Technological and legal change led the way towards giving women more control over their own bodies. Contraception became a right for married women in 1965, for single women in 1972, and now has become near-universal, with 99 percent of sexually active women choosing to use contraception at some point in their lives. Condoms went from a barely mentionable item to something advertised on TV and given away for free on college campuses. While most of the focus of the reproductive rights debate has been over legalized abortion, these other advances have done far more in freeing women to take control over their own sex lives.
Nowadays, the 50s-era “does she or doesn’t she?” campaign for Clairol would make little sense, because nearly all women have premarital sex, and not just “bad girls.” While the word “slut” still gets thrown around, few people outside of Christian right circles believe that a woman loses her virtue simply because she loses her virginity. Cohabitating before marriage has gone from scandalous to expected, something parents and advice columnists often support as a way to try on marriage before committing.
But all is not rosy. Abortion rights are being rolled back hourly by a Christian right trying desperately to reverse the gains of the past 50 years. Unintended pregnancy rates remain stubbornly high, because poor women are losing regular access to contraception even as middle-class women enjoy historically low unwanted pregnancy rates.
Still, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic. We’re overturning millennia of social controlling and punishing of female sexuality, and such a battle won’t be won overnight. The amount of progress made in five decades is, in light of how much we’re trying to overcome, absolutely stunning and there’s every reason to believe that women will make even greater gains in the next 50 years.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance opinion writer and author of It’s a Jungle Out There: The Feminist Survival Guide to Politically Inhospitable Environments (2008) and Get Opinionated (2010).