When Dating Could Get You Handcuffed ... And Not in the Fun Way - OZY | A Modern Media Company

When Dating Could Get You Handcuffed ... And Not in the Fun Way

When Dating Could Get You Handcuffed ... And Not in the Fun Way

By Mark Hay


What now seems unthinkable serves as a reminder that nearly every relationship norm was once considered radical and unacceptable at some point in history.

By Mark Hay

In 1913, investigator Charlie Briggs spent his nights taking notes on the young women who visited New York City’s hottest clubs at the behest of the Committee of Fourteen, a group of prominent anti-vice crusaders who feared society was falling into new forms of depravity. What he saw befuddled him. These women seemed like decent working folk — clerks and switchboard operators — yet they were spending their evenings out alone with men, who would buy them drinks and dinners. In one of his reports on the phenomenon, Briggs wrote that in his eyes, this made many of them “near whores or whores in the making.”

Nowadays, such simple dates don’t merit so much moral hand-wringing. But Briggs was just 17 years removed from the first recorded usage of the term “date” in a romantic context — in a column in the Chicago Record. He and many other Americans had grown up in a world in which courtship usually involved men scheduling visits to women’s homes, where they would chat under the watchful eye of a female parent or guardian, a ritual most recently dramatized in the Netflix hit Bridgerton.

Briggs and company were wary of dating not just because it was new, but also because they felt sure men expected far more than chitchat for their cash by night’s end. In fact, dating smacked so much of prostitution to early 20th-century sensibilities that the New York Police Department actually arrested several young women on prostitution charges for the simple act of enjoying a night out with a treating member of the opposite sex. 

The courtship rituals that were known and preferred by the Committee of Fourteen and other groups worried about public decency were just not practical in an era of rapid industrialization and urbanization. These forces led many young women out of their family homes and into cities where they increasingly lived alone, making scheduled, chaperoned visits impossible for most. Employers, assuming their female workers would wed young and work merely to supplement their husbands’ salaries, paid them less than half their male counterparts, leaving most with just enough for basic sustenance. Accepting a date with a paying man was the only way for many working-class women in cities like New York or London to have some fun. 

People Enjoying Ice Cream at Cafe

Accepting a date with a paying man was the only way for many working-class women in cities like New York or London to have some fun.

These same socioeconomic forces also precipitated a boom in sex work, a trend that scandalized authorities and perhaps colored their views of early daters. Throughout the 1910s, reports commissioned by movers and shakers like John D. Rockefeller Jr. expressed concerns about the potential connections between dating and sex work. Agents from the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor to the FBI, warned women in American cities “that making dates could send them down a slippery slope towards disrepute, disease, and death,” writes Harvard historian Moira Weigel in her book Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating.

Weigel notes that some early dating did tip over into sex work; prostitutes even argued daters were cutting into their clients. But University of Utah historian Elizabeth Clement, who wrote about Briggs’ and other dating investigations in her 2006 book, Love for Sale, says most women balked at the idea that they were prostitutes … as they too held stigmas against sex work. When undercover cops offered them cash to leave a bar with them, they often grew indignant. 

Some critics of dating acknowledged this difference while arguing that it was only one of degree: Daters were a cheaper breed of sex worker in their eyes. One 1916 dictionary of sexual slang called them “charity cunts,” willing to give out sexual favors for a few kind acts in place of a heftier monetary fee.

The extent of anxieties about early dating in America isn’t clear. Our knowledge on the subject comes from limited private investigation and police records in major cities. The phenomenon was almost certainly common in other areas but left less of a paper trail. Regardless, as dating grew ever more practical and popular across the nation — and as bars, restaurants, theaters and other businesses realized there was good money to be made off of dates — panic about the practice faded. By the end of the 1920s, moralists and cops had largely given up on trying to crack down on daters, Clement says.

But we haven’t fully escaped early dating’s legacy. Despite a century’s worth of huge economic and social shifts, many Americans still believe men should pay for date nights with women; some men still believe a certain level of payment entitles them to sex. “Sugar daters,” usually young women who agree to date older men for set allowances, often argue they’re just making those implicit dating scripts explicit. And for that, they are regularly accused of prostitution.

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