I recently read about a father who was worried that a new form of communication technology might harm his daughters. The year: 1905. The device: The telephone. “[He] knew how to barricade the front door but couldn’t conceive of how he’d protect his daughters from the strange men who could now come in through the telephone line,” writes Amanda Hess in Slate.
Hess’ piece is a response to a recent Vanity Fair article warning that phone apps are causing a “dating apocalypse.” The technology, according to author Nancy Jo Sales, is making casual hookups so easy that young people are now dispensing with formalities like having dinner or ever seeing each other again. To Sales, the consequences are earth-shattering:
“As the polar ice caps melt and the earth churns through the Sixth Extinction, another unprecedented phenomenon is taking place, in the realm of sex. Hookup culture, which has been percolating for about a hundred years, has collided with dating apps, which have acted like a wayward meteor on the now dinosaur-like rituals of courtship.”
As Hess and historian Moira Weigel point out, the most fascinating thing about the article is how much it has in common with dating doomsday stories of the past.
“As long as young people have gone out and done things they call ‘dating,’ older people have struggled to keep up with their exploits. And writer after writer has made a living out of chronicling them with a mix of prurience and outrage,” writes Weigel in The New Republic.
The telephone, the telegraph, personal ads, singles bars and 1960s-era computer dating have all prompted dire predictions about the end of courtship—and thus society itself. And yet, we’re still here. “I’m betting that come 2025 we’ll still be living in a world of families with kids,” writes Hess.
Weigel, a Yale Ph.D. candidate who is writing a book on the history of dating, notes that dating itself was once considered a moral outrage. In the late 19th century, the idea that a young lady would make an appointment to meet a gentleman outside her parents’ home was unthinkable. Everyone knew that a proper courtship was conducted in the young lady’s family parlor, under the watchful eye of a chaperone.
After women started working outside the home, they began meeting suitors at restaurants and movie palaces—to the shock and horror of their elders.
Even worse, they sometimes spent time with these men in another new innovation: the automobile. Weigel quotes a worried academic from the 1930s: “The ease with which a couple can secure absolute privacy when in possession of a car and the spirit of reckless abandon which high speed and moonlight drives engender have combined to break down the traditional barriers between the sexes.”
You’d think the scolds would have been happy in the 1950s, when couples started “going steady,” but this too was cause for alarm, says Weigel, as the older generation was scandalized that teenagers would pair off in such an adult manner.
Of course, the fretters and fumers were right that society was changing. Women were gaining more independence, and sexual mores have certainly loosened a bit since the days of the Gibson Girl.
And yes, there are plenty of creeps out there—and technology might make it easier for them to deceive and disrespect. But thus far, no societal shift or technical innovation has killed the impulse to love and build a life with a partner. It seems unlikely that the smartphone will be the exception.
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.