It’s time for another subject I have been putting off for a long time – relationships and family life – although, to be honest, it’s mostly about sex. I’m not really sure why I have put it off but it may be because of my shy nature, innocent upbringing and a reluctance to talk about sex. I often put in links to other blog posts – to boost my hit statistics but this time, as background information, I would really recommend  Young and Innocent, which includes something about sex education (or the lack of it) in the fifties and sixties.
A diversionary note about terminology: The word ‘sex’ used to be used almost universally where we now say ‘gender.’ Printed forms would routinely include: Sex: (male/female)……. The grammatical purists insisted that ‘gender’ applied to French nouns, and of course Latin and other languages. If we wanted to talk about the activity that we now call ‘sex’ – which of course we never did – the expression to be used was ‘sexual intercourse.’ It was hardly ever talked about. Of course in real life there were alternative slang and colloquial ways of saying it that are still used today! (Today we have a lot more ways!)
The dramatic changes in relationships and families started in the sixties with the advent of widely available contraception. I need to go back and look at sex and sexual relationships in the fifties, perhaps in more technical detail than I would like. People from the fifties would be shocked to see such openness.
There will be many generalizations in what follows and I need to make it clear that I am talking about people in general. I will say nothing of my personal experiences at the time.
In the fifties you would not have heard of the word ‘contraception.’ There was something called ‘family planning’ and some products were available through medical channels. You have to remember that the morals of the time would only consider such a topic for married couples; many adults would have been too embarrassed to ask (and probably didn’t know such things were available); and children under 21 could only see a doctor through their parents.
There were no contraceptive pills for women, just Intra-Uterine Devices (IUD) fitted under medical supervision. So contraception was virtually unobtainable for almost all women.
For men, the only contraceptives were condoms, which you could ask for, if you were bold enough, from a barber. I suspect that these were available from Chemist’s shops, where you might have to queue and ask a young female shop assistant. (The word ‘condom’ was never used perhaps because they were never spoken of. The word condom is unusual, inasmuch as its etymology is unclear. No one seems to know why they are called condoms. The only polite term was ‘Durex’, the one and only brand name. It came in one product only, always 3s 6d for a ‘packet of three.’ That’s 17.5 pence.)
As an indication of the way I was brought up, I could never have talked to anyone about this topic until a few years ago, even to my children. I don’t think I could now, except almost anonymously here. I still can’t quite believe I have gone as far as the picture above of a condom.
There was no way that young girls (or older unmarried women) could receive contraceptives and the contraceptive ‘pill’ had not yet arrived. Here it is worth pointing out the modern situation. For women now, contraceptive pills and other devices are feely available to all without any discrimination against the unmarried or the young. Even girls below the age of consent can obtain contraceptives from their doctors without the need to inform their parents. (Of course in our times, those under 21 had no chance of medical advice of any form apart from through their parents. The age of consent remains 16 as it was then – with some technical differences of definition that I will not go into here.) For men condoms are freely available now in supermarkets and elsewhere.
This is beginning to look as if it may be a whole blog post just about sex, but I need to add background material to put things into perspective. Everyone will be very aware that, over the last hundred years at least, people grow and develop more. Most men and women are significantly taller than their parents. This is presumably a result of better health and diet.
I will not go into the anatomy and physiology of sex but the onset of puberty is determined by weight and body size as much as by age, so that boys and girls now mature significantly earlier. I suspect that since the fifties, the average age of puberty in both boys and girls has gone down by about two or three years but it’s hard to find statistics. This change is, of course, different in different countries and cultures and it’s only an average – another sweeping generalization of mine!
Attitudes to Sex
Readers will be aware through literature of different ways of life – from the novels of Jane Austen to well-known Victorian attitudes. Change has been gradual. So in the fifties we had progressed from Victorian ideas of chaperones at all times. But there was still very strict control by parents of their children, which meant up to the age of 21.
To the Victorians, even in marriage, sex was not something for a woman to enjoy. It was said that they were told to “Close your eyes and think of England.” Missionaries to Africa and elsewhere had similar attitudes, discouraging experimentation and insisting on the so-called ‘Missionary position.’ We had progressed some way from here by the fifties, perhaps not very far by today’s standards.
At the right sort of age – different for different people, younger for girls, maybe 13, 14, 15, 16 – boys and girls might meet and ‘go out together.’ (In earlier times this was called courting.) They might become ‘boyfriend/ girlfriend’ and be seen everywhere together. But there were not opportunities for sex, either regularly or one-off. They could go to the pictures, just walk together in the evenings, or meet in each other’s homes. But generally parents would impose curfews – home by 10:30 etc. If you brought a girl home at 10:30 for a relatively innocent goodnight kiss, you parents might be in the next room, and both sets of parents would impose a time limit.
(I have been chastised for suggesting that no one ever had sex before marriage. Of course it happened and it was more common than it had been twenty years earlier. But I can only work in generalizations. Innocence and virginity were much more common than they are now. Much.)
You will remember from Blog  that almost the only information about relationships came from Agony Aunts, with columns in newspapers and magazines. They might suggest that adolescent girls could allow their boyfriends to engage in light ‘petting’ (above the waist) but should never allow ‘heavy petting,’ which could lead inevitably to unwanted pregnancies. (I haven’t defined petting but then the Agony Aunts wouldn’t have defined it either.)
There was still a heavy influence from the Church about moral values and so much was kept secret that many children grew up in almost total ignorance. Those who kept to the standards of society (where few had the desire or opportunity to do otherwise,) might enter into marriage as virgins, with insufficient knowledge of what was expected of them. (OK, most had a basic idea gleaned from a very short talk from their parents or from friends or relatives, but many from more protective families knew nothing of sex. It was not flaunted in public as it is now.)
I am going in a fairly rambling manner but need here to mention two other methods that approximated to contraception – one for respectable married couples and one for not so innocent adolescent young lovers.
The Roman Catholic Church has always had somewhat more strict attitudes to sexual relationships than protestant churches. They believe that all artificial forms of contraception are wrong and devout Catholics have tended to have larger families. Their only allowable method to prevent pregnancy in unmarried couples is abstinence from sex. (Of course, for most people in the fifties this was the only practical reason. Their reasons may have been to do with preventing pregnancy rather than their moral views.)
For married couples who longer wanted pregnancies, the Catholic Church only allowed the ‘Rhythm Method,’ based on the fact that a woman’s fertility came only at certainly periods of her monthly cycles. Again, I will not go into technical details but the method was complex, based on following calendars; it was difficult and it was unreliable. It was effectively abstinence for some dates within the monthly cycles.
For young adolescents who did venture as far as ‘heavy petting,’ there were possible activities they could do and in some cases this could go as far as the so called ‘Withdrawal Method.’ (No technical details – but coitus interruptus was not much fun for either boy or girl and it was very unreliable as a contraceptive method.)
No method of contraception is perfect. Condoms are not completely reliable. Users do not always concentrate on correct use for contraception. Sometimes boys and girls would engage in activity without even knowing about the possibility of pregnancy. And of course sometimes they just got carried away with what they were doing.
In a world of ignorance there were many ‘old wives tales.’ For example, some girls thought that they would not get pregnant from intercourse standing up.
Inevitably, pregnancies did occur with unmarried girls. The moral atmosphere meant that such pregnancies were almost automatically unwanted. There were four choices open to the girls – abortion, marriage, adoption and trying to bring up a child as an unmarried mother. I will look at these four possibilities.
Abortion was only available legally as an emergency operation if the mother’s life was in danger. In the fifties there were ‘back-street’ abortionists which were illegal, expensive and dangerous (because conditions of hygiene were not good).
The change in legislation, which allowed abortion effectively on demand came in the late 60s.
If an adolescent girl got herself ‘in trouble’ there was tremendous pressure on the father to ‘do the right thing’ and enter into a ‘shotgun marriage’. This had always been so. Those like me who have taken up genealogy will find a large number of births coming quite soon after marriages.
Inevitably this led to many instances of unhappy marriages when the couple were not really in love or ready for marriage. But it was more usual to accept things then. (See later about divorce.)
If attempts to persuade the father to marry failed, or if the mother did not know the father, it was quite common for her to be taken away, as far as possible in secret, to an unmarried mother’s home and looked after until the delivery. The baby would almost certainly go straight to adoption and the mother could then come back into normal society.
Adoption was easier and could be done informally by a relative. Those who study family history may find instances of births to an older mother who already has many children. A fifteen-year-old girl could have a baby at home without medical attention and register it as her sister. Many children have grown up without the knowledge of their real mother. (Perhaps this happened less by the fifties than in earlier times – but popular television series make much dramatic use of such situations.)
The social and moral stigma attached to unmarried mothers led to them being swept under the carpet. The highly pejorative term ‘bastard’, which applied to their children remains today as a term of abuse but is no longer used in its literal sense. It was very rare for a lone mother to attempt to bring up a child on her own. There was no social service support or easy child minding so it was financially impossible in most circumstances.
Two other things come under the broad category of Sex.
Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) have always been with us. We knew them as Venereal Diseases (VD) although there was much more general ignorance. There were VD clinics advertised in public toilets but otherwise no public awareness or knowledge – not surprisingly in view of the complete lack of education about sex. Agony Aunts would occasionally post cryptic replies to unprinted letters that may have been associated with these diseases.
It was well before AIDS (starting gradually in the seventies) which was a significant driver in the spread of awareness of STD. Where we now talk of ‘safe sex,’ using condoms, to mean safety from disease and pregnancy, in the fifties people rarely considered disease. Condoms were and still are sometimes called prophylactics – which means disease prevention.
Fertility was a subject only considered through medical channels and only for married couples. The options for prospective parents were limited. IVF and the use of surrogate mothers were unheard of. Artificial insemination (usually by the prospective father) was emerging as an option. Perhaps for practical reasons, families were much more ready to accept their childless situation. Of course, there was also a much greater supply of healthy, normal babies for adoption, from the unmarried mothers who (voluntarily or otherwise) abandoned them at birth.
Getting engaged was a more formal thing. Of course people proposed marriage (and then it was always the man doing the proposing) but they might fix a day to get engaged. (We did. Only personal reference here.) It was a definite commitment, less likely to be broken.
There was still in common law something called Breach of Promise, which allowed a woman to sue for damages when a man changed his mind. (It only worked one way!) I suspect that this was not much used but the threat was there and it indicated the moral atmosphere. In the United Kingdom, this legal situation no longer exists.
Partners and Cohabitation
I am not sure how or when the trend for unmarried partners to live together emerged. Free contraception form around the sixties (with ‘The Pill’) led to freer sexual activity. Unmarried mothers gradually became acceptable, and the decline of religion reduced the hold of the Church over marriages. The cost of weddings has also been a factor.
Living together without marriage has gradually emerged as more and more popular. At first it was as a ‘trial marriage’ and would often be followed by a real marriage before children arrived, but now many couples see no need for marriage even with children. This phenomenon was almost unknown in the 50s.
We also now have partnerships being treated as less permanent. Victorian and earlier literature talks sometimes of step-parents with a somewhat sinister attitude. Now they are common, more often from previous relationships than previous marriages, giving more complex families.
Families were generally what we now call nuclear families – mother and father (married) and their children, sometimes perhaps with a resident grandparent. They lived much more together and would eat together round a table.
You could more or less assume that each child was the child of both parents. (Without considering how other possibilities might occur, there was no DNA tracing and no questioning of paternity. It was assumed that the husband of the mother was the father – when perhaps only the mother knew otherwise, and of course the ‘milkman’ in the humour of the day.)
This was much more difficult and followed a lengthy legal process. The only valid grounds for divorce were adultery, physical violence or desertion. The process ended with a provisional decree nisi and a six-month wait to the decree absolute.
There was even a halfway status known as a legal separation, which was acceptable to those who, for religious or other reasons, did not want a divorce. It sorted out the custody of the children and established maintenance payments without the need to establish grounds for divorce.
Children and Adolescents
Young children were looked after by their mothers who stayed at home as housewives. There were some kindergartens for the more well-off but no play schools or other pre-school care. There were no crèches for working mothers.
Children had a much lower profile. They were expected to be ‘seen but not heard’ and to pay due respect to all those who were ‘older and wiser’. They certainly did not have the influence over what was bought in the house that modern children have gained through the television advertising which is aimed at them. There was not much television for children to see.
With the age of majority at 21, adolescents were still largely treated as children up to that age. They stayed at home and more or less kept within the bounds of behaviour expected of them by their parents.
It was only in the 50s that markets began to see the potential for this age group who were gaining power from their ability to earn money and spend it. This started the move to pop music, then to fashion for adolescents (‘teddy boys’), and later to the vast cultures aimed at young men and women – music television, mobile telephones, and alcohol (and drugs).