Weird History What Sex Was Like During The Great Depression  

Melissa Sartore
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Coming on the heels of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression brought on an entirely new – and markedly worse – decade, heralding an end to the excesses of the flapper era and bringing about global hardship and despair. Unsurprisingly, Sex in the Great Depression was not immune to these sweeping lifestyle, social, and economic changes. With mass unemployment and a daily struggle to survive for many, everyday life during the Great Depression included fast and increasingly complex changes to the roles of men and women in society. Marriage declined, and families shrank – what with the difficulty of feeding mouths – but men and women found ways to express sexuality and expend their sexual energy.

At the same time, liberal attitudes about sex and sexuality that had grown during the '20s regressed during the '30s at the expense of anyone outside of the traditional sexual norms. Sex in 1930s America both adapted and grasped onto tradition as people fought to control their surroundings in a time when control felt pretty impossible.

Lesbians Had Their Own Subculture With Its Own Lingo – For Those Brave Enough To Take Part


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Photo:  Lee Proudfoot/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

To be a lesbian during the Great Depression was risky and often lonely. Women who expressed too much of an interest in sports – or not enough interest in men – were suspect. Women who openly "chose" to be lesbians were perceived to be threats to men, especially at a time when masculinity was in jeopardy; it had taken a serious hit when men became unable to provide for their families. As a result, many lesbians married men for safety, security, and to avoid social stigma. There were, however, expressions a lesbian couple could use to indicate they were living a gay lifestyle, under cover of course. To be "in the life" was to self identify as a lesbian.

Some lesbians were transients and, ultimately, were able to experience more freedoms than their domestically rooted counterparts. Same-sex couples could rely on claims of traveling together for safety and companionship without having to justify their relationships. Finding a female to be in a relationship with was difficult, too, which is why a lot of women opted for heterosexual relationships. Women met each other at universities or in prisons, but living openly as a couple was difficult and isolating. In her book about lesbianism in the 20th century, Lillian Faderman recounts a story of a couple in Texas who had no idea other lesbians even existed for over 20 years. 

Nudism Spread Throughout The US


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Photo: Appraiser/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

With changes in attitudes about sexuality and morality, nudism found increased popularity in the US during the early 1930s. Already quite popular in Europe, nudism thrived during the first decades of the 20th century as the "naturalism" movement. Relaxed ideas about showing skin during the Great Depression benefited nudists who had unsuccessfully attempted to practice during the 1920s, during which time the movement still faced opposition. Despite efforts to ban nudism in major cities like New York and Chicago, there were also proposals to open nude beaches in the latter half of 1932.

The proposal failed, but nudists didn't quit. A group of nudists bought land in Northern Indiana and established a resort at the Lake O' The Woods Club in 1933. Annual international nudist conferences continued to grab headlines and attention from around the country. 

Birth Control Was A Necessity – And States Passed Legislation Saying So


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Photo:  State Library Of New South Wales Collection/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

During the Depression, unemployment and lack of income made family life a struggle, and having a lot of kids wasn't ideal. Couples actively tried to avoid pregnancies and children, and methods of birth control became essential. The struggle over birth control during the first two decades of the 20th century brought the Comstock Act of 1873 to the forefront of political and social discussions. The act was used to condemn birth control advocates as purveyors of obscene materials, but, during the Depression, many states passed legislation allowing for women to have access to contraception. By 1935, the US began importing contraceptive devices from Europe and, shortly afterwards, companies in the US started manufacturing their own. 

Women welcomed birth control information and devices. Condoms for men were common, but with the push to have women control their own reproductive options, diaphragms and female condoms gave women the ability to actively control the size of their families. Early versions of inter-uterine devices and eventually the birth control pill continued to revolutionize reproduction. Fertility rates during the 1930s sunk to as few as two children per woman from over three children two decades earlier. 

Prostitutes Found Safety And Decent Money In "Ringer" Houses


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Photo: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Sex sells and continued to sell even at the worst of times during the Great Depression. Prostitution remained a lucrative profession, despite financial strife and concerns about venereal disease. In the 1930s, women could be independent prostitutes or work in a house as a "ringer." In order to work as a ringer, women had to be tested for disease and get a certificate of health, something both madams and customers would be interested in seeing. A ringer would have anywhere from 10-15 clients per day. Ringer houses were usually part of a chain of houses, and the women would be registered at a main house. Independent girls had to fend for themselves and were must more likely to be arrested. In many ways, prostitution during the Great Depression signaled a change in authority, as madams and criminal bosses became increasingly powerful over the girls they employed. 

At least one prostitute in 1938 wrote about her lifestyle and was honest about how she felt about the job. For her, it was better than spending eight hours a day doing counter work at some store or working in a factory. She didn't like but "it depends on the customer... if it's a frowsy guy with buck teeth and B.O. we hustle him through as fast as we can and hope to never see him again." She went on to say that she was also able to take part in wild, private parties for more money.