by Leslie H. Nicoll

Every time something new comes along, be it invention, fad, or changing social more, a backlash from those who resist the change immediately follows. From where I sit, it seems that the current “scourge on society” (at least US society) is same-sex marriage. Having lived through the (unfortunately) successful “Yes on 1” campaign that repealed our same-sex marriage law here in the great State of Maine, I can tell you firsthand that there is a very large group of folks who rabidly believe that if two men or two women are allowed to get married and set up housekeeping together, the Atlantic Ocean will rise up in fury and wash the entire state away, taking the whole lot of us, saints and sinners both, into its icy depths, never to be heard from again.

The sting of the election has worn off a bit so I can joke—albeit lamely—and hold fast to the mantra to “stay the course,” knowing that this is an issue whose time has come and we will prevail. But thinking about the moral degradation of society made me delve back into history a bit to see other issues that have inflamed the masses to overheated rhetoric.

Fifty years ago (May 11, 1960), Searle received FDA approval to sell the first birth control pill in the US: Enovid. Women had been taking the drug since 1957 for severe menstrual cramps; interestingly, there was a dramatic upsurge in the number of women suffering from this disorder when Enovid came on the market. Of course, it was an open secret that one of the side effects of the drug was that it prevented ovulation.

Once “the pill” was approved and sold legally as a contraceptive, sales boomed, climbing from 400,000 in 1961 to 3.6 million in 1965. Not unexpectedly, concerned citizens raised issues, ranging from “Is it safe?” to “Will we have an epidemic of insecurity and impotence?” in men confronted by a brigade of newly liberated and sexually empowered women. U.S. News and World Report had a cover story in 1966 that wondered if availability of the pill would lead to sexual anarchy, with “mating as casual and random as among the animals.” This obsession with animals intrigues me. Traditional marriage proponents like to argue that opening the door to same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to a plethora of non-normative marriage practices, including polygamy and bestiality. Last fall, in the heat of the No/Yes on 1 campaign, one blogger wrote, in all seriousness, that same-sex marriage might lead to a person who would choose to marry an asparagus plant and that we’d have no legal way to stop it. Asparagus?

You’d think we’d learn from history, wouldn’t you? The pill has been around for 50 years and last time I looked, people are still falling in love and staying with their beloveds, women are still having babies, and the Catholic Church is still standing.

Going back a little further, what are some other issues that have stoked the public’s passion? Of course there causes like Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage, but how about something really serious—men’s chests exposed on the beach!

Men’s swimwear was first commercially produced starting in the 1880s and from the start, their bathing ensembles were designed to be modest and reveal little of the wearer’s body and more importantly anatomy, particularly in the genital and gluteal areas. I found several references online to a document entitled “Men’s Bathing Suit Regulations” published on May 17, 1917, although I couldn’t determine what august body developed these rules. Still, they were quite clear, specifying, for example that men’s suits had to be worn with a skirt or have at least a skirt effect.  The skirt had to be worn outside of the trunks. By the late 1920s, newer style suits were made with synthetic rubber yarn that provided a slimming and trimming effect; however, the chest was still required to be covered and bare chests were frowned upon. By the 1930s, however, bold men began to take off their tops, inspired by Olympic swimmer Johnny Weismuller who played Tarzan as a bare-chested, scantily clad man in the movie of the same name. Weismuller was also the advertising model for B.V.D. swim trunks. Even so, change didn’t come easily or quickly and as late as 1936, numerous topless men were banned from the beach in Atlantic City for public indecency.

Going back even further in history, to 1890, I found an amusing anecdote in The Straight Dope about another new craze that threatened to rip apart the moral fabric of society: gum chewing! Chiclet gum was invented (by accident) in 1870 by Thomas Adams of Staten Island, NY. Adams was trying to come up with some sort of rubber or glue. In a moment of divine inspiration (or perhaps desperation) he put a square of the stuff in his mouth and voilà! Chewing gum was born. Business people and financial backers didn’t quite see the potential but Adams persevered and by 1890, had a six-story factory with 250 workers churning out a mountain of the stuff. A fad was born, leading the New York Sun to opine:

“The habit has reached such a stage now that makes it impossible for a New Yorker to go to the theater or the church, or enter the street cars or the railway train, or walk on a fashionable promenade without meeting men and women whose jaws are working with the activity of the gum chewing victim. And the spectacle is maintained in the face of frequent reminders that gum-chewing, especially in public, is an essentially vulgar indulgence that not only shows bad breeding, but spoils a pretty countenance and detracts from the dignity of those who practice the habit.”

My grandmother would never let me chew gum, calling it vulgar. Now I know where she got it from.

And so, as we gear up for the next election, with a pro-equality gubernatorial candidate who already has my vote, I hope we get to the day, sooner rather than later, when issues around same-sex marriage are found to be as silly as those surrounding oral contraceptives, men’s chests, and chewing gum.


Nancy Gibbs. May 2010. Love, Sex, Freedom and the Paradox of The Pill. ebook, ISBN: 978-1-60320-369-2

Everything Swimwear. The Evolution of Men’s Swimwear.

From Swimwear to Himware, A History.

Cecil Adams. May 14, 1976. The Straight Dope: The Amazing History of Chewing Gum.