These Panty-Seeking College Boys Lit the Fuse on the 1960s 50 Years Ago This Week

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May 9 2013 4:20 PM

The Guerrilla Skirmishes of the Sexual Revolution

Fifty years ago this week, panty-seeking college boys lit the fuse on the 1960s.

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Scholars of mass psychology promise that any proper spontaneous crowd will direct itself to the space where it can make the most noise. In Princeton, this meant Nassau Street, where the crowd grew to 1,000 young men, who barricaded traffic with bike racks, trash cans, and park benches. When the cops showed up, the boys applauded and barked at the police to sit. On May 7, the front of the local section of the New York Times featured above the fold the very VW you see above the fold here. The guys are moving the car and its passengers to the sidewalk.

Further highlights of the evening included trampling the university president’s estate; wheeling a one-ton air compressor down the steepness of Washington Road, where it missed a car and met a lamppost; smashing all the windows of the two-car commuter train; and lighting the Nassau Street barricade aflame and wandering back and forth in front of it, glassy-eyed and looking for action.

Princeton houses its archives at Mudd Library, where a visitor can discover any number of fascinating Spring Riot documents. At the moment, I’ve got two clear favorites. One is a Daily Princetonian article summarizing a magazine’s report on the event, which surveyed psychologists and social scientists to blame the restraints on sexual expression. The Prince includes a quote from a student interrogating his own insights:

“I guess we all got restless. We wanted something, but we either didn’t know what it was or were ashamed to put it in so many words. So we went out and made trouble and destroyed property, and only then did we make a bee-line for the girls’ dormitories.

Looking back on it, I can see that that was what we really wanted to do in the first place but because we live in a hypocritical society, we were ashamed to admit it. … The riot gave us an ‘out’. It allowed us to kid ourselves that the panty raid was just an afterthought.”

The magazine writer continues: “Who can say whether a man will be the better for having endured four or more years of virtual celibacy, or the worse? And who can say whether it is better to have a riot or a panty raid now and then than to indulge in premarital sex?”

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My other favorite document is a handwritten to-do list, specifically a list of phone calls that the university’s president needed to make the morning after the riot. First item: “mothers of incoming freshmen.”

A few years earlier, it had been possible for a Princeton administrator to quell a riot by standing on a car bumper and telling the kids to go home, at which point they would sing, “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.” But by 1963—the year sexual intercourse began, or was at any rate supposed to have begun—the campus was the perfect tinderbox, and not for nothing media catnip, thanks to such Ivy League-romancers as Fitzgerald, John O’Hara, and the original spring-break coming-of-age story, 1960’s Where the Boys Are. The heat of the political riots of 1964 Berkeley was first felt at a country-club bonfire. Ironically or not, the Establishment hooligans of Princeton, Yale, and Brown were canaries in the coal mine of the counterculture, and they initiated a certain tradition of campus dissent.

Testing the limits of tolerance, the Spring Riot proved the limits of the panty raid. Such carnival events sometimes came to college towns for years after, most with the mere tone of child’s play, but it was doomed. Some of the kids got interested in protests that had politics as their cause (or their fig leaf), and some of the girls stopped wearing bras, and a lot of people began to recognize how easily a minor prank could escalate into a freelance mass-psychology experiment requiring the attention of both Walter Cronkite and the National Guard. Obviously, the panty raid is dead and buried. In the age of the Take Back the Night March, it is incorrect. In a world where “Thong Song” is an oldie, it is superfluous. Coeds became women, and joined the boys in innovating new strains of misbehavior: “Newsflash, you stupid cocks: FRATS DON'T LIKE BORING SORORITIES.The boys convicted of riotous behavior in the spring of ’63 were in the wrong place at the wrong time, minor accomplices to the culture’s murder of innocence.