The combined oral contraceptive pill, the birth control pill – or just The Pill – has a lot to live up to.
When The Pill was approved by the FDA in the early 1960s, women seized upon its wonders in droves, we are told. It was a better, more effective form of contraception. Less messy. You didn’t have to think about it much. It was immensely popular with everybody, really. Just a tiny little pill.
The Pill was wonderful, but it was still a luxury – a bit like cosmetics. In Australia, apart from being expensive to begin with, birth control pills were subject to a further 27.5% luxury tax. For most young women, it was prohibitively expensive. Enter Gough Whitlam. A decent kind of bloke, in 1972 he decided to democratise birth control by removing the tax and placing The Pill on the National Health Scheme. This reduced the cost to about a dollar a month, which sounded pretty reasonable to a career-minded young couple looking to invest in some human capital (a uni degree) and have lots of sex without the babies.
Their doctors weren’t so enthusiastic, and it was difficult for a single woman to find a GP who would prescribe her The Pill. Why on God’s earth would a single woman want birth control, anyway? And there were no family planning clinics or women’s health centres. There was also the Catholic Church, and the pope didn’t much like contraception. Too much sex and not enough babies, he said. And, The Pill couldn’t cook or clean, and most blokes were still fairly useless at that in the 1960s. The birth control pill was just too ahead of its time.
Then there were the side-effects. You see, the modern pill contains about 1% of the hormone dosage contained in the original. Back in the day, the higher dosage pill inevitably caused bloating, nausea and sore boobs. It would have been hard to move, let alone shag, when you felt like a small alien or a lamb was about to burst through your lower abdomen. For many women, it just wasn’t worth it. And then remembering to take it every day at the same time. Bugger that.
Today it’s a bit better. It’s more effective, less baby-alien-inducing, and Doc is happy to give it to young women. The Church is even a bit more chillaxed about it. But still, only one-third of Australian women bother. Domestic labour is yet to be conquered: men and women share the responsibilities a bit more now, but no one has quite worked out how to get the pill to make dinner.
And what of the claim that The Pill changed the way we have sex? Well, it didn’t. People have been doing it just for kicks for donkey’s years. Ask that sexy eighteenth century French libertine, Marquis de Sade. Our man Marquis wrote a little book called Les 120 Journées de Sodome, or the 120 Days of Sodom. In it, a bunch of horny rich French dudes hire an old castle and take 40-odd teenagers with them. The aristocrats have a whole lot of fun – orgies and torture, mostly. Over the ensuing 120 days there is so much fun had that the teenagers all end up dead. Nasty stuff. A Serbian film‘s got nothing on it. It’s imaginative to say the least, more so than anything you’ve read in Men’s Health or Cleo. And yes, there’s a film, so you don’t have to read it.
Anyway. Marquis de Sade thought that ‘Sex is as important as eating or drinking and we ought to allow the one appetite to be satisfied with as little restraint or false modesty as the other.’ That was sometime in the eighteenth century. So maybe Ben Kweller was onto something when he mused on his flaxen-haired heroine a few years back: ‘Sex reminds her of eating spaghetti.’
So, conventional wisdom tells us that the introduction of The Pill in the 1960s liberated women and made shagging a whole lot more fun than it was before. I think the story is a bit more complex than that. If I can say nothing else, the widespread acceptance of the birth control pill took far longer than we think, and its effect on the way we have sex was not nearly as profound. After all, people were already advocating that we bonk like we eat food when the humble birth control pill was still two centuries away.
First published on The Awkward Emu.