One myth I have been wanting to explode for some time is that of the 1950s as a sweet, innocent, moral time. A TIME magazine article about the state of TV today that I read last week commented that some people on both sides of the debate longed for "the moral standards of the 1950s." This made me shake my head at the writer's lack of perspective and his naive rebloviation of one of our silliest cultural cliches.
The moral standards of the 1950s included racism, segregation, sexism, hysteria about communism, the Korean war, and the escapades of the Beat generation. You can't tell too much about a nation's culture at any given time by looking only at its TV shows. I will absolutely grant that the TV of the 1950s was pristine compared to the TV of 2005--I just don't see that anything significant follows from that. People were having sex, doing drugs and killing each other in the 1950s: it just wasn't reflected in the pop culture of the time as much as it is now. You can argue that this represents a moral decline, or that it represents honesty. I would argue the latter.
People also assume that young people were having far less sex (of any kind) in the 1950s than they are now. While I would reiterate that even if this is true it doesn't mean too much, there are reasons to doubt that the generational situations are what the Golden Days people make them out to be. Women were engaged and married at far younger ages back then. Since the period between puberty and marriage was so short, there just wasn't much of an opportunity for pre-marital sex. Depending on what source you look at, the average age at which women got married in 1950 was between 4 and 9 years younger than it is now. Looking at 'sexual activity among 18-year old women across all demographics' would seem to me a much better transom than 'sexual activity among young unmarried white women.'
Since the 1950s a number of factors, including increased education for all groups, longer life spans, a rising divorce rate, rising incomes, declining birth rates, female participation in the labor force, civil rights, and gay rights have made the landscape drastically different today. Cohabitation is on the rise: so what? Some middle schoolers are having oral sex: so what? They always were. Deal with it.