“Sex Anarchy” and Female Sexual “Delinquency”: Young Women's Sexual Nonconformity in the 1950s United States

Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:50 AM
Addison Room (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Amanda H. Littauer, Northern Illinois University
Drawing elements from multiple chapters of my book manuscript, Sex Anarchy: Women, Girls, and Sexual Culture in the Mid-20th century U.S., this paper argues that a diverse lot of young women were violating normative sexual standards in the long 1950s and that, in doing so, they quietly eroded the system of sexual morality that came crashing down in the late 1960s and 1970s.  The paper revolves around female “sex delinquency,” which made headlines in the postwar years but which said more about race and class stereotyping than about actual youth sexuality.  As early as the late 1940s, commentators noted that the term was increasingly inappropriate and confusing in practice. For example, the heavily romanticized phenomenon of “going steady” masked the extent of premarital heterosexual sex among middle-class teens, which many teens and adults condoned by employing an alternative sexual standard that sociologists labeled “permissiveness with affection.” Unless they became pregnant, however, middle-class girls were rarely labeled promiscuous or delinquent.  On the other hand, lower-class girls of color frequently were, even though at least one study with New York African American teens shows that contrary to stereotypes, sexually active black girls were selective about their sexual partners and rarely met the study's definition of promiscuity. Finally, teen girls and young women who desired other girls in the postwar years were almost never labeled “delinquent,” even though their desires and acts violated deeply held assumptions about the centrality of heterosexuality to American womanhood.  Employing public discourses about young female sexuality—as well as the articulations and remembered experiences of young women themselves—this paper concludes that although juvenile authorities continued to punish underprivileged heterosexually active girls, diverse members of postwar society recognized that the conflict between official sexual standards and actual sexual behavior was intensifying and that dominant sexual standards would soon have to change.