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How the Sexual Revolution Changed America Forever

With a little pharmaceutical ingenuity, the double standard relaxed its clawing grip on female humanity.

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Still, birth control remained illegal in some states, and the grip of the law also had to be pried loose before women could take full advantage of the new opportunity for sexual liberation. In the late nineteenth century, purity crusaders had succeeded in passing a spate of national and state laws criminalizing the sale, distribution, or even discussion of birth control. In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled Connecticut’s 1879 anti-contraception statute—originally written by circus impresario P. T. Barnum—to be unconstitutional. In that case, Connecticut had convicted Estelle Griswold and Dr. C. Lee Buxton of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut for providing birth control to a married couple. (They had been fined $100.) In Griswold v. Connecticut, the Court ruled that the law, and any other restrictions on access to contraception for married couples, violated the marital right to privacy, and were thus unconstitutional. Seven years later, the Supreme Court effectively extended the right to obtain birth control to unmarried men and women, in Eisenstadt v. Baird. In that case, the state of Massachusetts had charged William Baird with a felony for giving away vaginal foam to an unmarried college student who attended one of his lectures on birth control and overpopulation. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., wrote in his opinion for the court: “If the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual, married or single, to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision to whether to bear or beget a child.”

Those who hoped to preserve the pre-Pill cultural norms now had only the power of persuasion at their service. It helped them little. The rapidity of change in women’s sexual behavior was dizzying, and it suggests how much the old order had been preserved by cultural coercion rather than willing consent. In the 1950s, six in ten women were virgins at marriage and 87 percent of American women believed that it was wrong for a woman to engage in premarital sex, even with “a man she is going to marry.” By the time girls born during the sexual revolution came of age, the double standard— in practice, if not exactly in the minds of teenage boys—had been obliterated. Only two in ten of them would be virgins at marriage. Teenagers, in particular, shed the old ways. In 1960, half of unmarried 19-year-old women had not yet had sex. In the late 1980s, half of all American girls engaged in sexual intercourse by the age of 17, two-thirds by the age of 18, and the difference between teenage male and female sexual experience had narrowed from 50 points to single digits.

As Americans settled into the new normal of open heterosexual sexuality, even more profound changes were afoot. The Pill allowed American women to delay marriage and motherhood, while remaining sexually active. Women took advantage of these added carefree years to improve their position in the labor market. According to the economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, the surge in women’s professional education occurred at the exact moment the Pill became legally available to college-aged women. “A virtually fool-proof, easy-to-use, and female-controlled contraceptive having low health risks, little pain, and few annoyances does appear to have been important in promoting real change in the economic status of women.” They concluded, “The Pill lowered the cost of pursuing a career through its direct effect on the cost of having sex and its indirect effect of increasing the age at first marriage generally.” The Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade provided women with even greater control of their own fertility, a goal that had eluded them while abortion remained illegal. (In the years after the Pill went on the market and before abortion became legal, about one million illegal abortions took place per year.) In 1978, the first test- tube baby was born, marking the beginning of the age of assisted, sex-free reproduction.