LOVE AMERICAN-STYLE: AN EXTREMELY SELECTIVE HISTORY OF ROMANCE
Love, lust, romance. We're obsessed. We always have been. Since the Garden of Eden, we've been tortured by temptation and the regulation of sin, which history tells us has always been synonymous with sex.
A selective trip through American history reveals that we've always been torn between the promiscuous and the prohibitive. We've gone from eighteenth-century church tribunals that meted out punishment for premarital sex to the free-sex, uninhibited Sixties - and back.
With the advent of AIDS awareness in the mid-Eighties, Americans headed back to morality. Abstinence is again being hailed as the salvation of youth. And just as campaigns were waged early in this century to fight venereal disease and promote contraception, the federal government is now spending millions to promote teen chastity. Lots of luck.
In the late Thirties, crusaders against sensuality in film created the Hays Code to sweep smut under the rug. Now parents' groups march to save the world from sexual lyrics in rock music.
Time passes and the rules change, but the song remains the same. And so the history of romance just keeps repeating itself.
EARLY AMERICAN LOVE AND LUST
Imagine the desperation of poor Samuel Terry. In 1650 the confused young man from Springfield, Massachusetts, took it upon himself to make an appearance at church one Sunday - but it wasn't for the sermon. He stood outside, brazenly "chafing his yard to provoke lust." No darkened adult movie theater was necessary for this early pioneer of sexual freedom. But the townspeople didn't understand what a trendsetter he was, and Terry was publicly flogged for flogging his you-know-what. Eleven years later the frisky Terry again was punished for sexual misconduct when his blushing bride of five months gave birth to their first child. Twelve years later he was fined for performing an "immodest and beastly" play with some other men in town. Still, he managed to serve as the town's constable for many of those years, setting a double-standard example for politicians and law enforcement types to follow for hundreds of years - and inspiring late twentieth-century kiddie TV-show hosts.
A century later, standards were becoming less straitlaced. Lustful couples began to publicly express their desire for each other, choosing romantic love over property deals as a basis for marriage. Writer Mary Stevenson announced that "a union without affection is the most deplorable situation a woman can be in." The amenities of wedded amor did not escape revolutionary leader Samuel Adams, either. When a storm kept him from visiting his beloved Abigail Smith, he wrote her a letter that claimed their separation was "blessed," for otherwise their lust for each other could have led to "Itches, Aches, Agues, and Repentance." (Sounds like what Samuel needed more than Abigail was a dose of twentieth-century antibiotics.)
Young women who had trouble convincing their parents that times were changing figured out a way to avoid arranged marriages, anyway: They got knocked up before mom and dad could seal the deal. In some parts of New England in the late 1700s, one-third of all brides were pregnant at the time of their marriage, when the century before fewer than ten percent of all brides had reason to blush at their nuptials.
In a perhaps not-unrelated development, controversy erupted over bundling - the practice of engaged couples sleeping together fully clothed but allegedly not doing the dirty deed. Men, concerned the quaint custom would be abolished, promised to marry their betrotheds if they became pregnant - setting a good, early example for Warren Beatty. New England clergymen scorned the practice and proclaimed it "unchristian," enraging young women and their mothers who liked having fiances around the house to take out the garbage while dad was out trying to put food on the table.
Around 1780, couples - most likely under pressure from exhausted women - began to practice contraception. Wives took to quoting the biblical Rachel: "Give me no more children, or else I die." In Philadelphia, Quakers started snapping up contraceptive syringes like hotcakes. Women began breastfeeding longer, and couples brushed up on their Latin, rediscovering coitus interruptus. Couples soon found that sex without procreation could be buckets of fun.
Even churches began to lighten up on punishing premarital fornication, although some still whipped the fun-lovers and others levied large fines for adultery. Some parishes even allowed sinners to submit write-in, rather than public, confessions for sex crimes in order to speed up the paperwork. Many communities abolished church courts entirely, depending on early moral-majority chapters to hunt down offenders.
AS THE CENTURIES TURN
The industrial revolution inevitably resulted in sexual revolutions as well. As urban areas developed in the early nineteenth century, husbands began checking out of the domestic arena and into the world with paying jobs, leaving women to work "inside the home." As a result, men started amassing power related to their ability to vote and to earn money; the double standard of extramarital sex was born. For men, it was normal; for women, illegal. Purity remained the female ideal. It wasn't until the end of the century that women began talking about their orgasms with Dr. Clelia Mosher, a physician and college professor. Perhaps that's what made the Nineties gay.
Around 1830, information on contraception spread like wildfire without the benefit of talk shows. Alfred Hall and Sarah Bleslee Chase preached the virtues of contraception and sold snake oil-like medicines. Other guides, lecturers, and doctors extolled vaginal sponges, douching, and the French baudrache - a condom made from animal skins, membranes, or oiled silk. (The technology for ribbed and flavored condoms would come later.)
The diaphragm was patented in 1846 as "The Wife's Protector." Women who used it were rumored to have renamed the dreaded device "The Wife's Tormentor."
Homosexuality started slowly coming out of the closet. Poet Walt Whitman frequently romanced young men whom he met in New York, which he described as the "city of orgies, walks, and joys." The city promised a "frequent and swift flash of eyes offering me love." His journal boasted of conquests..."Saturday night Mike Ellis...took him home to 150 37th St...Dan'l Spencer... slept with me Sept. 3d..." The defatigable Whitman worked as a nurse during the Civil War, perhaps to meet a man in uniform. He became very close to the soldiers he tended, writing again in his journal, "I believe no men ever loved each other as I and some of these poor, wounded, sick, and dying men love each other." He kissed the soldiers goodnight before leaving each day, and wrote of his torrid affair with a nineteen-year-old Southern captain.
Horatio Alger - yes, that Horatio Alger - was shamed out of his pulpit in Massachusetts in 1866 for the "revolting crime of unnatural familiarity with boys." He fled to New York City to practice and write about his pederastic interests.
Even cowboys may occasionally have engaged in brotherly love, as exhibited by this quaint limerick from the time: "Young cowboys had a great fear/ That old studs once filled with beer/ Completely addle / They'd throw on a saddle, And ride them on the rear."
Some women of the nineteenth century found that dressing as men not only allowed them greater earning power, but let them live as man and wife with other women. For example, there was Lucy Ann Lobdell, who left her husband in upstate New York, became the Reverend Joseph Lobdell, and lived for ten years as Maria Perry's husband.
But that sort of behavior paled beside developments at the end of the century. On April 14, 1894, the Holland Brothers exhibited the first peep show film using a machine invented by Thomas Edison, who obviously had more up his sleeve than just a few revolutionary patents. The movies were made in Edison's labs on film prepared by George Eastman and shown in vending machines or cabinets. (It's unclear whether the setup offered sufficient privacy for viewers to express their appreciation.)
In New York (naturally), single working women began spreading their wings, and the notion of dating was born. Social clubs allowed flirting, touching, and kissing games. Vaudeville acts spewed sexual themes and suggestive humor.
Bartenders and cab drivers began offering tips on where to find "loose women." The notion of "picking up" unknown members of the opposite sex was born, laying the foundation for the happy hours and singles bars that would follow 70 years later.
THE TWENTIETH CENTURY
At the turn of the century, American reformers were working harder than ever to abolish prostitution, but red-light districts were thriving. Women were beginning to understand just how much men would pay for love. Sex education campaigns popped up everywhere. One poster titled The Sex Impulse and Achievement showed two athletes jumping over hurdles. Below, the text noted: "The sex instinct in a boy or man makes him want to act, dare, possess, strive. When controlled and directed it gives ENERGY, ENDURANCE, FITNESS." Later, professional athletes would find that control had nothing to do with anything.
Just before World War I, a popular magazine proclaimed that "sex o'clock" had chimed in America. True confession magazines, the teachings of Freud and lusty films set the stage for a new permissiveness and espousing of the theory that sexual expression was directly related to happiness. Things really got roaring in the Twenties.
Technological innovations as well as new attitudes added new twists to romance. On May 31, 1919, Marjorie Dumont and Lieutenant R.W. Meade were married in the world's first airplane wedding. They exchanged their lofty vows in a Handley-Paige bombing plane over Houston during the Flying Frolic Air Show.
In 1920 researcher Katharine Bement Davis began her study of 2200 married and single women. Ten years later she published the results - the erotic life of Americans was taking a more liberal, uninhibited turn. But many women who admitted to enjoying sex also felt guilty and confused.
They weren't going to feel better any time soon...the morality police were just around the corner. But in the meantime, burlesque and risque movies satisfied the nation's lust for the lurid in the Thirties. The Hays Code brought "open sensuality" in the movies to a grinding halt just prior to World War II, but adult movies still were available in the sex districts of most cities. And there was always dancing, which had become a lust-filled activity for dating couples. It took two to tango, after all.
After the war ended, life returned to normal. Dating was once more good, clean fun - and no more. Love bloomed in the bowling alleys that were springing up across America.
Americans got their thrills vicariously. On January 31, 1949, NBC-TV broadcast the world's first soap opera, televising tales of passion, romance and backstabbing. Today, the airwaves are clogged with dozens of such sob stories.
But help was at hand for the hidebound Fifties. Hugh Hefner broke morality wide open when he published the first edition of Playboy in 1953. The magazine trounced marriage and encouraged readers to "enjoy the pleasures the female has to offer without becoming emotionally involved." It was better to live the life of the swinging bachelor than to become one of the "sorry, regimented husbands trudging down every woman-dominated street in this woman-dominated land." Thirty years later, Hefner trudged down the path of emotional involvement, married a bunny, kicked all of the fun people out of his mansion, and snuggled happily into woman-dominated domesticity.
Women took longer to smash the barriers of sexual stereotypes. Girls were told they could grow up to be mommies - and in the meantime, they could practice playing with their dolls. In 1961 the biggest doll of them all, Barbie, met her love slave, Ken. Here's Barbie - Stories About the Fabulous Barbie and Her Boyfriend Ken was published a year later. Young girls everywhere began acting out their fantasies with the amply endowed Barbie and genitalia-less Ken. Confirmation about their rumored marriage was never forthcoming. Ken took a hike from 1962 to 1967 and reappeared with a better, buffed (if still bulgeless) body and hipper Nehru attire. He still was reluctant to make a commitment, however.
But that was all right, because by the late Sixties, the sexual revolution was going great guns - both in communes and along Madison Avenue. Advertisers were glamorizing the lifestyle of singles. Designer Mary Quant invented the miniskirt and asked, "Am I the only woman who has ever wanted to go to bed with a man in the afternoon?" She used this question as the basis for her advertising, claiming miniskirts were symbolic of women who don't want to wait.
Flower children practiced free love everywhere. In 1969 Woodstock set the stage for love on a very large scale. With the invention of birth control pills, love meant never having to tell your partner what your name was. Broadway produced loads of naked bodies in Hair and O! Calcutta!
The advent of feminism and the legalization of abortion gave love a new look in the early Seventies. Within a few years, the battle of the sexes was in full - and very public - swing.
In 1976 South Carolina congressman John Jenrette married Rita. They consummated their marriage several days after the ceremony, when hubby invited his new bride to a late-night session of Congress. Rita showed up at the Members' Portico wearing nothing but a full-length mink, heels and a smile. Their vows were sealed as the two made love standing up between the columns. Rita got a reputation as the hottest spouse on the Hill; John was stung in ABSCAM after accepting a $50,000 bribe from a fake shiek. John went to jail, Rita posed for Playboy. The marriage didn't survive.
The moral majority got into the act. In 1981 Republican senators Jeremiah Denton (Alabama) and Orrin Hatch (Utah) pushed through the Adolescent Family Life Act, more commonly known as the "Chastity Bill," designed to curb the lascivious leanings of teens. By the end of its first term, the Reagan administration had spent $30 million to keep the nation's teens pure, but statistics showed the program's success was flaccid. A rival chastity program was launched out of the Office of Population Affairs, staffed by right-to-life-type women including Marjory Mecklenburg, who was later ousted from the band of moral marauders after tales of her alleged affair with another staffer hit the streets.
In 1985, after hearing the lyrics to Prince's "Darling Nikki," a song about a woman who knows how to love herself, Tipper Gore launched her crusade against unwholesome, un-Debbie Gibsonish rock music. She formed the Parents Music Resource Center, convinced the record industry to put warning labels on albums, and took potshots at such love-and-lust aficionados as Madonna and the Beastie Boys. Jimmy Swaggart jumped in, devoting all of his spare time not used cruising for prostitutes to denouncing rock as "degenerative filth which denigrates all the values we hold sacred." Frank Zappa told Tipper - and Congress - that masturbation wasn't illegal and singing about it shouldn't be, either.
Senator Gary Hart, in the running for the Democratic nomination in the 1988 presidental election, monkeyed around with semi-model Donna Rice and got caught. Unfortunately, he had earlier proclaimed his reputation to be pure and dared reporters to follow him. They did. Pictures showed Rice astride Hart's lap during a cruise on the yacht "Monkey Business," and the voters decided to dump him overboard. The rest of the world scoffed at the hypocrisy of purity-espousing Americans.
Hart was out, and George Bush was in. Soon after the 1988 election, vice-presidential wife Marilyn Quayle, seeking to discourage unbridled lust, forbid unmarried staffers to bring dates to a Quayle picnic.
As the 1980s drew to a close, Republican wives weren't the only ones preaching purity. AIDS had begun to inhibit the romantic behavior of both the homosexual and heterosexual populations. As a titillating reminder of the good old days of wanton sex in gay bath houses, the World's First Jack-and-Jill-Off party was conceived and proclaimed an arousing success in San Francisco. But this party had a few new twists. Heterosexuals were invited, and there were stringent rules about safe sex. Men were cautioned to, ahem, keep their bodily fluids to themselves. A few gays were overheard reminiscing about the good old days - and they weren't talking about "Leave it to Beaver."
Love got off to a slow start in the Nineties. The men's movement began putting down roots: Soon males were banging drums, studying Robert Bly's Iron John, engaging in touchy-feely penis-admiration societies, and reveling in their love for themselves.
One of America's favorite couples divorced: The Trumps split the sheets December 11, 1990. Mistress-muffin Marla Maples got a $500,000 contract to model "No Excuses" jeans (previously shown by Donna Rice), and later had to give The Donald a loan when his checkbook ran a little short. Ivana and Marla slugged it out in a celebrity catfight on an Aspen ski slope.
Elizabeth Taylor took her eighth husband: construction worker and fellow recovering drug- and marriage-addict Larry Fortensky. Ted Turner and Jane Fonda forced America to endure the Tomahawk Chop during the World Series and married last December. He's a billionaire. She's a multimillionaire. Still no report on whether they expect wedding gifts.
Ivana got a new Italian boyfriend. Beverly Hills 90210 heartthrobs Luke Perry and Jason Priestly got 3000 love letters a week for being rich, snobbish, little teen studs on Fox's TV show about how difficult life can be when you grow up rich and beautiful. And in an act of true Nineties love, once-hot heartthrob Johnny Depp tattooed "Winona Forever" on his arm, proclaiming his attachment to fiancee Winona Ryder.
Some romantic shows had a longer run. Americans were riveted to their televisions in October 1991 for the Clarence and Anita show - which, more than any fictional TV series, showed how the times have changed. Sexual harassment made the front pages when Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor, and Clarence Thomas, U.S. Supreme Court nominee, offered a Senate committee two very different versions of their relationship. She said he harassed her by discussing his penis and its resemblance to Long Dong Silver's (there was an immediate run on videotapes starring a member of the same name). He said their relationship was purely professional. He made it to the Supreme Court - and sexual harassment became the subject of office coffee-break conversations across America.
An Ontario college student was evicted from her little love nest after her neighbors complained she moaned too much during sex.
In his autobiography A View from Above (a title suggesting a deep affinity for the missionary position), Wilt Chamberlain claimed to have had romantic encounters of the voracious kind with 20,000 women. Some quick math showed that to be 1.2 women a day since he was fifteen, proving his shooting records weren't all made on the court.
But love could still celebrate the simple pleasures. In November, Stanford University law student Neil Nathanson proposed to Leslie Hamilton via a crossword puzzle in the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle. She gave him a three-letter answer meaning most certainly. Love triumphs after all.
Get the Weekly Newsletter