The story of Fernando Rios is, at heart, the story of sexual activity and sexual hypocrisy in the 1950’s. There was a lot of activity. And a lot of hypocrisy.
For example, in 2012, when the controversial issue of whether or not birth control should be covered by the Affordable Care Act was being debated, conservative pundit (and donor) Foster Friess weighed in on the controversy, saying, “Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees, and it wasn't that costly."
Many people jumped on the remark as being appallingly sexist, as it reinforced the not-uncommon view that sexual continence--and responsibility for contraception--were things that only women had to worry about. Comparatively few people challenged the factual accuracy of what Friess said. And what he said was far from accurate.
Foster Friess was born in 1940, which means he went through the entirety of his teen years in the 1950’s, a decade which has—and retains—a reputation for innocent, virginal young women.
But that reputation is a falsehood, promulgated by people looking backward through faux-colored glasses.
The 1950’s were a decade characterized by deep sexual denial. This denial is seen in the innocent and naïve television shows from the period still in syndication, and is perpetuated by innocent (and backward-looking) films such as Grease or the popular 1970’s sit-com, Happy Days. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, people in the 1950’s believed that young women—or the vast majority of them—were virgins until marriage, and had no desire to go beyond first or second base, no matter how handsome the Danny, or how secluded the back seat of the convertible. In Grease, Sandy is portrayed as “The Good Girl,” Rizzo, her foil, is “The Bad Girl,” and while all the other girls may be tempted, and may even occasionally tease or make fun of Sandy’s prim propriety, they are all Sandy, deep down in their hearts. Rizzo even has a song, “There are Worse Things I Could Do,” which not only reveals deep guilt and conflict about her sexuality, but suggests a sense of lonely isolation. Sandy’s transformation at the end of the film from the innocent girl in pink to the black-clad seductress is mostly cosmetic; she is so hopelessly devoted to Danny, that we are never allowed to believe that she will be sexually “loose.”
It is a deeply distorted portrayal of female sexuality in the 1950’s. Instead of singing “There are Worse Things I Could Do,” Rizzo should have been singing, “Why Won’t the Others Tell the Truth?”
My evidence for making such claims? The teen pregnancy rates of the 1950’s, which were the highest on record. They were, in fact, three times as high as they are today. In any given year of the 1950’s, a teenaged girl had between an 8 percent and 10 percent chance of becoming pregnant (today the rate is less than three percent). Given that she would be a teenager for seven years, and that the older she was, the greater likelihood she had of becoming sexually active, it’s not hard to figure out that she had about a 50/50 chance of becoming pregnant before her twentieth birthday. And, keep in mind, that those numbers just represent the young women who became pregnant—not the larger number of young women who were sexually active.
“But contraception was less common and much less reliable,” you might say. And I would respond, “Precisely.” Apparently Bayer Aspirin was in short supply.
You might follow with asking, “But what about the age of marriage? Doesn’t that play a role in the teen pregnancy rate?”
Indeed, it does. In the nineteen fifties, the median age of a woman at first marriage was twenty, meaning that about half of all first marriages occurred for women nineteen and below (today the median age at first marriage is about twenty-six). Clearly a lot of young women were getting married just out of high school (assuming they finished), and clearly a lot of these women were becoming pregnant shortly after they married.
Or were they?
While it is true that the low age of marriage accounts for a lot of these teen pregnancies, it is also true that the rate of teen pregnancy accounts for a lot of these marriages. Statistics compiled by the US Census Bureau show that in the nineteen-fifties, among young women who gave birth to their first babies before the age of twenty, 16-18.5% of them were unmarried at the time of the birth, and another 19-20% were pregnant at the time they married.
Foster Friess is either oblivious or lying when he brags about the sexual restraint of young women “in his day.”
People didn’t admit these things publicly, of course (Foster Friess still doesn’t). There were many cover-ups, the chief of which was a hurried marriage to the baby’s father—no matter how young he might be, or how unprepared he was to care for a family. Parents of young women who had such a “shotgun wedding” would sometimes place an item in the newspapers announcing that a totally fictitious “secret marriage” had taken place several months earlier. When the baby was born, the parents and grandparents would claim that it had been conceived shortly after the fictitious marriage, instead of having to admit publicly that conception had occurred several months before the real one. In other cases, the young woman’s parents begged doctors or hospital employees to alter the weight on the child’s birth certificate, so they could plausibly claim the baby had been born prematurely.
If parents of a pregnant teen could not convince (or force) the father of the baby to wed their daughter, they would often send the young woman out of state to a maternity home, where she would be cared for during her pregnancy, and where the child would be taken from her and placed for adoption immediately upon delivery. The young woman’s absence would be explained by a story about a last-minute chance to take part in an exchange program, or the girls’ parents might say that she had gone on an extended trip to help care for an ailing relative out of state.
And there were, of course, abortions, often performed illegally, or performed at great expense, when the pregnant girl was sent from her home state to a state in which abortion was legal.
Obviously—I’m talking about the pregnant daughters of the prosperous middle and upper classes. What did the pregnant daughter of a poor family do? One whose parents could not afford a private maternity home, an out-of-state trip for a safe abortion, or some other such stratagem? In these cases, if the baby’s father couldn’t or wouldn’t marry her, she would be branded as a “bad girl” (not unlike Rizzo), and would publicly bear the shame and stigma that many affluent girls masquerading as Sandy managed to evade.
You can read more about the sexual mores of the period in Out for Queer Blood: The Murder of Fernando Rios and the Failure of New Orleans Justice.