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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Youthful Transgressions: Teenagers, Sexuality, and the Contested Path to Adulthood in Postwar America

  • Author(s): Stein, Julie Solow
  • Advisor(s): Fass, Paula S
  • et al.

"Youthful Transgressions" examines teenage sexual culture in the United States after World War II, with a particular focus on the ways that changing notions of childhood and adulthood influenced the place of sexually precocious adolescents in American society. This dissertation argues that between the 1940s and the 1980s, teenage sexuality transformed from a private problem that was seen as leading children into premature adulthood, to a public problem that kept adolescents in a pathologized version of childhood.

This dissertation addresses the question of how Americans decided who was an adult and who was a child, as well as the consequences of those decisions. In the immediate postwar years, sexually active teenagers were reclassified as adults and hidden from public view through hasty marriages and mandatory expulsions from schools. In the 1960s and 1970s, married and pregnant youth took advantage of a newly expansive concept of childhood to fight their way back into schools and reclaim many of the legal and social rights of children. By the late 1970s and 1980s, lawmakers became convinced that teenage childbearing was an epidemic and responded with federal programs that intervened into the personal and sexual lives of youth and redefined teenage mothers as dependent children.

"Youthful Transgressions" draws from a range of institutional, legal, popular and personal sources, including school records, court documents, congressional testimony, newspaper and magazine articles, advice literature, popular music, and diaries. These sources reveal that ideas about age categories and sexuality evolved in tandem. Teenagers created their own definitions of childhood, adulthood, and age-appropriate sexuality that coexisted with adult views, challenged conventional norms, and evolved to meet their needs over the course of the twentieth century.

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