The Pill, via Marshall McLuhan
This is an excellent post.
I found myself going on a tangent after my reading thinking about how bad storytelling is now in mainstream entertainment. I'll admit that I have a typical feminine interest in historical drama and romance, but I've been struck by how much of it is just contemporary people playing dress up. Costuming and art direction will be period correct down to the type of stitch used on a hem, but the dialogue is from today. It doesn't seem to be a conscious choice - just an absolute inability to empathize with the thoughts, beliefs and concerns of other people. And if you can't do that, I don't think you can tell good stories.
(This also applies to: "people in the past did all the same stuff and at the same rates, it just wasn't recorded or they were punished and afraid." There have always been people on the fringes, sure, but no. Just no. Stop shoving in the mandatory gay storyline in every book or show, especially turning real historical figures gay. Gah.)
In addition, and this is more important than just my own pet peeve, it's just so sad that our sexual norms now have no space for self control of any kind, and that's spilled into other areas with tech too - food being the other big one. To suggest that people can, in fact, learn and practice discipline with regards to sex, and that they would honestly be happier if they did, is to get called a fun killer and a prude. If you're faithful to a spouse, that's just how your feelings made you, not an effort you've promised to make for a lifetime. Just one emotional choice of many. And now we're numbed out and afraid of intimacy. Hmmm. How bout that.
Very interesting to view this topic through the frame of technology. The thing that really jumps out at me however is the reversion to a quasi-Roman sexual culture, with all the inequality and domination that entails. I’m an atheist but still believe Christianity was a huge moral upgrade for Western civilization. Failing to appreciate that and heedlessly throwing away the ethics that underpinned it is going to continue to have unintended consequences and bad outcomes, which will land hardest on low-status members of society.
I share you perspective and appreciation for McLuhan’s insight. It would be interesting to carry this conversation a step further by adding other forms of technology for consideration. Two of the obvious ones are the automobile and the computer/smartphone. These technologies enhanced independence and mobility. For over 30 years, I have average over 20-25 miles of driving a year. Very little of that is commuting. It has allowed me the freedom to go where I want to go, when I want to go. The effect is a rootlessness that makes close, committed, accountable relationships difficult to develop. I have meaningful connections with people all over the world. But that is not the same as being rooted in community. We need relationships with people that matter beyond convenience and ideological tribalism. We need relationships where we are responsible for the welfare of each other. We need both to be self-sufficient and interdependent. To see that we individually need to decide what we truly value and discern whether our technologies enhances or diminishes our lives. I find that pushes me more towards a premodern social order like you pointed to.
Thanks for this incisive analysis Mary. A recent piece in First Things ,"Polar Rescue" by Michael Toscano, draws a parallel to the points you raise.
"Before it was a revolution in morals, the sexual revolution was a techno-political revolution from above. Those who came of age in the 1960s received a mechanized sexuality orally, under a doctor’s care, and responded to it with a false liberation: “free love.”
We are currently undergoing another mass-scale technological experiment, which takes the machining beyond sexual interactions by teaching "devotion to one’s digital avatar and detachment from one’s corporeal self." Thus our current generation is not only estranged from each other, but also estranged from themselves, living a disembodied digital existence.
Never...and I mean NEVER...have I read an essay that so immediately made me react, “Eureka. This author understands and clearly explains her subject matter.”
Brilliant as always, Mary. How I wish you were at the Free Press-sponsored debate in LA, but I see why you were not. Your arguments deserve another platform. Maybe another debate. I would love to hear Sarah Haider or Grimes respond to this article.
One point in the debate that went unchallenged was from Sarah Haider, who pointed out that before abortion and the pill tens of thousands(89,000) of children were put up for adoption by mothers who truly wanted them, but couldn’t keep them suggesting that abortion would be a better option, allowing those 89,000 children to die for convenience sake. Hum... death is better than adoption??? What was she thinking???
I do take exception to one statement in this article, that the “sexual revolution was the birthplace of the porn industry”. It certainly was not the birthplace of porn, but maybe porn at an industrial level partnered with other technologies .
I've noticed no one anymore refers to having sex as "making love" which was the only way it was referred to in my long ago youth.
"The story of progress is too simplistic, and the reality will always be that a new technology brings benefits, but also costs."
You have spoken that which cannot be spoken, the ultimate blasphemy - which is also, of course, the thing that everyone knows to be true, but can't openly acknowledge and still keep on living the only life they know how to live.
"....the Pill enhanced sexual freedom" is a notion that needs qualifification in a way that it almost never gets. It enhanced freedom for SOME men and SOME women much more than OTHER men and OTHER women. Journalism about sexual relations is always framed in terms of an undifferentiated abstraction call 'Men' and another called 'Women'. In this way it forgets that - along with the asymmetry BETWEEN the sexes - there is a huge intra- sexual asymmetry WITHIN the sexes. The pill almost certainly amplified this asymmetry (as I discuss in this essay): https://grahamcunningham.substack.com/p/the-less-desired
Having said this, I would also like to say that The Contraceptive Tetrad is a very good post, so Thankyou.
Thank you for this excellent essay.
You mention in passing the way that abortion shortly went from being unconscionable crime to a commonplace. A similar process is operating again as we become introduced to the idea of euthanasia, which will -will- culminate in the old and sick being re-classified, and therefore killable.
This is a brilliant speech / essay Mary--well done!
Your overall advocacy for an historically-grounded understanding of the practical effects of the technology of The Pill could not be more insightful.
Regarding what The Pill enhanced, the inaugural cover of Cosmopolitan magazine in July 1965 under the editorship of Helen Gurley Brown showed a blonde woman in a low cut dress with the caption: "The New Pill that Promises to Make Women More Responsive." (Helen's husband, the shrewd investor and businessman David Brown dreamed up the caption). The caption was targeted at women, and promised that The Pill would free them from the fear of becoming pregnant--and crucially, allow them to relax and enjoy sex. The technology lowered the risk of pregnancy--that was its key feature. But the BENEFIT was that women could now relax and have a better chance of enjoying sex--and possibly even achieving orgasm. Feminine sexual satisfaction was the really compelling promise of The Pill, interlinked with the freedom from unwanted pregnancy.
Regarding what The Pill has retrieved, ie pre-Christian attitudes towards sex, the classical scholar Sarah Ruden has written a wonderful book illuminating how humane and pro-women the Apostle Paul actually was, for exactly the reasons you describe about pre-Christian sexuality. Her book (which unfortunately has a terrible title) is called "Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time." She demonstrates how Paul was moved by deep compassion and a morally active sense of outrage at the exploitation of women, slaves of both sexes, and children for the sexual satisfaction of Roman Gigachads, who literally had the power of life and death over everyone else below them in the dominance hierarchy of the Roman Empire. We so don't want to bring back that terrible exploitation, but as you observe it is in fact flooding into popular culture and sexual norms.
One final comment: hormone based contraceptives alter a woman's hormones and pre-dispose her to men whose appearance and behaviour are not testosterone-expressive. This is altering the reproductive behaviour of the human race and gradually skewing it away from producing Alpha males to Betas. It is also putting divorce pressure on modern marriages, because when women stop taking the Pill in order to conceive, many of them find themselves no longer attracted to their Beta husband. A great book describing how female sexual preference drives the evolution of a species by selecting for males whom females find attractive is "The Evolution of Beauty" by Richard Prum.
1. You completely miss the point about objections to the sexual double standard. In the old system, a woman was ruined for having sex without anyone but her husband — and often considered a whore if she actually enjoyed married sex — but a man was a hero for screwing as many women as possible. The entire system rewarded men for ruining women’s lives.
2. There IS a good, robust reason to refuse sex: “I don’t want to.” That’s the ONLY thing any man ever needs to hear, then he needs to STOP. Immediately and permanently. (It goes both ways. He can say ‘NO’ to her and she needs to listen.
Mary, your work on this topic is superb. Identifying the crucial role of technological changes when it comes to industrialization, feminism, and human behavior is key to understanding history outside of the “progress” narrative. To take it a step further, what I’m interested in exploring are the philosophical presuppositions that enabled and encouraged these technologies to be developed in the first place. Yes, the birth control pill itself drove the current contraceptive culture. But was it also driven by philosophical and moral beliefs (like the Puritan view of work, or Eugenics, for example) that enabled and encouraged the demand and wide acceptance of the technology in the first place? Said differently, under different philosophical and religious conditions, would a birth control pill never have been invented? Would technological development been instead focused on fertility awareness to work with human nature instead of against it? Or, was it enlightenment principles themselves that allowed the significant technological advancements of the industrial and post-industrial revolutions? I think it’s a useful thought experiment to navigate the complex relationship between human desires, behaviors, and conditions that enable technological advancement. Interested in your thoughts.
"One of the easiest casual mistakes to make about the past is imagining people there were basically like us, just with less advanced technology and (for some reason) more primitive morals. It’s a kind of imperial condescension, and it misses most of what’s interesting about how cultures change."
I love so many of your thoughts! I don't agree the double standard wasn't cruel on the grounds of pragmatism because every man who was allowed to go out and sow his seed was causing those very pregnancies and in a responsible society, would have stood responsible to either choose to refrain from engage in intercourse or take full responsibility for the raising of the child, both financially and emotionally, not considering illigitimate but fully his own, whatever the bloodline.
I will be 81 years old tomorrow. I have lived through the sexual revolution. I was scared to have children. My mother was a high functioning alcoholic but tormented (probably from past sexual abuse). I was terribly afraid that I would end up like her and be unable to care properly for my children (if I had any). I wanted to get someone to reparent me because I didn't feel mature enough. I felt too needy myself to be able to care for another. Except for my husband. Ours was a marriage of love and intimacy. We both shared love of therapy, food, health through alternative health practitioners--and computer programming.
He worked for IBM--I worked for Columbia University, then Con Edison--finally Nielsen. I LOVED computers. I loved statistics and loved giving support to users of my programs. I poured all my care and creativity into writing the best programs possible and caring and maintaining them as I would my children. I'm proud of my career. But I couldn't have done it without contraception. Effective birth control and the safety net of abortion freed me to work alongside of males. Spoiler alert: I never needed an abortion, but the thought of it made my anxiety bearable.
After years of therapy, I now would be ready to raise a family. Except my health and energy don't allow this choice. Still, I agree that you are correct. I only experienced orgasm when in a stable relationship with a man that I loved (2 of them during my life--both, unfortunately, no longer alive). It's so funny that I got persuaded by my first lover (not one of these two special men) that there was nothing special about sex, and I should be free to have sex and pleasure with him without fear or guilt.
Unfortunately, I still experienced fear and guilt. I was still living (age 19) with my parents. What if I got pregnant? What if my mother found out and disowned me? I wanted to please my lovers with my casual submission to mutual sexual pleasure. But it always turned out somehow to be his pleasure--not mine. And although I meant to share love--it turned out that it can't be love at first sight. Intimacy develops slowly over time. And my anxiety and fear of pregnancy developed so rapidly that I always put an end to my relationships after a couple of weeks. The fear of rejection was just too much to manage. Also I was warned as a child never to explore or touch my body or to become familiar with sexual pleasure. I'm probably one of the ten people in my birth cohort who managed to obey this rule. So, of course, it was very difficult for me to experience sexual pleasure since I was so inexperienced. My plans of offering my lovers instant orgasms to earn their love/approval came to naught since my body didn't permit this. (RATS!)
Don't get me wrong. They were nice men. Just that intimacy didn't exist. Mary Harrington, you are so right. But I don't think we would be able to get this current work force with so many females earning high paid technical jobs without birth control. Sorry I didn't have an upbringing or community that made it possible for me to have children. But I did enjoy a loving husband for almost 40 years until he passed away 2017. And I did enjoy my career. And I loved my life.
There would never have been a need for the Pill had men been using condoms. And by men I mean married men too, if not especially. As you pointed out, pre-Pill there were social boundaries around pre-marital sex. What you fail to recognize is that there were literally NO boundaries around marital sex. How many of us still have living old women like grandmas and great-grandmas/great-aunts in our families that have given birth to more than 7 children, no matter their financial situations? A lot. Do you think they "wanted" all these kids? Rarely. Of course once pregnant they may have "welcomed" them, but no woman who is struggling to make ends meet "really" wants to have more kids than she and her husband can feed. No woman, who has suffer through complicated pregnancies on top of some miscarriages wants to keep getting pregnant. So why weren't their husbands using condoms? Why weren't their husbands abstaining from penetrable sexual intercourse? Ask any woman who has already given birth a couple of times and has a few if not several kids to take care of if "sexual intimacy" is still a top priority for her. It was husbands, not wives, who were demanding unsafe sex without condoms that risked unwanted pregnancies within marriage that had to be played off as "wanted" pregnancies once pregnant.
"Those costs are often asymmetrically paid by the weakest... the millions of unwanted babies who don’t make it to birth."
--- That's what the Pill (and other contraceptives like the much overlooked condom) seeks to avoid. Why not celebrate the fact that teen pregnancy, the out-of-wedlock birthrate and abortion rate is down?