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Decade-Defining Brands: The Pill


The sexual revolution, now in an easy-to-swallow capsule.

In May of 1960, the FDA approved a little white pill called Enovid. Manufactured by G.D. Searle (now a division of Pfizer (PFE)), the drug -- though blandly touted as a way to chemically regulate one's menstrual cycle -- made history for its off-label use as the world's first oral contraceptive.

When the pill first appeared, The Lancet said it was "second only in importance to the nuclear bomb," and the anthropologist Ashley Montagu proclaimed that, for the progress of humanity, "[the pill's] effects... rank in importance with the discovery of fire."

In the half-century since that tiny white pill first appeared, innumerable commentators have credited it with single-handedly inciting the sexual revolution - the one that ushered in the liberation of women, the mainstreaming of homosexuality, and the earth-shattering glory that was Plato's Retreat.

In "Annus Mirabilis" (Latin for "extraordinary year"), the poet Philip Larkin perhaps best summed up this school of thought:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
Between the end of the
Chatterley ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

And yet, shockingly enough, people did have sex before the sexual revolution; they just were doing it wrong (that is, without the benefit of The White Album, love beads, or patchouli). In fact, as early as 1938, The Ladies' Home Journal -- not known as the world's raciest publication -- reported that roughly 4 out of every 5 women thought birth control was a-ok.

Nevertheless, there was indeed something unique about the pill: Both for good and for ill, it put the responsibility for birth control firmly in the hands of women. Condoms -- which, back in those Dark Ages of prophylactic design, had a really nasty habit of breaking -- could generally only be purchased by men, since they were kept underneath pharmacy counters, next to the obscene playing cards and the black-market handguns, and had to be asked for by name. The pill, by contrast, was something only a woman could secure, and then only in the privacy of her doctor's office.

In the early part of the 1960s, however, many doctors would only prescribe the pill to married women. Giving single girls access to this nearly foolproof method of birth control made more than a few people uneasy; one reporter got downright hysterical, saying that the pill would eventually create a world in which "woman would be... able to produce young without the aid of man... where woman would be self-sufficient. Man's value would be precisely zero."

While that writer may have overreacted (a little), the Sixties did indeed mark a tectonic shift in the way female sexuality was perceived, both by men and by women themselves. No longer were women regarded as grimly passive receptacles for men's sexual desire: Thanks to the work of Freud and Kinsey, among others, there came the slow-dawning realization that women might not just be lying back and thinking of England. Instead, they were having sexual desires, fantasies, and pleasures of their own.

All of this wasn't solely due to the pill, of course: The Sixties also saw the validation of the (gasp!) clitoral orgasm, along with an increasingly visible singles culture in which women were openly chasing not only more sex, but better sex - and they had the illustrated guides, fruit-flavored oils, and psychedelic drugs necessary to make it happen. In the words of Barbara Ehrenreich, women became "consumers of sexual pleasure."

Indeed, one could argue that the sexual revolution was carried out by consumers - by Americans prosperous enough to seek out pleasure at any cost, and arrogant enough to think their pleasures would be enough to change the world.

As John Updike noted, "Sexual acting-up was one of the armaments with which the [student radicals] hoped to blow up American society. Bernardine Dohrn [of the Weathermen] wore a uniform that "consisted of a black miniskirt... and a button reading 'Cunnilingus is Cool, Fellatio is Fun.' "

While only the most churlish among us would disagree with that sentiment, Sixties radicalism didn't bring about the promised revolution: Though they made love, not war, tuned in, turned on, and dropped out, the structures they sought to overthrow remained serenely intact.

The pill itself -- that ostensible symbol of the revolution -- is but one example. Shortly after its release, Ortho-Novum was found to have a number of grave (sometimes fatal) side effects, including increased risk of blood clots, cancer, heart failure, and stroke. While the drug has since been reformulated (with over 60 kinds of oral contraceptives now available), it still has a number of serious side effects, some of which may persist for up to 10 years after a woman discontinues use of the drug.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Searle was forced to settle a number of costly lawsuits. Its critics alleged that the company had rushed Enovid onto the market after testing it on fewer than 100 women, in what has since been described as "the greatest uncontrolled medical experiment in history." The company's response, as quoted by the Washington Post: "Nobody at Searle is trying to say the pill is safe."

Unsurprisingly, Searle's image was badly battered by the ongoing controversy, and it brought on a new CEO to rehabilitate its image.

That CEO was Donald Rumsfeld, former assistant to President Richard Nixon - a man whom even Nixon described as "a ruthless little bastard."

You say you want a revolution. Well, you know.
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