Historian Alan Petigny's book The Permissive Society explores the loosening of sexual constraints in the United States between the 1940s and the 1960s.

Above: Historian Alan Petigny's book The Permissive Society explores the loosening of sexual constraints in the United States between the 1940s and the 1960s.

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Coital Conservatism Ended before Birth Control Pill Arrived, says Researcher

The pill did not give birth to the sexual revolution despite the widespread belief in its libidinously liberating effects that persists to this day, says a University of Florida professor.

Rates of premarital sex and single motherhood rose much more dramatically between the 1940s and 1960, when the oral contraceptive was approved by the Food and Drug Administration, than during the “free love” era of the 1960s, said Alan Petigny, a UF history professor.

The loosening of sexual constraints coincided with more liberal attitudes toward women, which took hold before the 1960s, he said.

“The explosion of premarital sex during the ’40s and ’50s as evidenced by higher levels of illegitimacy has not yet and I would argue cannot ever be explained by the standard historical interpretation,” he said. “The proposition that the 1950s was a stable period when it came to sex is a great fiction that the empirical evidence simply does not sustain.”

The author of the 2009 book “The Permissive Society: America 1945-1965,” Petigny will be the featured speaker at a forum at Georgetown University on Tuesday.

The historic announcement in May 1960 of the approval of an oral contraceptive was credited with unleashing sweeping changes in the sexual behavior of single women, he said.

“By the time the birth control pill became available to the masses of American women, the proverbial horse was already out of the barn,” he said.

Using vital statistics, Petigny said he found that between 1940 and 1960 rates of illegitimacy rose by more than 250 percent for white women and by more than 300 percent for all women. Specifically, the frequency of single motherhood increased from 3.6 to 9.2 newborns per 1,000 unmarried white women and from 7.1 to 21.6 newborns per 1,000 among all women, he said.

Even among women who married there was a sharp increase in premarital pregnancies, which would later develop into shotgun marriages, according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. The census asked women a series of questions including the date they were married and the date their first child was born, he said.

Petigny’s research shows that for single white women between the ages of 20 and 24, for example, the frequency of premarital pregnancies more than doubled from the mid-1940s — between 1943 and 1946 — and the mid-1950s, between 1955 and 1958. “Here we have two different sources of data collected through two very different methods pointing to the same conclusion: the sexual revolution was well under way during the 1950s,” he said.

The pill had little influence on the sexual behavior of single women in the 1960s because it was overwhelmingly used by married women, Petigny said. “Most doctors would simply have refused to prescribe the birth control pill to a woman who wasn’t married,” he said.

By 1965 the pill had become the most common form of contraception among married women, but single women did not begin to use it in large numbers until the 1970s, he said.

According to the first teenage survey of birth control in 1971, only about 10 percent of sexually active girls were on the pill, Petigny said. Condoms were far more common, he said.

Changes in sexual behavior resulted from a liberalization of attitudes during the post-war period that occurred as more men and women attended college and as religion’s influence waned in favor of psychology, particularly in its humanistic form, Petigny said. “People were coming to look at themselves and the world in a markedly more secular way,” he said.

Ideas about women became more progressive and the status of women improved, long before the arrival of the feminist movement, Petigny said. For example, more than 300 women served in state legislatures during the 1950s, and by the end of the decade slightly more women held these seats than at the end of the 1960s, he said.

Political attitudes began to shift, as shown in a Gallup poll asking whether voters would cast their votes for a woman for president if their party nominated one, Petigny said. In 1940, only about 20 percent of the public expressed their willingness to do so, compared with nearly 60 percent by 1960, he said.

And at home a quiet revolution was taking place with families becoming more democratic and less patriarchal, Petigny said. Even though men and women still performed different tasks, they exercised roughly equal power in the marriage, he said.


Media Contact

Cathy Keen, ckeen@ufl.edu, 352-392-0186


Alan Petigny, apetigny@ufl.edu

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