In the new millennium, our concept of what life was like in 1950s U.S.A. is really more of a caricature than it is a reality. When we muse about dating and romance in that decade, we might think of a man and woman standing as far away from each other as possible, only having s*x to pop out an acceptable number of children, as standard to the times.
Kissing at the end of the night was like getting to third base back then, right? Wrong! >’s what really went on beneath the sheets in the 1950s.
The 1950s were an era of recovery from World War II and The Great Depression. For the first time in decades, Americans aspired toward the “good life,” one where they could live and prosper as they pleased. Many scholars who have analyzed and reported on the s*xual nature of the 1950s, begin with this history lesson to explain the culture of the 1950s.
As author David Rosen notes in his book, Sin, s*x & Subversion: How What Was Taboo in 1950s New York Became America’s New Normal, the 50s wasn’t as picture perfect as it appears to be in popular stereotype. Because of its historical context, Rosen argues that this era was actually extremely tumultuous. “During the ’50s,” he writes, “s*x [was] as threatening to the nation’s moral order as Communism.” However, while it was threatening, it was also a growing interest for young people: an interest, Rosen says, that generated art, film, photography and writing to combat dominant social virtues.
In a contribution to Gender and the Long Postwar, Joanne Meyerowitz, a professor at Yale University, wrote extensively in her chapter “The Liberal 1950s? Reinterpreting Postwar American s*xual Culture,” about the concepts of “s*xual containment” and “s*xual liberalism,” and how they interacted with and fought against each other in the 50s.
The s*xual containment refers to the people who tried to maintain the established moral order and sought to stifle s*xual expression and growth whenever it began to rise up. However, as Meyerowitz argues, s*xual containment did not win out in the end. s*x developed an increasing presence in American culture. But even as s*x and se*uality has become more of a viable topic for discussion in today’s society, according to the author, “‘Culture wars’…still rage today.”
At the height of moral conservatism, the first issue of Playboy was published in 1953. With none other than s*x symbol Marilyn Monroe gracing the cover, Hugh Hefner sold nearly 54,000 copies. It was a hit.
The first issue advertised the centerfold as the “Sweetheart of the Month.” . the second publication, that slogan was changed to “Playmate of the Month.” The Chicago Tribune commented, “What Hefner understood, faster and better than anybody else at the time, was the vast ideological gap between the words “Sweetheart” and “Playmate.” Hefner wasn’t selling steady dates and monogamy: he was selling one-night stands and variety. He wasn’t selling duty. He was selling pleasure. And plenty of folks — imagine that — wanted to buy.”
Playboy was an immediate success, revealing a large American audience that wanted — and enjoyed — this sexy glossy, despite the morally conservative precedent at the time.
Still commonly referenced today, Dr. Alfred Kinsey remains the most well known voice on the topic of human se*uality. Two of his books, 1948’s s*xual Behavior in the Human Male and 1953’s s*xual Behavior in the Human Female, rocked the foundation of American society when they were published.
So what did he have to say that was so shocking? The most notable aspect of his research, according to the American Public Health Association was the conclusion that he drew, concerning “an enormous gap between social attitudes and actual practices.” Kinsey reached this conclusion . surveying thousands upon thousands of men and women for his books about their private s*xual behaviors. According to the same report on his research, the people he interviewed had a lot to say about their personal experiences on topics like self service, homosexuality, s*xual affairs, premarital s*x, and orgasms. So while the major cultural viewpoint of the time was to be sexually conservative, that may not have been the case, in private.
Scholar Michael Phillips, wrote about the reality of pregnancy before marriage in the 50s. In the book The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, of which Phillips is a coauthor, he provides insight in a chapter on s*x in the 1950s.
According to Phillips, young women were getting pregnant out of wedlock — or, before marriage — quite often in the 1950s. It wasn’t as pure and pristine a time as we tend to think. “Contrary to modern right-wing myths that depict pre-marital pregnancy as a legacy of the 1960s counterculture,” Phillips writes, “Women often found themselves trapped into marriage . premarital pregnancy in the supposedly more chaste 1950s.” While people were insisting that such things rarely happened, “Nearly 50% of [women] had s*xual intercourse before marriage,” according to Dr. Kinsey’s 1953 study.
Most people know that children of the 50s are referred to as “Baby Boomers.” In this postwar period, people were moving to safe and comfortable suburbs, and growing their families at incredible rates. According to History.com, “3.9 million [babies] were born in 1952, and more than 4 million were born every year from 1954 until 1964.”
During this period in the 1950s — a time when, according to New York Times author Danielle Crittenden’s book, What Our Mothers Didn’t Tell Us, “A man who took a woman out for more than three dates without intending marriage was considered a cad” — more babies were being born than ever before in American history. Married or not, that meant that more s*x was being had.
Just as the 1950s may be infamously remembered for the concept of the so-called “perfect family,” the 60s are known for free love.
Those who have written about and studied that time period have found that the beginnings of s*xual liberalism and experimentation in the 1950s were the underlying spark for the next decade’s s*xual revolution. The s*xual curiosity that began to show itself in the 50s got the ball rolling to strike back against the dominant order.
The 1950s saw the beginning of the endeavoring to normalize s*x and engage in s*xual freedom. Researchers like Afred Kinsey “made people think about the elephant in the master bedroom that at the time no one talked about in public,” according to Slate. The veneer of modesty and purity that was preached at the time, was an effort to cover up what was really going on in people’s daily lives.
But the idea of s*x and s*xual liberty has created social discord for many generations. While conservative ideals blanketed the nation, researchers of human behavior, like Emory University economist Andrew Francis, were concluding that “the era of modern se*uality began in the mid to late 1950s…Immediately following the rapid decrease in syphilis-. deaths,” thanks to advancements like penicillin, “the rate of risky s*xual behavior went up.”
While the 1950s were, in some regards, considered conservative, the decade was also much more sexually rebellious than most people realize. Exploration and experimentation in the s*xual area, in those years, paved the way for society to open up and talk about this basic part of life.
This just goes to prove that regardless of imposed cultural norms, the population was “gettin’ in on,” even in an era known for its housewives.