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Illegitimacy, postwar psychology, and the reperiodization of the sexual revolution.

In the minds of most social historians, the sexual revolution was primarily the product of the 1960s. While acknowledging the earlier rise of Alfred Kinsey, Hugh Hefner and an increasingly defiant youth culture, most scholars portray these pre-sixties developments as precursors of the rapid liberalization of sexual behavior that was soon to follow. This is to say, while most scholars identify a general loosening of sexual attitudes during the forties and fifties, they do not detect a significant upswing in premarital sexual behavior until the 1960s.

In Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty, Arlene Skolnick sounds this very theme. Whereas the incidence of female premarital intercourse "leveled off in the 1940s and 1950s," Skolnick maintains that premarital sex soared during the 1960s, as "young women abandoned their desperate struggle to remain categorized as virgins." (1) Similarly, in Him/Her/Self, Peter Filene insists that "a 'revolution' in middle-class sexual behavior" did not take place during the 1950s. (2) Over the past two decades, a string of scholars, including John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Stephen Mintz and Susan Kellogg, John Heindry, Elaine Tyler May, Steven Seidman, and Robert Francoeur has joined Filene and Skolnick in positing a virtual explosion of premarital intercourse during the decade of the 1960s. (3)

Thus, with the debut of rock 'n roll and Playboy magazine, and the publication of such novels as Lolita (1955) and Peyton Place (1956), the 1950s are seen as an era of increased sexual titillation, while the portrait of the sixties--with its free love, coed dorms and oral contraceptives--is one of increased sexual activity. Such bifurcations between titillation and consummation, or between sexual suggestion and sexual license, have enabled historians to depict the sixties as a morally tumultuous decade, while viewing the 1950s as largely a conservative time with regard to sexual behavior.

This article offers a very different interpretation. Contrary to popular belief, the sexual revolution (on a behavioral level) did not did start in the 1960s, it was not ignited by the introduction of the birth control pill, it was not significantly fanned by the baby boomers' coming of age, and, most important of all, the sexualization of the popular culture did not anticipate the liberalization of mass behavior. Through an examination of single motherhood and premarital pregnancy rates, and by carefully distinguishing between norms and values, it is possible to understand the sexual revolution in a way that departs sharply from the meta-narrative that dominates the historiography and the journalistic accounts of the sexual revolution.

By its very nature, premarital sex is difficult to measure. It is likely that those who are willing to respond to detailed questions about their sexual histories harbor fewer inhibitions than the larger population. In fact, in most sexual surveys a large proportion of people--sometimes as high as ninety percent of those initially approached--refuse to take part in the study. (4) But even when people are willing to answer inquiries about their sexual pasts, their truthfulness remains very questionable. An intriguing study, conducted in the mid-1960s, demonstrates the dangers of such self-reporting. Students at a university filled out a question-naire that asked them to disclose a number of non-normative behaviors--such as masturbation, hitting one's girlfriend or wife, buying pornography, and having sexual relations with a person of the same sex. Students were then told that they would be compensated for their participation in the study, but only after they took a polygraph examination that probed the truthfulness of their responses. When given the opportunity to "correct" their answers, every student made revisions to the questionnaire--that is, they changed one or more of their original answers. (5) What this study suggests is that when it comes to sex the value of respondent answers should be approached with a great deal of skepticism.

Yet in periodizing the sexual revolution, historians and sociologists have relied on these very kinds of studies that were pioneered by Alfred Kinsey, and taken up by a later generation of social scientists. Fortunately, scholars need not rely solely on in-depth interviews or social science surveys when grappling with some important aspects of sexual behavior. With the help of vital statistics, it is possible to obtain some dependable information pertaining to non-marital sexual activity during the 1960s, 1950s, and even the 1940s.

The overall picture painted by vital statistics is clear and unambiguous. Between 1940 and 1960, the frequency of single-motherhood among white women increased by more than two-and-one-half fold, rising from 3.6 newborns to 9.2 newborns per thousand unmarried white women of childbearing age. Among all women, single motherhood rose from 7.1 newborns to 21.6 newborns per thousand women of childbearing age. (6)

These increases would continue over the next several decades. But the rate of acceleration would decrease so that by 1989 the rate of single motherhood among all women had risen to 41.8 newborns, and among white women it would climb to 29.2 newborns per thousand unmarried women of childbearing age. These were sizable increases, but when compared to the period between 1940 and 1960 it is clear that the rate of growth had slowed down somewhat. (7)

To be sure, there are limitations associated with the use of vital statistics. Even when broken down by race and age group, rates of single-motherhood do not address such crucial sociological categories as income, religion and educational background. In addition, while vital statistics relating to unwed motherhood can provide a baseline, or establish a minimum level of premarital sex in a given year, they do not reveal the actual level of premarital sex. However, because rates of single-motherhood focus on what people have done, as opposed to what people claim to have done (or not to have done), they are significantly more reliable than either subject-interviews or polling data. As such, they provide scholars engaged in the history of sexuality with the best empirical foundation. And for all of their limitations, vital statistics relating to unwed motherhood indicate that premarital intercourse probably was increasing, and increasing rapidly, during the 1940s and 1950s. After all, it seems reasonable to conclude that significant increases in the level of unwed motherhood probably reflect significant increases in premarital sex.


Admittedly, it would be a mistake to equate the sexual revolution with the increasing prevalence of premarital intercourse. As the works of John D'Emilio, Estelle Freeman and Beth Bailey have shown, the commodification of sex, the heavy emphasis on sexual fulfillment, the "resexualization of women in popular and scholarly thought," and, correspondingly, the elimination--or, at least, the decline--of the double standard, proved to be important developments in the sexual revolution. (8) Yet, surely, the proliferation of premarital sex is no less significant a social indicator of liberalizing sexual attitudes. In fact, one of the reasons academics have lavished so much attention on "petting" during the forties and fifties is because, having already assumed that premarital sex was not on the rise, the practice of petting has enabled scholars to explore some of the sexual rumblings beneath the supposed stability of sexual behavior. (9) Equally significant, the most important works on the sexual revolution have made a point of denying that premarital female intercourse was increasing during the forties and fifties. (10)

Even Alfred Kinsey, the most influential scholar to write about sexuality during the postwar era, denied that female premarital sex was rising briskly after World War II. Although Kinsey's data shocked American readers--especially his claims that nearly half of women had premarital intercourse, sixty-two percent had masturbated, and a quarter of married women, at some point, had engaged in extramarital sex--Kinsey believed the big jump in female premarital intercourse took place between 1916 and 1930. (11) Any increases after 1930, he reported, had been "only minor." (12) But coming out in 1953, and based on some interviews that Kinsey and his staff conducted during the late 1940s, Sexuality in the Human Female did not cover the entire decade of the 1950s. Thus, the question of whether female premarital sex was rising or falling in the fifteen years after World War II would be left to a later generation of researchers who would draw upon the methodology pioneered by Alfred Kinsey. Overwhelmingly, these researchers would conclude that female premarital intercourse remained fairly stable during the forties and fifties, and only began its sharp rise sometime during the late sixties or early seventies. (13)

The apparent surge in single-motherhood is all the more remarkable when one considers that the fifties were a time when couples were exchanging wedding vows at ever earlier ages. During the Eisenhower era, the average age of marriage for men was 22 years; for women, it was only 20 years. (14) When it came to sexual intercourse, remarks cultural historian Stephanie Coontz, "Young people were not taught how to 'say no'--they were simply handed wedding rings." (15) Although Coontz's remarks incorrectly portrays the 1950s as a sexually conservative time, she is right in arguing that the trend toward earlier first marriages effectively reduced the level of premarital sex from where it otherwise would have stood.

There are other forces that are capable of skewing the postwar rates of single-motherhood. A greater reliance on contraception could have the effect of understating the actual levels of premarital sex. For example, were we to assume that there was a growing reliance on birth control in the fifteen years following the Second World War, the central argument of this article--that prior to the 1960s premarital sex was on the rise--would be strengthened further. What that would mean is that, during the Truman and Eisenhower years, the overall frequency of premarital sex was rising so briskly that it was able to overcome the effects of birth control and still force illegitimacy rates to soar.

Due to limitations of data, it is impossible to know whether contraceptive use among the unmarried was rising or falling during the 1950s, but there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that birth control was becoming more culturally acceptable. On the eve of World War II, for example, most states had laws restricting the advertisement and dissemination of birth control. However, by the end of the fifties only two states, Massachusetts and Connecticut, retained these restrictions. (16) Historian Donald Critchlow observed that in 1944, in The American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal noted that "birth control is taboo as a subject for public polite conversation." Yet by the mid-1950s the social atmosphere had clearly changed as a number of prominent organizations, including the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, were actively promoting birth control. (17)

The rising fortunes of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nation's foremost proponent of birth control, are equally revealing. In 1939, when Planned Parenthood tried to recruit doctors to provide contraceptive assistance to under-serviced communities in the country, the campaign met with modest success. Of the approximately 1,400 physicians who were contacted, 210 came forward to offer their services. It would seem that the top officials at Planned Parenthood were very pleased with the responses, as they trumpeted the results in their annual report; but these successes in 1939 would pale in comparison to later gains. Thanks in part to the demise of Comstock laws, which discouraged public discussion of birth control, by 1955 more than 2,200 doctors and medical students, and some 6,000 nurses, were receiving training in Planned Parenthood clinics. (18)

In addition to the emergence of a more tolerant attitude toward birth control, there are good reasons to believe that the effective use of condoms--then, the most popular form of birth control among single people--was on the rise. (19) As a result of a test case in 1957, foreign manufacturers of condoms were allowed access to the U.S. market, thereby providing new competition. (20) It also appears that during this time manufacturers began to market condoms more aggressively. Whereas, traditionally, condoms had been a specialty item--hidden behind the drugstore counter and available only upon request--during the mid-1950s, some drugstores began putting up displays. (21) Moreover, drugstores proliferated during the 1950s, driven by the twin forces of suburbanization and chain retailing. As the primary vehicle for the sale of prophylactics, drugstores brought condoms within the reach of increasing numbers of American males.

Unfortunately, all the evidence pointing to the greater use of condoms is indirect. Regrettably, due to a lack of data, no sales figures are available; but one thing that can be stated definitively is that, as a product, the effectiveness of condoms was fast improving during the Eisenhower years. As Harry Butts, a former senior official with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) noted, once prophylactics came under close FDA scrutiny in the late 1940s, the quality of condoms improved greatly. (22) Two forces drove this development: more stringent FDA requirements on the one hand; and more advanced manufacturing processes on the other. (23)

In light of the foregoing developments--namely, the more aggressive marketing of birth control, the receding taboo against contraceptives, and the superior quality of condoms--the proposition that, among the unmarried, effective birth control was becoming more common during the 1950s would seem quite reasonable. But these changes notwithstanding, it appears that in the twenty years after Pearl Harbor, rising rates of single motherhood were easily able to overwhelm the effects of better means of contraception.

One variable that cannot be accounted for fully is the incidence of abortion. As in the case with contraceptives, changes in the frequency of abortions are capable of affecting the official levels of illegitimacy by either pushing the rates of illegitimacy up when the number of abortions is comparatively low or, conversely, holding illegitimacy rates down when the quantity of abortions is comparatively high. However, due to its general suppression in the days prior to Roe v. Wade (1973), it is impossible to accurately know--or even to guess at--the actual levels of abortion during the Truman and Eisenhower years. Therefore, it is theoretically possible that the surging rates of illegitimacy in the period from 1940 to 1960 were due more to the decreasing incidence of abortion than to the rising levels of premarital sex. However, given the less "traditional" nature of American life, the sexualization of the popular culture, and the greater sense of autonomy enjoyed by young people, it is hard to see how the frequency of abortions would have been headed downward, and not upward, in the twenty years following Pearl Harbor.

The portrait of increased premarital sex, painted by vital statistics, is further corroborated by fertility data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. By asking samples of women a series of questions, including the date of their marriage and the date of the birth of their first child, the Census Bureau has been able to gather a good deal of information about premarital pregnancies. Unlike the rate relating to single motherhood, premarital pregnancies encompass babies born to unwed mothers, as well as babies born to parents who, although single at the time of conception, were married by the time of birth. By combining both groups, the premarital pregnancy rate offers the fullest picture of the levels of premarital sex that ultimately resulted in pregnancy. An examination of these data, compiled by the Fertility Statistics Branch, and recalculated for the purposes of this article (from ratios and raw numbers provided by the Fertility Statistics Branch to premarital pregnancy rates), reveals a sharp increase in premarital pregnancies over time. For example, between 1939 and 1942, there were 8.5 premarital pregnancies for every thousand white single women between 15 and 19 years of age. In the period between 1955 and 1958, that figure had more than doubled (to 19 pregnancies). (24)

For single white women between the ages of 20 and 24, a significant increase also took place. In the period betweeen 1943 and 1946 (the first year such numbers could be calculated) the premarital pregnancy rate stood at 14.2 pregnancies for every thousand unwed white women between the ages of 20 to 24. Twelve years later, in the period between 1955 and 1958, that premarital pregnancy rate had risen to 32.2 per thousand. (25) (See chart below)

When the two age groups are combined, and the fertility of white women between the ages of 15 and 24 is examined, what emerges is a picture of brisk growth. For the period 1943 to 1946, there were 11.9 newborns for every thousand single white women between 15 and 24. In the period between 1955 to 1958, the premarital pregnancy rate had climbed to 25.3 pregnancies per thousand white women between the ages of 15 and 24--that is a more than doubling over 12 years. (26)

Among African-American women, the growth rate was slower than whites, but the base was also much higher. Between 1939 and 1942, for example, the premarital pregnancy rate among black teens stood at 58.3 per thousand black single women between the ages of 15 and 19. Sixteen years later (for the period between 1955 and 1958), the premarital pregnancy rate had climbed to 87.8 per thousand black women between the ages of 15 and 19. (27) Although the rate of acceleration among white teens was higher than among blacks, an unmarried African-American teenager was more than four times more likely to become pregnant in the late 1950s than her white counterpart.

It is difficult to measure these trends in sexual behavior with a great level of precision. To begin with, the narrow stream of published data made it impossible to determine premarital pregnancy rates for older groups of women (between the ages of 25 to 45). In addition, in its calculation, the Census Bureau found that its sample size for each given year was too small to stand on its own. Accordingly, the Census Bureau combined its samples, basing its estimates on four-year cohorts. However, for all of their limitations, the census data enjoy some important advantages over sexual surveys. Though dependent on self-reporting, the census data--unlike sexual surveys--are not morally weighted. Hidden in a series of mundane questions that covered various facets of their economic and social livelihood, respondents probably were less likely to regard queries relating to the date of their marriage--as well as the date of the birth of their first child--with suspicion. Moreover, coming from an official government agency with a deserved reputation for assuring confidentiality, respondents probably were more inclined to be forthcoming.


While there is much that the fertility data fail to reveal, their upward trend is undeniable. What seems to have occurred here is more than a statistical blip. Just as the forties and fifties experienced a sharp increase in unwed motherhood, there likewise seems to have been a significant upswing in premarital pregnancies during this same period of time. Here, vital statistics and census data, two different sources of evidence--collected through very different research approaches--are pointing to essentially the same conclusion.

So what do all of these numbers reveal? They indicate that Elaine Tyler May's assertion that the rate of "premarital sexual intercourse" was "stable from the 1920s, to the 1960s," and D'Emilio and Freeman's claim that from the 1920s the "incidence of (female) premarital intercourse ... remained relatively constant until the late 1960s," are not corroborated by the best empirical data. (28) Instead, the evidence suggests that far from being quiescent, the forties and fifties experienced a sizable increase in the frequency of premarital intercourse. To argue otherwise one would need somehow to reconcile the more than doubling of white illegitimacy, the more than tripling of all out-of-wedlock births, and the evidence of a dramatic increase in premarital pregnancies, with the claim that sex outside of marriage was not rising during the forties and fifties.

The portrayal of the 1950s as a decade of increased sexual candidness, but not of increased permissiveness, appears mistaken; but it is wrong for more than the obvious reason. Implicit in this standard interpretation is the belief that, during the postwar period, changes in popular culture preceded less restrictive sexual behavior. As this argument goes, popular culture molded popular attitudes that, in turn, helped shape popular behavior. In accordance with this view, many scholars have argued that while the 1950s did not experience a sharp rise in premarital sexual behavior, it did witness the emergence of an increasingly sexualized popular culture. From there they have gone on to claim--albeit, more tacitly than explicitly--that the comodification of sex helped pave the way for the less reticent sexual era of the 1960s. "The amount of attention that the media devoted to sex in the fifties may be misleading since there is reason to doubt significant changes in behavior actually occurred," observes historian John Patrick Diggins. "Sex was then an emotion more felt than fulfilled." (29)

In Bad Habits, historian John Burnham, continuing in this mode, maintained that when it came to premarital sexual behavior, "the media invented and promoted as much as it described change." The media's intense focus on "personal fulfillment," he continued, "fueled increases in premarital sexual activity." (30)

But probably the boldest in linking the sexualization of the public sphere to sexual permissiveness in the private sphere are John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman. By the end of the 1960s, they argued, the proposition that marriage could satisfy the quest for a sexually fulfilling life no longer seemed credible for many. "Aided by the values of a consumer culture and encouraged by the growing visibility of sex in the public realm, many Americans came to accept sexual pleasure as a legitimate, necessary component of their lives, unbounded by older ideals of marital fidelity and permanence." (31) (Italics added)

The problem with this reading of the sexual revolution is that placing changes in sexual behavior after changes in the consumer culture--or, in other words, putting Elvis and Hefner before mass changes in behavior--essentially puts the cart before the horse. A high level of sexual candor in the popular culture did not characterize the 1950s, and the 1960s did not experience a sudden upswing in premarital intercourse. If anything, the reverse would be closer to the truth. While the best evidence suggests that at mid-century there was a significant rise in premarital sexual activity, Americans during the fifties were not candid enough with themselves to recognize this important development. By contrast, in 1960 pioneering sexologist Ira Reiss was predicting the arrival of a sexual revolution. "America is very close to the saturation point in terms of our sexual customs," wrote Reiss, "and, therefore, change should come soon." (32) Within five years of that statement, Time, The Christian Century, Esquire, The Nation, Mademoiselle and Newsweek had featured articles that explored the possible arrival of a new sexual revolution. (33)

The crucial distinction between the fifties and sixties lay in word, not in deed. During the 1960s, Americans were simply more willing to acknowledge the extra-curricular activities of their young than they had been during the previous decade. Perhaps these changes were attributable to the burgeoning population of college students, or an increasingly sexualized popular culture, or growing concerns over the ramifications of the Pill, or the steadily rising level of premarital sexual behavior; but whatever the reasons, attitudes were changing.

Throughout the sixties, one sees in the popular culture a bolder, less reticent representation of sexuality. Whereas during the late fifties, the television characters of Ricky and Lucy Ricardo slept in different beds, by the mid-sixties the Motion Picture Association officially ended its reliance on censors. This move assured the production of sexually candid films--and, indeed, by the close of the decade a number of successful motion pictures, from "Romeo and Juliet" to "I Am Curious (Yellow)" and "Midnight Cowboy," were depicting nudity and sexual intercourse on screen. (34)

But probably more than any single development, the success of Playboy Clubs demonstrated the emergence of a bolder, less reticent culture during the early sixties. When the first Playboy club opened its doors in Chicago, on February 29, 1960, hundreds of aspiring patrons lined up around the block. (35) In the weeks that followed, these long lines would become a nightly ritual, prompting a New York reporter to compare the crowds outside the Playboy Club to the daily crowds outside Radio City Music Hall. (36) By 1961, Chicago's Playboy Club had become the most popular nightspot in town, selling more food and drinks than any other club or restaurant in Chicago. (37)

Technically speaking, Playboy clubs were not open to the public. To gain entry, one had to buy a key at a price of $25 or $50 (depending where one lived). Within a year of opening, Chicago's Playboy Club boasted more than 100,000 keyholders. Equally impressive was Hefner's success in New York. By the end of 1961, Hefner had collected nearly $400,000 in key sales from New Yorkers even though the club was not planning to open its doors until the fall of 1962. (38)

On the literary front, Playboy also showed signs of acquiring greater respectability within the culture at large. In September of 1962 Hefner unveiled the "Playboy Interview," and it quickly became a publication success. Within a year of its debut, such prominent figures as Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa, British philosopher Bertrand Russell, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and humanitarian Albert Schweitzer had granted Playboy in-depth interviews. During this same period, Playboy received additional contributions from such prominent figures as William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer, Ray Bradbury, Carl Sandburg and John Paul Getty. (39) These contributions provided the magazine with an air of sophistication, offering some plausibility to the claim that one could buy Playboy for the articles. (40)

As the preceding examples show, while the popular culture of the 1950s brought an unprecedented openness to sexual issues, compared to the 1960s, public inhibitions remained high. After all, although Elvis appeared three times on the Ed Sullivan show the camera never fell below his waist for fear of broad-casting pictures of his gyrating hips to millions of adoring fans. (41) And although the lesbian rights group Daughters of Bilitis and the Los Angeles-based homosexual rights organization Mattachine Society were operational during the 1950s, there was not much of a gay rights movement until the late 1960s. (42) Indeed, by the close of the fifties the combined membership of the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis stood at below 400. (43)

Given the persistence of these conservative sentiments in the popular and political culture, and in light of the rapidly rising levels of unwed motherhood and premarital pregnancies, it would appear that the old meta-narrative confuses cause with effect. Instead of private conduct lagging behind the popular culture, an increasingly sexualized culture was trailing behind a sharp, though unacknowledged, surge in illicit sexual behavior. Accordingly, between the unveiling of the Marshall Plan (1947) and Allen Ginsberg's first rendition of the poem "Howl" (1956), the rate of single motherhood climbed by 68.5 percent. Between the beginning of World War II (1941) and the inaugural issue of Playboy (1953), the overall rate of single motherhood had more than doubled. (44) Far from being an era of sexual candidness, it was precisely the absence of such candidness that helped obscure the exploding levels of premarital sex during the forties and fifties.

The recollections of writer Lynn Ferrin, as documented by Joan and Robert Morrison in From Camelot to Kent State, shed additional light on the issue of sexual candidness. "In the early Sixties," Ferrin recalled, "people were not open about their sex lives ... Nobody was a virgin but nobody admitted it. I remember when I'd spent the night with a boyfriend, I'd either try to get back that night so my roommate wouldn't know what I was doing, or I'd just lie to her: 'Well, I stayed at Barry's house, but I slept on his couch.'" (45)

The key phrase in Ferrin's account was her observation that "nobody was a virgin, but nobody admitted it." Contained in these remarks is the crucial distinction between convention and conduct, or between norm and behavior. As informal codes that are enforced by "fear of external non-legal sanctions," social norms tend to be durable. (46) This is to say, unlike the products of the popular culture, social norms do not bend easily to transient tastes or the latest fads. Yet for all of its stability, if non-compliance with prevailing norms become frequent enough, for long enough, one of three possible outcomes will follow: the norm will weaken--which is to say, the "stigma" or social sanctions associated with violating a norm will erode; the norm will be modified; or the norm will be replaced.

Creations of the popular culture were capable of reinforcing or undermining norms, depending on whether one was listening to a Ricky Nelson and a Pat Boone, both of whom tended to reaffirm prevailing standards, or a Little Richard and a Elvis Presley--both of whom tended to challenge them. However, since sweeping changes in behavior preceded the sexualization of the culture, it would appear that the commodification of sex was a "Johnny-come-lately"--which is to say, a secondary consideration in the loosening of sexual norms.

Finally, during the 1960s, after twenty years of liberalized sexual behavior and following a decade of Hugh Hefner, rock 'n roll, steamy novels and racy ads, noticeable changes in social norms appeared. At first these changes were subtle and ambiguous--which helps explain how the reticence of Lynn Ferrin and her contemporaries could co-exist with the proliferation of Playboy Clubs. Yet as the sixties progressed, less inhibited public attitudes towards sex emerged. By the early 1970s, public attitudes towards sex had undergone a virtual sea change. In 1972, in a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center, 23 percent of Americans thought premarital sex was "wrong only sometimes" and another 26 percent of Americans said that premarital sex was "not wrong at all." By contrast, only nine years earlier in 1963, more than seven out of ten respondents said they would "strongly disagree" with the statement that sex before marriage was acceptable if the woman was in love. (47) At last, changes in the popular culture and, more importantly, sustained changes in mass behavior had started to transform social norms.

If changes in the popular culture did not ignite the sexual revolution, and if the birth control pill, first introduced to the American public in 1960, did not cause--or, for that matter, significantly accelerate--the sexual revolution, then what was responsible for the liberalization of sexual behavior? Or as conservative journalist Scott Stossel put it, "Who had set us on this road to Sodom?" (48) The answer to this question--or at least part of the answer--can be traced back to the Second World War. By introducing an estimated 4-million women into the workforce for the purpose of providing much needed manpower for the nation's industrial sector; and by drafting approximately 12-million men into uniform, World War II wrought enormous cultural change on the domestic front. One of these changes seems to have been a sharp upswing in the level of premarital sex. During the war years, numerous newspaper and magazine articles reported on the sexual favors that young women--popularly known as "victory girls" or "khacky-wackies"--freely gave to American servicemen. (49) Besides undermining public morals, government officials believed that these "loose" young women were primarily responsible for the high levels of venereal disease among American soldiers. Encouraged by the United States War Department, cities across the country tried to crack-down on female "sex delinquents"--arresting some, compelling others to take VD tests, and forcing many into counseling. Despite these zealous efforts, government officials continued to regard "victory girls" as a serious national problem through the duration of the war. (50) Their analysis may have been wrong, but authorities were correct in perceiving an upswing in the level of sexual activity. During the first half of the 1940s, the overall rate for single motherhood climbed sharply, rising from 7.1 to 10.1 per 1,000 unmarried women of childbearing age. That was an increase of more than forty percent in only five years time. (51)

In a certain sense, the higher wartime rates of single motherhood would appear to be counterintuitive. The fact that increasing numbers of single men, in uniform and away from home, would engage in premarital sex is hardly surprising. (52) Yet on the homefront, where the requirements of war caused a sharp decrease in the total numbers of young men, one would probably expect to find lower levels of single motherhood and premarital sex. After all, with there being millions upon millions of fewer single men in America--as was the case during the Second World War--there would presumably be fewer chances for sex outside of marriage. How are we then to explain the exploding rates of single motherhood--and, by extension, the soaring rates of premarital sex--with the undeniable fact that during the war years the pool of single men living in the United States was appreciably smaller?

The answer to this question may be located less in the collective lust of single men than in the collective willingness of single women. It would seem that as a result of the sweeping social changes that were unfolding during the war years, higher percentages of single women were willing to lose their virginity. Of course, one reason for the emergence of these more liberal attitudes stemmed from the increased independence that wartime employment gave to single women. Like the young working women who, at the turn of the century, resided in lodging houses away from the watchful eyes of family members, higher levels of personal independence brought with it a greater sense of personal autonomy--as well as a wider sphere of sexual freedom. (53) As one man who, as a teenager during World War II, worked in a factory recalled: "The plant and town were just full of working girls who were on the make. Where I was, a male worker became the center of loose morality. It was a sex paradise." (54)

By turning briefly to the discipline of economics, and by drawing on the insights of public choice theory, it is possible to see that the acute shortage of single men could, ironically, be another reason for the increasingly liberal wartime attitudes. In an environment where there are many single women and comparatively few eligible males, the general terms of the relationship will probably shift in favor of the man. Both parties will know that for purely demographic reasons, in the event of a break-up, the man will likely enjoy a wider range of romantic options than his female counterpart. "In sex," states anthropologist Lionel Tiger "Women are the gate-keepers." (55) It would seem, therefore, that due to the wartime "man shortage," fewer males gathered outside the "gates." But due to this same wartime "man shortage," more males than usual were allowed entry. In short, with single women in great supply, and single men in "high demand," American males on the homefront could be more insistent in their demands for sex.

Conditions of the prior decade intensified this process. During the Great Depression hard times caused the marriage rate to tumble. (56) As a result, by the time of World War II, there was already a "glut" of single women. The upshot, of course, was that single men on the homefront became even more highly valued than they would have been otherwise. And these conditions provided unattached males with even greater bargaining power in their quest for sex.

But whatever the reasons, World War II clearly helped usher in an era of increased sexual liberalism. As a causative agent, however, the World War II experience can only be pushed so far. Yes, the Second World War helped facilitate a rise in premarital sex; but in the years immediately following the Second World War the rate of single motherhood did not fall to prewar levels, or even "plateau" at the peak wartime rate. Instead, rates of single motherhood--and presumably rates of premarital sex--continued to climb all through the 1940s, and into the decade of the 1950s. In fact, if we isolate the years between 1945 and 1950 we see a considerable spurt in the frequency of single motherhood, rising from 10.1 births per thousand single women to 14.1 births per thousand single women--a 39 percent increase (which was only slightly slower than the 44 percent increase that took place during the first-half of the 1940s). (57) Why did this happen? Why was there not a "Return to Normalcy"? With the war finally over, what could have perpetuated these postwar gains in the frequency of premarital sex?

A full explanation of how and why a liberalizing process unfolded during the postwar years would require far more space than could possibly be allotted to an article of this nature. But part of the answer is to be found not in the empirical world of vital statistics and census data, but in the slippery realm of culture. More specifically, it is to be found in the critical role mental health experts played in persuading Americans to relinquish a more traditional and "rigid" worldview. According to the leading psychologists and psychiatrists at midcentury, sexual repression was a major source of human neurosis. In their writings, a virtual battery of psychological experts--ranging from Erich Fromm, Theodore Adorno and Harry Stack Sullivan, to Carl Rogers, Gordon Allport, and Abraham Maslow--were critical of the conservative sexual morality that, at least on a surface level, seemed to dominate during the 1950s.

These concerns went well beyond the academic writings of psychologists. In an age when religious explanations were becoming less convincing, and when modern philosophy had largely abandoned the field of ethics, elites increasingly turned to psychology. (58) In such a world, psychologists served as "secular priests" to the nation's educated classes. Hence, throughout the culture of the 1950s, Americans were being urged to "ease up" sexually. In books and on Broadway, in music and in movies, a more accepting attitude towards sex was detectable. Thus, in the Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care Spock advised parents not to become alarmed by the masturbation of their children. And by 1950, even the politically conservative Norman Vincent Peale was warning his readers about the dangers of sexual repression. (59) In a word, at the heat of the concerns of Spock, Peale, and a virtual battery of psychologists was the belief that a more accepting attitude towards the self--with all of its impulses and all of its drives--would lead ultimately to a healthier, less guilt-ridden person. In the end, it was the behavior of these more secular, more expressive, less guilt-oriented individuals who sustained and intensified the Sexual Revolution.


The author would like to thank James T. Patterson, Donald Critchlow, Daryl Michael Scott, Jeff Adler, Raymond Douglas, and Robert Fleegler for reading and commenting on earlier drafts of this article.

1. Arlene Skolnick, Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty (New York, 1991), p. 87.

2. Peter G. Filene, Him/Her/Self: Sex roles in Modern America (Baltimore, 1974), p. 12.

3. John D'Emilio and Estelle Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality In America (Chicago, 1988); Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions: A History of American Family Life (New York, 1998); Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York, 1988); Robert T. Francoeur, "The Sexual Revolution: Will Hard Times Turn Back the Clock?," The Futurist (April 1980), p. 3; Steven Seidman, Embattled Eros: Sexual Politics and Ethics In Contemporary America (New York, 1992); and John Heindry, What Wild Ecstasy: The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Revolution (New York, 1997), pp. 66, 245.

4. For a discussion of the high non-response rates that have plagued sexual surveys see Robert. T Michael, John H. Gagnon, Edward O. Laumann, and Gina Kolata, Sex In America: A Definitive Survey (New York, 1994), p. 23.

5. See John P. Clark and Larry L. Tift, "Polygraph and Interview Validation of Self-Reported Deviant Behavior," American Sociological Review (August 1966), pp. 516-523.

6. Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Part I, (Washington, 1975), p. 52.

7. George Thomas Kurian, Datapedia of the United States, 1790-2000 (Lanham, Maryland, 1994), p. 40.

8. D'Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters; Beth Bailey "Sexual Revolution(s)," in David Farber, editor, The Sixties: From Memory to History (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1994), pp. 235-262.

9. Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth Century America, (Baltimore, 1988), p. 80.

10. See D'Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 117; Skolnick, Embattled Paradise, 87; May, Homeward Bound, p. 117.

11. James H. Jones, Alfred C. Kinsey: A Public/Private Life (New York, 1997), p. 689.

12. Alfred C. Kinsey, Wardell B. Pomery, Clyde E. Martin and Paul H. Gebhard, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia, 1953), p. 300.

13. Robert R. Bell and Jay B. Chaskes, Premarital Sexual Experience Among Coeds, 1958 and 1968, Journal of Marriage and The Family (February 1970), pp. 81-84; Harold T. Christensen and Christina F. Gregg "Changing Sex Norms in America and Scandinavia," Journal of Marriage and The Family (November 1970), pp. 616-627; Patricia Y. Miller and William Simon, "Adolescent Sexual Behavior: Context and Change," Social Problems (October 1974), pp. 58-74.

14. John Patrick Diggins, The Proud Decades: America In War and Peace, 1941-1960 (New York, 1989), p. 212.

15. Ibid.

16. May, Homeward Bound, p. 151. For a fuller explanation of the growing acceptance of birth control during the 1950s see the opening chapter of Donald T. Critchlow, Intended Consequences: Birth Control, Abortion, and the Federal Government in Modern America (New York, 1999).

17. Critchlow, Intended Consequences, pp. 35-36.

18. Birth Control Federation of America, Inc. Annual Report 1939, box 101, Planned Parenthood Federation of America Archives, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College Library Archives (hereafter cited as Planned Parenthood Archives).

19. In fact, the first major survey of birth control habits of sexually active teenagers, conducted in 1971, found the condom the most popular form of contraceptives. See John F. Katner and Melvin Zelnik "Contraception and Pregnancy: Experience of young Unmarried Women in the United States," Family Planning Perspectives, Vol. 5 (Winter 1973), pp. 21-35.

20. Harry E. Butts, "Legal Requirements For Condoms Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act," in Myron H. Redford, Gordon W. Duncan, and Denis J. Prager, editors, The Condom: Increasing Utilization In the United States (San Francisco, 1974), p. 208.

21. Samuel A. Baker, "Advertising Male Contraceptives," in The Condom: Increasing Utilization In the United States, pp. 116, 117.

22. Harry E. Butts, "Legal Requirements For Condoms Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act," in The Condom: Increasing Utilization In the United States, pp. 206-207.

23. Ibid.

24. Rates are based on numbers derived from Martin O'Connell and Maurice J. Moore, "The Legitimacy Status of First Births To U.S. Women Aged 15-24, 1939-1978," Family Planning Perspectives (January/February 1980), pp. 16-25. At the time of the article's publication, O'Connell was a statistician and Moore was the head of Fertility Statistics Branch of the Population Division of the U.S. Census Bureau. Later, O'Connell would follow Moore as the head of the Fertility Statistics Branch.

Table 3, page 20 of Martin O'Connell and Maurice J. Moore's article reveals the illegitimacy rate for never-married black and white women between 15 to 24. Table 5, page 22, reveals "legitimated" or "shotgun" marriages, as a percentage of all premaritally conceived pregnancies for the years in question.

From the material in Tables 3 and 5, the illegitimacy rate and the shotgun marriage rate are provided. Since the premarital pregnancy rate is equal to the shotgun marriage rate plus the illegitimacy rate, and since Table 3 provides the illegitimacy rate, while Table 5 provides information that enables one to arrive at the shotgun marriage rate (called "legitimated" rate) it was essentially a matter of addition to arrive at premarital pregnancy rate.

See page 20 (for Table 3) and page 22 (for Table 5) of Martin O'Connell and Maurice J. Moore, "The Legitimacy Status of First Births To U.S. Women Aged 15-24, 1939-1978," Family Planning Perspectives (January/February 1980), pp. 16-25.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. May, Homeward Bound, p. 117; D'Emilio, and Freedman, Intimate Matters, p. 256.

29. Diggins, The Proud Decades, p. 204.

30. John C. Burnham, Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History (New York, 1993), p. 193.

31. D'Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, p. 327.

32. Ira L. Reiss, Premarital Sexual Standards in America: A Sociological Investigation of the Relative Sociaolgical and Cultural Integration of America's Sexual Standards (Illinois, 1960), p. 249.

33. "Second Sexual Revolution," Time (January 24, 1964); "David Susskind's Banned Program; Sexual Revolution in America," Mademoiselle (October, 1963); "Dialogue on the Moral Crisis," Christian Century (May 27, 1964; "Failure of the Sexual Revolution in Southern California," Esquire (August, 1964); "Morals Revolution on the U.S. Campus," Newsweek, (April 6, 1964); "Sexual Revolution," America (April 20, 1963).

34. David Allyn, Make Love Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History (New York, 2000), p. 130; Steven Mintz and Nancy Kellogg, Domestic Revolutions, p. 209.

35. Russell Miller, Bunny: The Real Story of Playboy (New York, 1984), p. 76.

36. Ibid.

37. Cited from reprinted article in Variety (February 7, 1962) reproduced in Miller, Bunny, p. 83.

38. Ibid.

39. "Playboy Interview: Bertrand Russell," Playboy (March 1963); J. Paul Getty, "How I Made My First Billion" Playboy, (October, 1961); "Playboy Interview: Jawaharal Nehru," Playboy (October, 1963); "Playboy Interview: Albert Schweitzer," Playboy (December, 1963); Mortimer Adler, "How to Read a Book Superficially," Playboy, (December 1963); "Playboy Interview: James Hoffa," Playboy (November 1963); Ian Fleming, "The Hildebrand Rarity," Playboy, (March, 1960); "Playboy Interview: Malcolm X," Playboy, (May, 1963); Ray Bradbury, "Machineries of Joy," Playboy, (December, 1962); Art Buchwald, "Great Stories From Showbiz," Playboy, (December 1962); Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley Jr., "A Debate: A Head-Clash over American Politics and Policies Today," Playboy, (February, 1963).

40. According to a 1966 study by Arnold Rogow, thirty-four percent of psychiatrists and thirty-seven percent of psychoanalysts admitted to being "regular or occasional readers of Playboy." See Arnold A. Rogow, The Psychiatrists (New York, 1970), p. 60.

41. Beth Bailey, "Sexual Revolution(s)," p. 235.

42. James T. Patterson, Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974 (New York, 1996), p. 357; Kristen G. Esterberg, "From Accommodation to Liberation: A Social Movement Analysis of Lesbians in the Homophile Movement," Gender and Society (September, 1994): 424-443.

43. John D'Emilio, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940-1970 (Chicago, 1983), p. 115.

44. Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Part I, p. 52.

45. Joan Morrison and Robert K. Morrison, From Camelot to Kent State: The Sixties Experience in the Words of Those Who lived It (New York, 1982), pp. 175-176.

46. Richard H. McAdams, "The Origin, Development, and Regulation of Norms," Michigan Law Review, Vol. 96 (November 1997).

47. Lexis-Nexis Data Base, Roper Center, Accession number: 0097009 for July 1963 Survey; Lexis-Nexis Data Base, Roper Center, Accession number: 0089788 for July 1972 Survey.

48. Scott Stossel, "The Sexual Counterrevolution" The American Prospect (July 1997), p. 74.

49. Karen Anderson, Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations, and the Status of Women During World War II (Westport, CT, 1981), pp. 103-111.

50. Ibid.

51. Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Part I, p. 52.

52. Beth Bailey and David Farber, The First Strange Place: Race and Sex in World War II Hawaii (New York, 1992).

53. Joanne Meyerowitz, "Sexual Geography and Gender Economy: The Furnished-Room Districts of Chicago, 1890-1930," in Vicki L. Ruiz and Ellen Carol DuBois (editors), Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History (New York, 2000), pp. 307-323.

54. D'Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, p. 260.

55. Cited from John Leo, "The Sexual Revolution is Over," in Robert T. Francoeur, editor, Taking Sides: Clashing Views on Controversial Issues in Human Sexuality (Guilford, CT, 1987), p. 301.

56. Historical Statistics: Part I, p. 64.

57. Ibid., p. 52.

58. Vincent Ryan Ruggiero, "Thinking Instruction in the 21st Century," Vital Speeches Vol. 60; No. 22 (September 1, 1994) p. 689.

59. Benjamin Spock, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (New York, 1946), pp. 300-003; Norman Vincent Peale and Smiley Blanton, The Art of Real Happiness (New York, 1950), p. 56. 21.

By Alan Petigny

University of Florida

Department of History

Gainesville, FL 32601
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