NCMO: A Brief Cultural History
Duck, North Carolina—home to one of the most conservative beaches in the country—seems a strangely suitable site for modern coming-of-age stories in the Mormon single adult community. Remote, humble, and isolated, Duck Beach serves as the unofficial mecca for a host of Mormon single adult looking for love, fun—and other things too. Duck’s transformation from agrarian community to beach resort illustrates the transition that Mormon single adults have made as marriage ages and limited promiscuity have increased while dating has decreased. Most of all, it has acquired a reputation for that singularly Mormon innovation: the non-committal makeout (NCMO).
The creation of the Duck Beach Mormon culture has much more to do with demographic and moral shifts within the Mormon people than with the appeal of an obscure North Carolina town. Over the course of the past century, the Saints have been withdrawing from their mountain home of the Intermountain West. Eastern cities such as Washington, D.C., Boston, and New York City have become major urban centers for young Latter-day Saint life. As early as the 1870s, the Saints began attending schools such as the University of Michigan, West Point, and the University of Vermont for law school, medical school, and, obviously, military sciences.
With the migratory thrust to urban centers, the Saints were forced to adapt. Instead of living on homesteads with tightly-knit communities, they lived in apartments with strangers as neighbors. The Saints continued to form small congregations, but they could no longer assume Mormon culture all the time. The new Mormon migrant was forced to develop a kind of “public Mormonism” for work/politics and private Mormonism for their friends and fellow adherents.These identities were not mutually exclusive nor was the exercise deceptive. The Saints simply acquired new languages—the language of business, politics, the arts, and technology.
The Necking Hey Day of the 1920s
The most important development in the creation of 20th-century Mormon gender relations (and America’s writ large) came from an assembly line in Detroit: the automobile. By making the car accessible to young men across the nation, Henry Ford had given men a powerful tool for establishing a space in which both men and women could embrace a more permissive attitude towards gender relations. Men could take women to locales far-removed from the watchful eye of parents. A spacious backseat facilitated them.
While still urged to keep their standards high, Mormon couples used the new innovation to promote a new dating culture. Consequently,“necking” experienced a brief heyday in Depression-era Utah. Advice columns in small-town Utah newspapers were acknowledging that “necking is not frowned upon. “Necking” was a pastime so common that it was listed as only one of several activities of collegiate rowdiness at the University of Utah. One piece of doggerel spoke mischievously: “A snappy girl/Eyes of blue/Clever boy/Likes her too/Lights turned low…and there you have/a necking party.” One column spoke of a man and woman kissing when the woman said wryly: “I don’t mind being kissed…[but] I’m mighty hungry, too and I mind being fed even less than I do being kissed.” Another piece had a man and woman kissing in a restaurant. The owner told them to leave: “this is a tea room, not a petshop.”
Mormon standards still remained remarkably high (by some standards, prudish), to be sure. Genuine promiscuity would never have been acceptable by any construction of Mormon culture or doctrine. And the old-school Mormons had their own problems with sexual morality as well. The difference was in the publicization of the activity. Whereas intimacy of any kind was something to write of in hushed tones to priesthood leaders, the new forms illustrated a willingness to cultivate sexuality with the opposite sex while staying clear of the uncrossable lines.
The Mormon 60s
When the youth of the necking era gave birth to the baby boomers of the postwar era, they recognized that the youth faced new problems that required new advice and new solutions. A 1960s advice columnist bemoaned that many youth tended to think that physical attraction signaled a “go-ahead for necking.” One stake youth committee advised parents that telling their children to be “‘be sweet and clean” would be ineffective. Instead, they should be reminded that “if they get so turned on and lose control , they’ll end up with a pregnancy and broken lives.” First date kissing could be acceptable. The primary danger was in letting kissing “get out of hand.” In Spencer W. Kimball’s widely-read, The Miracle of Forgiveness, he acknowledged that “necking” was a “sin in itself,” but the emphasis often seemed to be on the potential outcome rather than as an act in itself.
Whatever its dangers, necking’s prevalence was commonly acknowledged in the “Jokes” pages of the newspapers. One told of a father harangued a boy for necking with his daughter. The boy responded sadly: “I was just carrying out the scriptural injunction to ‘hold fast that which is good.’” Another panned that “the Administration is trying to stop necking,” with the response: “First thing you know, they’ll be trying to make the students stop too.” One editor panned an awkward young man’s date; he had been so clumsy that she thought “he learned his necking by mail.” A Manti paper chided women for claiming to “like boys who can have fun without necking.” Why then, it asked, “are you wearing a Red Riding Hood if you don’t want a Wolf to run after you?” In 1968, an advice columnist warned with mock gravity that that “necking isn’t fatal but has put an end to many a bachelor!”
By the end of the 20th century, most modern Saints grew up in households of parents who still drew hard lines against serious sexual transgression and promiscuity. But it was widely recognized that Mormon society had changed. In 1973, a Bountiful regional conference even hosted a dance that openly advertised a kissing booth. While the idea of no-strings-attached affection had existed for some time in Mormon society (“sweet 16” typically meant a goal of kissing 16 boys within a year of the 16th-birthday), it had not yet become a custom acknowledged and labeled by Mormon culture. In 2000, a student-sponsored website appeared where Latter-day Saint students could arrange for an anonymous “non-committal makeout” (known by the strange vernacular acronym, NCMO). The acronym demonstrated the convergence of several trends: sexual liberation, sexual suppression, and bureaucratization. Mormons had become so sexually liberated, so sexually regulated, and so corporatized that they needed an acronym to communicate what their kissing didn’t mean. What hardly needs explanation in most American cities requires a code word in Intermountain Mormonism.
So here we are, stifled, liberated, and bureaucratized in a world where we fear the sexual stiffness of the nineteenth-century while staying wary of the excesses of the twenty-first. In response Mormon culture does what it often has: adopt what it feels is the best the outsiders have to offer: absorb, co-opt, rebrand, and systematize.