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Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Why Penny and Robbie risked pregnancy -- Part 1

Oral contraceptive pills were approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 1960. In 1963, when the Dirty Dancing story takes place, about 2.3 million women were taking such pills regularly. (For comparison, the number is about 10.6 million now.) However, a couple who became sexually involved while working in summer jobs at a resort hotel -- like  Penny Johnson and Robbie Gould -- would not be using oral contraceptives in 1963. She would have had to obtain a prescription from her family doctor, whose office was far away.

The practical contraceptive method for such a couple was to use condoms. Robbie could have gone to a drug store and asked the pharmacist to sell him a box of condoms. If that was too embarrassing for Robbie, then he could have bought some three-packs from a coin-operated machine at a truck stop.
A vintage coin-operated machine selling condoms
When Penny and Robbie began having sexual intercourse, they certainly did use condoms, but eventually they stopped using them all the time and so she became pregnant. In this article, I will explain how that happened.


Robbie was a student at Yale medical school. To be accepted there, he probably had to have earned at least a Master's Degree, which would take at least two years. Therefore, he was about 24 years old when he began attending the medical school.

I suppose that Robbie was working as a waiter at the Kellerman resort hotel in the summer before he began attending the first year of medical school.

Click on the chart to enlarge it.
The above chart shows that in 1963, the median age of marriage for men was 24 years old. Robbie was still single at that median age, because he had been attending graduate school. Now was a proper age for Robbie to get married. If he proposed to Penny in 1963, then he would marry her in 1964, when he would be 25 years old -- one year above the median.

The above chart indicates that in a 1964 wedding, the groom's median age was 24 and the bride's median age was 22. That consideration indicates that when Robbie and Penny were sexually involved in the early summer of 1963, Robbie was about 24, two years older than Penny, who was about 22 years old.  

However, Penny probably was not a couple of years younger than Robbie. Rather, she probably was about his age.

When the movie Dirty Dancing was made in 1986, the actor Max Cantor who played Robbie Gould was 27 years old, and the actress Cynthia Rhodes who played Penny Johnson was 30 years old. Practically all the movie's actors and actresses played characters who were younger than their actual ages. However, the important consideration in regard to my current discussion is that the actor Cantor was not older than the actress Rhodes. Therefore, I argue that Penny was about Robbie's age, 24 years old.


If they both were 24 in 1963, then they both attended high school during 1953-1957. Then he attended college during 1957-1961 and graduate school during 1961-1963. He got his Master's Degree in the spring of 1963, was working at Kellerman's during the summer of 1963, and would begin Yale Medical School in the fall of 1963.

Penny was about the same age as Robbie, but probably had not graduated from college. She had drifted around during her college years and then devoted herself seriously to dance while Robbie was attending graduate school in 1961-1963.

Robbie and Penny met at Kellerman's at the beginning of the summer season of 1963 at the Kellerman Resort Hotel. They began having sex in late June, she missed her period in late July, and so she got her abortion in late August 1963.


Robbie and Penny attended high school during the years 1953-1957 when they both were imbued with the courtship convention that is called "going steady". All teenagers were supposed to learn the going-steady rules.

A 1950s book for teenagers about how to go steady
In their high-school courses about health, students watched educational movies, such as the following, about how to consider "going steady" in a cultured and intelligent manner.

Going steady remained the well-established courtship norm through the early 1960s. Therefore, Robbie and Penny certainly followed the going-steady rules as their relationship developed in the early summer of 1963.

Essayist Kris Wolfe has described the going-steady rules in an article titled Seven Characteristics of Going Steady, as follows:
... We no longer use “going steady” in dating language today, but it was the prevalent form of dating in the 1950s. What were going-steady characteristics?

1. Visible token

A guy gave his girlfriend a “‘visible token’ (class ring, letter sweater, etc.) or they exchanged identical tokens, often gold or silver friendship rings worn on the third finger of the left hand” when they were ready to go steady. The purpose was to publicly declare their relationship and commitment.

A couple might carve their initials on a tree. “Other steadies spelled out their names on the bumpers of their boyfriends’ car.” Some girls would wear a “Puppy Love Anklet.” When she wore it on her left ankle, it meant she was committed. When she wore it on her right ankle, she indicated she was single and ready to go steady. ...

2. Required Dates

... In steady dating, “the boy had to call the girl a certain number of times a week and take her on a certain number of dates a week.” He might take her to the pizza parlor, a malt shop, the record store, or the drive-in movie theater.

Dates in the 1950s were planned and intentional. It wasn’t appropriate for a guy to ask a girl on the day of the date. He was expected to make plans two or three days in advance.

3. Exclusivity

Commitment was a key component of going steady. “Neither boy nor girl could date anyone else or pay too much attention to anyone of the opposite sex.” It wasn’t appropriate for another guy to hover near a girl’s locker before class or for a guy to sit across from another girl at lunch. ...

4. Oversight

“While either could go out with friends of the same sex, each must always know where the other was and what he or she was doing.”

5. Special Events

Whether it was the sock hop, prom, a sorority dance, or a fraternity formal, “going steady meant a guaranteed date for special events…” Sock hops became popular in the 1950s, and arose because these dances would take place on basketball courts. To make sure the floors didn’t get scuffed, everyone would take their shoes off.

Prom mirrored the commitment one might find in marriage. As John C. Spurlock wrote in Youth and Sexuality in the Twentieth Century United States, “…elaborate proms matched the glamor of weddings.”

6. Sharing Money

While the boyfriend was generally expected to pay for dinner dates, going steady also began to mirror commitment found in a marriage. Both guy and girl had a shared concern with finances and money. Prom and formals could be expensive events and “the girl had to be willing to help her boyfriend save up for the event by budgeting ‘their’ money, even if it meant sitting home together.”

7. Intimacy

If the date didn’t involve “sitting home together,” private time together consisted of parking on a less-trafficked road, the drive-in movie theater, or the overlook. Going steady implied physical intimacy, “either more necking or ‘going further.’

“Necking” and “petting” were two words used to describe physical intimacy in the 1950s. Necking was defined as “caresses above the neck,” and petting as “caresses below.”

Though, physical intimacy increased with couples going steady, it should be noted “virginity was still a virtue in the fifties.” It was expected a couple ready for sexual intercourse should marry

A scholarly book titled Into One's Own: From Youth to Adulthood in the United States, 1920-1975, by social historian John Modell, explains how a couple's going-steady courtship progressed through pre-marital sexual activity to an engagement and ultimately to a marriage. Going-steady sexual activity was supposed to be limited to "necking" and "petting" for a long time and was not supposed to progress quickly to sexual intercourse.
Going steady did often seem to incorporate a sexual progression along with the more overt components, although usually not coitus. Young people in the baby-boom era often felt as uncertain about this as did their parents. Crist found that a majority of the high schoolers he talked to in 1950 who were going steady ... said they believed those who went steady 'too much' became moony and sappy, that they might become too emotionally involved." A high school senior, speaking to another investigator in 1950, was even more explicit about the too-close tie of going steady and sexual-emotional commitment.

When a boy goes steady with a girl, you automatically are letting yourself in for a lot of troubles that will come up. If you both have good strong morals, I think you can sort of get through everything. . . . Some kids think that they're in love. Leaves a lot of hard feelings, and there's a lot of resentment, and there's a lot of 'Why did I do this?' . . . I don't think that there's very many people in high school that are really sure that they're in love.

A national survey of adolescent girls in 1956 found that many more girls were negative about going steady than were positive, and the negative responses rose sharply with age.

But socially — despite considerable instance-to-instance variation of just what the practice involved — going steady made sense to youth, although boys and girls disagreed sharply about how much petting going steady should entail. Ira Reiss argued that going steady in high school pushed toward — as behavior and as norm—"heavy petting with affection."

Neither abandoned nor simply sensual, heavy petting with affection was mutual, expressive, and moral at core: "high school couples who are going steady . . . feel it is proper to engage in heavy petting, . . . the justification being that they are in love or at least extremely fond of each other." ....

Surveys revealed that in the 1950s, boys more than girls worried about being clumsy with the opposite sex generally and about their inability to be comfortable dating. They also worried a good deal more about sex.

For boys, going steady was more comfortable, often far more comfortable, than dating. If dating had been the innovation of girls, going steady responded to the special exigencies in boys' life courses. It was a haven from anxiety for boys who were insecure of their reputations: "when it is well-known and advertised, there is definitely prestige in it." It was less expensive, and it promoted heightened but safe sexuality. "Lots of the fellows won't go out with a girl unless they can go steady."

Girls more than boys worried about whether to go steady, their focal concern of marriage rendering that institution especially portentous. From the girls' standpoint, the loss in circulation among pleasing partners and the added risk of sexual transgression was compensated by the added emotional intimacy available in steady dates, for masculine swagger and bravado were minimized in such a relationship. ...

You have a period in adolescence in which there is a terrific confusion or something. No one seems to know exactly where he is going. The girl begins worrying about boys. The boy has a hard time getting up his nerve to ask the girl out, and the girl is wondering if he is going to ask her out. When you pass that stage, and a boy and girl can like each other and can head toward each other and would like to be with each other, they have achieved a maturity.

Many, varied dates were important when adolescents had counted on dating to signify in a very public way one's participation in the recently emerged youth culture. .... The pursuit of warmth and intimacy, always present, now emerged.

The sharp downward shift in the marriage age drew girls into going steady, despite their reasons for ambivalence. Among girls 16 to 18 in 1955, those who were going steady more than those merely dating and even more than those not dating at all believed that popularity depended on one's sensitivity and understanding and that popularity with boys depended on the same inner qualities. Merely external social skills seemed notably less important to girls who were going steady; so, too, was appearance.

Going steady was evidently congruent with a view of the adolescent social world that emphasized the qualities of persons commonly thought central to modern marriage. Going steady was no trial marriage, but it was a trial on relatively familiar ground of some of the sentiments and qualities one sought in marriage. The "home" found a junior counterpart in the steady couple. ...

Thus, when the St. Paul Central High School Times published their lists of those in attendance at the junior-senior proms, the names were not segregated by gender but were published by couple, alphabetically by boys' family name. The publication of such lists of affiliation served to reinforce the strength of going steady as an institution and perhaps encouraged longer relationships. ....

A late 1950s Connecticut study examined the "courtship progress" of high school students. Going steady was very widespread. Boys and girls were about equally likely to have gone steady at some time, with less ambitious and less accomplished students somewhat more likely than scholars to have steadies. ... Particularly striking is the very substantial increase in overt commitment to marrying one's steady among those who had definitely ruled college out.
The last paragraph is particularly relevant to Robbie and Penny. Robbie was a "scholar", and so he was less likely to involve himself to a going-steady" relationship.

On the other hand, Penny was a "less accomplished student ...who had definitely ruled college out", and so she she was more likely to involve herself to a going-steady relationship that she considered to be a growing increasing commitment to marry.


When a couple was going steady, their sexual activity progressed through a series of baseball "bases". One good definition of this progression follows:
First base = kissing, including open-mouth (or French) kissing

Second base = petting above the waist, including touching, feeling, and fondling the chest, breasts, and nipples

Third base = petting or orally stimulating below the waist, including touching, feeling, and fondling the vagina, clitoris, penis, or testicles

Home base = sexual intercourse
Both partners understood a "home run" as an intention to get married.


In June 1963, Penny and Robbie certainly followed the going-steady rules and conventions that they had learned and practiced since their high-school years.

In accordance with the going-steady rules, Robbie gave Penny some token -- perhaps a fraternity pin from the college he had attended. In return, she gave him a token -- perhaps a pair of cuff-links. Each wore the token so that it could be seen in public.

In accordance with the rules, they went on regular dates. Their resort-hotel jobs kept them busy on weekends, so perhaps they went on a date -- a hike, a canoe ride, etc. -- every Monday morning.

In accordance with the rules, as listed above, they practiced exclusivity, oversight, and so forth -- including intimacy.

The intimacy rule was that they progressed gradually though the sexual baseball bases. When they reached the home run, then the conventional understanding was that they both intended to marry.

Penny and Robbie progressed through the bases faster than a high-school going-steady couple would do so. A high-school couple might stay on second base for several months and then stay on third base for many more moths. A college-age couple would progress significantly faster.

Since Penny and Johnny were about 24 years old, they progressed through all the bases within perhaps a couple of weeks. Still, they spent at least several days on each base. In 1963, that step-by-step restraint was required by the rules.

Now in 2017, by contrast, the rule seems to be that on the third date the couple goes directly to sexual intercourse.


In the movie Dirty Dancing, Penny tells Baby:
I just want you to know that I don't sleep around, whatever Robbie might have told you. And I thought that he loved me. I thought it was something special. Anyway, I just wanted you to know that.
What both Penny and Baby understood from such a statement in 1963 was that Penny -- even though she now was single and pregnant and was going to get an abortion -- had followed the going-steady rules. The expression "sleep around" meant to violate the going-steady rules, and Penny wanted Baby to know that she had not done that.


This article continues in a second part.

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