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December 1, 2010

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December 1, 2010

How responsible is the pill for our 20-nothing ways?

December 1, 2010
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I usually meet articles that pretend to understand the 20-something condition with a little bit of skepticism and a lot of defensiveness. No matter how broad a look they take or how many people our age they interview, it always feels like being shown a picture and told you’re third from the left when you absolutely know you’re third from the right. I’ve developed a bit of a habit (read: compulsion) of dissecting the pieces – be they a New York Times article on what it means to be this age today or a Marie Claire piece on the 12 Types of women.

This time I had a different reaction. This New York Magazine cover story on the history of birth control still made me bristle, but it wasn’t because I felt misrepresented and poorly caricatured – it was because I thought about my place in this growing-up path at this particular time in a way I’d never thought of before. It was like being shown a picture I’d never seen before, told I was third from the left, and thinking – wait, what?! That is me, but I don’t remember being there…
The topic, at large, is the 50th Anniversary of the pill. A piece of trivia that’s equal parts – right, obviously and really?, whoa. It aims to explore how the advent and popularization of the pill has effected the way women behave in general and, more specifically, when it comes to fertility and reproduction. So on the one hand it’s:

“The Pill created the most profound change in human history,” declares Kelli Conlin, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, grabbing the mike on a small stage draped with black curtains dotted with a larger version of the same silver stars from the bar. “Today, we operate on a simple premise—that every little girl should be able to grow up to be anything she wants, and she can only do so if she has the ability to chart her own reproductive destiny.”
But on the other it’s:

The fact is that the Pill, while giving women control of their bodies for the first time in history, allowed them to forget about the biological realities of being female until it was, in some cases, too late. It changed the narrative of women’s lives, so that it was much easier to put off having children until all the fun had been had (or financial pressures lessened).

Heavy, I know. I won’t try to summarize the stats and findings about female fertility today versus 30-50 years ago, but it’s fair to paraphrase this article’s thesis: with the pill came a lack of attention to our fertility, a lack of focus on preparing to have children, and as a result, many more women who wait until it’s too late to either discover they’re infertile or try to have children. In a sentence – in gaining control over our sexual bodies we forgot to maintain control of our reproductive bodies.

This is a major, major topic that deserves attention and exploration. Unfortunately, I’m not there yet (as in, I can’t handle exploring it), but if you are, I encourage you to e-mail or post your comments so we can have a healthy convo about female fertility that I don’t have to start. I will say this and only this though – pointing a finger at birth control for forgetting to think about having children feels a little bit like suing McDonald’s for making us fat…

The conversation I do want to start is that of what happened when we gained this control over our sexual bodies. Specifically – how much about being a 20-something women is guided by the fact that we have the option of birth control?

A few lines of note from the article:

  • “So here’s to my tiny daily dose of freedom, and also estrogen and progesterone.” one event speaker said, “A combination of the three, really. Interestingly, it’s the freedom that causes the bloating.”
  • “These days, women’s twenties are as free and fabulous as they can be, a time of boundless freedom and experimentation, of easily trying on and discarding identities, careers, partners.”
  • “It’s easy to believe the assurances of the guests at the Pierre gala [an event celebrating the pill’s anniversary] that the Pill holds the answers to empowerment and career success, to say nothing of sexual liberation—the ability to have sex in the same way that guys always have, without guilt, fear, or strings attached.”

All of this is true. The pill did make it so that women can be experimental, sexually liberated, in control of their bodies, and empowered to have sex in the way it’s held that men always have (I say it this way because I don’t really think it’s fair to say that men never have guilt, fear or strong attached to sex).

We can chart the course of the 70’s sexual revolution and 90’s hook-up culture almost directly to how widely available and accepted the pill became.

So then what would we be like as 20-something women and men if we never got the pill? Would we marry earlier? Sleep around less? Have more children, and earlier? We today be exactly like it was 50 years ago? And, if so, does that mean it is in the biological nature of women to be sexually casual and experimental – and that the fear of getting pregnant was the only thing ever standing in our way?

When I read those few quotes I pulled out of the article this weird question immediately popped into my mind:

Did the pill what made having sex about one person and not two?

I believe in all the things that the pill gave us, regardless of what they may have taken away. But reading this article and thinking about the way we behave in today’s sexual scape I do get a sense that the pill makes us go, “my sex is my sex” forgetting the cliched “it takes two to tango.”

So then it makes sense that if “my sex is my sex” – a fact I do not judge on principal alone – then “my sex is my way to produce children” is an after thought as is, “my sex is a way to form a bond with another person.”

“It’s just sex,” you hear people say, this person very much included.

How much of that statement and the sentiment behind it was born 50 years ago with the advent of one tiny pill? And how much of it is a simple product of progress?

(Photo: Andrew Bettles)


  1. Would we marry earlier?

    Absolutely. If the pill didn’t exist…. and the only way we could have lots of unprotected sex, was by getting hitched, the world would be a different place. (definitely for the worse. people would be getting married to get laid.) that’s my cynical view, and I totally believe it.

    I believe this is one reason why past generations are getting divorced. In the 50’s, find girl you like, if you want to sleep with her, marry her. Then only LATER realize she doesn’t like any interesting food, doesn’t know how to cook, never reads books, has no friends, but makes a killer batch of cookies. I digress…

  2. “pointing a finger at birth control for forgetting to think about having children feels little bit like suing McDonald’s for making us fat…”

    That’s absolutely brilliant and I’m glad you said it.

    As for waiting to late to find out you’re infertile, well that’s a whole different game to me. If you’re infertile you likely were before you even started taking the pill.

    And the beauty of modern society is that if in fact you are infertile you have tons of options. The pill honestly has nothing to do with that.

  3. I definitely think that its the Pill (and other forms of birth control) that is the thing that can truly give us the time and freedom to do what we want with our lives at this age. And even when/if we find someone to have children with (through marriage or not) it will continue to give us that freedom as well until we hit menopause. If you don’t want/can’t handle more than one kid, well you’d just take your Pills everyday and go on with your life without worry (mostly).

    I think it’s true that the Pill has given women empowerment over their lives and bodies and without it we would still be in that 50s-60s mentality: grow up, get married young, have babies, stay home, live out the rest of your life. Now we can: grow up, go to college, see the world, land a sweet job, get married, start a career, get a divorce, get married again, have a kid, get a Master’s, start our own company… you get the picture.

    And honestly, I wish MORE women took birth control instead of having babies! Kids should not be having kids, nor should those who cannot afford them. I think its doing your future children a service when you wait to have them when you make enough money to support them! So hooray for the Pill!

  4. Also, I think, that the pill has helped cut down on crime. As less babies are born into broken homes, wedlock, etc… years later those kids that had a higher chance of committing a crime, simply don’t exist. Same can be said for abortion, but that’s a whole different topic!

  5. I disagree with Nick. That comparison is superfluous and incorrect. As influential as it was and important in the formative biological history of multiple generations, the pill is not specifically responsible for cutting down on crime. Neither could abortion be considered a means of cutting down on crime. That kind of thought process and association is dangerous and misinformed. My apologies for being so serious on your blog, but I felt it necessary to comment.

  6. I disagree with anonymous… the pressure to have children in wedlock is not what it was fifty years ago, and just because a couple is married does NOT mean they immediately start having unprotected sex.

  7. For me and most of the women I know, the pill serves as extra insurance against unplanned pregnancy (whether we have one partner at a time or 4). And, it’s only one piece of the “it’s just sex” puzzle because it doesn’t prevent against the myriad STDs. I’m pretty sure that some unplanned STDs can wreak as much havoc as unplanned children. Several STDs can even lead to infertility, which seemed to be a large part of the original NYMag article…

    Anonymous 1: Arguably, even with the pill, the only way to ever have “lots of unprotected sex” should be in a marriage or other monogamous, committed relationship. I don’t want to state the obvious, but the pill only prevents pregnancy, not STDs and HIV.

    Nick: I disagree with your comment. You’re assuming that the women who take birth control are the same women would would have given birth to future criminals when studies have shown that the opposite is true. Birth control is expensive (even with insurance) and requires healthcare and resources that many women in the demographics you’re referring to cannot afford.

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