Published On: Thu, Nov 29th, 2012

Sex & Desire in Marriage & Divorce 1950’s

In 2013, when a large proportion of marriages will sadly end in divorce, we understand that marital breakdown results from many and compSex & Desire in Marriage & Divorce 1950'slex factors. We know there is no simple answer to the problem, and no simple solution. But in Australia in the 1950s, divorce was seen as something far less complex.

Rising divorce rates were something new to the 50s. Before this, very few people got divorced (though a small minority did separate). But divorce was both rare and shameful. Divorce cases were even reported in the newspapers, with the gory details printed up for all the neighbours to read! And divorce was legally very difficult, especially for women, who would have to prove multiple reasons why a divorce was needed. In Queensland, the most conservative state, even domestic violence was not a good reason for divorce, and women would have to prove it was substantially violence, sustained over a long tie, and proven to be “unprovoked”. The Catholic Church, too, opposed divorce, and even the other Churches saw it as very much a last resort. And if she did get divorced, a woman had no guarantee of alimony or child support, and of course the single mother’s pension did not yet exist. It is unsurprising that many women stayed in unhappy and even violent relationships.

Even so, divorce rates were on the rise. The actual rates were very low compared to today, hovering at around 10%. But this was a big increase on the period before World War II, when rates divorce rates were under 1%. With the sudden increase, divorce was seen as a “crisis” of the new age.

So what to do? Well, there were a raft of books, magazine articles and newspaper reports on the problem of divorce. Some admitted the reasons for rising divorce rates were complex, including marriages made in haste during wartime, and the particular problems of the postwar period, especially the housing crisis that meant newlyweds were still living with their parents!

But many of these new advice columns and marriage manuals also stressed one key issue: that of sex. They routinely suggested that a happy sex life would help overcome any problems in a marriage. By the 1950s, almost every time an expert spoke about divorce, a good sex life was mentioned as key. As the Women’s Weekly noted in 1951, “Ignorance and fear of sexual relationships in marriage leads to many divorces unless the parties are intelligent enough to seek advice.” And it had to be a certain kind of sex: mutual orgasm was seen as key.  As one doctor noted in the Medical Journal of Australiain 1954, without the mutual orgasm, ‘their happiness is marred, their social lives are undermined and their health is frequently jeopardised.’ That’s a whole lot of expectation on bedroom performances!

It was advised that couples who were experiencing sexual difficulties – from lack of sex itself, to lack of the mutual orgasm – should seek help from marriage guidance counsellors and doctors. In the 50s, we see a range of counselling groups established, and a massive increase in discussions about sex in marriage in books and women’s magazines. Those without access to a counsellor could presumably read about how to fix the sexual problem, sometimes in quite graphic detail!

So, did it all work?

Well, not really, because as I have suggested, there was more to the rising divorce rate than simply an unhappiness in the bedroom, though it might have been one contributing factor.  And in reality, it was much more difficult to fix the real social, political and economic causes of divorce amongst Australians. Sex was a simple scapegoat, with – supposedly – an easy fix, through counselling and sex education. That the divorce rate continued to climb is unsurprising, really, given the hope that the mutual orgasm could fix all the wrongs of a difficult marriage.

Dr. Lisa Featherstone 2013
University of Newcastle

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