The Psychology of Sex
The Nordic Legacy. Today’s adolescents who establish their sex lives by breaching the doctrine of the virgin bride and the double standard are, whether they know it or not, adopting a modern counterpart of another very ancient tradition, one which undoubtedly covered a region more vast than the term Nordic or Scandinavian would imply. This is the tradition of betrothal and sexual egalitarianism. It is called Nordic because it survived longest in Scandinavia. There it resisted the incursion of the Mediterranean system, which spread into Northern Europe as an adjunct of Christianity. There, especially in remote rural areas, it may still be traced. As recently as the last century, it could also be traced southward through Eastern Europe to the Alps. In the seventeenth century, it crossed the Atlantic from northern Britain and Scotland to New England, where it was known as bundling. In Denmark, it is known as night courting, and the translation of the Finnish term is taking your night legs for a walk.
As its name implies, the betrothal system is one in which not the marriage but the betrothal of a young couple is the ceremony that marks the highpoint of their beginning as a breeding partnership. As recorded in nineteenth-century Finland, the season for betrothal began with the advent of spring, for in the winter a typical farm family and its hired hands survived the subzero nights by sleeping in the big kitchen around a great fireplace or heating stove. In spring, the loft of the night-foot house became the sleeping quarters of the young unmarried women. From the lower floor, used for storage, they reached the loft by a ladder let down through a trap door that closed behind them. To admit visitors, they either unlatched the inside trap door, or hung a rope outside from their upstairs window. The visitors were young men from the local region who banded together to serenade the girls. The girls decided whether or not to invite the boys to join them, and also whether to invite them to return. When it happened that a boy and a girl became romantically interested in one another, it was proper for their friends to allow them to meet together alone. Thereafter they followed a prescribed routine whereby the boy would stay the night with his girlfriend, but sleeping with his clothes on and above the covers. Step by step, visit by visit, he got under the covers, and then under the covers with his clothes off, at which point the couple announced to the family their intent to be betrothed. The betrothal would lead eventually to marriage, but only if a pregnancy had ensued. Marriage itself was a confirmation of parenthood rather than of coition. The ability to create a family was socially and economically more important than the right to have sexual intercourse. In this farming and fishing culture, the family was historically the vocational and economic unit. In such a family unit, the woman’s role was as important as the man’s. There was a high degree of erotic egalitarianism between the sexes, even though the society was a patriarchal one in which men dominated in political and military leadership.
The ancient betrothal system left its mark on contemporary Scandinavian mores even when it no longer survived intact, for there has always been in Scandinavian urban culture an easier acceptance of adolescent and young-adult sexuality leading to marriage, in place of the Mediterranean custom of marrying first and testing sexuality and fertility afterward.
The Scandinavian system was ready made for the age of birth control, an age in which adolescents and young adults can live together in an erotic/sexual relationship not for the purpose of finding out whether they can become parents, but because they know that with birth control they can avoid becoming parents until they are financially, vocationally, and personally ready to take on the responsibilities of parenthood. The reborrowing of the time-honored system of betrothal has been made possible by reason of cultural diffusion in print, in film, and in the direct international travel of students. Betrothal represents not a loss of moral standards, but the reinstatement of a time-tested morality that happens to be uniquely appropriate to the age of birth control, and an age of a newly discovered erotic/sexual egalitarianism. The old morality of betrothal fills our society’s need for a new ethic of recreational sex prior to taking on the responsibilities of procreational sex.
John Money, Love and Love Sickness: The Science of Sex, Gender Difference and Pair-bonding, pp. 57-59. John Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, London) 1980.