In 1968, the prominent anthropologist Ashley Montagu published a brief article in praise of a revolutionary new technology: the birth control pill. “In its effects I believe that the pill ranks in importance with the discovery of fire,” Mr. Montagu wrote.
The pill would emancipate women to make their own sexual decisions, Montagu predicted; at the same time, it would eliminate the “exploitative attitude toward the female” among American men.
He was half-right. Although the soon-to-be-capitalized “Pill” gave women new freedoms, it also threatened a longtime male privilege: the sexual double standard. And traditional men weren’t going to let that go without a fight.
That’s the only way to understand conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh’s remarks about Georgetown Law School student Sandra Fluke, who had testified before Congress in support of President Obama’s policy requiring health insurance plans to cover contraception.
Ms. Fluke told lawmakers that women can pay more than $3,000 for contraception during three years of law school, and that her school, a Catholic institution, does not provide birth control coverage.
“What does it say about the college coed … who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex?” Mr. Limbaugh asked on his program. He said this makes her a “slut” and “prostitute.” He has since apologized for his remarks.
Limbaugh made no mention of any male sexual partners who would presumably “benefit” from the same government subsidy. In this worldview, only a “coed” — that is, a female — can be promiscuous. The rest of us males are just taking what’s rightfully ours.
Indeed, the following day, Limbaugh even suggested that Fluke should distribute sex tapes of herself. In exchange for paying for her contraceptives, “we” ought to be able to view the videos.
And make no mistake about it: “We” are men to Limbaugh. Women like Sandra Fluke exist for our pleasure, not for their own. But contraception jeopardizes that arrangement, by letting women decide what they want.
That’s why so many men fought for over a century against birth control, which remained illegal or highly restricted in many states until the 1960s. “Fear of conception has been an important factor in the virtue of many unmarried girls,” argued one physician in 1917. Take away that worry, he added, and single women could do anything they wanted.
It’s also why the American Birth Control League changed its name to “Planned Parenthood” in 1942. Conjuring marriage and family, the new title reassured critics who feared contraception gave too much sexual freedom to the unwed.
By the late 1940s, as sex researcher Alfred Kinsey confirmed, about half of white American women had intercourse before they married. But when future Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown wrote her 1962 best-seller “Sex and the Single Girl,” which encouraged women to seek and enjoy sexual pleasure, her publishers made her delete a long section about birth control.
Three years later, in its Griswold v. Connecticut decision, the Supreme Court invalidated state anti-contraception laws. Yet the social taboo against birth control remained, especially for single women. Just a few months after Griswold, Brown University was embarrassed by news reports that a campus physician had prescribed the Pill to two unmarried female students.
Other colleges were quick to deny that they provided such services. Everyone knew that college women — like other American single females — were having sex. But giving them contraceptives would be “putting the stamp of approval on promiscuity,” as a doctor at American University explained.
And female promiscuity was always worse than the male kind, as explained by a psychiatrist in Harvard’s student health service, Graham Blaine Jr. “From an emotional, physiological, and psychological view, there are many reasons why the double standard makes sense,” he wrote, “and in time, we may well see a natural swing back towards it.”
We’re seeing it right now. Like Sandra Fluke, tens of millions of single American women use contraceptives. But to Rush Limbaugh — and, we can presume, to a good swath of his listeners — that marks her with the modern-day equivalent of the scarlet A. You might even call it the scarlet C, for “Contraception.”
Faced with a media firestorm — and the withdrawal of several advertisers from his radio show — Limbaugh issued a brief apology on his website. “I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke,” Limbaugh wrote. And I believe him. Limbaugh didn’t have any particular animus against Fluke; she was just a convenient stand-in for any female who wants to exert her sexual autonomy.
And that’s an important and overlooked front in this battle: whether the two sexes have equal rights to determine their own sex lives. Nearly a half-century after Ashley Montagu compared the Pill to the invention of fire, a single woman who admits to using contraceptives is still playing with fire. I’d challenge you to find a single man who has been burned for the same.
That’s History is a partnership between WHYY NewsWorks and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Jonathan Zimmerman is an historian with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and teaches history and education at New York University. He is writing a history of sex education around the world.
This essay was originally published in the The Christian Science Monitor.