10/07/2012 06:03 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2012

Remembering 1950s Sexuality Through Call the Midwife

I was thinking about my earliest feelings of sexuality because I'm hooked on the new Sunday PBS series Call the Midwife, set in slummy East-End London in the 1950s.

The series, dealing with many unwanted pregnancies, resonates with me because like many of the characters, I was a teenager in those days, and I remember dealing with sexual matters without the option of birth control pills, and with the awareness that abortion was illegal, often dangerous, and sometimes fatal.

That's a pretty effective way of just saying no.

Like so many others of my generation, I didn't even consider other forms of birth control, which took the embarrassing step of pre-planning. Most of my friends just "necked" or "petted" or maybe "made out" -- words now as old-fashioned as "doily." It was a big deal if somebody got to "third base," let alone "went all the way."

And those young women who did, and who often got pregnant as much because of ignorance and shame as passion, often found out how to get illegal abortions in some Caribbean port or at some friend-of an-uncle's office.

Or pregnant girls dropped out of school and were sent away to an aunt in another state or a "home" for girls somewhere out of town to have the baby, never to be seen again at least until the shame passed. These girls were considered "tramps" by many, as well as the pejorative "unwed mother." Maybe they gave the baby up, or married the baby's father, but society didn't support their raising babies alone.

So much for the halcyon fifties.

The birth control pill came along in the early 1960s, and legalized abortion in the United States arrived through the Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, in 1973. Along with these landmarks came "the sexual revolution," "the summer of love," hot-tubs, orgies, Woodstock, some great make-out music, and all that.

During this sexual celebration I was already married so I missed the backlash to 1950s repression. And when I got divorced, 20 years later in the 1980s, it was back to condoms and fear of sex, with the very real threat of AIDS.

But recalling all of this dangerous sexuality, there were sweeter memories. One was in the summer of 1959, when I was what Northwestern University called a "cherub" at their high school institute. I was among a group of high school writers throughout the country selected to spend several weeks studying and writing.

There was a boy in our writing group who caught my eye: pale skin, blue-eyes, curly hair, Bronx accent, talented, sensitive; appealing for a girl who was eager for experiences.

He'd dance with me and I'd feel his hardness. We'd sit together in the bus at night coming back, and his hand on my shoulder would innocently touch my breast with every bump in the road. Oh how I wished for more bumpiness, and I can only imagine what he wished.

We never went further than that sort of thing, except for maybe a kiss or two. But to this day, I remember how sexy it was in all its repressed passion and suppressed hormonal desire. (He probably would remember the frustration as torture. Boys back then were pretty out of luck compared to current guys with today's easy hookups.)

Anyway, I look forward to watching the well-produced dramas of Call the Midwife, watching the young English midwives handle the realities of giving enemas and handling breech births, all the while grappling with their own sexuality in their off hours. And I'll probably dredge up other memories of mid-twentieth century crinoline skirts and pincurled hair -- and closed legs -- with a sigh and a half-smile.

Like most things in life, nothing is as it seems and everything is complicated.