The Pill and the Sexual RevolutionFrom the Collection: Women in American History
As the feminist movement evolved in the late 1960s, women started challenging their exclusion from politics and the workplace. They also began to question traditional sexual roles.
Immorality — or Empowerment?
At the core of the sexual revolution was the concept -- radical at the time -- that women, just like men, enjoyed sex and had sexual needs. Feminists asserted that single women had the same sexual desires and should have the same sexual freedoms as everyone else in society. For feminists, the sexual revolution was about female sexual empowerment. For social conservatives, the sexual revolution was an invitation for promiscuity and an attack on the very foundation of American society — the family. Feminists and social conservatives quickly clashed over morality of the "sexual revolution," and the Pill was drawn into the debate.
The Pill as Scapegoat
As female sexuality and premarital sex moved out of the shadows, the Pill became a convenient scapegoat for the sexual revolution among social conservatives. Many argued that the Pill was, in fact, responsible for the sexual revolution. The Pill's revolutionary breakthrough, that it allowed women to separate sex from procreation, was what conservatives feared most. The theory was that the risk of pregnancy and the stigma that went along with it prevented single women from having sex and married women from having affairs. Since women on the Pill could control their fertility, single and married women could have sex anytime, anyplace and with anyone without the risk of pregnancy.
The Double Standard
Although it was acceptable for single men to have sex, the idea of young women behaving in the same way disturbed many in America. In a 1966 feature on the Pill and morality, the magazine U.S. News and World Report asked, "Is the Pill regarded as a license for promiscuity? Can its availability to all women of childbearing age lead to sexual anarchy?" The author Pearl Buck took an even more dire doomsday approach to the Pill when she warned in a 1968 Reader's Digest article: "Everyone knows what The Pill is. It is a small object — yet its potential effect upon our society many be even more devastating than the nuclear bomb."
Technology and Behavior
In response to conservative attacks on the Pill, the developers of the Pill, John Rock and Gregory Pincus, argued that technology does not determine behavior. Despite the veneer of a chaste society and socially conservative morality, there was clinical research to back up their views. Studies have shown that unmarried women were having sex prior to the advent of the Pill. They were just using different and less effective forms of contraception. With the Pill, women were able to engage in the same behavior — but with a dramatically reduced risk of pregnancy.
The Rise of a Singles Culture
Despite the social conservatives' agenda, as the decade progressed, societal emphases on virginity and marriage were slowly replaced by a celebration of single life and sexual exploration. Hugh Hefner put out a racy new magazine called Playboy that promoted bachelorhood and the swinging single life style. Helen Gurley Brown's book Sex and the Single Girl championed career women and open sexuality, effectively destroying the notion of the "old maid."
Changes in Values
In the midst of the civil rights and anti-war movements, the young generation of the 1960s questioned authority and rejected their parents' values. For many who came of age in this era, the traditional notion that a woman wouldn't be able to find a husband if she weren't a virgin was absurd. Though social conservatives blamed these sweeping changes in American values on the oral contraceptive, most historians now believe that in reality the Pill did not cause the sexual revolution in America. Rather, the two collided.