Blame Current Culture War on the Pill
If the birth-control pill had never been invented, perhaps American politics would be very different today.
Sex has consumed the political debate in recent weeks. To many it has been a surprising turn of events, given the near-universal prediction that this year’s election would be all about the economy. If the history of the bipartisan sexual counterrevolution were better known, no one would be surprised.
Conflicts over gay marriage, transvaginal ultrasounds, Planned Parenthood funding and insurance coverage for birth control are not isolated events. Rather, they are the latest expression of a 40-year-old shadow movement that has played an important role in fueling America’s political dysfunction.
Consider what America was like just 50 years ago. Americans could be arrested, fined and sentenced to prison for distributing birth control. Sex between consenting adults of the same sex was illegal in every state. Employment discrimination against women was pervasive and perfectly legal.
Everything changed in the space of roughly 15 years. The pill went on the market in 1960. Then the sexual revolution, feminism and gay liberation, in turn, revolutionized the family, the workplace and popular culture. By the end of the 1970s, Congress had outlawed gender discrimination in most areas of American life. Half of the states had repealed their laws against sodomy. The Supreme Court had ruled that statutes outlawing birth control and abortion were violations of constitutionally protected rights.
Today, most Americans take sexual freedom and gender equality for granted. But these were epochal changes. Given that government had long been in the business of legislating sexual morality and underwriting rigid gender roles, it is understandable that those who opposed these cultural transformations took their battle to the political arena.
The sexual counterrevolution was born in 1972, with a tiny group of women: far-right Republicans and Protestant fundamentalists who had never been particularly politically active before. Ironically, they were aided and abetted by their opposites: powerful liberal men, movers and shakers in the Democratic Party.