Sexuality in the 1950s: A Historical Analysis of France

Note from Ms. Reid: Check out Anisa’s linked articles–they are fascinating!

by: Anisa Thompson

When reading Giovanni’s Room, was anyone else shocked that France was guillotining people in the 1950s? I was. As any curious (and slightly disturbed) person would, I began to wonder what actually went down during the 1950s in France. Thanks to Janine Mossuz-Lavau’s “Politics and Sexuality in France, 1951-1991,” I have some answers!

In contrast to Giovanni’s Room where expressions of sexuality aren’t governed by politics but instead by the mind, Mossuz-Lavau categorizes the constraints on people’s sexuality in four ways: legal constraints on procreation, age, the rejection of homosexuality, and sexual violence (Mossuz-Lavau 63). I will touch on the first three.

 Beginning with legal constraints on procreation, during the early 1940s, Marechal Petain, the Marshal of France, worsened laws against contraceptives and abortions by declaring “that anyone who performed an abortion was committing a crime against the state” (Mossuz-Lavau 63). This subsequently led to a midwife being guillotined in 1943. On a more positive note, in 1955, a female physician named Marie-Andre Lagroua-Weill Hallè rallied for the “establishment of facilities where couples could go for advice,” especially in preventing unwanted pregnancies (Mossuz-Lavau 63). Despite being widely ignored, in 1956, she founded La maternite heureuse, an organization that spurred the French Planned Parenthood Movement, enabling women to find ways around the French laws on birth control. 

In terms of age, sexuality amongst younger generations was widely regulated. On a social level, women were expected to abstain from sex until marriage (this mattered less for men). In 1960, the law villified homosexuality as a “social scourge,” forbidding people from ages 15 to 21 to participate in same sex relationships (Mossuz-Lavau 63). However, during the late 1960s and early 70s, lesbian and gay communities were becoming more visible to the broader community. Different organizations began to host film festivals and demonstrations as a means of shedding light on the LGBTQ+ experience. They also initiated the signing of petitions in order to “demand the suppression of discriminatory laws” pertaining to both race and sex (Mossuz-Lavau 65).

Despite quite obvious discrimination on the basis of sex and sexuality, in addition to Marie-Andre Lagroua-Weill Hallè, there were others who were willing to have conversations on sexuality in an educational manner. In 1972, Dr. Jean Carpentier posted a pamphlet tailored to a high school audience entitled Let Us Learn How to Make Love where he explains the reproductive system and “urges free use of them in defiance of ‘hypocritical moral authority’ depriving the young of pleasure,” according to a New York Times article, “School Use of Sex Pamphlet Stirs Angry Debate in French Town” (I would read the article, it’s quite funny at certain moments). He also expressed his support for those identifying as lesbian and/or gay. 

Giovanni’s Room explores the realities surrounding navigating sexuality during the 1950s. The characters in Giovanni’s Room directly confront different aspects of sexuality and discuss them rather openly (minus David). This must be some reflection of 1950s France as, according to a Smithsonian article entitled “Baldwin in France,”  “[Baldwin] fell in love with [Paris], not only because of its beauty and culture but also because of the reprieve it provided from the racial and sexual discrimination he experienced in the United States.” Regardless, France still faced its own struggles regarding embracing sexuality on both social and political levels.

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