Authors: Elaine Tyler May
Tags: #History, #United States, #20th Century, #Modern, #Social History, #Social Science, #Abortion & Birth Control
When the pill arrived in 1960, that taboo did not suddenly disappear. Looking back from the vantage point of 2007 with both hindsight and insight, the creators of the critically ac- claimed AMC cable series
explored the sexual cul- ture. Set in the early 1960s, the show profiles the world of a New York City advertising firm. In the first episode, a young secretary, learning from an experienced colleague that the way to get ahead in the job is through sex, goes to a physician to get a prescription for the pill. As the doctor gives the young single woman a pelvic examination, he lectures her about her sexual morals. He warns that he will stop prescribing the pill if she “abuses” it. He then hints that he’s having an affair with her sexually adventurous colleague. The pill does not liberate the young secretary. In fact, she has sex with a married man at the firm and gets pregnant anyway.
The fictitious character in
suggests the perils that faced single women if they engaged in sex, with or without the pill.
Unquestionably, the pill had its greatest impact
within marriage. The long-term benefits for married women were profound. The ability to plan and space the birth of chil- dren allowed them to take advantage of educational and pro- fessional opportunities that unexpected pregnancies precluded. They clamored for the pill, and after the FDA approved En- ovid, millions rushed to their doctors for prescriptions.
For single women, the impact of the pill is less clear. Did ac- cess to the pill encourage women to have sexual intercourse when they might otherwise have refrained? How many sexually active young women actually used the pill? According to a college
junior who surveyed two hundred college women for an article in
, “The pill will have no effect whatsoever on most women’s desire for sex with one man within a permanent love re- lationship. It is within marriage that the pill should have its great- est impact, making sex a happier, freer act for those who choose to limit their families. . . . Anyone who expects a moral revolution will almost certainly be disappointed.”
Although her article was geared to the magazine’s teenage readers, her commentary re- flected the sentiments of most college women at the time.
During the 1960s the birthrate declined, the marriage age rose, and sex among singles became more common and ac- cepted. But attitudes were slow to change. A poll of 1,900 women students at the University of Kansas in 1964 revealed that the vast majority believed that premarital sex was wrong, even for engaged couples. Ninety-one percent disapproved of intercourse among couples who were not engaged to be mar- ried. It is likely, however, that more than 9 percent of these stu- dents were having sex with men they did not plan to marry, which suggests that they may have disapproved of their own behavior and felt guilty about it.
After 1965, sexual intercourse among unmarried women began to increase, although rates for unmarried men showed no change since Kinsey’s studies in the late 1940s. The double standard may have been eroding, but some sociologists ques- tioned whether the slight changes in sexual behavior evident at the time could be considered a “revolution.” The role of the pill was equally unclear.
Nevertheless, sensational media coverage linked the pill to an upheaval in sexual behavior.
U.S. News & World Report
asked, “What is ‘the pill’ doing to the moral patterns of the nation?. . . . Is the pill regarded as a license for promiscuity? Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy? Are old fears of the social stigma of illegiti- macy about to become a thing of the past?”
Many people worried that women with sinister motives would claim to be on the pill when they were not, and would get pregnant on purpose to trap a man into marriage.
Although liberals and conservatives alike disapproved of premarital sex, they differed on their assessment of the pill. Conservatives blamed it for unleashing the sexual revolution. Liberals argued that women who were “promiscuous” (a term never applied to men) would engage in sex whether or not the pill was available. They promoted the pill as a way to prevent unwanted pregnancies among sexually active young women.
Gregory Pincus, John Rock, and other pioneers insisted that the pill would not change the behavior of unmarried women. Rock noted that young people already knew how to use makeshift condoms: “Any high school kid can get other con- traceptives and probably knows about Saran Wrap.” Betraying his disdain for sexually active young single women, he quipped that contraceptives were readily available “for naughty little girls who want to use them.”
In January 1964,
echoed Rock’s disapproval in its cover story “SEX in the U.S.: Mores and Morality.” Condemning the “cult of pop hedonism and phony sexual sophistication,”
blamed science, secularism, and the media. The magazine presented the pill as playing a role in all this—but not a major one, noting that in spite of available contraceptives, the rate of
out-of-wedlock births continued to rise. Some young women did not use contraceptives because they “resent the planned, deliberate aspect; they think it ‘nicer’ to get carried away on the spur of the moment.” Although the double standard persisted, the “old taboos are slowly beginning to disappear. . . . The long-standing cold war between men and women in the U.S. may be heading for a
But not all agreed that a sexual revolution was under way,
or that the pill had anything to do with it. As late as 1968,
Sci- ence News
reported that in spite of the “floodtide of publicity over oral contraception and its moral impact,” the pill had had little effect on the sexual behavior of unmarried men and women. Noting that for nearly a century effective contracep- tive devices had been available to those who wanted to engage in sex and avoid pregnancy, the author claimed that “young people don’t generally base their decisions about sexual behav- ior on contraception.”
Sociologist Ira Reiss, a leading expert on sexual behavior, suggested that changing cultural and religious values had a greater impact on sex among singles than the arrival of the pill. “Perhaps one or two percent of premarital sex incidents are due to the pill,” he asserted, but offered no evidence for that speculation. In his exhaustive study of nearly 3,000 unmarried women and men, he asked dozens of questions about sexual practices but nothing at all about contraception. Nevertheless, Reiss argued against the idea that a sexual revolution was tak- ing place. In 1968, he noted, 60 percent of female college stu- dents were virgins when they graduated, only a small change from the days before the pill was available. Clinical psycholo-
gist Ernst Prelinger agreed that the pill did not create a sexual revolution. He speculated that young single women were re- luctant to use the pill because it “impairs the poetry of the ex- perience,” and they did not want to appear “always sexually ready.” This reluctance helped to explain the high rate of un- intended pregnancies in spite of the availability of the pill and other forms of birth control.
When news reports suggested that the pill could be used to prevent pregnancy “the morning after” if taken in a large dose, one man wrote a letter to
heralding the development as a means of avoiding the problem: “This . . . will mean that girls can safely say yes, without having to feel that their assent was premeditated. This will eliminate the guilt many now feel about taking the pill before they are sure it will be needed. What a relief it will be when there’s a medication that does not offend the female’s sensibility but safeguards her security.” Ac- cording to this man, a single woman who responsibly planned ahead for her sexual encounters would be plagued by “guilt,” but with the promise of retroactive contraception a man need not worry about seducing an innocent and unprotected “girl,” because she can take care of it after the fact.
Whatever the reasons, large numbers of sexually active young women were not using birth control. A 1968 study of sex and pregnancy among teens found that few had access to family plan- ning programs, that they used birth control inconsistently if at all, and that they experienced high rates of contraceptive failure. Three years later, a survey revealed that more than one fourth of teenage women were sexually active but very few of them used contraceptives consistently. The researchers concluded that when
“sexual encounters are episodic and, perhaps, unanticipated, pas- sion is apt to triumph over reason.” As late as 1972, a national survey found that three-fourths of sexually active young single women rarely or never used contraception.
Clearly, the pill did not resolve the tensions
and confusions that confronted young women during the “sex- ual revolution.” Responding to an Internet survey, Rebecca L looked back forty years to her college days and recalled, “I chose to have intercourse for the first time my junior year of college. It was 1968 and I was twenty-one. I began dating in junior high and was involved in kissing, making out etc. I grew up with parents who thought that dating was very important, but also emphasized the importance of virginity at all costs. I was immensely confused about where to draw lines and how to draw lines, about good girls and bad girls. This was a remark- ably frequent conversation topic with both my mother and my father through high school and college, at their initiation.” As with many of her peers, Rebecca’s ideas began to change, but her parents’ did not, which meant that even if she had no qualms about her sexual behavior she faced the prospect of her family’s disapproval. “By 1968 I was very conscious of a change in sexual mores and I wanted to get on with it. I began to think that what was acceptable or not acceptable for a ‘good girl’ was arbitrary. My junior year I became involved with a man a few years older than me and we very quickly decided to get mar- ried. I don’t remember much discussion about having sex or not. I was ready. I don’t remember anything about birth con- trol and I don’t remember this sexual relationship being very
pleasurable.” The relationship did not end in marriage, but it left Rebecca with a venereal disease. Living at home for the summer, she saw her family doctor for medication, which her mother discovered. “I had a horrific confrontation with my mother who asked me if I was a virgin and I said ‘I’m not and it was beautiful,’ which it wasn’t.”
Soon, Rebecca was sexually involved with another man, whom she would later marry. Although the pill was available, she did not use it. “I very actively chose to be sexual, but I really was not quite sure how to go about getting birth control. It was not that I was unwilling to see myself as sexually active, or that I didn’t want to acknowledge my interest in sex. I was just not enough in charge of my life, and I had the enormous struggle with my parents’ huge disapproval and shame. On the one hand I really rejected it. On the other hand, I had internalized it.”
Rebecca ended up pregnant, and had an abortion. “I liter- ally never took a risk with birth control again in my life.” Today Rebecca and her husband are still married, the parents of two young women. She told them her history and encour- aged them to use birth control as soon as they became sexually active. Many women of Rebecca’s generation did not want their children to suffer the shame, danger, and conflict they ex- perienced when they were young.
Eleanor S also became sexually active in college. She too planned to have sex but did not use birth control. As a college senior in 1969, tired of the virginity obsession that had been drilled into her by her parents, she was determined to have sex with the next man she dated. “I decided to have sex before I knew who the guy would be. So when I started dating Gordon,
we began having sex. . . . No fireworks, that’s for sure. But as I look back on it, I was surprisingly irresponsible, thinking that I wouldn’t get pregnant because of the time it was in my cycle. I knew the rhythm method didn’t work, but that was all I used.” Like Rebecca’s first sexual relationship, Eleanor’s didn’t last long. Soon after breaking up with Gordon she began dat- ing Donald, the man she would eventually marry. “At that point I knew enough to get reliable birth control, and I wanted to go on the pill.” But she was reluctant to ask her family doc- tor for fear of his disapproval, and didn’t know where else to turn. “I was very lucky that I didn’t get pregnant.”
Rebecca and Eleanor were both children of liberal parents (although they were clearly not very liberal about unmarried sex). They were both feminists. They made the decision to en- gage in sexual intercourse well before the encounter, not acci- dentally in the heat of the moment. And they did not feel guilty about their behavior. They could have gone on the pill, but they didn’t. The sexual revolution was real for these young women—sex was happening all around them, everyone was talking about it, the young men they dated expected to have sex with them, and they wanted to be freed from the rigid codes of virginity. But they did not have the confidence or easy access to get the pill, and they did not feel empowered enough in their relationships to demand that their sexual partners take adequate precautions.
Indeed, Rebecca and Eleanor were representative of college women in the 1960s. The sexual revolution unfolded gradually on college campuses across the country. Disproportionate media attention to hippies, communes, and visible centers of
the counterculture such as Haight-Ashbury gave a skewed im- pression of the changes that took place in the 1960s. On cam- puses in the nation’s heartland like the University of Kansas (KU), students protested against rules governing their personal behavior,
in loco parentis
policies, and what they considered a lack of respect for their independent judgment and maturity. University students asserted their right to make their own de- cisions about sexual behavior and to have access to contracep- tives, including the pill.