Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Elaine Tyler May's "America and the Pill"

Elaine Tyler May is Regents Professor in the Departments of American Studies and History at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of several books, including Homeward Bound and Barren in the Promised Land. She has contributed to Ms., the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, and more. May is the 2009–2010 President of the Organization of American Historians.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, and reported the following:
Fifty years ago, in May of 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced its approval of the oral contraceptive, which quickly came to be known simply as “the pill.” At the time, its proponents believed it would bring about an end to overpopulation, poverty, unwanted and unwed pregnancy, ensure sexually satisfied married couples who would raise well-adjusted well-planned children and bring down the divorce rate. At the same time, its opponents feared it would unleash sexual chaos. It turned out that the pill fulfilled none of these expectations. But it did many things that were not anticipated at the time. Most importantly, it allowed women to control their fertility with almost 100 percent certainty, without the participation or even the knowledge of their sex partners. America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril and Liberation tells the story of the pill over the last 50 years. One intriguing aspect of the pill is that it was the first of many contraceptive products developed for women over the last half century. Over those same years, not one new contraceptive was developed for men. Why not? Page 99 hints at some of the reasons. The page begins with a woman in 1970 complaining to a doctor. The doctor quotes her in his column in the Boston Globe:
“It’s the same old story, male domination.... Why not let the ever-loving husband take his turn and allow a few experiments performed on him for a change?” Dr. Curtis responded by explaining that there were male contraceptives in the works, but that more time was needed to test their safety and effectiveness. He also noted that men do not have the same stake in contraception: “What it boils down to is this: Women can get pregnant; men can’t.” There were also psychological effects. “Generally speaking, a man equates his ability to impregnate a woman with masculinity. And all too often the loss of such ability really deflates his ego.” Helen replied, “Might be just what a lot of egotistical males need.” Needed or not, the male libido seemed to be the primary preoccupation in any discussion of a pill for men. Although there was evidence that the oral contraceptive could negatively affect women’s sex drive, that particular side effect was dismissed as unimportant.

As early as 1965, Gregory Pincus articulated the problem: “Male volunteers for fertility control studies may be numbered in the low hundreds, whereas women have volunteered for similar studies by the thousands.... He [the human male] has psychological aversions to experimenting with sexual functions....

Perhaps experimental studies of fertility control in men should be preceded by a thorough investigation of male attitudes.” In the 1970s, sexuality remained a central concern in the male contraceptive trials. A 1974 report to the World Health Organization urged researchers to develop a reversible male contraceptive that would not compromise libido or potency.
Learn more about the book and author, and read an excerpt, at the America and the Pill website.

--Marshal Zeringue