Monday, January 28, 2013

Medical Causes of the Sexual Revolution

Prof. Andrew Francis, an economist at Emory, is claiming that penicillin, rather than The (Birth Control) Pill, was the drug that gave us the sexual revolution of the 1960s. The idea is that the post-war availability of penicillin reduced the cost (to both partners) of intimate contact, by substantially reducing the risk (to both partners) of contracting an STD--especially syphilis. This effectively lowered the cost of sexual activity, inducing more people to engage in it (the benefits remaining more or less constant). An easily-accessible version of the story appears on the CBS news site, here.

Let us not lose sight, however, of the vital importance of The Pill. I have spoken personally with women of the 60s generation who were admitted to medical school (imagine this!) only after they'd told an interviewing dean--an actual Dean--that they were on The Pill, and that they didn't intend to let a pregnancy interfere with their progress through medical school, or with their entry into medical practice. "A medical school education, after all," the argument went, "is expensive not only to the student, but also to the faculty and to the government which (at least in the US) has substantially subsidized it for decades; why should we offer it to someone who will quit (and waste the investment) the moment she has a child? We're rather more inclined to enroll you if you can guarantee that you won't have a child--that is, if you tell us you're on The Pill, or will have an abortion if The Pill fails." The assumption, of course, was that if a woman were to have a child, it would be she, rather than her partner, who would give up on her profession and waste the investment made by others in her career. The idea of the working mother--though it was a reality for many working-class Americans--wasn't yet acceptable to Americans of the professional class.

Like access to birth-control, the abortion right announced in Roe v. Wade made it easier for professional schools to admit women. It meant that women could legally prevent themselves from having children whose rearing would interfere with their professional careers. They could control their reproduction even if their efforts at birth control had failed. (Remember, please, that men were *never* asked whether their having children--whether in or out of wedlock--would interfere with their taking full advantage of their educations.)

Punchline: Yes, Professor Francis, it may well be that penicillin did more than The Pill to facilitate the Sexual Revolution--by which we might mean, the widespread acceptance of pre-marital sexual relations. But it was for The Pill  (and the abortion right) to translate that newfound sexual freedom into sexual equality.


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