There's an old joke about the 1960s: People may not have invented sex in those days, but it often felt like they did.
The Combined Oral Contraceptive Pill – better known simply as "the pill" – received FDA approval in 1960. Contraception in some way, shape, or form goes back to the Stone Age. But the pill changed the way people thought about and experienced sex. It put the focus on pleasure instead of procreation.
This was a Very Big Deal. It seems almost inconceivable now, but until the pill came along, the notion that pleasure wasn't just a byproduct of sexual intimacy, but could actually be an end in itself, was radical. Earlier in the 20th century, writers like D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller were considered revolutionary for espousing the liberating qualities of getting it on; their works were duly driven underground or into courtrooms, where they were put on trial for obscenity.
In fact, although the pill surfaced in 1960, it took more than a decade and a Supreme Court decision before it was available to single people throughout the country. In Eisenstadt v. Baird, the Supreme Court found, in 1972, that unmarried people had the same right to contraception as married couples. William Baird was charged with a felony under the Massachusetts "Crimes Against Chastity" act for distributing contraceptive foam during a lecture he gave on population control at Boston University. The court ruled that the Massachusetts law denied citizens equal protection and violated their privacy. In effect, it also created the sense that consenting adults had what amounted to a right to engage in sexual activity that had nothing to do with making babies.
Eisenstadt v. Baird is worth remembering in light of the recent attacks on Planned Parenthood. Many observers have seemed bewildered by rightwing insistence on cutting off Planned Parenthood's funding over the issue of abortion, when abortion plays such a small role in the organization's larger mission of providing family planning and health services to women in need. Defenders of Planned Parenthood have argued that these attacks represent an assault on lower-income women, which is true.
But these are also attacks on the belief that it's OK to make love without making babies. Eisenstadt v. Baird reminds us that not that long ago, in many parts of the United States, there were laws preventing anyone but married couples from getting access to the pill. Many Americans, including current majorities in the Indiana House and Senate, apparently still believe that sex should be understood strictly within the context of procreation and marriage.
It seems odd that we don't talk more about how some of the forces arrayed against an organization like Planned Parenthood are really against sex for its own sake. But then we Americans are notoriously tongue-tied when it comes to talking about our sexuality. If you doubt this, look at how we try to compensate for our lack of candor.
We've turned pornography into an all-access branch of the entertainment industry. Porn is the proving ground for imagery that finds its way into the ever-more permissive realm of mainstream movies, television and advertising. It used to be that people argued that schools needed to teach sex education since parents were too bashful to do it themselves. Now, in addition to parental embarrassment, the schools are faced with trying to offset porn-fueled pop culture.
We would doubtless like to think that our tolerance for pornography indicates a larger liberation when it comes to sex, that our willingness to be amused, aroused and (secretly) instructed by porn is proof of how comfortable we've become in matters of sexual intimacy. But it seems just as possible that the opposite is the case, that pornography is a marker for loneliness and that, when it comes to love making, we're still pretty confused.
It wasn't long after the Eisenstadt v. Baird ruling that the so-called Sexual Revolution reached full flower in the United States. The realization that sex and babies could be a choice and not a consequence created a temporary euphoria. For some people, this was an invigorating milestone on the road to self-discovery; for others it was scary as a bad trip on LSD. Relationships that had lasted years were wrecked for new experiments that often faded.
What's persisted, for many of us at least, has been the conviction that sexual expression is good — even better if two adults can enjoy it together without fear that they're auditioning for parenthood.
It's amazing, when you think of it, how quickly we've gotten used to this freedom. It suggests that the liberating dimension of sex is as natural a part of intimacy as procreation; that being able to finally separate the two represents a real kind of progress, no matter how anxious that makes our more retrograde neighbors. Sex isn't just for procreation, nor is it merely, as porn would have it, another form of recreation. At its best it's a way for us to truly be ourselves with one another. That's why, if we're lucky, having sex is making love.