U.S. Intellectual History Blog

All About Vasectomies

Last night my department hosted esteemed cultural historian Elaine Tyler May, author of the trend-setting Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era, which I often assign to my undergrads. May gave an endowed lecture based on her latest book, America and the Pill: A History of Promise, Peril, and Liberation, a short and accessible, yet provocative and revisionist history of “the pill,” which just turned 50 last year.

The most interesting chapter in the book, from my perspective, and the most fascinating part of her lecture last night, which included some fantastic images too expensive to be included in the book, is the question of “A Pill for Men?” May explores the long and complicated history of why a pill for men has never been developed and approved. Although the reasons are myriad and complex, the single greatest factor is that men have always had less to lose than women by having unprotected sex, and thus the incentives to ingest hormone-altering chemicals have not been a factor in inspiring a market for such a pill–such inspiration (profits) being the driving force of the resources and scientific power necessary to the development of a pill for men. Related to this, though, is the long history of male ambivalence towards male contraceptives. The image below, from the cover of a 1972 issue of Esquire, best reflects such ambivalence (which is an understatement). I find this image amazing on so many levels.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Although the reasons are myriad and complex, the single greatest factor is that men have always had less to lose than women by having unprotected sex . . .”

    AKA, biology.

    What’s the role of abortion in this issue? I imagine there is one, perhaps as a sort of last resort or fail safe in a “well, she can always get rid of it herself” sense. Did it come up at all?

  2. Biology and social/legal conventions. Men could be compelled to “lose” more.

    Abortion did not come up much in the lecture. It arises as a subject in the book, but it is surprisingly tangential except insofar as the same legal and social impediments to obtaining birth control apply to the difficulties in obtaining abortions, tenfold. That, and the Catholic position on birth control is seen by the church hierarchy as consistent with its position on abortion (and the death penalty for that matter). One of the more interesting questions last night came from a student, obviously Catholic, who challenged May’s assertion that the Catholic Church was debating whether to approve of pill usage in the 1960s. This student pointed out that the Church doesn’t debate issues. The Pope issues proclamations from God. Period. The student was technically correct, in terms of doctrine, but wrong in terms of, well, history, given that a debate did in fact occur.

    Another interesting issue that arose in the Q&A, and is also covered in the book, is the suspicion that US efforts to spread the pill to the underdeveloped nations were part of its imperial design, or at least, its Cold War policies. The US history of eugenics in Puerto Rico (and elsewhere) did not make claims to the contrary very believable. Of course, ironically, when the pill was tested in Puerto Rico, women rushed to be subjects since their only other options for birth control was sterilization.

  3. Andrew: That student also, clearly, has a very narrow, anti-Vatican II definition of “Church.” Since VCII the definition of “Church” has been intentionally broadened to include the laity with regard to matters of practice and debate. Yes, the laity are still excluded from many technical theological discussions, and matters of dogma are “beyond debate” by any and all members of the Church. But the use of birth control has always been a matter of theology. Popes can issue authoritative statements about theological issues, but the level of authority varies per encyclical (hence Rerum Novarum, on labor, less important to some in the Church hierarchy, and Humanae Vitae—which deals with birth control—is more important to others). Humanae Vitae has indeed grown in stature and authority since the 1960s, but it’s still not yet “beyond debate.” – TL

  4. I think the issue of eugenics and birth control is a provocative one, especially considering Margaret Sanger’s role both in developing the Pill and her support for eugenics. I wonder if May’s book covers this in more detail? I found a page published by NYUs Margaret Sanger Papers Project titled “Birth control or race control?” http://www.nyu.edu/projects/sanger/secure/newsletter/articles/bc_or_race_control.html
    that looks into the connections between birth control advocacy and eugenics. On one hand, contraception is a liberator that frees individuals from the risks of pregnancy, but on the other hand, programmatic efforts to push contraception and “population control” have been targeted at certain races or classes. Sanger’s work in this area has been seized upon by both black nationalists and anti-abortionists who accuse her and others in the birth control movement as supporting “genocide” against African Americans and the poor and, while some of this seems like a cynical effort to discredit abortion providers, it does make clear one of May’s points that contraception wasn’t always envisioned as a tool to liberate people. With fertility seemingly so connected poverty, and poverty to race and class, it seems almost impossible to approach the issue of population control without stepping into eugenics.

  5. Since this blog tends to be tightly focused upon 20th Century topics, I would like to recommend Susan Klepp’s book entitled Revolutionary Conceptions which was published in late 2009. Her book details how the United States halved its birthrate in the Revolutionary era to the beginnings of Jacksonian era. All to often, people equate birth control as originated with Margaret Sanger or with technological advances such as the diaphragm or oral contraception.

    The brevity of this post doesn’t give me a lot to work with, but I am curious about how Professor may’s monograph informs Professor Hartman’s research into the Culture wars of the late 20th century. The topic would seem to provide fertile fields of inquiry for many of the conservative critiques of feminism, choice etc. and the ongoing backlash in the rollback of abortion rights in the states, the “personhood” movement,the recent Alabama Supreme Court case outlawing the distribution of sex toys, and the public’s preference for abstinence only education with its extremely high failure rate over a comprehensive sex education program. Lastly, how does “choice” lead to the interesting transformation of morality during this time as when Hugh Hefner was considered a dangerous man, and yet his three girlfriends became reality TV “stars”. There is of course Kim Kardashian who rose to fame on the basis of a sex tape and yet has a reality TV show, a clothing line, etc.

  6. Professor Hartman, I am also curious about your interpretation of the cover. Is the female urologist a metaphor for 1970’s feminism castrating the all-American male?

  7. Brian: You ask several good questions. Obviously, insofar as birth control relates to feminism and abortion, it plays a very significant role in the culture wars. I hadn’t given too much thought to the pill per se, because it seemingly became non-controversial rather quickly, at least in the US. May forces me to rethink that in complicated ways. She shows how the pill empowered women, and thus for some men, it was emasculating. But, conversely, men continue to be unwilling to subject themselves to the same type of chemicals.

    As to your last question regarding the Esquire cover–exactly!

  8. Elaine Tyler May’s discussion of male responses to questions designed to measure their willingness to consider the use of a male-only contraceptive pill was, in my view, surprising. I would never have anticipated men polled in the 1960s/70s to express anything less than resistance to the prospect of assuming meaningful responsibility for the reproductive potential of their relationships, which had traditionally been viewed as a female concern. Writing as a sexually-active young man living in the post-AIDS era, I feel compelled to admit that the risk of conception seldom crosses my mind when my partner and I are making necessary decisions about what forms of contraception should be considered. For good or ill, I believe that a significant majority of my generation feel similarly. Advocacy for the development of a male-only contraceptive pill simply doesn’t seem to be forthcoming from young men among whom concern over sexual health and the prevention of sexually transmitted disease is the paramount, and often only, concern.

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