How the Sexual Revolution Changed America Forever
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Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "Delirium: How the Sexual Counterrevolution is Polarizing America" by Nancy L. Cohen. Click here to buy a copy of the book.
Perhaps if the pill had not been invented, American politics would be very different today.
Enovid, the first birth control pill, went on the market in 1960. Unlike any other previously available form of contraception, the Pill was both reliable and controlled by a woman herself, requiring neither the consent nor the knowledge of her sexual partner. “I don’t confess that I take the Pill,” said one Catholic mother after the Vatican reaffirmed its doctrine against the use of birth control, “because I don’t believe it is a sin.” Within five years, 6 million American women were on the Pill. With one quick visit to a doctor, a woman immediately gained sole and exclusive power over her fertility, a power that had eluded her sex since . . . well, since forever.
The Pill made possible the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The true warriors in that revolution were young, single women, who, with the help of this new contraception, took their sexuality into their own hands. If not for women’s self-determined sexual liberation, the sexual revolution might have been another unremarkable episode in the long and varied sexual history of humankind. Instead, with the impetus the sexual revolution gave to a new feminism and a movement for gay liberation, it became one of the major catalysts of America’s ongoing political delirium.
Men certainly benefited from the new sexual freedom, but for them, it was hardly an innovation. Although religious doctrine and public mores told them chastity and marital fidelity applied equally to men and women, the practical moral code included an important loophole: the double standard. Single men had always been able to avail themselves of sexual relations outside of marriage, even at the pinnacle of American sexual puritanism in the waning days of the nineteenth century. For men, the sexual revolution changed things by making sex relatively cost-free. Women were now liberated, and the Pill steeply lowered the risks of accidental fatherhood and unwanted marriage.
For women, likewise, the sexual revolution concerned the rules of engagement, rather than the act of sex itself. Premarital virginity had been going out of fashion for decades before the declaration of sexual liberation. It started in the 1920s, as middle-class Americans converted from Victorianism to Freudianism and began to accept that a desirous woman was perhaps not so depraved after all. There- after doctors and psychologists counseled America’s women that a happy marriage was sustained by mutual sexual satisfaction. Experts encouraged women to explore their natural desires, but to start the journey in the marital bed. Women accepted the prescription and ignored the fine print. At the high noon of fifties traditionalism, 40 percent of women had sex before they married—compared to just 10 percent who did in the reputedly Roaring Twenties.
Yet sex before marriage, like any act of civil disobedience, entailed risk. Each and every time an unmarried woman had intercourse, she risked pregnancy, and with it a limited number of unsavory life- changing options: an illegal abortion of doubtful safety, a shotgun wedding, forced adoption, or single motherhood of a child whose birth certificate would be stamped for posterity with the word “illegitimate.” With rare exceptions, all known human cultures have policed the sexual behavior of girls and women, and America, circa 1959, was no different. Before women obtained the power to control their fertility, they had compelling reasons to comply with whatever arbitrary double standard their society imposed. The Pill permanently changed women’s age-old pragmatic calculus. With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.