SEX EDUCATION IN THE 1950s
by Mary J. Breen
Once upon a time long ago in my small Ontario town, menstrual pads were called sanitary napkins, and they came in boxes wrapped in plain brown paper lest any man see them and drop dead from embarrassment. These pads were about an inch thick—bulky, awkward things that were held in place with little twisty belts or safety pins. To be extra safe, some women even wore special rubber-lined underpants. This was long before the wonders of stick-on ultra-thin pads with wings. When revolutionary things called tampons arrived on the drugstore shelf, I set about trying to convince my mother of their superiority based on the fact that one could hide a whole month’s-worth in a purse, but nothing I said convinced her to let me buy them. Tampons, she said—whispered actually, barely containing her disgust—were only for married women. Perhaps, like the Archbishop of Dublin who banned them in Ireland around this time, she thought tampons had the potential to be sexually stimulating. Someone should have told these people that sometimes a tampon is just a tampon.
But I had no data to argue with. Reliable sex information was nowhere to be found. Parents told their kids exactly nothing about the birds and the bees. In our house, all references to sex, direct or tangential, were verboten, even someone’s coming blessed event—except of course for the celebrated lead-up to the anniversary of the birth of the Christ Child.
I became a little obsessed with finding out where babies came from. My Baltimore Catechism said simply that God made me, and the nuns said that God (the Holy Ghost actually) had made the baby Jesus, so from this I figured God had a magic wand that he’d wave over a baby’s crib, and poof, next morning, there would be a baby swaddled in a pink or blue blanket waiting to be loved.
Word on the street, however, had it that that there was more to it. They said parents did something together to produce a baby, something shameful from the way everyone snickered about it. No one knew precisely what this involved, but I was beginning to grasp that a father did something to a mother, and perhaps at a hospital, since that’s where babies were born. This led to my next theory which was that men, not God, were the ones possessed of magic wands. Any man I’ve mentioned this to has been quick to agree.
By the time I was ten or eleven, I was starting to fear that my curiosity about babies was one of those “impure thoughts” mentioned as grievous sins against the 6th and 9th Commandments. I studied that section of the Examination of Conscience Before Confession, but I learned nothing there about the origin of babies; just warnings about not committing adultery, coveting my neighbour’s wife, or dancing in a lewd or suggestive manner.
When I was fourteen, my middle-aged parents did, however, order me a good Catholic book about sex for teens. It too arrived in a plain brown wrapper. I think it was called Chastity and Purity for Catholic Youth. I had noticed a mysterious package arrive in the mail, so when they were out playing bridge I went snooping and found it. I read it cover to cover, again and again. When they mustered the courage to give it to me two years later, I already knew it was useless. It wasn’t about sex; it was about sin: “John slid down the banister and felt pleasure. He went up and did it again. Did he sin?” Answer: Yup. (Huh?) “Anne rode her bicycle and felt pleasure. She kept on riding. Did she sin?” Answer: She sure did.
Our high school Health and Phys Ed classes told us next-to-nothing, although Biology class did teach us the reproductive habits of amoebae and the common earthworm. Our Phys Ed teacher simply warned us not to fall prey to boys or we would end up like those shameless girls who got into trouble and had to go to an aunt. As for menstruation, it was never called by its proper name; in fact, adults, including our mothers, never spoke of it at all if they could help it. This teacher went so far as to say our time of the month (we called it a visit from our little friend) was no excuse to get out of gym, and if we wanted to know more, we simply needed to read the booklets she’d got for us from the menstrual pad manufacturers. One was That Wonderful Thing That Happens Every Month. Its message was that with the right protection we could wear the gorgeous gowns pictured throughout the booklet without staining them, not that they used that word. In fact, precise words like puberty, blood, lining, flow, vagina, uterus, ovaries, eggs, cramps, bloating, breasts, headaches, and mood swings were all beyond the pale. To explain this new “wonderful thing that happens every month” without mentioning a single body part, they found a handy metaphor: we were pupae, undergoing metamorphosis. I remember the especially helpful drawing of a huge butterfly hovering above a smiling, smart-looking girl as she sipped a drink at a lunch counter.
And so, still and again, I was no further ahead.
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"Sex Education in the 1950s" was first published in The Toast (2013).
Mary J. Breen is the author of two books about women's health. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in national newspapers, essay collections, travel magazines, health journals, and literary magazines including Brick, The Christian Science Monitor, Boston Literary Magazine, The National Post, and JAMA Cardiology. She was a regular contributor to The Toast. She lives in Peterborough Ontario Canada where, among other things, she teaches writing.