Friday, October 31, 2014

Sex in the Back Seat

Sex in the Back Seat
            Although no other twentieth century innovation has so intensely influenced manners, customs, and living habits, the nature and scope of the automobile’s influences are far from being fully understood. As early as the first decade of the twentieth century, the automobile was equated with adventure, including and perhaps especially sexual adventure. It liberated riders from social control and allowed men to pursue women (and women to pursue men!) in a manner that was to change patterns of courtship and sexual behaviors.
            Music of the day reflected the romantic possibilities and opportunities now afforded by the coming of the automobile. In 1899, Alfred Dixon published “Love in an Automobile,” and a year later at least six song titles featured the theme of a charming young woman riding in a car. That same year, Rudolph Anderson wrote the following song about a male persuading a female to take a romantic drive:
“When first I propose to Daisy on a sunny summer’s morn,
She replied, ‘you must be crazy’ and laughed my love to scorn.
Said I, ‘Now I’ve hit on a novel scheme, which surely to you may appeal.
Say wouldn’t you go for a honeymoon in a cozy automobile?’
When she heard my bright suggestion, why, she fairly jumped for joy.
Her reply was just a question, ‘Oh joy, when do we start dear boy?’
Said I, ‘You will take ‘about half an hour to pack up your things and grip.
And the ‘round the corner we’ll married be, and start away on our trip.
We’ll fulfill your dreams, marring mishap of course.”25
The famous song of this era, “In My Merry Oldsmobile” sold between 600,000 and 1 million copies of sheet music. It ran:
Come away with me Lucille
In my merry Oldsmobile.
Over the road of life we’ll fly,
Autobubbling you and I.
To the church we’ll swiftly steal,
And out wedding bells will peal,
You can go as far as you like with me,
In our merry Oldsmobile.26
Other early titles included:
“The Automobile Girl”
“My Automobile Girl”
“My Auto Lady”
“The Motor Girl”
“The Auto Show Girl”
“Motor Maid”
“Let’s Have a Motor Car Marriage”
“Automobiling with Mollie”
“In Our Little Lovemobile”
“An Auto Built for Two”
“Riding in Love’s Limosine [sic]”
“On an Automobile with a Girl You Love”
“The Auto Kiss”
“The Automobile Honeymoon”27
            Previously, “calling” was the traditional means by which couples were brought together. “Calling” was a courtship custom, and it involved three central tenets of middle class American life:  the family, respectability, and privacy. Calling admitted the male into the young woman’s private home, where boys engage in conversation with the girl under the watchful eyes of her mother. Tea was often served, and perhaps the girl would display her musical talents and play the piano as light entertainment. All of this took place in the parlor. Mothers, the guardians of respectability and morals, decided who could call on their daughters and who could not. Daughters could request a certain male visitor, but the mothers made the final decision as to his acceptability. Family honor and name, along with class boundaries, were to be respected.
            The calling ritual as practiced resulted in giving middle class mothers and daughters a measure of control. How much of this was real and actually practiced is certainly open to question, particularly since horse-drawn carriages, the woods, and the haystack were also options for young couples. But community controls and prevailing rituals and beliefs certainly have power. Yet it is undeniable that the emergence of the automobile and dating caused the loss of some of that control as power shifted from women to men. Under the calling system the woman asked the man; but in dating, the male had the car and invited the female out beyond the sphere of the parental domain. Cars took young couples off porch swings, outside of home parlors, and far away from concerned mothers and irritating brothers and sisters.
            This transition in coupling habits was well described in a racy and imaginative 1927 song entitled “Get Em in a Rumble Seat.” The so-called rumble seat, was an extension of the trunk, open and separate from the automobile interior.
            It certainly was a little tight in a rumble seat. Despite the space constraints, social commentators feared the thought of young people getting together unsupervised. There were also concerns over promiscuity and premarital sex. Initially, cars were open and seats were uncomfortable. But by the mid-1920s, most vehicles were closed, and heaters were soon available. Seats became wider and more luxuriously appointed. And as historian David Lewis has remarked, “Many cars were also equipped with long, wide running boards, and starting in the mid-1920’s increasingly long, sloping fenders,” which when covered with pillows and blankets provided impromptu settings for romance.28 By the 1920s, manufacturers designed beds into the front seat that folded into the rear seat cushions to assist in romance. The 1925 Jewett slept two people in comfort, as long as the couple did not stretch out more than 6 feet. Other car companies followed with “sleeper” cars, convenient for both auto-campers and illicit lovers.
            As Frederick Lewis Allen recounted in his Only Yesterday, the 1920s brought with it a revolution in terms of sexuality among young people. While the automobile was one venue for sexual activity, it was far from the cause of this shift in moral values that was perhaps brought on by World War I and the disillusionment and modernist thought that followed.29
            Every community had its lovers’ lane and makeout point. After World War II, and despite the intention of drive-in owners to make their businesses attractive to families, drive-ins were often seen as “passion pits.” In-car shows were often better than what was transpiring on the screen. If a speaker was not in the car window, there were credible suspicions that something had to be happening inside.

            In an interesting study published in 1953 by Alfred Kinsey and the staff of the Institute for Sex Research at Indiana University, 983 women were surveyed concerning the places where they had premarital coitus. While a marginally greater proportion of liaisons took place in the homes of the male or female than in automobiles, the data suggested that sex in automobiles, outdoors, or in hotels and rented rooms occurred in nearly equal numbers, and only slightly less than in a home.30 Kinsey concluded that “the importance of the car has more than doubled in the thirty years covered by the sample. In earlier generations in both European and American history, the buggy or other horse-drawn conveyance appear to have served the function which the automobile now serves.”31 

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