It sometimes felt in the late 1950s as if my mom thought it was her job to suppress my sexuality. She was good at it, and she had help. She found her support system in parochial schools, where I saw nuns humiliate girls for putting on a little make-up or wearing those drab green uniform skirts a quarter-inch above the knee. Religious brothers delivered to us boys useless lessons on sex education, always framed in sin, self-loathing and damnation.
Little did those teachers know that those lessons had the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of chastity, they sparked curiosity. They offered up the forbidden fruit, which, of course, is always the most desirable.
My fruit orchard, if you will, was grown out of celebrity photographs from the pages of popular magazines and New York City tabloid newspapers. There I could find photos of American and European stars and starlets.
I came to find even their names exciting: Anita Ekberg, Jayne Mansfield, Gina Lollobrigida, Ursula Andress, Julie Newmar, Sophia Loren, and the hottest object of my young desire, Brigitte Bardot. Captions to her photographs described her as a “blond bombshell” and, even more alluring, the “French sex kitten.”
What is considered sexy changes, of course, within cultures and across generations. These movie stars of the 1950s were glamorous and they were curvy. I had no access to naked pictures, so I did not know what a woman’s body actually looked like. Words like decolletage were not yet in my vocabulary.
But I knew what I liked, and the look of these women gave me a little thrill, and I liked that feeling, so I cut these photos out of the New York Daily News, and I pasted them into an album that grew to about 20 pages.
Of course, my mom — with her radar — would open up a desk drawer in my bedroom to discover my stash of what a moral theologian might have called an “occasion of sin.” I never saw it again.
By this time, I was an altar boy, and a lot of the other boys were making a little cash by delivering the Catholic newspaper, the Brooklyn Tablet. On Saturday mornings, I’d pick up the papers at the church, load them onto my bike, and drive around town knocking on doors. I think the paper cost five cents, and most people gave me a dime, and one nice man always gave me a quarter.
I was a good little reader and as I read the Tablet, I always found my way to the page where recent movies were rated for their moral values. If a film received an A, it meant it could be seen by the whole family. If the rating was a B, it meant that it was not objectionable. Most interesting to me, of course, was a C rating, which meant a particular film was Condemned.
This rating system was created in the 1930s by a Catholic organization called the Legion of Decency. Many famous Hollywood films, such as Spartacus, were edited at the last moment to avoid a C rating.
In a repressed age, even the titles of Condemned movies could be vaguely titillating: Baby Doll, Bed of Grass, Female and the Flesh, Fruits of Summer, The Miller’s Beautiful Wife, Passionate Summer, The Naked Night. And that just covers 1956.
At the top of the list that year was And God Created Woman, the film that introduced me to the stunning Brigitte Bardot. Even her initials — B.B. — looked buxom. Next would come her movie The Night Heaven Fell, and Mademoiselle Bardot’s face, hair, eyes, lips, that incredible body, were everywhere. How I wish I could sneak into the back of a movie house and see her in action. I had as much chance of fighting off airplanes from the top of the Empire State Building.
Many years later I would see my first Bardot film in my house on my television. It was mildly diverting. She played a seductive young woman, a very liberated spirit for her time. She was a good dancer. She could be funny. And yes, once or twice you could see the shape of her nude body as she sunbathed, or as she swung out of bed.
I have to admit that watching it made me a little angry. In today’s rating system, And God Created Woman might not even warrant a PG-13. That was it? Seeing Bardot’s fair derriere? That was worthy of moral outrage and condemnation?
It made me angrier when I read a recent report out of the Diocese of Rockville Center on Long Island that listed more than a hundred clerics against whom there had been creditable claims of sexual abuse of young people. I recognized three of them: my sixth-grade teacher, my pastor and a visiting priest to whom I had once confessed my sins, something about “impure thoughts.”
When I think of my own sexual education, I feel a little sorry for the 12-year-old boy, or girl, of today. If that child has a cell phone and access to the internet, it means they have a portal to the most explicit, most insensitive, most unrealistic, most degrading expressions of human sexuality ever imagined.
We should not have to choose between the repression of the 1950s and the pornographic culture of the moment. There is a healthier path, and I think that in all my early escapades, I was trying to find it.
P.S. I just learned that Miss Bardot and Sophia Loren were both born in September of 1934. That was some month! Ladies, if you are reading this column, please accept my cheers on your 86th birthdays. You both still look beautiful to me. I promise to visit next time I am in Paris or Rome. Forever yours.
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.