A Different World

Rose graduated from an Ivy League university in 1953 with a degree in English literature and dreams of building a career in publishing, but many companies refused to hire women. Many of her male peers went through interview processes during their senior year and went on to work at large corporations and banks. When Rose landed the occasional interview, the big question was, How many words can you type? Rose and many of her female peers were under pressure from their families to find a husband in college, and many of her friends got married soon after they graduated – indeed, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age at first marriage for women in the 1950’s was just over age 20 (Figure). Rose didn’t want to be a wife, she wanted to be out in the world. But by age 22, she was engaged to be married.

“I was pushed into marriage because I couldn’t go home and I couldn’t work,” Rose said. “I didn’t know what to do. It was rare for someone not to get married after college.”

It wasn't until after she was married that Rose learned about birth control. A friend told her to go to the doctor and get fitted for a diaphragm, which she did. 

“I never changed my birth control until I didn’t need it anymore,” Rose said. “When I wanted to use [the diaphragm], I used it. A lot of people felt they didn’t have to use the diaphragm and they could take a pill and that’s easier. I never went for a pill. I don’t believe in taking pills for any reason, unless it's a Tylenol or something. I think [pills] change you biologically.”

Rose was not sexually active before she married. She doesn’t know what her peers used for birth control in college, or if they even needed birth control. She and her friends didn’t talk to each other about things like that. Casual and premarital sex were not part of the dating culture. 

“There’s nothing wrong with [casual sex], it just wasn’t done,” Rose said. “We were busy. We lived in the girls dorm in college, and we had to be in at 10:30 on weeknights. I was glad even if I liked the date not to have to stay up all night with him. It was a different world, I thought it was kind of nice. You could do your studying and not worry about the rest of it. I’m not enamored by what goes on today.”

From the time she was twelve years old, Rose always had boyfriends – she was usually in love with one or two boys at a time. And though she went on many dates, she never felt pressure from her dates to have sex. 

“Now I don’t know if you can do that,” Rose said. “The boys expect too much. I didn’t have to give up my virginity. I was free to just love them.”

To Rose, sex is special, and it should be had with someone special. She worries that young people today are having too much sex and might not regard it to be as special as it is, which may contribute to young people finding sex and love less enjoyable. Rose’s suspicions are well founded; professor Nicholas Wolfinger discusses in his article, “Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness?” the positive correlation between a high number of premarital sexual partners and a lower likelihood to report a “very happy” marriage; generally, those who have fewer sexual partners before marriage are more likely to report having a “very happy” marriage later in life – with 65% of women who have had only one sexual partner in their lifetime reporting a “very happy” marriage compared to 55% of women who have had over 20 sexual partners reporting a happy marriage. Nonetheless there are too many factors to consider to accurately determine the reason for this correlation (Wolfinger). Personally, though, Rose believes the love of her life was made even more special by the wait. Rose was divorced from her first husband and in her late twenties when she met her life partner. 

“Love takes a long time. It has to develop,” Rose said. “It gets better if you do it right. We were a little bit older by then. We knew a little more about what the world was. It wasn’t like I was nineteen and knew nothing.”

Rose wishes her mother would have been more open with her about taboo topics when she was growing up, such as being intimate with boys. Her mother never told her much, so in high school, Rose learned about romantic encounters from the “fast girls” at school – the girls who had experience, who’d started dating young and had kissed boys. When Rose had kids, her and her husband were straight with them. They agreed that if their kids had questions, they were entitled to the answers. 

“Whatever kind of problem they had, sex or whatevever, they should come and tell me about it,” Rose said. “Everything was fine with me. I was only concerned for their health. You gotta be careful, you can get sick [with] STDs. But I was not judgemental in any way. They lived in a different world than I did.”

It’s true that Rose’s kids grew up in a much different sexual landscape than Rose. Use of the birth control pill became more common after 1972, when The Supreme Court ruled in their case Eisenstadt v. Baird that single women have the right to access birth control; furthermore, the Sexual Revolution of the 1960’s and 70’s created space for a more casual perception of sexual encounters in the developed world. It’s likely these two things led to a rise in premarital sex, especially among young people, in the late twentieth century. According to Lawrence Finer, PhD, in a study measuring trends in premarital sex in the United States between the years of 1954-2003, though nearly everyone will have premarital sex in their lifetime, among those who turned 15 between years 1954-1963, only 26% had had sex before the age of 18, and 48% had had sex before the age the of 20; in contrast, of those who turned fifteen between the years 1974 and 1983, 50% had had sex by age 18, and 72% had had sex by age 20 (Finer). So, by the time Rose’s kids were teenagers in the late 70s and early 80s, not only had it become easier to avoid unwanted consequences of sex, but premarital sex had also become more culturally acceptable, and in turn much more common than in Rose’s youth.

“I can’t judge these ways of life,” Rose said. “But in my heart, sex is equal to love. If it's not equal to love, why would I want it?”

Works Cited

“Figure MS-2 Median Age at First Marriage: 1890 to Present - Census.gov.” United States 

Census Bureau, United States Government, Nov. 2022. 

Finer, Lawrence B. “Trends in Premarital Sex in the United States, 1954-2003.” Public Health 

Reports (Washington, D.C. : 1974), U.S. National Library of Medicine, Feb. 2007. 

Wolfinger, Nicholas. “Does Sexual History Affect Marital Happiness?” Institute for Family 

Studies, Institute for Family Studies, 22 Oct. 2018.

Interview conducted December 8, 2022 by phone.