Sex before marriage was frowned upon in the 1950s. It was considered shameful for a woman to be pregnant and not married. Parents sometimes sent their daughters off to isolated places away from curious and critical neighbors and friends to avoid the stigma that accompanied premarital pregnancies.
“Shotgun weddings” were common, though these forced marriages often ended in painful divorces, especially damaging to the children, who ended up in single parent families with lower incomes.
With the coming of the birth control pill in the 1960s, this attitude began to change. Since premarital sex was a lesser risk, the likelihood of bringing shame upon yourself and your family diminished.
People began to rethink old attitudes about sex and marriage because of sharply rising divorce rates in the 1960s and 1970s. As divorces rates hit the high of 50 percent, and even approached 60 percent, staying married for a lifetime became statistically less common. Some men began to joke about “starter wives.”
In 1973 the Supreme Court declared that abortion was legal in Roe v. Wade, again creating a paradigm shift in people’s thinking about sex and childbirth. Abortion, once considered sinful, came to be viewed as the right of a woman to control her own body.
The feminist movement pushed for civil rights for women and “equal protection of the law,” using the arguments of the 14th Amendment. These same arguments had been used to powerful effect during the civil rights movement for the black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. It was an easy transition from equality for black Americans to equality for women.
Women were the ones who had borne the burden of taking care of these “love children” during the 1950s and now demanded to be on equal footing with men.
The birth control pill and legal abortions enabled dramatic shifts in sexual behavior and attitudes about marriage. Living together became more socially accepted as a solution to high divorce rates. If couples lived together, they could experience firsthand whether they were compatible with their potential mates. Since unwanted pregnancies were less of a factor, this new behavior seemed to be the logical solution.
As time went on and living together became more acceptable, so did having children born out of wedlock. Ironically, at this time, gays, who had been looked down upon for their sexual behavior, successfully pushed for their “equal protection of the law.” So while straight couples were marrying less, and living together more often, gay marriages became legal.
During the 1950s, women were the ones who bore the penalty for premarital sex with labels such as “sluts” or “loose women.” They also bore the responsibility for the children. Now, it is still the women, no longer considered promiscuous, who are being taken advantage of.
Why? Because, unfortunately, one thing that has not changed much has been the attitudes of men. Many view women as having a limited “shelf life.” As women age, they become less attractive to many men. They are less likely to marry as they age, whereas men do not generally have this problem.
The double standard is still alive and well for men who can have sex without the accompanying responsibility. Sexually, we have gone full circle since the 1950s.
We know from statistics that living together before marriage actually increases the potential for divorce. Children are collateral damage, again growing up without fathers.
It seems the shaming approach of the 1950s has now been replaced by a lack of perspective about the long-term effects of the new societal standards for sexual behavior. We humans tend to find solutions to our problems that are neither loving nor smart. We continually go from one extreme to the other. This is certainly true in our attitudes toward sex and marriage.