The stereotypical perception of the 1950s involves a lot of white picket fences and domestic bliss. But what about sex in the 1950s? Sexual mores and taboos throughout history often challenge perceived ideas about a society and sometimes even come to define a lot of what we know about historic groups entirely. Think of the sexual practices of ancient Romans - their sex practices are closely linked with some of the best-known stories about their lives. Sex and history are indelibly linked, and even some of the worst moment in time have their stories to tell; people had to get through the Great Depression somehow.
Sex and sexuality in the 1950s is no different. Marriages in the 1950s were supposed to be peachy - just ask those 1950s marriage manuals - and homosexuality in the 1950s was forbidden. But what about the reality of sex and relationships? Was it as straightforward as the 1950s would like you to believe? People like Hugh Hefner would have you think differently.
STDs Were Fairly Common But The Risks Seemed Unimportant
During World War One and World War Two, sexually transmitted diseases spread at exponential rates. Syphilis was a particularly devastating disease but with the discovery of penicillin in 1928, a cure became possible. While penicillin wasn't used to treat syphilis on a widespread level until the 1940s, "the incidence rate of syphilis fell by 95 percent and its death rate fell by 75 percent" between 1947 and 1957.
According to at least one scholar, once there was a cure for syphilis, people began engaging in risky sex habits. During the 1950s, "the illegitimate birth ratio, the share of U.S. births by teens, and the incidence of gonorrhea" all dramatically increased. Gonorrhea, which had declined once antibiotics were discovered, was believed to have been almost eradicated by the 1950s. By the end of the 1960s, however, gonorrhea cases in the US were back to levels on par with those from the 1940s, in large part because treatment was only usually only given to males.
Homosexuality Was Considered A Disease And "Deviant"
In the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), first published in 1952, homosexuality was listed as mental illness. By 1968 and the publication of the DSM-II, it was officially a "sexual deviation."
This isn't surprising given contemporary social perceptions of homosexuality but medical diagnoses of homosexual behavior prompted resistance from gay communities. As doctors attempted to "cure" homosexuality through shock therapies, castration, commitment to a mental institution, and lobotomies, there was a backlash against this harsh treatment. That said, the American Psychiatric Association didn't take homosexuality out of the DSM completely until 1986.
Nuclear Families And Traditional Gender Roles Were Part Of Fighting Communism But Divorce Rates Went Up
After World War Two, the US - and the world - wanted to return to quieter and simpler times. At the same time, men were supposed to be strong, to provide, and to ultimately prove their masculinity. As a result, the push for a nuclear family - with the father as the breadwinner and the mother as the homemaker - became essential to preserving the American way of life. This family structure was considered to be a way to take a stand against Communism, the evil Red menace that was looming around every corner. This preoccupation, or obsession, with family and gender roles during the '50s reflects how Americans believed they could resist outside or domestic "subversion" through the strength of a traditional family.
Ironically, marriages in the United States were more likely to end in divorce over the course of the decade. In part due to increased economic opportunities for women, "in 1950, 1 in every 4.3 marriages failed, and by the end of the decade that ratio had changed to 1 in every 3.8."
Homosexuals Were Hunted And Persecuted - Just Like Suspected Communists
Just as the nuclear family was a symbol of prosperity and the American dream, homosexuality was the antithesis to those ideals. This isn't to say that homosexual relationships and interactions didn't happen, but during the 1950s, they were incredibly dangerous and highly illegal.
Known as the "Lavender Scare," homosexuals were targets of congressional investigations that wanted to put an end to the "employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts in the government" and "in March 1952, the federal government announced its removal of 162 civil servants suspecting of being homosexual." Sexual perversion was added to the reasons why a person could be denied employment with the government in 1953 by President Dwight Eisenhower. Agencies began trying to weed out homosexuals through blackmail, surveilling locations where known gays spent their time, and by considering people "guilty by association."