In 1957, the FDA approved the birth control pill, but only for treating severe menstrual disorders. According to a PBS article on the history of the pill, that year a substantially larger number of women than usual reported to their doctors that they had severe menstrual disorders. If you can keep a straight face on that one, keep reading.
In 1960, the pill was approved as contraception. By 1962, 1.2 million American women were taking it, and by the next year, 2.3 million.
Social change doesn’t take place in a vacuum, and “memes” jump from place to place. Richard Dawkins coined the word “meme” in his book, The Selfish Gene, as a possible explanation for the way that social change takes place. The pill may not have caused social change, or followed social change, but may have been part of a larger tsunami—a jumping of events that appear to imitate each other, but not by cause and effect.
In 1962, I had been accepted at Cornell as well as at the UR, but I had a sister already at the UR and conservative parents who thought Cornell might be too big for me. The thing is, social change doesn’t observe that kind of boundary. When I went off to the UR in 1962, all the approximately 600 women on the UR River Campus lived on “the hill” in a six-floor dormitory with four separately named wings. By the time I graduated in 1966, many of us were living in the co-ed dorms that had been built literally as we watched.
Not only that—our curfews had disappeared. In 1962, freshmen had to be in 10:30 on weeknights with one “floating 12,” and 1 o’clock on weekends. We signed in and out when going out for the evening, and reported ourselves to the Judicial Board if we were late coming home or had forgotten to sign in. But these all disappeared along with mandatory single-sex housing.
Even before the pill, of course, there was contraception. But the pill was a method that women could use by themselves in private, and so, unlike barrier methods, it was disconnected from sex itself. That in itself was a liberating factor for women and their choices.
Those of us who, like me, were and are straight might wonder what the statistics show about sex in that time and the years that followed. Many of us got pinned junior year, engaged senior year, and married shortly after graduation, most of us, like me, staying married for 18 or more years.
The Centers for Disease Control has wondered, too, and has used its own tracking methods to compile statistics available online. The tables take information only from the age of 25-44, though, so even though these are “lifetime” counts, they don’t take into account any years over the age of 44. That means that their numbers are skewed on the short side.
Also worth noting: “Median” refers to the midpoint where there are just as many above that number as below it. It is a frequency distribution, not a mean average:
Number of sexual partners for women and men
Median number of male sexual partners in lifetime, for women 25-44 years of age, 2006-20081: 3.6
Percent of women 15-44 years of age who have had 15 or more male sexual partners, 2006-20102: 9.0%
1 NHSR No. 36, Table 3 [PDF – 836 KB]
2 Special tabulation by NCHS
Median number of female sexual partners in lifetime, for men 25-44 years of age, 2006-20081: 6.1
Percent of men 15-44 years of age who have had 15 or more female sexual partners, 2006-20102: 21.6%
1 NHSR No. 36, Table 4 [PDF – 836 KB]
2 Special tabulation by NCHS
In 2009, the Canadian news magazine, Maclean’s, published an article with the title, “Are We Blushing Yet?” Touting Canadians as superstars at sex as well as at other sports, it had this to say:
“The 2007-2008 global Durex survey, which polls people on their sexual habits, makes it clear we’re no slouches in the bedroom. Canadian men say they average 23 partners in a lifetime, it showed, compared with 21 in Spain, 19 in Italy, 17 in France, and 13 in the United States. Canadian women say they have 10 partners, also more than their counterparts in those countries. In China, men reported just four partners in a lifetime, and in India they reported six.”
“Like Canada, Austria and Switzerland are known for their snow-capped peaks—and they also seem to know that mountain climbing isn’t the only way to break a sweat. In the Durex survey, Austrian men said they had an incredible 29 sexual partners on average, making them the most prolific lovers on the planet.”
Would an article like that or statistics like those of the CDC, even in the golden Gatsby-like days, have appeared prior to the pill? Probably not. Nor do they measure sex crimes, which are an entirely different category because they are not consensual. Nor gender roles in society, which aren’t a measure of homosexuality.
Statistics, like the memes and social change they measure, might not be the expected, but they are what they are.
Linda Chalmer Zemel received the Excellence in Teaching Award from Rochester Institute of Technology College of Continuing Education. She is the author of the stageplay, Reunion, in which two old classmates help each other out of their mid-life crises in twelve coast-to-coast phone calls.
Contact Linda at firstname.lastname@example.org
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