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Sex & Culture & The Pill

Sex & Culture & The Pill
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Today, women take contraception for granted. Many even consider having to take a daily dose a chore. In response, a proliferation of once-monthly, and even once-quarterly forms of birth control have flooded the marketplace … but it wasn’t so long ago that sex minus fertility wasn’t an option—even if you were married. How the introduction of one little pill changed the modern world.

  Then Along Came Margaret Sanger

Actually, Margaret Sanger had already been a warrior on the birth control front for many years, enduring many arrests in the cause of women’s health; in fact it was her shipment of diapraghms (pessaries) from Japan was the case that changed the Comstock laws.

Sanger’s mother was only 50 years old when she died of tuberculosis, her health worn down from 18 pregnancies. In his massive treatise The Fifties, David Halberstam writes of Sanger: “She believed her father’s sexual appetite had expedited her mother’s death.” Sanger would become a nurse and the misery Halberstam describes in early 20th Century New York where she practiced included the fact that often a woman’s only recourse to “family planning was to line up on Saturdays with $5 and submit to hack abortionists.” In 1924 she wrote “It is almost impossible to imagine the suffering caused to women, the mental agony they endure, when their days and nights are haunted by the fear of undesired pregnancy.”

In 1951 a 71-year-old Sanger, ever the crusader, was to meet reproductive physiologist Gregory Pincus. It would be one of the most noteworthy matches since Adam & Eve.

Pincus worked at Harvard before his breakthrough achievement of the in-vitro fertilization of rabbits in 1931 scared the hell out of a public fresh off Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He was ousted from Harvard but continued his work at a private lab in Massachusetts. When they met, Sanger asked Pincus about developing an oral contraceptive and when he said it was possible, she arranged for her millionaire friend Katherine McCormick to fund Pincus’ research, in which he would be helped by research partner Drs. Min Cheuh Chang and John Rock.

In 1957 the pill, marketed by G.D. Searle under the name Enovid was approved by the FDA—but only for menstrual disorders and infertility. It was finally approved for use as a contraceptive by the FDA on May 11, 1960.

Sha-wew.

  And Nothing Was Ever the Same

Within seven years of its introduction to the marketplace 12.5 million women across the world were taking the pill. Forty years later, it was 100 million.

Those of us who grew up expecting reliable contraception can’t imagine what a breakthrough the pill was. “I could foresee at the age of 23 having another baby and another baby and another baby, says Planned Parenthood’s Sylvia Clark in the PBS American Experience documentary The Pill by Chana Gazit, “The idea of being able to have sex as expected—whether we were enjoying it or not wasn’t the point—we were going to have sex as expected. And to be able to control fertility, not have that next pregnancy, was immensely important to us…”

All this sex they were supposed to have once they were married wasn’t something they knew much about either – it was, according to Clark, just supposed to magically occur. Good girls weren’t supposed to be interested. In Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass Media, Susan Douglas describes the liberating effect of the pill and other factors like Helen Gurley Brown’s 1962 blockbuster Sex and the Single Girl, which KO’d the ’50s deification of marriage and homemaking, telling women about the fulfillment of careers and having a choice of sexual partners. Douglas writes. “For once women stared thinking that they could be equal in the bedroom after awhile they started thinking they should be equal in other places as well.”

Remember Gail Collins’ ’50s fun fact about employers not hiring women because they might end up pregnant? By the time the ’70s rolled around, widespread access to birth control had allowed women to pursue careers that required more commitment than their previous options and they started to apply to “medical, law, dental and business schools in large numbers.”

“It gave employers more confidence that when a woman said she wasn’t planning to get pregnant she meant it.”

With the fear of pregnancy significantly diminished we were now free to more confidently explore sex as well.

“The Puritan ethic, so long the dominant force in the U.S., is widely considered to be dying, if not dead, and there are few mourners,” according to Time, 1964. Contraceptives were legalized in 1965 in the case of Griswold v. Connecticut. Dr. David Reuben’s blockbuster Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid to Ask sold 100,000 copies in 1969 (it gets only an average of 2.5 stars on Amazon from our sex-savvy society). And in 1970 the Boston Women’s Health Collective published their seminal tome Our Bodies, Ourselves, which offered women a comprehensive, no-nonsense graphically illustrated book on about sex, anatomy, STDs, pregnancy, contraception and abortion, among other things. (It still averages almost 5 stars on Amazon).

Like a plant that lies dormant for a long winter American sexuality, once blossomed, began creating quite a colorful cascade, bringing us to where we are today: available contraception, an unprecedented acceptance of sexual lifestyles and Oprah talking about vibrators at 4 PM on network TV.

Every yin has its yang of course and women now more sexually objectified than ever. For all the Girls-Gone-Wild ditzification, though, we’re also more powerful: no one bats an eye at a female doctor, lawyer or Speaker of the House, which was not true in the ’70s. The pill helped us to achieve sexual and professional self-realization, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, every day.

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