Ian Lekus’ essay at Nursing Clio about the parallels between the hostile reactions nowadays to PrEP–the use of anti-HIV medications as a prophylactic measure–to preempt and prevent HIV infections and reactions in the 1960s to the contraceptive pill is thoughtful. Recommended.
Coming of age in the plague years of the 1980s, I could hardly imagine — who could? — that the arrival of a pill that prevented HIV infection would generate such controversy within gay male communities. Loud, pointed critiques of multinational pharmaceutical corporations, sure, I could easily expect that: when I teach HIV/AIDS: Politics, Culture, and Science to undergraduates born barely before the 1996 arrival of effective antiretroviral medications, my students learn plenty about the roles of pharmaceutical giants and grassroots protest over the course of the epidemic.
But I did not anticipate a surge of hostility towards PrEP and its early adopters, especially given the urgency of developing multiple HIV prevention strategies that acknowledge falling rates of condom usage among men who have sex with men. In May, pioneering AIDS activist Larry Kramer condemned PrEP, declaring “There’s something cowardly to me about taking Truvada instead of using a condom.” More critics, from the blogosphere to gay social networking apps, have shamed PrEP users as promiscuous, as irresponsible – even as “Truvada whores.”
Perhaps, though, my historical training should have prepared me for such a backlash, given the public discourse surrounding the development of the Pill half a century ago.
Elaine Tyler May, in her history of the Pill, recalled how as a child, reporters swarmed around her father, Edward Tyler, a researcher testing the oral contraceptive at his private practice. “Would the pill make women promiscuous?,” they asked. He insisted that it would not. But while he disapproved of premarital sex, he believed that unmarried women would have sex with or without the Pill, and hoped the new contraceptive would reduce unwanted pregnancies.
Other pioneering birth control researchers openly scorned unmarried people, especially women, who might turn to the Pill. John Rock, an obstetrician and gynecologist, and one of the Pill’s most prominent proponents, declared that, “any high school kid can get other contraceptives and probably knows about Saran Wrap.” Such means of birth control were available “for naughty little girls who want to use them.”