Contraceptive Comic Books

Chris's picture

If Ethan Persoff did not exist, it would be necessary for the Internet to invent him. Perhaps it did. In Joan Harper declares her angst to Ken.any case, Ethan Persoff's website is one of the stranger corners of cyberspace. Persoff is a cartoonist and comics artist, and in addition to showing off his own work, he's archived some really fascinating flotsam and jetsam from the pop-cultural subconcious. Especially interesting is his section of "educational" comics called Comics With Problems. The comics here are the free comics that get passed out to schoolkids or distributed at community centers to addressi social issues like sexual abuse, marijuana, and the medical value of wearing an eye patch. The most recent addition to the archive is a real classic: a comic distributed by Planned Parenthood first in 1956 and then in a revised edition in 1962 titled Escape From FEAR. Escape From Fear is the story of Joan and Ken Harper, two loving, middle-class white Americans who have just had their third child.  Being young and passionate, of course, Joan and Ken would love to keep on humping each other like a pair of crazed goats until they go blind, but they already have three kids and can't handle more. After some sharp words to each other at breakfast, Ken almost cuts his hand off at the plant and gets some helpful advice about contraception from a kindly physician and Joan goes off to her local Planned Parenthood to find out about her contraceptive options.  After meeting with a kindly female physician, she comes home and the story ends with the couple ready to rut again.

It's easy to get snarky about the overwrought, melodramatic style of the book, as well as the archetypal nature of the characters.  And really, if you're going to read it all the way through, you have to indulge your snark just a little.  But reading between the lines and keeping the comic in historical perspective is educational in itself.  To the modern eye, Escape From FEAR reads as ridiculously discreet; Joan and Ken are adults, relatively stable economically, comitted to each other, and frankly, are so clean-cut that they make the Beav's parents look like a couple of opium-smoking whores. In short, they're genetically engineered to send out the message that they're not Trash. If they're not just like you, then at least they're what you want to be (at least, you would in the fifties and sixties).

No small point, the extent to which Planned Parenthood had to bend over backwards to show that these two people weren't Trash for using contraception. As much as we snicker at those backwards Texas yahoos for banning ownership of sex toys, time was when getting your hand on a silicone dildo was the least of your problems in leading a happy sex life; just giving out contraception or information about it used to be prosecuteable under obscenity laws.  And when the Pill was first made publicly available in 1960, all hell broke loose. You're probably aware of the arguments that were thrown back and forth, because they're as old as the hills and we can hear them being repeated now, by abstinence-only advocates and people who are horrified that their daughters might not wind up with cervical cancer.

And because of that, this comic is a great artifact of the culture of silence that surrounded sex prior to the sexual revolution.  The step of going to get birth control is so radical to the couple that Ken's doctor feels the need to kindly explain to him that "feminine hygiene" products don't act as contraceptives.  It's also a good sign of what we're fighting for, why we need to keep sex public; this is the world that the Religious Right wants to return us to.  They crave the silence and shame around sexuality that made the gingerly-phrased euphemisms of Escape From FEAR almost too bold a step into discussing the private realm.  All these years later, we have to be aggressive and bold about being public with these very private things.