romantic relationships. These students thought dating hindered their ability to get to know someone because they felt dating was an act where each participant was on their best behavior.12 Staying within his dorm room might have taken off the pressure her peers felt to prove their femininity and masculinity on dates. It did not matter if Alaveni or her partner acted within the proscribed behaviors well enough to impress the other, they were not trying to gain their affection. However, if neither one of them felt like they had to act, that might have exposed a truer self within the relationship.
Even though intimacy was not the only aspect of her sexuality, it was one that she was not willing to sacrifice. The way she recalls her first marriage demonstrates how the desire to be a mother intertwined with intimacy. After college, Alaveni cultivated a painting career and worked towards starting a family. Reminiscing, she explains that she married because she was ready to be a mother: “it was the right time, but the wrong person.”6 The week after her first date with a man, he proposed to her. Alaveni describes their wedding day as an uneventful excursion to the mayor’s office. When the mayor asked her if she took this man to be her husband, she remembers saying “O.K.” She gave birth to a son within the first year of their marriage. They divorced after living “as roommates for eight years.”6
Sexual fulfillment was also important to her sexuality, but it did not outweigh intimacy. Within a year of her divorce, Alaveni rushed into another marriage because she had found sexual fulfillment, which her first marriage lacked. After the cloud of fulfillment lifted, this couple divorced within two years of signing their marriage license. Contemplating this, she urges the younger generation to “never let yourself get hungry.”6 For both marriages, Alaveni remembers reasons other than human intimacy as the motives for her unions: the desire to be a mother and the fulfillment of physical pleasure.
Alaveni held on to her belief that romance hinged on “finding the perfect person” over the course of her life. Historians have demonstrated that for her peers, sexuality became increasingly commercialized and commodified, and in some cases, sexual behavior became divorced from romantic love. However, for Pat Alaveni, human connection and intimacy remained a central aspect of her sexuality. She still believes that a romantic relationship should involve intimacy not just through the physical expressions of love but through friendship.
- Pat Alaveni, Skype interview with the author, October 22, 2019.
- Pat Alaveni, Skype interview with the author, October 27, 2019.
- John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1988) 265-70, 301-325.
- Alaveni, Skype interview, Oct. 27, 2019.
- Beth Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988) 47-48.
- Alaveni, Skype interview, Oct. 22, 2019.
- Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat, 48-50. For an overview of how sexuality became commercialized see D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 301-325.
- Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat, 25-56.
- Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat, 25-76.
- D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 55-84.
- Steven Seidman, Romantic Longings: Love in America, 1830-1980 (New York: Routledge, 1991) 155. Ellen Rothman, Hands and Heart: A History of Courtship in America (New York: Basic Books, INC, 1984) 285-311. D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 301-325; Beth Bailey, Sex in the Heartland (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999) 136-153.
- Bailey, Sex in the Heartland, 200-8.