The Truth About Petting (Jan, 1937)
The Truth About Petting
By Lawrence Gould, Consulting Psychologist
Is Petting Right or Wrong? How Much, if Any, Seems Wholesome?
This Clarifies a Problem Perplexing Both Youngsters and Parents
MRS. HUNTER had appeared so radiantly happy the last few times I had met her that it was a shock to see her looking as she did that morning. I had known her slightly for several years as assistant to the manager of the building where I had my office, and had heard her story from the manager and some of the other tenants. Her husband had died ten years before, leaving her with an eight-year-old daughter and only a few hundred dollars of insurance. She had gone back to the work which she had done before her marriage, and by dint of industry, intelligence and self-denial had managed to make a comfortable home for Mary. The girl was in every way a credit to her, gay and carefree, but devoted to her mother, and both faithful and successful in her studies. On the day before the one I speak of, she was graduated from high school, and was planning to go on to business college. She had made particularly good marks in her last year, was vice-president of her class, and had been selected as a speaker at the graduation exercises. Mrs. Hunter had been fairly in a daze of pride and satisfaction, telling the good news to anybody who would listen.
But now, what a difference! I thought at first that there must have been a tragedy of some sort, and it was my sympathetic question which led Mrs. Hunter to ask if she might talk to me for a moment. I invited her into the office, where I noticed that her eyes were red with weeping, although she was making every effort to appear collected.
“Tell me what has happened,” I asked. “Is it something about Mary?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Hunter, “and I almost hate to speak about it, because I dare say most people would think I was making a mountain out of a molehill. But to me, it was the greatest shock that 1 have ever had in my life, and I simply can’t be philosophical about it.”
“What was the shock?” I inquired, as quietly as I could.
“You know, last night was the night of Mary’s graduation party. It was the first really big dance she had ever gone to, so she was quite naturally ‘thrilled to pieces’â€”all the more because she had her first evening dress, which I had promised her if she stayed on the honor roll all through her last year. To make it still more exciting, she went to the dance with Roger Evans, who was the school football hero this year and could have had his pick of any girl in the class. As she said, it was all ‘just too perfect’.”
“It does sound like a young girl’s dream of heaven,” I admitted, “but where did the trouble come in?”
“I’m just coming to that,” Mrs. Hunter answered. “I knew Mary would be out late, and she asked me not to wait up for her, but I was much too excited to sleep, so when I heard Mary’s latch-key I slipped on a bathrobe and went downstairs. Goodness knows I had no thought of prying, but Mary and Roger evidently were too much absorbed to hear me. They were standing in the hallway, and Roger was kissing Mary! She was looking a bit flustered, I think, but she offered no objection, and even blew him a kiss as he was going out of the door. I imagined she would be embarrassed when she turned around and saw me, but apparently she wasn’t. She just greeted me affectionately, and began to talk about the partyâ€”what a good time she’d had, how much everyone had liked her dress, and so on.”
“Evidently she did not think being kissed was such a serious matter,” I suggested.
“That’s exactly what hurts me so badly,” Mrs. Hunter replied. “Naturally, the first thing I thought of was that she and Roger must believe they were in love with one anotherâ€” perhaps even had some sort of ‘understanding,’ as we used to call itâ€”but not at all!
” ‘Of course, I like Roger,’ Mary told me, ‘but I’m not in love with him, or anybody. Why, he’s going off to college next fall, and I may not see him for years. He’ll probably meet a dozen girls that he likes better than he does me, and I’m certainly not going to sit around and have no good times myself. As for my letting him kiss me, he isn’t the first boy I’ve kissed, and I hope he won’t be the last, either. You know, mother, people’s ideas have changed, and a girl who is afraid to let the boys come near her simply isn’t asked out.”
Mrs. Hunter paused to let this terrible avowal sink in.
“Well,” I said, “I dare say Mary is rightâ€”at least as regards a large proportion of young people. I should have thought you would know that if you have had any time for reading lately.”
“Of course I have readâ€”and heardâ€”a lot about the ‘younger generation’,” answered Mrs. Hunter. “For that matter, there have been some perfectly appalling stories about Mary’s own schoolâ€”girls who have had to be married, or have left school and have never come back. But I never thought that my own daughter would forget all I have ever told her.”
“And what did you tell her?” I inquired.
“Everything I thought a young girl should know. I was married myself without knowing anything whatever, and much as I loved my husband, I would not want Mary to go through what I did the first few weeks. But while I tried to prepare her for what she would have to meet when she was married, I thought I had made it clear that no nice girl would allow any sort of familiarity until she was at least engaged. If Mary had even thought she was in love with Roger, I don’t think I would have felt so badly. But this casual kissingâ€”’petting’, as they call itâ€”is something I never dreamed that a girl as refined as Mary would indulge in for a moment. Can there be a coarse streak in her that I never knew of? Of course, I have had to work too hard to keep as close to her as I should.”
“I don’t think I’d worry about Mary’s being ‘coarse’,” I reassured her. “But does she know how you feel about this matter?”
“She could hardly help it,” was the mother’s reply. “Besides knowing what I’ve always taught her, she must have seen from my face last night how shocked and surprised I was. And yet all I could get out of her was that she was sorry to have hurt my feelings. She was sincere, I know, and I dare say that I could have made her promise to act differently, but at her age I hate forcing her to do things she can’t see are necessary. That’s why I’m so glad to have a chance to talk to you about it. Do you think my ideas are old-fashioned? I admit that I have rather taken them for granted without thinking much about them, but I’ve always supposed everybody except a few crazy youngsters felt as I did.”
Mrs. Hunter’s question deserved to be taken seriously, and I tried to answer it as honestly as possible. Even so, it was not easy, because there are just as many different types of boys and girls as of grown people, and what is good for one may be dangerous or harmful for another. On the whole I believeâ€”and saidâ€” that the change in people’s ideas which Mary described is a change for the better.
Mary’s mother was astonished by this statement.
“Do you mean,” she asked, “that you think it does a girl no harm to be kissed and pawed by one boy after another? Why, even apart from the effect on her morals, I should not think any man would want to marry a girl that he knew had acted that way.”
“Is what the man might think all that matters?” I inquired.
“What do you mean?”
“Simply that the old ideas of how a ‘nice girl’ should behave were based on the assumption that she had to ‘get a husband,’ somehow, and must therefore be the sort of person he would want her to be. What happened to her own feelings, either before or after she was married, was of small importance. In fact, it was not thought to be necessary for a girl to choose her husband. She took what she could get, and tried to be thankful, though sometimes it was not easy.”
“I suppose that’s true,” said Mrs. Hunter. “As I told you, I was happy in my marriage after the first few weeks, but I must admit that I had no idea what I was getting into, and if I had not been lucky in the man my parents practically picked out for me, it might have been quite a different story. I knew nothing about men at that time, and could not have told a good one from a bad one.”
YOU’LL agree, then,” I suggested, “that you took a bigger chance than you would want to see your daughter taking.”
“I certainly did,” admitted Mrs. Hunter. “That’s one reason why I have been glad Mary was going to a co-educational school. I wanted her to get acquainted with boys, so that she would not be afraid of them or idealize them, and would have some idea of the sort of man that she would want to marry. But I can’t see what that has to do with ‘petting.’ Is it necessary for a girl to be on that sort of familiar basis with boys before she can understand them?”
“Perhaps not,” I answered, “although she would not know much about them if she did not realize that physical attraction was the basis of a good deal of their interest in her. For that matter, I suppose you will admit that physical attraction is one of the most important factors in true love and happy marriage. But for it, there probably would be no marriage at all. And yet on the other hand, mere physical attractionâ€”or ‘infatuation,’ as we sometimes call itâ€”is no basis for a lifelong union. A happy relationship is one in which the physical attraction takes its proper place in the whole picture, but does not crowd out such other things, as congeniality, likeness of ideals, harmonious temperaments, and so on. Don’t you think so?”
“Of course,” agreed Mrs. Hunter. “But is not that just the reason why young people should not give way to their physical desires, even in the form of ‘petting,’ until they are sure that period up to (and sometimes inclusive of) the earlier twenties. After this age, there will be a tendency, not only to find “petting” unsatisfactory, but to make a permanent and complete love-choiceâ€”to “marry and settle down,” as we have been wont to express it. Whether or not this will actually happen depends partly upon circumstances, and still more upon the measure of emotional maturity that has been achieved. If by this time the young man or woman is not ready to be married, or if marriage is impossible for economic reasons, there is a real danger that the mating impulse will be turned aside into a career of more or less promiscuous sexual adventure.
To prevent this happening should be the concern, not only of the parents, but of us all. There is no more serious indictment of our civilization than the fact that in most cases it makes necessary an unnatural postponement of the satisfaction of the mating impulse; but that is too large a question, and involves too many issues which are not for a psychologist to deal with, for me to attempt to offer a solution of it. I believe, however, that experience has shown that complete sexual repression (in the form of prohibition of all contacts with the opposite sex) is not the solution, but rather adds further and unnecessary complications to the problem.
At all events, as for the young people who are hearing the first calls of Nature, I believe that we should let them enjoy those first steps toward mating which we have tried so hard, and in many cases so unfortunately, to prohibit. “Petting” seems to me to be the appropriate form of sex life for both boys and girls of this age, and I do not think it should be interfered with as long as it keeps within the bounds of common sense and good taste. I even believeâ€”and hope I succeeded in convincing Mrs. Hunterâ€” that, other things being equal, Mary will be both a better woman and a better wife for having learned that it is pleasant to be kissed by a young man whom she likes; and that no one need fear that she will not be quite willing to keep all her kisses for her husband when the time comes for her to be married.