Long gone, for most adolescents, are the elegant dances and cotillions whose disappearance Emily Post was already lamenting in her 1922 book "Etiquette." In such environments, modesty and public decorum had been required "because people were on exhibition, where now they are unnoticed components of a general crowd."
Her exalted reputation aside, Mrs. Post had no illusions about human propensities. Unsupervised teenagers would grapple in the dark. It was to everyone's benefit, especially youngsters on the brink of adulthood, for society to insist on restraint.
"Don't allow anyone to paw you," Mrs. Post advised debutantes, perfectly aware that scoundrels would try. She was censorious about young people who flaunted romantic conquests. "It is not considered a triumph to have many love affairs, but rather an evidence of stupidity and bad taste," she wrote.
The revered arbiter of manners would probably be pained by the writhing spectacle of contemporary high-school dances, but not surprised. What might amaze her, though, is to see her name affixed to an etiquette guide counseling teenagers to ask themselves, "Am I willing to buy and use condoms?"
This disconcerting query appears in "Prom and Party Etiquette," a just-published volume written by Peggy Post and Cindy Post Senning, manners mavens who, through the Emily Post Institute, perpetuate their famous relative's legacy with books, lectures and seminars. The authors lay out basic rules: Always send a thank-you note after a party; put soiled dinner napkins on the table, not the chair; converse with dinner guests on either side of you. The modern Posts have no qualms in specifying what's expected, procedurally. Yet on morality, suddenly it all goes squish.
In a subchapter entitled "A 'Special' Act for a Special Evening?" the authors note that "some teens talk about prom night as the night they might have sex for the first time because the night feels special and significant." Without making any ruling as to the wisdom of such a practice, they invite young people to consider whether to bed their dates by asking themselves: "Will I be able to look this person in the eye the next morning and talk about the experience? If we break up afterward anyway, how will I feel?" The authors conclude: "Sex is the most intimate act between two people, so you should take the time to consider all these questions and answer them coolly and honestly."
It seems startlingly passive advice, even in an era in which, as a newly retired school principal ruefully told me, "Girls save themselves not for marriage but for the prom."
Well, of course sex is intimate. It's also profoundly consequential and, you'd think, something the heirs of Emily Post would be unafraid to tell young people to delay. ("Don't allow anyone to paw you!") Alas, no more.
"We're not prudish by any stretch; we're more realists than anything else," Peggy Post explained by phone. "We really made a conscious decision not to try to lecture teens or tell them what to do, but instead give them the tools, questions for them to ask themselves, so that they don't feel pressure."
"We didn't want to preach to teens," Ms. Post told me, although, she conceded, "We could have gone one step further."
Eve Grimaldi finds this exasperating. As dean of students at Georgetown Visitation, an all-girls high school in Washington, she's a tireless warrior for decorum. Every year, come dance time, Mrs. Grimaldi sends out humane "Do's and Don'ts." She encourages parents to embrace their inner authoritarian: "DON'T let your daughter go off to a dinner party or restaurant . . . if you have an uneasy feeling about the location or substance of either." She carries sweatshirts to every dance, to cover the scantily clad, and periodically wades into the throng of dancers "like the grim reaper." And she has no patience with moral neutrality when advising the young.
"Are the writers [of "Prom and Party Etiquette"] too cool to draw a line?" Mrs. Grimaldi wonders. "Shouldn't adults be helping teenagers to avoid just those kinds of far-reaching caprices?"
Undoubtedly so. Here's the problem with morally neutral sex advice for teenagers: It isn't neutral. It can't be. The very discussion of coital practicalities creates a moral framework, a matrix of what is reasonable and acceptable.
Oddly, Cindy Post Senning and Peggy Post don't mind telling grown-ups what to do. In the 2004 edition of "Etiquette," for instance, they advise adults: "It's perfectly okay to say, "I'm sorry, but until we know each other better . . . we just can't get involved in a sexual relationship. There's just too much at stake."
Quite right! You'd think that's exactly what "Emily Post" and every other adult should tell teenagers, who need guidelines far more than do their elders. A dance ought to be an occasion to enjoy youth's frivolity, not to become mired in adult complexity. There's just too much at stake.
Mrs. Gurdon is a regular contributor to the book pages of The Wall Street Journal.