Thursday, February 9, 2012

Birth control and the sexual revolution

Birth control, something practiced by nearly 100% of women, was once uncontroversial. Now, almost inexplicably, opposition to birth control has exploded.

Once upon a time, there were pro-choice Republicans. Now, not only has this breed become extinct, but it's no longer enough to oppose abortion. Birth control is now considered suspect.

It seems baffling to see such a reversal so suddenly. Social conservatives accept the standard narrative about the sexual revolution --- oral contraception allowed premarital sex, which caused the sexual revolution --- and they oppose it. Next step will be to reduce condom access, not just in schools, but also in stores, such as requiring them to be behind the counter and perhaps having age limits.

Telling kids to act as though the sexual revolution had not occurred, and teaching them that contraception is dangerous and ineffective --- abstinence only sex education --- didn't reverse the sexual revolution. The Congressionally mandated evaluation found that abstinence-only sex education did not decrease premarital sex. That failure was particularly embarrassing because some comprehensive sex education programs that teach about birth control decrease premarital sex.

Social conservatives' assumption may be that if birth control caused the sexual revolution, reducing birth control access might reverse the sexual revolution.

Unfortunately, they're wrong. Even before the advent of birth control, attitudes began to favor sex within loving non-marital relationships in the late 1940s and 1950s, as documented by sociologist Ira Reiss in his 1967 book, The Social Context of Premarital Sexual Permissiveness. (The entire book is available online for free at that link, and I highly recommend it.)

Even if there had been no oral contraceptive, there would have still been a sexual revolution. After all, in a society where sex within loving relationships is accepted, certainly people will find a way. For instance, withdrawal is only slightly less effective than condoms. The modern IUD is safe and effective. Diaphragms are safe and effective, if they are used without spermicide which could increase STI risk. And these methods may even be superior to hormonal contraception.

Elsewhere in this blog, I have spoken about shortcomings of oral contraception, according to my Second Wave feminist bias towards non-systemic, barrier methods of contraception. And I've spoken about problems with hookups, or as Reiss would say, permissiveness without affection.

Even if the conventional narrative were true, and birth control somehow caused the sexual revolution, it is not necessarily possible to reverse course and return to no premarital sex. How far will social conservatives go in attempting to reverse gains from the feminist movement?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Congressionally mandated evaluation found that abstinence-only sex education did not decrease premarital sex."

Those aren't really abstinence-only, the message they send to students including the ones who *do* save marriage for sex is abstinence-and-unprotected-marital-sex.

In order to include protected marital sex, a sex ed program would need to either:
(a) cover protection in high school sex ed
(b) be adult-education evening classes for people applying for marriage licenses (see )