After the birth control pill was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1960, it radically transformed the medical and social landscape. Within five years, 6.5 million women were taking the pill, making it the most widely used form of birth control in the country.
More than half a century later, we’re seeing how the pill has revolutionized social norms and altered dating and relationships. The pill unraveled previously held social taboos and changed the way men and women conduct themselves in relationship to one another.
Social Norms before the Pill
Throughout most of human history, women bore most of the risk associated with having sex. In the event of a pregnancy, most of the responsibility of having a child and caring for it would fall on her. This is because a baby is dependent on their mother’s body for so long. In the event of a pregnancy, a woman needs a lot of support to have enough resources to take care of herself and her new baby.
The responsibility of having a baby and the lack of ability to control it meant that social norms were created around sexual access and relationships.
Most of all, it encouraged men to behave well towards women. Premarital sex presented a huge danger to young women, so many social rules existed to govern interactions between unmarried people of opposite sexes. Think of the longing glances, the fingertip brushes, and hidden whispers we have come to associate with Austen romances. Men were expected to court a woman to show interest in gaining her affection. For both religious and social reasons, sexual intimacy was reserved only for after marriage.
Before the pill, a man had to demonstrate he was a good provider before he had access to sex.
The fear of a baby born out of wedlock laid heavy on the minds of both parents and unmarried young women. There were few economic options for a woman who had born a child out of wedlock since there were few jobs available for women before the Industrial Revolution. Even if a woman could find work, she was often shunned from polite society for the impropriety of having a baby out of wedlock. Classic literature like The Scarlet Letter outlines the risks of disobeying these societal expectations: public shame and shunning, even to the point of complete ostracization from society.
Marriage guaranteed that children born into the family both knew their paternity and were safe from social shame. Casual sex and cohabitation out of marriage were very much frowned upon, if not outright taboo.
The Erosion of Courting
Today, the pill is widely prescribed to women as a catch-all solution for birth control and as a remedy for reproductive ailments. In the United States, 65% of the 72.7 million women of reproductive age (15-49) were using contraceptives in 2019. A full 20% of all women 15-29 were using the pill as their main form of contraception. This is a massive number of women who are using a technology that alters their biology.
With so many women now “freed” by the pill to have as much consequence-free sex as they want, it leads one to ask – how has the widespread implementation of the pill affected how men treat women? It's not an overstatement to say that the pill completely revolutionized the sexual rules between men and women. The 1960s saw a massive shift from sex only within marriage to the explosion of free love, casual sex, and cohabitation rather than marriage and commitment.
Sadly, it’s safe to say the pill hasn’t inspired men to treat women any better than they did in the past. In fact, I’d say it’s inspired men to treat women worse.
The pill has eroded the symbolic, emotional, and spiritual meaning of sex.
As a result of the pill, men now have social leeway to skip the dating part and expect sex right away. It’s now very normal to do the bare minimum before jumping into sex. After all, there’s no pregnancy risk to her, so what’s the big deal? Why bother with flowers or dates when you can just offer a drink or two and ask her to go to your dorm room?
Sadly, this behavior has actually contributed to making men overall less masculine. They're less interested in chivalry than in getting what's easy. Feminism has also pushed the narrative that casual sex, rather than love and commitment, is what is truly liberating, leaving many women confused and unsatisfied.
More Sexual Liberation or More Trauma?
With the pill removing the full consequences of sex, women are told they can now enjoy the pleasures of casual sex like men could in the past, without any ramifications. We've been fooled into thinking our bodies are no different than men’s bodies, that sex has the same effect on us as it does on men, and that all it takes is a daily pill to achieve this.
Women may have access to this new technology, but we still carry the “old” biological operating system of the past. Even though it’s much harder for a woman to get pregnant while she’s on the pill, our emotional and biological motivations are very much the same as they were before this new invention. The pill doesn't turn off our natural tendency to become extremely emotionally invested in our partner after having sex with him. The pill simply prevents you from ovulating – it doesn’t prevent you from experiencing the emotional consequences of having sex.
The pill prevents you from ovulating – it doesn’t prevent you from experiencing the emotional consequences of sex.
Due to the promises of the pill, are women bonding to men who aren't committed to them, undergoing more and more breakups, making it harder for them to trust and connect, and suffering the emotional consequences at higher rates than ever before? It leads one to wonder if the hookup culture is connected to rising rates of anxiety and depression in women. Marriage and monogamy have been the norm across cultures, around the world, for centuries. So why should we think we can radically alter these norms in less than a few decades and be surprised when there are unintended consequences?
With the birth control pill revolution, we’ve drastically altered relationships between men and women. When sex is no longer seen as the result of love and commitment, it leads to people cheapening and hurting each other, even if not intentionally.
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