Sunday, December 19, 2010

Women and the Sexual Double Standard of the 1950s

I am a coauthor of an updated version of the college American history textbook, currently titled "American Dreams & Reality: A Retelling of the American Story." Below, I discuss the gap between how women's lives were portrayed in the media in the 1950s and 1960s and the reality.

Contrary to modern right-wing myths that depicts pre-marital pregnancy as a legacy of the 1960s counterculture, women often found themselves trapped into marriage by premarital pregnancy in the supposedly more chaste 1950s. According to John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, historians of American sexuality, the period after World War II saw an increase in sexual permissiveness that had actually begun in the 1920s and 1930s when young people first began in large numbers to select their own mates instead of letting their parents arrange courtships and choose their marriage partners. By mid-century, it became common for girls and boys in high school to “go steady,” a commitment to a relationship that allowed these couples a greater degree of sexual exploration. Sexual contact short of intercourse became more commonplace, particularly with the great availability of automobiles and the rising prosperity of the post-war period, which provided teenagers more allowance money for entertainment. “Petting,” involving prolonged kissing and physically stroking partners, became commonplace and a topic of discussion among worried parents and therapists.

Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey observed that in mid-century America, on “doorsteps and on street corners, and on high school and college campuses . . . [petting] may be observed in the daytime as well as in the evening hours.” However common sexual activity became, American society gave boys greater permission to pursue sexual contact, but women who engaged in sexual acts lost social standing and became less attractive to boys as long-term partners. Boys often shunned girls with whom they had engaged in premarital sex. “How are you supposed to know what they want?” a sixteen-year-old girl complained in the 1950s. “You hold out for a long time and then when you give in to them and give your body they laugh at you afterwards and say they would never marry a slut, and that they didn’t love you but were testing because they only plan to marry a virgin and wanted to see if you would go all the way.”

Regardless of the stated sexual standards of the day, the work of Kinsey, a zoologist from Indiana University, made it clear that many Americans lived in secret defiance of those standards. Kinsey’s dry 1948 scientific tome, "Sexual Behavior in the Human Male," spent 27 weeks on the "New York Times" bestseller list, eventually selling 250,000 copies. The 1953 follow-up on female sexual behavior joined its predecessor at the top of the book charts. Kinsey’s findings, rather than his writing style, commanded attention. Drawing on detailed interviews over his career, Kinsey and his staff questioned 5,300 white men and 6,000 women as the basis for his conclusions. Interview subjects would be questioned in great detail on up to 521 items on his survey.

Among his controversial findings: 90 percent of men had engaged in premarital intercourse; 50 percent had engaged in extra-marital affairs; about 33 percent had at least one homosexual “experience”; that nearly all men had found a “sexual outlet” by the age of 15; and 95 percent reported they violated a law at least once while achieving orgasm (by, for instance, violating state laws against oral sex or homosexual acts, or by sexual acts with an underage partner.) Fewer women violated supposed American sexual standards, but the Kinsey results still startled the media and the average reader. According to Kinsey, more than 75 percent of women masturbated, 90 percent engaged in petting, 50 percent had sex before marriage, and a quarter had participated in extramarital affairs. According to Kinsey, Americans were more sexual than was publicly acknowledged, and also more hypocritical about sex than was commonly admitted.


Confusing, contradictory messages about sex dominated American popular culture following World War II. “Soldiers who had graced their barracks and even their planes with photos and drawings of ‘pinup’ girls returned from Europe and Asia laden with pornography obtained abroad,” according to D’Emilio and Freedman. “They soon found a new genre of magazines available to fill their acquired tastes.” In 1953, Hugh Hefner began publication of "Playboy," a men’s magazine that featured photos of nude women and frank discussions of sexuality. As the readership grew and became more prosperous, the magazine eventually also included celebrity interviews, music and movie reviews and commentary on politics. Hefner described his attitudes toward sex as the “Playboy philosophy” and he encouraged his male readership, which reached one million by the end of the 1950s, to “enjoy the pleasures that the female has to offer without becoming emotionally involved.” "Playboy" presented an upside-down image of American gender politics in which Hefner sympathized with the socially climbing male audience, 25 percent of whom were college-aged, whom he depicted as put upon by money-grabbing women. Hefner depicted marriage as a financial trap, urging men not to become one of the “sorry, regimented husbands trudging down every woman-dominated street in this woman-dominated land.”

Sex scandal-driven periodicals like Confidential became the forerunners of today’s supermarket tabloids. Magazines posing as male fitness periodicals and featuring muscle-bound male models in swimsuits served as softcore gay pornography. Even paperback novels sold at dime stores featured suggestive titles or titillating covers (such as in the case of the Bantam edition of "The African Queen," which featured a drawing of a naked man arising from the water.) These publications joined Playboy in the increased eroticization of American culture. Perhaps sensing the shift in public attitudes toward sex and aware of the actual widespread sexual behavior uncovered by Kinsey, the United States Supreme Court began in the 1950s to take a more liberal stand on pornography cases brought by prosecutors against writers, photographers, publishers, booksellers and performers of adult material, setting an ever-higher bar for what could be considered “obscene.” In a case that overturned a Michigan obscenity statute, the court ruled that the state statute would “reduce the adult population of Michigan to reading only what is fit for children . . .”


Even though American teenagers had greater knowledge of and made more use of contraceptives in the 1950s, unwanted pregnancies still haunted many adolescent girls. In 1957, 97 out of every 1,000 girls from age 15 through 19 gave birth for the first time, in contrast to 52 of every 1,000 26 years later. As Stephanie Coontz writes, “A surprising number of these births were illegitimate. ” Coontz notes that the illegitimacy rates can’t be accurately estimated because women giving birth out of wedlock but mothers weren’t counted in the statistics if they lived with their parents. To avoid scandal, parents often sent their daughters to homes for unwed mothers and urged them to put their children up for adoption. Overall, the period from 1944 to 1955 saw an 80 percent climb in the adoption of children born outside of marriage.

Many women forced into early marriage or to raise children as single parents experienced poverty, but they were hardly alone. After World War II, women who continued to work outside of the home found it hard to get the type of high-wage, challenging jobs they held in the early 1940s. Men returning from the war took back manufacturing jobs in the defense, steel and automobile industries. Women once again could only find low-wage jobs as secretaries and domestics. In any case, a high number of men and women did not enjoy the economic boom time of the period from 1945 to 1960. One out of four Americans met the official definition of poverty in the 1950s, including one-third of children. African American women and their children faced a double bind and by 1959, 55 percent of the black population lived in poverty, one more instance of how real American family life in the 1950s differed from the fantasy projected in popular culture.

Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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