Contraception, the Sex Revolution and its Effect on Gender Roles in Marriage
Updated: Jun 9
The 1960s was a period of profound change in the United States ignited by the presence of many young, educated, and politically minded individuals who sought to challenge the status quo. As a result, the period witnessed social movements and activism that led to radical changes in society. One of the notable changes occurred in the form of sexual revolution. Sexual revolution characterized changes in sexual behavior and attitudes that challenged the societal norms and traditional codes on sex. The sexual revolution promoted the idea of sex outside of the traditional marriage. The feminist who championed the sexual revolution argued that just like men, women deserved sexual freedom because they had the same sexual desires and needs (Klepp, 2009). At the core of this revolution was the introduction of contraceptive pills, which is believed to be the major factor that fuelled the sexual revolution. The introduction of the pill gave women sexual liberation and resulted in a new feminism, as well as the gay liberation movement. Though feminists argue that the revolution caused female sexual empowerment, evidence shows that it created the breeding ground for promiscuity and attack on the foundation of American traditional marriage and family by championing changes in gender roles.
The sexual revolution and the availability of the pill encouraged women to engage more in sexual activities thereby offering free sex to men without asking for their commitment in return. Traditionally, the societal norms required that sex and commitment go hand in hand, an action aimed at upholding the dignity of a woman in the society (Cook, 2005). However, with the developments that women can engage in sex and not get pregnant gave men a scapegoat from unwanted marriages and unplanned fatherhood. Furthermore, the revolution encouraged women to engage unsuspectingly in competition for men thereby offering sex without requiring any form of responsibility from the men (Mohler, 2010). Thus, instead of making women happy, the revolution only hurt women while benefiting men who enjoyed sex with as little obligation as possible (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2009). According to a study conducted by the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, over the past 35 years, women’s happiness dropped greatly despite the increase in social gains for women (Stevenson & Wolfers, 2009). As such, the sexual revolution and introduction of the pill have only served to make women weaker players in the society while men emerge stronger.
The introduction of the pill and the sexual revolution resulted in the changes in the face of the traditional American nuclear family. Before, female desires were contained within the whims of the marriage while men enjoyed their sexual liberties outside the marriage as they did sexual privileges within the marriage. However, after the revolution, women attained sexual empowerment that allowed them to mete out with men or marriage without the fear of giving up children, a lifetime relationship, or sex (Goldin & Katz, 2002). Thus, for the first time, women had a choice to influence the traditional nuclear family as they deemed fit. Additionally, the introduction of the pill gave women a greater control over their fertility thus the power to control how many children they would have in a marriage, which eventually affected their role marriage (Cook, 2005). Traditionally, the American nuclear family was composed of two-to-four children with a working father and mother focused on homemaking and childbearing. However, the changes caused a shift in the mindset of women from solely focusing on childbearing and homemaking roles.
Women having the power to control their sexuality and hence lives has had detrimental effects on marriage evidenced by rampant divorce and an increase in single parenthood. The success of the marriage was prescribed on the ability of both the man and wife to fulfill their prescribed roles in the family set up. For men, this involved working and supporting the financial needs of the family. For women, their role was to perform daily tasks in the home and raise children (Allyn, 2000). However, the evolution created an opportunity for women to deviate from these roles thereby causing conflicts in the family set up. Moreover, women gained a new power that encouraged them to seek sexual satisfaction outside of marriage. Further, women realized that they could live without relying on the men and not receive criticism from the society as before. As a result, these factors created loopholes in the family setting by weakening the marriage and causing divorce and single parenthood. For example, by the year 2000, a third of American were being raised by single parents and one out of two marriages resulted in a divorce (Escoffier, 2003).
As women gained power over their sexuality, they opted for sex before marriage and delay in motherhood, which resulted in rampant cases of abortion. Marriage provided security for women in terms of accidental pregnancies and moral reputation due to cultural norms. However, with the introduction of the pill, these were deemed unnecessary thereby encouraging women to delay motherhood and engage in sex before marriage without fear of societal harsh judgments (Goldin & Katz, 2002). Since the women in these cases remained sexually active, even with the pill there were still chances of accidental pregnancies that would prompt them to carry out an abortion to maintain the newly acquired status quo. Thus, contrary to the belief that the pill would reduce cases of unwanted pregnancies and thus, abortion, it instead propagated the debate on the right to have an abortion. For instance, the rate of abortion spiked radically around 1968-70 (Bailey, 2005). Women joined the activism for abortion movement and argued that they had a right to control their own body without interference from any church, state, or man. Since women already had the power over their sexual lives, they believed even abortion was their rightful choice.
The sexual revolution and introduction of the pill gave women both in marriages and outside marriages the power to pursue education and engage more in the workforce. In the 1940s, women constituted only 29% of the American workforce (Cook, 2005). However, the 1960s witnessed a steady increase of women in the workforce. This comprised young women delaying marriage to attend college and work and women in marriage after adopting the birth control pills going back to work after their children had left for school. Traditionally, young women would be married by the age of 21 or earlier, but this changed with the sexual revolution, as they were no longer in a hurry (Goldin & Katz, 2002). The security that they would derive from the marriage life was attained from education and work. Women’s educational advancements and mass exodus to the workforce consequently changed the relationship and marriage roles between women and men (Allyn, 2000). As men were no longer the sole breadwinners of the family, their power to control and contain women within the confines of societal norms gradually diminished. This ignited a change in social roles and advocacy for equity for both men and women in marriage. Consequently, women increasingly joined politics, law, and economy, a participation that marked the beginning of calls for equal rights for everyone in society.
Finally, the introduction of the pill and the sexual revolution killed the concept of shot-gun weddings. The short-gun weddings were meant to honor a woman and her family by doing the right thing after accidental pregnancies. Contrary to the perception, the shot-gun weddings were not forced as a majority ended up in a happy life of marriage. However, the introduction of the pill gives women the sole responsibility of taking care of themselves to avoid accidental pregnancies (Bailey, 2005). As such, if such happens, women solely bear the burden even though the man is equally responsible for the outcome of the sexual actions. This has put women in a disadvantaged position where they bear and support these children on their own thereby assuming the role of both the mother and the father.
Over centuries, the world has witnessed many revolutions that have contributed to the enhancement of the quality of life for both men and women in the society. Some of these revolutions, however, have done more harm than good to society. The sexual revolution stimulated by the introduction of the pill as seen above, influenced greatly on the American traditional nuclear family, and championed changes in gender roles. By giving women the power to control their sexual lives, the revolution and the pill attributed to some of the downfalls seen in the contemporary American society such as rampant divorce, extramarital affairs, increased abortion, and high rates of single parenthood. Nevertheless, the revolution ignited a change in society giving women the power to pursue education and engage in the workforce to enhance their lives and fight for equity.
Allyn, D. (2000). Make Love, Not War: The Sexual Revolution: An Unfettered History. Little, Brown and Company.
Bailey, B. (2005). Prescribing the Pill: Politics, Culture, and the Sexual Revolution in America's Heartland. Journal of Social History, 841.
Cook, H. (2005). The English Sexual Revolution: Technology and Social Change. History Workshop Journal, 109-128.
Escoffier, J. (2003). Sexual Revolution. Running Press.
Goldin, C., & Katz, L. (2002). The Power of the Pill: Oral Contraceptives and Women’s Career and Marriage Decisions. Journal of Political Economy, 730-770.
Klepp, S. E. (2009). Revolutionary Conceptions: Woman, Fertility, and Family Limitation in America, U. of N.C. Press, 1760-1820.
Mohler, A. (2010, April 26). The Pill Turns 50 – TIME Considers the Contraceptive Revolution. TIME.
Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2009). The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness. American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, 190-224.
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