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Once Upon a Time, When "Gals" Put Aspirin Between Their Knees

Should the sexual revolution be undone?

What backers of Rick Santorum may be betting on is that there are enough Americans eager to see what America and the world might have looked like if the 1960s had not happened. At least that's what seems to be true if you consider the man who has the most money riding on Santorum.

Backer of the pro-Santorum Red, White and Blue Fund, 71-year-old multi-millionaire Forester Friess burst into the headlines this week with the remark that: "Back in my days, they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives. The gals put it between their knees..."

Only because of the passage of time is Friess' remarks considered sexist and his joke corny. I went to college with older, white, respectable, Christian, Republican guys like him and that is the kind of well-meaning corny jokes they told. Since I am black, I remember that they also told well meaning "colored jokes" that were just as corny. 

The colored jokes made me uneasy but not angry; because I could have my fun telling sex jokes about white guys. Sex jokes made them as uneasy as colored jokes made me. In fact, there was something about the sexual satisfaction of women (or lack thereof) that bothered them much more than they could make jokes about my skin color bother me.

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I went back to my 50th class reunion last summer and most of my classmates had done fairly well for themselves. Most were still married to the same woman for 40 to 50 years and had raised successful children. Nearly all had retired, and a notable number had expensive homes up north but spent much time in vacation homes in Florida, or in more recent retirement communities in Georgia and the Carolinas. Some of them looked a bit like Forester Friess.

I imagined they did marry "good girls," they used to call them, who did do something equivalent to putting aspirin between their knees, at least that was the official story about the pre-"Animal House" era of campus life. Away from campus everyone was in an assigned place. Women were fitted into a "Father Knows Best" world and between "Amos 'Andy," "The Goldbergs" and "Life With Luigi," there were an array of fun-filled Red, White and Blue fantasies for all of us.

The realities of life in America and the world were, however, very different than the fantasies. African Americans lived under the constant fear of racist brutality. Children as young as eight worked in coal mines. Colonial and neo-colonial suppression was a vicious day-to-day reality for three quarters of the world's population.

The ingrained attitude was that women were the "property" of men. Hacks performed abortions in basement apartments using coat hangers. Down at the frat house boys from good families had ways to have fun at the expense of someone who didn't matter—a prostitute, a poor white or minority girl. They could share a good girl who "put out," but only a brave renegade would ever marry her; or she could find ways to keep her past a secret. Meanwhile, "good girls" generally saved themselves for duties as wives and mothers.

Then in the early 1960s along came "the pill." It became so famous that a picture of it was on the cover of Time Magazine. In 1962 Helen Gurley Brown published Sex and the Single Girl, telling women to become financially independent and experience sexual relationships before or without marriage. The book sold two million copies in three weeks.

In America over the years, the consensus grew that sex was good, healthy, necessary, and fun. But not just cultural conservatives, many Americans from across the political spectrum agreed that music, film and magazines glorifies sex much too much, but so also were violence and greed glorified too much in our culture.

More than other segments of the body politic, conservatives seemed to glorify greed and violence, as long as the violence meant making war on foreign soil to advance America's economic interest. The political left has sought to roll back greed and militarism, but advance sexual freedom.

Okay, here's a joke: The political right wants to roll back sexual freedom while advancing economic freedom. Shortly after Friess made the remark about aspirin (Rick Santorum called it an off-color joke that was not particularly funny) the right-wingers on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held hearing on religious liberty and birth control. They did not allow any women to testify so Democrats walked out.

The Committee Chariman claimed that the hearings were about women's health issues; but, come on Rick, the hearings were more about "women's love rights."  If women had not gained those rights then women would still be, to some extent the "property" of men. As with prostitutes, poor or minority girls, or girls who "put out," there'd be no male performance anxiety. All you have to do is find some way to get yourself satisfied and then get up and go home drunk or roll over and go to sleep.

That's a joke Rick. Just getting back at you for the punch line to the joke you told: "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money." Sometimes it is hard to tell when someone is joking and when they are being serious.

George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University and the creator of the five-book, interactive, world-sourced, digital series, Barack Obama, America and the World.

George Davis is professor emeritus at Rutgers University. His latest book is Until We Got Here.

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