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?
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.
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.
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.
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.