Dirty Dancing and the Replacement of Teenage Sex with Premarital Sex

Amanda Marcotte makes a very interesting observation about the continued popularity of the movie Dirty Dancing:

I have to say that actually its popularity probably has little to do with its "innocence" and more to do with its lack of it. What immediately comes across is that this is an extremely sexy movie. But it's sexy in a way that you almost never see in movies---from a sex-positive, feminist-minded, heterosexual point of view.... Attention is lavished on Patrick Swayze's body, of course, but it's more than that. Most sex in most movies, at least dramas, is shown as deadly serious, but the sex in this movie is mostly playful and filled with laughter. The overly serious portrayal of sex in movies tends to feel sex negative to me, because it discounts how much of sex is just about joy, pleasure, and fun. There's also a strong focus on the female longing for actual sex.....Most portrayals of straight female sexuality root it in the longing for male approval and romance, but this movie portrayals sexual desire as its own thing that women possess---the animal need to touch and to have. Jennifer Grey's name in the movie is "Baby", but it takes on ironic tone, since she takes to fucking like a duck to water....Most romantic movies are about a woman submitting to a man in some fashion, but this movie shows erotic love as empowering...

On top of it all, the movie stands against a gazillion social messages that shame women for their sexuality, and it does it with confidence. Until the cheeseball ending, there's no sense really that the main couple are going to last past the end credits, and that's okay. Having a fling and an adventure without it meaning that you're a dirty slut who will be heartbroken for life is normalized.

While I think the U.S., as a whole, has made significant progress on race and gay rights since the 80s (in the 80s, it was openly acceptable to use gay as a slur--everywhere), we have backslid in absolute terms when it comes to human sexuality. Some of that can be chalked up to the AIDS epidemic, but there's a lot more at work that just that.

In the 80s, there was a great deal of hyperventilating by conservatives about teenage sex (even as teenage pregnancy rates were decreasing). Some of this was tied into legitimate concerns--when teenagers should start engaging in sexual activities is, well, controversial. And some of the concern was racist and tied into fears of a rapidly breeding underclass, composed of those people, best epitomized by The Bell Curve.

But the important point to note is that this conflict was about teenage sex. There was a general understanding that consenting adults, you know, did things. And as long as nobody was fornicating in the public square, people understood that's what adults do (TEH GAY SEX was not included in this, of course). After all, we are a nation of sluts and have been so for many decades.

But as the theopolitical right gained prominence, fears of teenage sex were replaced by concerns about premarital sex. The changeover has been subtle, in that many readers implicitly assume this is referring to teenage sex. But it's not, at least when the theopolitical conservatives use the phrase. They don't want unmarried people of any age to have sex, especially enjoyable sex (they should feel slutty and ashamed).

This, of course, is rank hypocrisy. Many notable conservatives with a strong theopolitical bent have either never married (e.g., Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham) or married well into adulthood (e.g., Ross Douthat was 28 when he married). Does anyone think they're virgins? (I hope not--even I'm not that cruel).

It also seems to be part of an authoritarian trend, and religious conservatives have an authoritarian streak a mile wide, that infantilizes adults. Don't worry Big Daddy Government will protect you. Be Good Boys and Girls. In this worldview, as Amanda notes, sex is about submission to an established order, not something positive and liberating.

While language is no substitute for action, it is important to ask conservatives when they are talking about premarital sex, if they are referring to consenting adults, or just kids. Because the Coalition of the Sane would be much better off politically--not to mention sexually--if we did.

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I do not doubt that your post has some grains of truth here and there. However, the message I have heard from conservatives about this has more to do with unwed mothers and fathers and the resulting children growing up with absent fathers.

Oh sure, Coulter, Douthat, etc. had sex before marriage, but they felt *guilty about it, as all decent people do. When they marry they feel guilty about sex then, also. And if they're guys, they are angry at their former sex partners for making them all hot and bothered (especially if their partners weren't consenting adult women).

Their goal is not to stop unrighteous behavior, but to *punish unrighteous behavior, or otherwise make people miserable for it. Central tenets of pious authoritarianism are one, don't have fun, and two, don't actually behave properly. The latter is easy because "behaving properly" means not having dirty thoughts, not resenting authority, not having doubts, etc.

I left that environment 45 years ago, and from the outside, it doesn't seem to have changed much. Ah... fun times, fun times.

Mike, this is true. They want you to hear how miserable these slutty people are. What they really, really *don't want to hear from you is about that nice young couple you know who have been living together for five years now and seem to be perfectly happy.

I'm still pissed as hell at those people for the repression and fear I felt for years about sex. I was a really really good looking guy at 19 and I almost wasted the best years of my life trying to be a good little strait guy waiting on marriage for sex.

Thank you Michelle!!!! You saved me from the guilt and fear. I still didn't go crazy with the sex thing, but at least I didn't wait till I was 30 or something stupid.

By Silent Service (not verified) on 07 Dec 2010 #permalink

I've always been kind of unsettled by the Republican preoccupation with where I put my penis; unless they have some unvoiced suggestion, I have no idea why they should even care.

By 21stcenturycynic (not verified) on 07 Dec 2010 #permalink

I do not doubt that your post has some grains of truth here and there. However, the message I have heard from conservatives about this has more to do with unwed mothers and fathers and the resulting children growing up with absent fathers.

And they've forgotten about contraception?

By Katharine (not verified) on 08 Dec 2010 #permalink

Actually, I think it's the other way around. I think conservatives have seen that the premarital sex fight is over; it's the teenage sex fight that's still being fought.

I imagine most conservative parents want their kids--both boys and girls to get educated (college, grad school), but the fact of the matter is that those things take away time for the baby making. The average age of first marriage for both men and women in America is 28. So conservatives are faced with the same dilemmia as everyone else, if the purpose of marriage is for the baby making, but the ladies aren't getting married until their fertility is declining--what are they going to do? They can't say girls can't go to college or get jobs. They can't say that girls should marry much older men. That's old school even for conservatives. So, they can't really talk about premarital sex in any meaningful way; all they can talk about is the horrors of teen pregnancy; the horrors of being a slut. It's all about the under 18 set because liberals are concerned about that too.

Even the rhetoric that Sarah Palin advocates--it's "abstainance is 100% effective", not "you should wait until you're 28" because that's not going to win any converts.

Very well written about premarital sex. The prevailing assumption I've found in conservative circles is that by teaching teens that sex is bad you can prevent them from doing it as adults as well.

That said, the "even I'm not that cruel" bothered me a bit. As someone approaching that age who has willingly not engaged in sex out of simple lack of desire to do so, I don't consider my life cruelly lacking in any aspect.