Broadway Features and Reviews
Grease and Sex Ed in the 1950s
By Mary Bowers, Broadway Magazine
Sex in the 1950s has long been overshadowed by its seemingly more daring younger sister, the swinging sixties. But there was much going on behind closed (car) doors, as the Rydell High's favorite drive-in can testify in the Broadway revival of the musical Grease.
Sex education took on a new tone in the Grease era. The threat of mortality posed by the Second World War created a hotbed for semi-condoned promiscuity. A moral and medical panic ensued. Suddenly, women were gaining confidence outside the home doing men's jobs; husbands were away from the household and people began to seize more than just the day. A spate of unplanned pregnancies was accompanied by a sharp increase in the number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases, including gonorrhea and syphilis. The hormones pumping through young people's veins were no longer only to be controlled, they were to be educated.
Even in the 1950s the modesty of the human form was replaced with diagrams of the sexual organs of plants, and fertilization involved pollen rather than bodily fluids.
However, fifties sex education was aimed mostly at girls, promoting domestic bliss, rather than curtailing a bumpy ride on the back seat of a Chevrolet at Make-Out Point. The All-American housewife, with her new Frigidaire and coffee percolator, was expected to greet her husband from work with a martini and a warm bed. At a speech before Congress in 1953, Dr Leena Levine, head of Planned Parenthood, declared that the purpose of sex education was "to explain to young people that sexual happiness and sexual harmony were key to marriage in the home". Such a declaration would not be necessary, of course, if the Rizzos and Kenickies of society were rare exceptions to the rule.
The birth control pill was in existence in the late 1950s, but only for "severe menstrual disorders". The female diaphragm was cumbersome and hard to come by for non-married girls. Teenage pregnancies were greeted with severe disapprovals and a shotgun marriage. The rate of teen births was at nine per cent, which is 50% higher than it is in the U.S. today. Only 6 per cent of these cases, among white teenagers at least, happened outside marriage. If Kenickie had taken on the fatherly responsibility, there were any number of lower paid unskilled jobs he could have entered to take his place as breadwinner, including, of course, a car mechanic.
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