The Pill: A Sexual Revolution?

As the pill began to be used for contraceptive purposes, much debate arose about whether or not the approval of the pill directly caused a sexual revolution. Newspaper and magazine articles sprang up, debating the effect of the pill on moral standards and across college campuses. Ideas about proper sexual behavior changed from one generation to the next. Some argued that the pill did spark a sexual revolution because it decreased women’s fears of sexual intimacy, while others made the distinction that increased sexual behavior did not necessarily equate with increased promiscuity among women. Most would however, overwhelmingly agree, that some form of sexual revolution did occur between the 1960’s and 1970’s.

            The first area of concern arose throughout college campuses. The pill allowed sex to be enjoyed more easily outside the confines of marriage. In 1961, a study was published based on surveys sent to college women. It concluded that, “undoubtedly the number of girls who are not virgins at marriage will increase, but by too small a number to cause more than a ripple in our great ocean of sexual tradition.”[1] Though the pill may be cause for earlier sexual relations, it will not affect a woman’s desire to have a lasting relationship with one man. This is characterized by the image of the young bride (to the right) stepping out the car after her wedding and enquiring, “Can I stop taking the pill now?” Also, when the pill was first released it was not easily accessible to women on college campuses. The limits that were placed on its distribution were to women or couples who were married or planned to be married with announcements already made. It showed that, to some degree, the expected and moral traditions remained unchanged. Outside of the campus, however, doctors would be more likely to prescribe birth control with the expectation that they would be the ones dealing with the consequences of the unwanted pregnancy.[2] So, in a sense, at least in the early stages, college campuses tried to diminish and displace the effects of the pill as, what one administrator at Boston University would call, “one of the most obvious moral issues on the modern campus.”[3]

            The impact of the pill could also be traced through the discourse both between generations and throughout public society. The contraception could be used daily, it allowed there to be a separation between the discussion of the pill and intercourse directly. People could talk more openly about sex, as indirect implications could be made in the form of discussing a pill (in other words, people could discuss whether or not they were taking the pill instead of more directly questioning, are you having sex?). Though, nowadays, this may not necessarily be the case, at the time the pill had certain implications.[4]  The advertisement that appeared in playboy magazine (below), certainly addresses this notion. Titled, “Cigars, Cigarettes, birth-control pills…” it places the discussion of the pill as something common and appropriate for a public setting, such as the restaurant, and suggests that it may come up in an atmosphere of friendly conversation. The impact of the pill could also be measured in terms of the beliefs that different generations held toward sex. This can be seen in the discourse between Marijane Duncan and her daughter in 1968. In a letter she discusses her daughter’s desire to move in with a man whom she is not yet married to. She explains that “I want your happiness and your feeling contented about your way of life more than I want your acceptance of our standards…there is no longer the stigma attached to extramarital relationships that once existed, particularly if you live, as you and Freddie do, in a large city.”[5] This indicates the recognition of some form of sexual revolution, if only in terms of changes in standards from one generation to the next.

Though one may argue whether a sexual revolution existed by comparisons of sexual practices and moral standards, there is no doubt that pill lead to a change in what was acceptable in American public discourse. The laws began to reflect the changes in attitudes that people had regarding sex and birth control. In 1965 in Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court declared the laws that prohibited the distribution of birth control information to be unconstitutional. It was no longer illegal for states to distribute information to married women and by 1972 the rights were extended to unmarried women. Women who came of age in the 1960’s did so in a different age where oral contraceptives were acceptable and discussion and information about methods were not illegal.[6] Overall, the impact of the pill can be traced through the emergence of new social and legal standards. As Ladies Home Journal proclaims, it “transformed our lives like nothing before or since…It’s easy to forget how truly liberating the pill seemed to be in 1960. Nothing else in this century-perhaps not even winning the right to vote-made such an immediate difference in women’s lives…”[7]

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