The renewed American cultural debate about access to abortion and contraception is being conducted in a historical vacuum that ignores the oppressiveness of sexual rules in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s not only for women but for men. Portrayed today as the “greatest generation” on the one hand and as an arrogant “phallocracy” on the other, most ordinary men had a tough time getting the sex they wanted in spite of the often unwarranted assumption that they knew what they were doing in bed.
The popular AMC series Mad Men, featuring crass sexual behavior by male executives who came of age during and in the decade after World War II, conveys both glamour and darkness. It is understandable that Mad Men evokes mixed emotions from boomers born during that period, when husbands, regardless of their marital fidelity, did find time to conceive children with their wives in the cramped double beds accurately replicated by the show’s set designers.
As a woman born in 1945, I think of the then-standard double bed—so uncomfortable by comparison with its successor queen and king beds—as a metaphor for the sexual restrictions upon which I, and all of my contemporaries, were raised.
It is less understandable that this show should also exert a pull on younger viewers. Part of the attraction, of course, is simply the giggle-inducing glimpse of olden times—from those beds to static-filled television sets and Princess phones.
But there is something more than nostalgia (or, in the case of 20-somethings, third-hand nostalgia) fueling the titillation aroused by men behaving badly. Boomers have their epic tales, of a great sexual battle fought in the late ’60s and ’70s. The previous standard—that men had to beg for and trick women into sex and women had to resist in order to be considered suitable marriage material—was overturned by an ethic, however spottily observed, in which men and women were equally entitled to sexual pleasure and no longer subject to the judgments of the Sex Police.
But many in their 20s and 30s today find Mad Men seductive precisely because accessible contraception and abortion, at least in most large cities, have enabled them to indulge in fantasies about sex possibly having been better in the bad old days of male guile and (sometimes) fake female resistance.
Everyone now over 55 grew up, at least part of the way, under the war generation’s sexual rules, which were embedded in an economic covenant dictating that men would be the sole, reliable breadwinners and married women would not have to, or indeed be permitted to, earn their own money.
As Philip Roth, who just turned 80, wrote in My Life As a Man, “For those young men who reached their maturity in the fifties, and who aspired to be grown-up during that decade, when as one participant has written, everyone wanted to be thirty, there was considerable moral prestige in taking a wife ... Decency and Maturity, a young man’s 'seriousness,’ were at issue precisely because ... in the great world that was so obviously a man’s it was only within marriage that an ordinary woman could hope to find equality and dignity ... Unattached and on her own, a woman was supposedly not even able to go to the movies or out to a restaurant by herself, let alone perform an appendectomy or drive a truck. It was up to us then to give them the value and purpose that society at large withheld—by marrying them.”
This novel published in 1974 (five years after the libidinous bestseller Portnoy’s Complaint), was detested by many feminist critics who otherwise prided themselves on their lack of romantic delusions and illusions about marriage.
Throughout the ’50s, bestseller lists were filled with such stifling delusions. In Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar (1955), the entire plot revolves around the earthshaking question of whether a nice Jewish girl is going to give up her virginity to an older roué who will not marry her. Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (also 1955) valorizes a suburban wife who comes close to killing herself when she learns that her husband had an illegitimate son by an Italian woman during the war. But the couple goes off into the sunset after the man arranges to support his child and the wife agrees—as long as there is no contact between her husband and his son. In the movie version, the hero, played by the irreproachable Gregory Peck, bows to the prevailing marital covenant in the final line, when he tells his wife, “I worship you.”
And yet, we know that there was more going on behind closed doors. The war generation was the first group of Americans whose sexual behavior became an object of serious study for social science researchers. The 1948 publication of Alfred C. Kinsey’s report, Sexual Behavior in the Human Male, followed five years later by Sexual Behavior in the Human Female, were cultural events deservedly called bombshells.
It is difficult to convey the intensity of the reaction to the original Kinsey report, given that surveys on sexual practices (some using better statistical methods than Kinsey’s, some worse) have, during the past 60 years, become as common as, and even less controversial than, surveys on food preferences.
In a culture that celebrated marital fidelity for both sexes, it was big news that nearly a third of men and a fifth of women admitted to having had at least one extramarital sex partner. It was equally big news that large numbers of both women and men engaged in oral sex—especially after marriage.
Simply by compiling data about self-described sexual practices, the Kinsey reports challenged widely held fictions about everything from premarital and extramarital sex to homosexuality. The conservative press of the day immediately objected to the reports as a threat to public morality.
As recently as 2005, the first Kinsey report was named by the ultra-conservative magazine Human Events as the fourth most socially harmful book of the past two centuries—outstripped in the Evil Empire sweepstakes only by Mein Kampf, The Communist Manifesto, and Chairman Mao’s Little Book of Quotations.
Kinsey’s statistics do not offer any particular support for the proposition that men had greater sexual power than women, but one largely overlooked subject was male sexual ineptitude. In Dan Wakefield’s 1970 novel Going All the Way, set in ’50s Indiana, the hapless Sonny Burns (a far more common type of young man than the brash Alex Portnoy) has trouble believing a woman even when she makes it clear that she wants to have sex.
Sonny seals his sexual failure by telling his dream girl, “I love you, but I want to go to bed with you.” That emotional contradiction was enough in itself to strip an insecure man of any sexual power. Competence notwithstanding, just how powerful was a man if he was expected to “give” a woman an orgasm without having a clue—or being given a clue by his partner—about what a clitoris was or where it might be located?
In the pre-pill era, the other huge problem was of course pregnancy. Unmarried men either used condoms or engaged in the riskier practice of withdrawal; an unmarried woman who carried her own condoms would have been considered nothing but a slut. Only after marriage could she obtain a diaphragm without shame.
A man had to be completely indifferent to social pressure to seduce a woman with the love card and, if she became pregnant, refuse to marry her. Some were resistant—especially in large cities—but I am be willing to bet that many more men were pressured into shotgun marriages. The sentence, “They had to get married” was ubiquitous in my childhood.
More than any other human activity, sex is a subject that ought to discourage generalizations, and there were many fewer sexual blabbermouths in the middle decades of the 20th century—even in the more open ’60s—than there are today. The only thing I can reasonably infer about my parents’ sexual relationship, for instance, is that unlike many other Catholics of their generation, they practiced birth control. My brother and I were among the few children at St. Thomas Aquinas School who did not have five to 10 siblings.
Even within marriage, a man’s economic dominance did not necessarily translate into sexual dominance. On the contrary: it was only outside of marriage—and only with the rare young woman who was unabashedly lustful herself or with a prostitute—that a man could expect to have sex the way he wanted it.
Dr. Eustace Chesser, a gynecologist and psychiatrist whose popular sex manual, Love Without Fear, was hidden in my parents’ bedroom chest of drawers next to the Kinsey reports, volunteered the opinion that only 1 in 12 men knew the right technique to bring a woman to orgasm. This meant, he said sadly, that the majority of wives never experienced that “special joy” that passeth all understanding.
The only other book in which I have seen “joy” as a synonym for orgasm is Alix Kates Shulman’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, a witty feminist novel published in 1973. Shulman, describing a college affair with an older professor, writes about her introduction to cunnilingus. “Happy me, to be kissed and covered like this at last, to be inexplicably noticed and loved ... until from somewhere inside me rose a strange little whimper of joy. So this was what my joy-life meant! So this was the point of it!” Shulman’s character is recalling a sexual experience from the ’50s—one she felt unimaginably lucky to have because she had stumbled across a tutor who actually did know how to “give” a woman a climax.
The idea that a woman might be well advised to get to know her own body did not begin to take hold until the emergence of feminism. In 1973, a stapled samizdat publication, put together by a group of women in Boston, went mainstream with the publication of Our Bodies, Ourselves—a perennial bestseller that represented a revolution in the way women thought about their sexuality. For so long, female and male ignorance had been complicit in the pretense that men were worthy instructors.
That is not to say that the average man wanted it that way. In an activity that by definition involves two people, the expectation that one of them is supposed to be a mind reader places a heavy burden on the partner who is assumed to be the expert.
I am just old enough to have begun my sexual life in the early ’60s, when the rules did not yet hint at the greater freedom only a few years away. I look back on early fumblings with boys near my own age, and I truly cannot decide whether I feel more compassion for the girl who knew where her clitoris was (thank you, Dr. Chesser) but did not dare show the boy or for the boy who was so anxious when he tried to unzip his pants that the zipper stuck in a way so intractable as to suggest divine disapproval.
In 1964, at age 19, I read a magazine article about the birth-control pill developed by Dr. John Rock and resolved to see a gynecologist and find out if this pill could possibly be available to an unmarried girl in East Lansing, Michigan. (Like nearly every female of my generation, I thought of myself as a girl and not a woman.)
The article had emphasized the pill as an option only for married couples, which was hardly surprising since the Supreme Court was a year away from upholding the right of even the married to buy contraceptives (Griswold v. Connecticut).
I hoped that if I pretended to be engaged and that my wedding night was just around the corner, the doctor might write me a prescription. He did, although I am certain he didn’t buy my story. He was a Catholic, a member of my father’s generation, and yet he was compassionate and respectful enough to write that prescription even though he was probably ill at ease with the idea that a girl his daughter’s age was having sex.
Whatever disappointments may abound in a 21st century of vast and varied sexual choices, a society in which women can control their own fertility is better, for women and men, than one in which a man must always be in charge not only of his partner’s “virtue” but of her bodily safety.
As for those who contend that the pill gave men the freedom to prey on women who no longer had an excuse for saying no: these people have a low opinion of both sexes and of sex itself.
When I recall the double standard of my parents’ generation, I also like to think about that stuffy-looking Michigan doctor, who made the pill accessible to a young woman without asking questions that would have humiliated her. He did have power—over me and his other college-age patients—and chose to exercise it for good. I hope, in addition to the authority he possessed as a successful professional man of his time, that he also knew joy in his private life.
This excerpt is adapted from The Last Man on Top, an ebook to be published by Pantheon on April 23.