When I was twenty-one
12 February 2008
Getting Laid In The 20th Century
by Paul Aitken
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for city girls
Who lived up the stair
With all that perfumed hair
And it came undone
When I was twenty-one
Ervin Drake wrote It Was A Very Good Year in 1961. He was 42 at the time and clearly in a reminiscing mood. Care to guess what made the age of 21 such a good year? Quick clue: It wasn't hair, perfumed or otherwise. Ervin was only writing about hair because it rhymed with stair and to slyly allude to what happened after it came undone. The year was 1940. The world was at war but ol' Erv didn't care. He was 21 and he was getting laid.
I know what you're thinking. He didn't get laid until he was 21? What a sap! To be square about this, I don't actually know at what age Erwin did get laid. I'm only surmising from the lyrics, but just in case you were feeling smug let me remind you that you're looking at this from a 21st century perspective. Right now, the average age for getting laid for men is 17, the statistical high water mark coinciding with the High School prom. Back in 1940, if 21 wasn't necessarily a very good year to get laid for the first time, it was certainly respectable.
A generation earlier, young bucks in full hormonal bloom paid to get laid, often with a wedding ring. Sure, guys like Errol Flynn got to sink the pink whenever they wanted, but the current convention of bedding with a couple of dozen women before settling down was not something available to the average Joe in the first few decades of the 20th century. Girls just didn't put out then the way they do now. It's not that they didn't want to, but there were strict moral inhibitions against pre-marital sex, which weighed almost exclusively on women. Call it the slut factor.
Then there was the issue of where to do it. It was still common for men and women to live with their parents until marriage. There were no co-ed dorms in those days. Getting a girl into bed usually involved something other than a bed. For farm kids there were haylofts. Small town types would have to drive to some secluded lover's lane if they wanted to take a tumble in the rumble seat, where, besides the obvious discomfort, there was also the possibility of getting caught.
And then there was the risk of pregnancy, the implications for which were nothing less than disastrous for both parties. Back then if you knocked up a girl you married her... right away. If you chose to skip town instead you were condemning her and your future child to a lifetime of poverty and shame.
There were always prostitutes of course, and between 70 and 80 percent of men indulged in their services. But as every man knows, buying sex is not the same thing as "getting laid."
But by the 1930s things were beginning to change. There is a perception that the sexual revolution began with the introduction of the birth control pill in the early 1960s and to some extent this is true, but as Edwin Drake makes clear, guys were getting laid well before that and not just with hookers. What happened?
Well, first of all, latex was invented and with it came latex condoms. We take latex pretty much for granted these days but back then the only alternative to latex was rubber. And rubber was okay. Rubber worked well enough but in every respect from reliability to elasticity to thinness to cost, latex was far superior. In fact, it's arguable that it was the latex condom rather than the pill which launched the sexual revolution. By the mid-thirties 1.5 million were being cranked out every day in the U.S. Some of these were exported. A lot were being used as a contraceptive by married couples. But a lot were being toted around in the wallets of wishful young men. And they were using them. With the reliable condom, couples no longer had to worry about pregnancy.
Then came the invention of the drive-in movie. The first one opened in 1933. By the mid-fifties there were 4,000 of them across the U.S. Cars themselves were less open in design. The backseats were wide and spacious. If you had a date with "one of those girls," the drive-in was the place to take her.
What about the slut factor? Well in 1940 it was still a factor. Girls' mothers warned them against becoming "one of those girls," But the warning was in itself an acknowledgement that "those girls" existed. And exist they certainly did. They weren't the majority but they were the vanguard of what was to come. In the mid-fifties 26 percent of women lost their virginity by age 18. In the sixties, this figure was 39 percent. In the seventies, 50 percent. By the 1980s the figure hit 59 percent before dipping to 54 percent following the Reagan revolution.
In a way it was inevitable that effective contraception would auger in the sexual revolution. Fear of pregnancy has always been the most powerful disincentive to pre-marital sex. And with that out of the way social mores were bound to follow. But the collapse of moral stricture was hastened by a far greater social force than teenage horniness.
When people think about the sexual revolution they tend to think of Playboy Bunnies, turtle necks, martinis and swinging. But most people didn't go to orgies. What they did, that they didn't do in the early years of the 20th century, was guiltlessly have sex with their boyfriend/girlfriends, and the driving force behind this shift was the woman's liberation movement. That's right... feminism.
While Victorian morality told women to guard their chastity, the feminist movement told them to free themselves from it. The old sexual morality was a patriarchal convention. Women could be like men and if men could have sex with without feeling bad about it then godammit so could women. "The personal is political" was the mantra of the feminist movement and nothing was more personal than fucking.
Modern guys may lament the stridency of the feminist movement but as you're bonking your girlfriend you'd do well to offer a silent prayer of thanks to those humorless pioneers of the women's emancipation movement. Hugh Hefner may have put naked girls on the newsstands but it was Gloria Steinem who put them in your bed.
Getting Laid In A Moral Ice Age
The Mating Dance: The Eyes Have It
The Virginity Trap
The 237 Reasons Why We Have Sex