Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An Interesting Take

Among the various retrospectives I've come across in recent days marking the Pill's introduction 50 years ago this month, probably the most unique I've seen thus far is a First Things piece titled "Beyond the Pill: Looking for the Origins of the Sexual Revolution" from military historian Stuart Koehl.

Therein he offers some observations that are sure to prompt some garment-renting and teeth-gnashing among those who go in for the notion that The 40s And 50s Were Great But The 60s Ruined Everything:

Because of its scope and intensity, World War II shattered an existing moral consensus, creating a socially unstable situation in which “ordinary” morality was jettisoned. People lived very intensely and with the knowledge that everything, including life itself, was transient. The typical American serviceman in World War II had four sex partners, not counting prostitutes. Venereal disease rates for U.S. servicemen in Europe and Australia reached epidemic proportions that eventually required the military to license and regulate brothels. As Kipling wrote, “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints”.

While soldiers were fornicating their way across Europe and women on the home front were in contact with men on the war assembly lines, the number of “Dear John” letters received at the front and in the POW cages constituted a real threat to morale. One received in 1944 by a POW in Stalag Luft VII read: “Dear John, I hope you are open-minded, because I just had a baby. His father is a wonderful guy, and he has enclosed some cigars for you”. Of course, most men and women were not promiscuous during the war—just as most men and women today are not—but enough were to have a lasting impact.

After the war, everything was supposed to return to normal, but of course, it did not, and many trends conspired to ensure that they would not, including unprecedented prosperity, social and physical mobility—which broke down traditional ties of family and community, a burning resentment of authority among servicemen and a more relaxed attitude toward sex, growing out of the wartime experience.

For a generation that grew up in uniform, hypocrisy was not seen as something necessary for the smooth running of society. If the boomers grew up rebels, it’s because their parents encouraged rebellion even while outwardly conforming to social norms themselves. Everybody liked sex, and many broke sexual barriers, though still exercising discretion and obedience to form. But, looking at the divorce rates between the late forties to the mid-sixties, one can already see the incipient breakdown of marriage owing, in part, to hasty wartime marriages combined with the stress of servicemen reintegrating into civilian society. ... One prominent feature of many marriages then was the pressure on men to marry women whom they impregnated, resulting in shotgun weddings and “premature” births. Fortunately, it was at a time when a man just out of high school could get a high-paying, semi-skilled job with union protection. It would be safe to wager, though, that many of those marriages collapsed once their children were grown.

Many of the behaviors predisposed by the pill were already common, albeit covert, features of American life once the pill became available. The pill added fuel to a smoldering fire; it didn't start the blaze, but it certainly accelerated it and ensured its spread. The greatest damage done by the pill has been to women. It shifted the onus for avoiding pregnancy to women, absolving men of responsibility for unwanted pregnancies, which, in essence, made sex into a casual activity. Men no longer had to marry the women they impregnated, which, in turn, made legalized abortion inevitable, again leaving women to bear the psychological and moral consequences. So as we mark the anniversary of the pill, we should spend more time trying to understand the social forces that caused us to react to the pill as we did, allowing us to discard a long-standing moral consensus, leaving only sexual chaos and uncertainty.


The Dutchman said...

Very perceptive, but I would contend the trend is even older than that. Writing in 1930 in "Only Yesterday", Frederick Lewis Allen traced a break-down in traditional patterns of courtship to the introduction of the automobile (which served as a portable bedroom) and the integration of women into the commercial economy (as a result of urbanization, industrial modes of production, and the demands of the Great War). Writing ten years later, in "Since Yesterday," he comments on the acceleration of the trend of sexual liberalization that came from young couples being forced to delay marriage because of the bad economy. Finally, in "The Big Change" (1950), he makes exactly the same points Koehl makes in this article.

Genuine social trends are always large, moving with glacial speed. We only notice them when aspects of the change build up to a critical mass.

Lloyd said...

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