1950s Discourse on Sexuality

1950s Discourse on Sexuality

Sexuality in post World War Two American was defined in rigid terms within the context of a marital relationship characterized by stability and prosperity. As a result of the tumultuous war years, American GIs returned from abroad to settle in nuclear family units and live out the American dream of home ownership and steady employment. While these dreams were contingent on the peaceful nature of the years following the war’s end and did become real for many Americans during the 1950s, not all Americans enjoyed the stability of those with a place in the new picture of the United States.[1]
In the post war years, the American dream of the nuclear family defined sexuality in a marital context, leaving no place for single sexual culture, homosexuality, or any other type of sexuality not considered mainstream. In the Cold War era, human sexual desire of any deviation from the marital norm would have been considered incorrect and dangerous to the strengthening of the American people for the protection of the free world. Until Alfred Kinsey’s publication of the Kinsey reports and other works in mass media which brought the reality of American sexuality to light in the 1950s, sexuality not in line with the supposed familial values of the United States was considered a scientific problem apart from the norm of American sexuality.
The Kinsey Reports and other psychological literature of the time had a profound effect on the history of American sexuality by revealing new truths about human sexual desire that posed a threat to the stability and validity of the United State’s Government during the era of the Cold War. Kinsey revealed that the reality of American sexuality was shockingly more diverse and active than most Americans and their lawmakers wanted to believe. Further publications in media, including the founding of Playboy and the sexualizing of Cosmopolitan created a more open idea of the reality of American sexuality throughout the 1950s through open discourse.[2]

kinsey [3]

In 1948, Dr. Alfred Kinsey published the first part of the Kinsey Reports, a book titled Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. Kinsey’s study, based on personal interviews of American men, revealed that men and women alike were overall more sexual in reality than they seemed to be in a purely assumptive view.[4]


In an article in a 1950 edition of the New York Times, journalist William S. White reported on sexual deviants working in government agencies. Homosexuals were placed in the category of “deviant,” until 1974 when the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders, perhaps as a delayed result of ideas brought to light in Kinsey’s study. [6]

nuclear [7]

The nuclear family unit of the 1950’s was considered an important component of national security during the Cold War. The ideology of traditional gender roles and marriage merged with containment during the Cold War era. [8]

eo [9]

Americans who did not participate in the strengthening of national security through family building were targeted during the FBI investigation of all federal employees after Truman’s executive order 9835, instituting the first general loyalty program. Government action was the response to a growing public light on sexuality following the publishing of the Kinsey Reports.

heaven [10]

Far From Heaven, a 2002 film portraying the “perfect” 1950s couple in Connecticut struggling to maintain the ideal image of sexuality and family relationships through the homosexuality of the husband and the wife’s affair with a black man is an example of the difference between image and reality in 1950 America, as Kinsey argued existed.

std [11]

An advertisement from the 1950s serves as evidence that sexual promiscuity was becoming a problem in American culture, and that venereal disease could have been perceived as a national health risk. This banner add shows that the sexual culture of the 1950s may not have been as prudish as modern Americans believe, reinforcing Kinsey’s findings.

hefner [12]

Along with psychological and scientific works aiding in expanding the 1950s sphere of sexuality outside of the family, entrepreneurs like Hugh Hefner and Helen Gurley Brown publicized American sexuality through mass media, threatening the previous lack of discourse pertaining to sexuality. [13]


playboy [14]

Their publications, Playboy and Cosmopolitan have stood the test of time, making large contributions to American sexuality in the present day.

130411_0006 [15]

Although the 1950s hype over Kinsey’s reports on modern sexuality is no longer modern, the Reports have gained a place in a category of works commonly used in academia, and have a place in most academic libraries.

The discourse on sexuality that surfaced during the 1950s, whether in scientific analytical works such as the Kinsey Reports or in social media culture such as Playboy, opened the doors for public discussion of sexuality outside the nuclear family unit. New publications presenting sexuality outside of the home as a common reality of American life was an integral part of 1950s American sexuality, and had a profound effect on Americans in the decades following the decade. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, American’s participated in Women’s liberation and Gay liberation movements whose roots were in the new discourse on sexuality which was born of the 1950s.[16]

[1] For discourse on marital norms of the 1950s, see, John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1998), 261-274
[2] Ibid., 302-204.
[3] “Dr. Alfred Kinsey,” accessed April 9, 2013, http://psychistofwomen.umwblogs.org/sexuality/post-kinsey/kinsey/.
[4] D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 285.
[5] “Perverts in Government Agencies,” accessed April 9, 2013, http://mass499.wordpress.com/2011/02/11/the-1950s-homosexuals-enter-the-news-arena/.
[6] D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 324.
[7] Cami Beekman and Jada Marzolf, Nuclear Family, Photograph. October 8, 2011.
[8] Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 94.
[9] “Executive Order 9835,” accessed April 8, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_Order_9835.
[10] Far From Heaven,” accessed April 8, 2013, http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0297884/.
[11] Venereal Disease,” accessed April 9, 2013, http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/01/penicillin-not-pill-may-have-launched.html.
[12] “Hugh Hefner of Playboy,” accessed April 10, 2013, http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/politics/chi-chicagodays-playboy-story,0,2454110.story/.
[13] D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters.
[14] Cami Beekmen, Modern Sex Media, Photograph. April 10, 2013.
[15] Cami Beekman, Kinsey’s Influence Today, Photgraph. April 10, 2013.
[16] D’Emilio and Freedman, Intimate Matters, 300-325.