The XX Factor

The Pill Didn’t Change Sex

History professor Elaine Tyler May has a new book out about the birth control pill, and a New York Times op-ed to go with it . In it, May dismisses the argument made by both proponents and detractors alike, that the pill ushered in the sexual revolution. That was a long process that depended more on changing attitudes than technological advances. Instead, she concludes that the pill had its biggest impact on women’s growing independence, allowing women the ability to walk through the doors that feminism opened for them.

In its first decade, it seems the pill didn’t do much for unmarried women at all, since most were afraid to ask for it. But for a lot of married women, it meant the difference between going to work or not, or being able to leave a bad marriage or not. Obviously, in the decades since, the pill and widespread contraception use in general has had the same impact for unmarried women, pushing the average age of first birth up from 21.4 in 1970 to 25 in 2009. The data make it obvious , however, that the widespread use of contraception came after the sexual revolution, and that people were pulling and praying for literally decades before unmarried women using contraception became normalized.

Whether the pill had more of an impact on the sexual revolution or on women’s access to education and employment may seem like hair-splitting to most people, and it would be a purely academic exercise in a society that wasn’t plagued by a powerful anti-choice lobby. Unfortunately, we live in a country where the House minority leader thinks it’s appropriate to attack contraception access as immoral, where religious groups still pressure schools into teaching kids misinformation about contraception, and where anti-choice groups use pseudo-science in an effort to create legal arguments to ban the pill. This hostility to contraception is ostensibly based on a belief that contraception provokes “immoral” behavior. But the evidence suggests that this isn’t the case, and that contraception is mainly useful for protecting women’s lives from unintended pregnancy.

Of course, if anti-choicers are motivated by wanting to limit women’s lives and preserve inequality between men and women, they’ll keep on keeping on in face of this new evidence. If I were a gambling woman, I’d go all in on the bet that they’ll continue to act as if they’re morally offended by women’s access to education and employment.