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Was Sex In 1950s America As Straitlaced And Boring As You Think It Was?

The stereotypical perception of the 1950s involves 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 linked, and even some of the worst moment in time have their stories to tell.

Sex and sexuality in the 1950s is no different. Marriages in the 1950s were supposed to be peachy — just look at 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?

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  • STIs Were Fairly Common, But The Risks Seemed Unimportant

    During World War I and World War II, sexually transmitted infections spread at exponential rates. Syphilis was a particularly devastating infection, 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.

    Once there was a cure for syphilis, people began engaging in riskier sex habits. During the 1950s, "the illegitimate birth ratio, the share of US births by teens, and the incidence of gonorrhea," all dramatically increased. Gonorrhea, which 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.

  • Homosexuality Was Considered A Disease And "Deviant"

    In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), first published in 1952, homosexuality was listed as a mental illness. By 1968 and the publication of the DSM-II, it was officially a "sexual deviation."

    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, backlash against the treatments developed. 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 

    After World War II, the US — and the rest of the world — sought to return to quieter and simpler times. At the same time, men were supposed to be strong, to provide, and to 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 a way to take a stand against communism, or the "evil Red menace." 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.

  • Homosexuals Were Hunted And Persecuted — Just Like Suspected Communists
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    Homosexuals Were Hunted And Persecuted — Just Like Suspected Communists

    Just as the nuclear family became a symbol of prosperity and the American dream, homosexuality was perceived as the antithesis to those ideals. Homosexual relationships and interactions likely did still happen, but during the 1950s, these relationships were dangerous and highly illegal.

    Known as the "Lavender Scare," homosexuals were targets of congressional investigations. Congress 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 and surveilling locations where known LGBTQ+ people spent their time. 

  • Marriage Manuals Trained Girls And Young Women To Be Good Wives
    Photo: JosephineRN28 / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

    Marriage Manuals Trained Girls And Young Women To Be Good Wives

    From books presented to girls taking home economics courses to women reading magazines, there were endless guides and manuals for how to be a proper wife. Most of the information remained constant from manual to manual, encouraging girls and women to have dinner ready for their husbands when they got home from work, to be pretty and prepared when he arrives, to have the children ready, and to make sure noise and clutter aren't around to bother him. It was important for girls and women to make sure they "made the evening his. Never complain if he comes home late or goes out to dinner, or other places of entertainment without you. Instead, try to understand his world of strain and pressure and his very real need to be at home and relax."

    At the time, a woman's place was not to "ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment of integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him."

    By extension, men learned how to be good husbands from these texts as well. Men were supposed to provide for their families and, most importantly, not be "sissies."

  • The First Transgender Woman In The US Earned National Headlines
    Photo: Maurice Seymour / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The First Transgender Woman In The US Earned National Headlines

    "Transgender" wasn't a word in the 1950s but when former US Army serviceperson George William Jorgensen, Jr. from the Bronx came out as transgender, it brought understandings of sexuality to new limits. After her transition, Christine Jorgensen said she struggled "between the sexes" as a child and turned to photography until being drafted into the military. Soon after being discharged from the Army in 1946, Jorgensen transitioned to a woman. Jorgensen went to Denmark to have hormone treatments and undergo several surgeries.

    In 1953, Jorgensen returned to the US after the surgery had been made public the previous year. The New York Daily News broke the story Dec. 1, 1952, with the headline "EX-GI BECOMES BLONDE BEAUTY." Jorgensen was met by reporters when she arrived at the airport, where she answered several questions. She later told her story to magazines, became a celebrity, and then a night club entertainer in New York. According to historian Genny Beemyn, "Jorgensen became a sensation, in part, because she had been a US serviceman, the epitome of masculinity in post-World War II America … and had been reborn into a ‘blonde bombshell,’ the symbol of 1950s white feminine sexuality."

    Before returning to the US, Jorgensen wrote her family to tell them what to expect. In her letter she said, “I have changed, changed very much, as my photos will show, but I want you to know that I am an extremely happy person and the real me, not the physical me, has not changed. I am still the same old 'Brud.' But nature made a mistake, which I have had corrected, and I am now your daughter.” Her family was said to have been very supportive.