25 ways dating has changed in the last 50 years
From physical attraction to romantic longing, the feelings we associate with love are natural human sensations that largely come down to our minds and the brain chemistry of our emotions. But while the basic science behind human connections is something that remains constant over time, how people connect and act on their emotions are everchanging. This is because while love and attraction may be a matter of chemistry, behavior around those feelings is very much a product of social norms, available modes of communication, and general relationship trends. In some cases, that behavior may even be informed by certain political climates and laws.
These various potential influences on romantic behavior are at the root of what has been a constantly shifting and evolving dating landscape in America over the decades. Between political movements (e.g., LGBTQ+ rights movement and the feminist movement), advances in health care (e.g., the rise of widely available contraceptives), shifts in communication (e.g. Skype and SMS), and new technologies (e.g., dating apps and social media platforms), the last five decades alone have seen a tremendous amount of evolution in dating culture.
Dating apps, for example, have almost gamified the process of finding love today. Meanwhile, one of the byproducts of the internet and subsequent technologies that have emerged to disrupt the dating industry is that an entirely new language has evolved as part of today’s dating culture. Terms like “catfishing” (i.e., using a fake profile to deceive a romantic interest online), “ghosting” (i.e., going radio silent without warning), and “breadcrumbing” (i.e. sending sporadic messages to keep potential love interests in play without committing) have all come about as a way of explaining new realities that exist as a result of the current dating scene, which is a very different one than that which existed 50, 30, or even just 10 years ago.
To better understand how dating has evolved over the past 50 years, Stacker compiled a list of 25 key milestones and transformative moments from the 1970s through today. We examined news reports, research journals, and statistics from dating sites to offer a comprehensive look at the events and trends that ultimately shaped the dating landscape as we’ve come to know it today.
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1970s: Personal ads are on the rise.
Prior to the 1970s, some of the primary modes of finding romantic partners was through arrangements and introductions made by friends and family. However, the 1970s were part of a period in history when people’s attitudes toward being fixed up were changing and those seeking love were looking for new ways to go about it.
Personal ads in newspapers became an increasingly popular way of approaching dating, as publications like Singles News in New York and Singles News Register on the West Coast began featuring “advertisements” for love-seeking men and women. Interestingly, the personal ads placed in papers at the time tended to reflect gender norms of the period as well—while women often spoke of their physical attributes, men tended to stress their financial security or occupation.
1970s: The feminist movement changes priorities.
Women’s roles were changing in the 1970s. As they began focusing more on getting an education and building their own careers separate from men, that came with a movement away from the mentality of earlier decades in the 20th century that saw women first and foremost as wives and mothers. As these gender norms were challenged by women’s shifting priorities, casual dating and relationships that weren’t entered into with marriage as the ultimate goal became a new norm.
1970s: Online dating was having its first moment.
While we tend to think of online dating as a fairly new phenomenon, it turns out that the first foray into tech-powered romance had already taken place by 1970. Just a few years before, in 1965, a pair of Harvard students—Jeff Tarr and Vaughan Morrill—created the first computer-based matchmaking service in the U.S.
The way it worked was that clients would pay $3 and mail in an answer sheet for a paper survey containing 150 questions (75 about themselves, and 75 about their ideal love match). Tarr and Morrill would then run clients’ answers through a massive IBM 1401 computer that would identify ideal matches, six of whom’s names would then be mailed back to the client along with contact information.
[Pictured: IBM 1401 Data Processing System from the late '60s.]
1970s: Same-sex and interracial couples are still not a norm.
By the 1970s in America, both the civil rights movements and the fight for LGBTQ+ rights had been seeing some traction for several years. The ’50s and ’60s saw the passing of four Civil Rights Acts and the March on Washington, while the ’60s saw the passing of anti-sodomy laws that criminalized homosexuality, along with the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which served as a catalyst for the gay rights movement.
As equality efforts continued throughout the ’70s, politics were concurrently reflected in dating norms. Same-sex relationships were still far from being widely accepted, as was the case with interracial couples, who made up fewer than 1% of married couples in 1970. However, certain milestones around this time—for example, the Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia to get rid of laws banning interracial marriage in 1967, and the first same-sex couple to apply for a marriage license in 1970—show that this was a critical period in the history of relationship norms throughout the U.S.
[Pictured: Newlyweds Berta and Roger Mills, shown here on their wedding day Aug. 2, 1970, as the first interracial marriage.]
1970s: Mixtapes come onto the scene.
The 1970s saw a rising popularity of cassette tapes, which were a comparable alternative to vinyl, and the new musical medium quickly became ubiquitous. With that, it became much easier for people to create their own compilations of personal music mixes. Naturally, this was the start of a unique method of professing one’s love: the romantic mixtape. This became an artistic way for someone to bear their soul to a love interest by creating a thoughtfully curated mix of songs that could showcase their musical taste and reveal a romantic interest through lyrics.
The trend of creating these mixtapes is one that continued well into the ’90s, even as cassettes were being phased out by their successor, the CD, and now streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music (though cassettes have since come back into play).
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1970s: Love connections are seen in the stars.
While horoscopes are certainly all the rage today, the ’70s were arguably at the forefront of zodiac-fueled romance. The New Age movement that overtook the U.S. in the ’60s and ’70s came with an increasing interest in astrology that extended to the dating scene, hence the now-cliché pickup line of the era: “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” This era’s astrological approach to love and dating is also apparent in the popularity of the 1978 book, “Linda Goodman's Love Signs: A New Approach to the Human Heart,” which set a record when it raked in $2.25 million paid for paperback rights.
[Pictured: German women reading their horoscope in the 1970s.]
1970s: Popularity of contraceptives gives rise to casual sex.
The the first birth control pill, Enovid, was developed in 1960, but it wasn’t until 12 years later that birth control would be easily accessible for all women. In 1972, the Supreme Court legalized birth control for every woman, whether she was married or single, and the number of women using the pill in the early ’70s hit 6.5 million. This was a huge step as far as sexual liberation, and was a turning point for women and dating as far as reducing risks for them when engaging in premarital sex.
1980s: The concept of 'hooking up' came about.
While the term “hooking up” has been around for decades, it wasn’t until the 1980s that it came to mean what it does in today’s dating lingo. Prior to this time, the slang term would often be used in reference to getting married. During the ’80s, though, the definition began to shift; first, to mean picking someone up casually—at a party, for example—and later, to mean making out or having sex. The shift in the term’s mainstream meaning not only marks an important point in the evolution of modern dating language, but also reflects some of the changing trends and values that continued evolving from the ’70s into the ’80s.
1980s: Poultry becomes a key ingredient on the marriage track.
It was in the 1980s that dating couples looking to take their relationships to the next level first started circulating the now-famous “Engagement Chicken” recipe that has come to be known for its ability to inspire a proposal. Though it wasn’t until January 2004 that the recipe graced the pages of Glamour and became famous for its matrimonious reputation, it was in 1982 that the recipe was first shared among women at the magazine’s fashion department and hailed for the proposals that often followed its preparation.
1980s: Safe sex becomes a key priority.
While the ’70s were marked by a movement of sexual liberation, especially for women, the ’80s became a time when safe sex took center stage. People were still engaging in casual sex as they had been in the ’70s, but they now had health considerations in mind. With the concerns about HIV and AIDS, there was a major spike in the sale and use of condoms in an effort to curb the spread of STDs. In 1987, for example, the sales of condoms rose by 33%.
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