Sex and “Mad Men”

mad_menvia  Historiann, who asks what we think about the portrayal of sex on “Mad Men.”  Historiann observes that this is the era of Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl (1962) — so where’s all the fun?  Well, my first reaction is that Brown’s main message was that because women were at a disadvantage economically, they needed to use their sex appeal to get ahead. I also find a lot of similarities between “Mad Men” and the classic Billy Wilder film, The Apartment (1960).  The key difference is that the film’s hero, Bud Baxter, is a mensch who actually respects women.  So far, there aren’t any of those in “Mad Men.”  [maybe they are hidden in the mail room with the token Jewish guy from Season One).

In addition, as a historian of sexuality and contraception, I need to deflate some myths about sex in the 1960s.  Here are some thoughts, from Chapter 7 of my recent book, Student Bodies, and my current project on the history of emergency contraception, complete with footnotes!

One of the most intractable historical myths about the contraceptive pill is the claim that this discovery caused the sexual revolution of the 1960s. Carl Djerassi, one of the chemists who worked on synthesizing the chemical components of the Pill, recalled that he had “no regrets that the Pill contributed to the sexual revolution of our time and possibly expedited it.”[i] Yet Alfred Kinsey’s surveys of sexual behavior indicated that a sexual revolution was underway well before the Pill arrived on the market. His Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953) disclosed that over 50 percent of the women in his sample had engaged in premarital sex.[ii] Kinsey’s findings were accompanied by the somewhat reassuring fact that the percentage of married teenaged girls increased markedly. By 1959, 47% of all brides had married before the age of nineteen, and the percentage of girls married between fourteen and seventeen had grown by one-third since 1940.[iii]

Commentaries written in the early 1960s reinforced the link between the sexual revolution and a contraceptive revolution. However, access to the Pill and other forms of contraception remained far from universal. Prior to the Griswold v. Connecticut Supreme Court decision of 1965, many states banned birth control even for married persons. Furthermore, Griswold only established the right to marital privacy. Few states allowed single women to obtain birth control, and those that did only allowed them to do so if they had reached the age of majority, which most states set at age 21. Some women were able to circumvent the law by convincing sympathetic physicians to prescribe the Pill for gynecological disorders. Even in areas where providing contraceptives for single women were not forbidden by law, physicians were often unwilling to contribute to “sexual immorality” by prescribing the pill to young unmarried women. When single women did manage to get a prescription there was no guarantee that they would find a pharmacist willing to fill it.[iv]

During season one of “Mad Men,” Joan Holloway gives Peggy Olson the name of a doctor who will prescribe the pill to unmarried women.  The scene between Peggy and the doctor is probably typical — he gives Peggy a prescription, but only after lecturing her about the irresponsibility of intercourse outside of marriage.  The show’s writers reinforce this moral framework with Peggy’s pregnancy and delivery at the end of Season One.

Let’s also not forget that Mad Men is set long before Roe v. Wade.  When Betty Draper finds herself pregnant at the end of Season Two, she tells her doctor that this is bad timing because her marriage is on the rocks.  The doctor is sympathetic and knows of doctors who will perform the procedure sub rosa, but says that the option of termination is really meant for young, single women who are “in trouble.”

In short, I think the show does capture fairly accurately the problems of this transitional period in the history of sexuality in the U.S.  Women were told to be sexy, but if you got pregnant (or raped), it was your own fault for “tempting” men.

Also, there is more continuity between the allegedly “repressed” 1950s and the so-called “sexual revolution” of the 1960s — as demonstrated in work by Beth Bailey.

[i] Carl Djerassi, This Man’s Pill: Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of the Pill (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004),  95.


[ii]Kinsey, Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (Philadelphia:  Saunders, 1953).

[iii] Beth L. Bailey, From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), p. 43.

[iv] Beth Bailey, “Prescribing the Pill: Politics, Culture, and the Sexual Revolution in America’s Heartland, Journal of Social History 30 (1997): 827-856; Heather Munro Prescott, A Doctor of Their Own: The History of Adolescent Medicine (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998); Prescott, Student Bodies: The Impact of Student Health on American Society and Medicine (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007).

4 thoughts on “Sex and “Mad Men”

  1. Thanks, KC–this is really terrific. I’ll link to it in the comments and in the post I’m writing for today.

    I just find it so interesting to have people our age, post-AIDS, imagining the sex life of the early 60s. I think the show very much reflects their perspective rather than that of the early 60s. (But how could it not, right?)

  2. Pingback: Must be swell being a steer : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  3. Great post. I think part of the problem stems from thinking in terms of decades. The years from 1967 through the early 1970s are what we actually think of as the “Sixties.” I would like to know more about single women’s access to the Pill from 1967 through 1971, when the last legal barrier fell away with Eisenstadt v. Baird.

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