The 1960s in the US are often perceived as a period of profound societal change, in which many young, educated, and politically minded individuals sought to influence the status quo. The quest for autonomy during this time was also characterized by changes towards sexual attitudes, generally referred to under the blanket metaphor of "sexual revolution. " Like much of the radicalism of the 1960s, the sexual revolution was often seen to have been centered around the university campus, amongst students.
Changes in Social Norms
The modern consensus is that the sexual revolution in 1960s America was typified by a dramatic shift in traditional values related to sex, and sexuality. Sex became more socially acceptable outside the strict boundaries of heterosexual marriage. For example, studies have shown that, between 1965 and 1975, the number of women who experienced sexual intercourse before marriage showed a marked increase . The increased availability of birth control (and the quasi-legalization of abortion in some places) helped reduce the chance that premarital sex would result in unwanted children. By the mid-1970s, the majority of newly married American couples had experienced sex before marriage.
Similarly, during this time, a culture of "free love" emerged. Beginning in San Francisco in the mid-1960s, this culture of "free love" was propagated by thousands of "hippies," who preached the power of love and the beauty of sex. By the 1970s, it was acceptable for colleges to allow co-educational housing where male and female students mingled freely. Hippies embraced the old slogan of free love from the radical social reformers of other eras.
Birth Control and Population Control Advocacy
After World War II, the birth control movement had accomplished the goal of making birth control legal, and advocacy for reproductive rights transitioned into a new era that focused on abortion, public funding, and insurance coverage. "The Pill" was one of the cornerstones of the sexual revolution.
Birth control advocacy took on a global aspect as organizations around the world began to collaborate. In 1946, the International Planned Parenthood Federation was founded, which soon became the world's largest non-governmental, international family-planning organization. Fear of global overpopulation became a major issue in the 1960s, generating concerns about pollution, food shortages, and quality of life, leading to well-funded birth control campaigns around the world.
Birth control and the Pill were also part of US government's policies against poverty. In the early 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson instituted his social reform policy, The Great Society, which aimed to eliminate poverty and racial injustice. Thus, as a form of population control, the Pill was endorsed and distributed by doctors.
The Sexual Revolution and "The Pill"
In the early 1950s, philanthropist Katharine McCormick provided funding for biologist Gregory Pincus to develop the birth control pill, which was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1960 . "The Pill," as it came to be known, was extraordinarily popular, and despite worries over possible side effects, by 1962, an estimated 1,187,000 women were using it.
This new contraceptive technology was a key player in forming women's modern economic role, in that it prolonged the age at which women first married. This allowed women to invest in education and become more career-oriented. Soon after the Pill was legalized, there was a sharp increase in college attendance and graduation rates for women. From an economic point of view, the Pill reduced the cost of staying in school. The ability to control fertility without sacrificing sexual relationships allowed women to make long-term educational and career plans.
Women's rights movements also heralded the Pill as a method of granting women sexual liberation, and saw the popularity of the drug as just one signifier of the increasing desire for equality (sexual or otherwise) amongst American women. The Pill and the sexual revolution was therefore an important part of the drive for sexual equality in the 1960s.
Opposition to the Pill
The Pill became an extremely controversial subject as Americans struggled with their thoughts on sexual morality, controlling population growth, and women's control of their reproductive rights. Even by 1965, birth control was illegal in some US states, including Connecticut and New York.
Because the Pill was so effective, and soon so widespread, it heightened the debate about the moral and health consequences of premarital sex and promiscuity. Never before had sexual activity been so divorced from reproduction. For a couple using the Pill, intercourse became purely an expression of love, or a means of physical pleasure, or both—but it was no longer a means of reproduction. While this was true of previous contraceptives, their relatively high failure rates and their less widespread use failed to emphasize this distinction as clearly as did the Pill. The spread of oral contraceptive use thus led many religious figures and institutions to debate the proper role of sexuality and its relationship to procreation. The Roman Catholic Church in particular reiterated the established Catholic teaching that artificial contraception distorts the nature and purpose of sex.
The Pill and the sexual freedom it provided to women are frequently blamed for what many believe are regressions in quality of life. Since the sexual revolution, out-of-wedlock births, sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, and the divorce rate have all risen considerably.