I will explain how and why the 1950s revealed tensions between individuality and the culture of conformity and how the social changes of the 1960s contributed to the creation of a “sexualized” society.
After WWII politics of the cold war emphasized conformity and social ideologies based on the importance of the “Nuclear Family”. In white middle-class populations a return to traditional male and female rolls within the household was established and worries arose about questionable morality among those individuals who didn’t fit into prescribed social norms. Marriage was an expectation held by society and family while at the same time, gender based ideologies and double standards were being questioned. Women and homosexual populations had been able to taste some sexual and economic freedoms, independence and autonomy as sexual communities and identities emerged during World War II: freedoms that would be repressed during the 1950s due to perceived threats of deviance and noncompliance of public and social expectations.
Rising opportunities to publish and discuss sexuality in film, literature, art, advertising and even research helped to bring sexuality into a public light. The 1950s revealed tensions between individuality and the culture of conformity through public, political and media driven discourse. The Kinsey reports on American’s Sexual Behavior, which brought sexuality for both men and women into the public eye, surprised American’s who clearly were having much more sex than previously imagined. The reports were a stark contrast to what people admitted to in public and within social spheres. Mass publication of pulp novels and magazines, as well as widespread public availability of pornography created both permissiveness and resistance to practices of sexual censorship. McCarthyism, social conservatism, obscenity laws, advocates and members of the National Organization of Decent Literature for censorship of questionable printed materials (books, magazines, comic books) adopted laws to keep pornographic material out of the public, which created media coverage of such topics.
The visibility of gay and lesbian cultures contributed to a conservative reaction: gay and lesbian people were being removed from careers and labeled as “perverts” because of their sexual status/preference. Raids on gay bars with names and addresses printed in the paper of people who were arrested helps explain why the politics of the cold war in the 1950s led to repressive impulses. Because homosexuality and other “overt acts of sex perversion” were illegal, and because McCarthyism promoted separate gender roles, the ideal of family and increased awareness of communism, homosexuals were seen as dangerous. As such, a national campaign to remove homosexuals from government jobs was waged with the justification that because “Sexual Perverts” frequently lived a life of secrecy and in the event of capture by a communist, they could be easily persuaded to divulge secret information to keep their own secrets (about their sexuality) safe. Keeping “Sex Perverts” out of government service was justified as a matter of national security. Cold war politics led to the repression of visible sexuality by forcing homosexual individuals to live in a closeted world; to be open about their sexuality would mean persecution, arrest, public humiliation and loss of their livelihood.
One example of a transsexual community that became visible during this period in history was when the mass media covered the story of Christine Jorgensen by labeling her “Manhattan’s No. 1 Glamour Girl” which propelled her into the upper echelons of society. However, when word got out that she was really just a “castrated male” the media and society turned on her. Her previous status as a woman was at first acceptable by society because she displayed the traditional gender roles of a female, but when she was “outed” people simply considered her a castrated transvestite, and therefore no longer of interest to the media or public.
Tension between permissiveness and repression set the stage for social protest in the 1960s. The changing roles of women, and resurgence in sexual expression also began to take shape. Sexual liberalism before and within marriage helped to create new ideas about gender roles, sexuality and birth control but as the 1960’s approached, a burgeoning Women’s Movement and later, Feminist Movement helped create new social ideas about inherent female freedoms. Women wanted equality to, and independence from, men; economically, educationally and sexually.
The significance of social movements helped redefine sexual identity and sexual expression which contributed to the creation of a “sexualized” society during1960s and beyond. Gay men and women created havens where they could live their lives in some semblance of acceptance within their communities. However, because of public opinions about same-sex relationships many gay and lesbian men and women lived a double life in which they worked very hard to maintain respectability in the community by fulfilling traditional gender roles; this helped to reinforce the nature of homosexuality as immoral in the eyes of the public. Although a gay and lesbian sub-culture had existed prior to the 1950s, sexuality was still a private affair and because of societal norms, homosexual individuals were forced to keep their sexuality closeted or face persecution as a deviant; someone with questionable morals.
Major factors that contributed to the women’s and gay liberation movements included the Civil Rights Movement, a societal and psychiatric belief that homosexuality was a mental illness (a status the APA didn’t change until 1974), and the formation of homosexual and women led groups early in the 1950’s like the Mattachine Society, Daughters of Bilitis. Later groups like the Sexual Freedom League and National Organization of Women (NOW) formed, whose primary goals were to protest, rally, and get media attention: efforts that were designed to help dispel fears and promote equality within these groups.
In conclusion, the 1950s and 1960s revealed tensions between individuality and the culture of conformity due to civil and political unrest in the nation. McCarthyism and the emphasis on family values, capitalism and conformity to social norms created dissidence in female, homosexual and black populations who wanted to bring public attention to their causes to help remove prejudice, stereotypes and fears. The Kinsey reports also brought to light a comprehensive study of sexuality which showed that American’s were far more sexual than anyone suspected. The Beats, and later the Hippies, fought social norms through publication of books and magazines, protest, rallying and alerting the media to their efforts. In gay and lesbian communities, groups were formed that specifically wanted to use the media to get their message across to the public at-large, despite the way society viewed them as sexual perverts. As more young people began leaving home to work or study, student movements across the nation began forming a counter-culture that emphasized and protested for sexual, racial and political freedom.