Broadcasting Birth Control: Family Planning and Mass Media, 1914-1984

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The history of the birth control movement in the United States is traditionally told through accounts of the leaders and organizations that campaigned to legalize the distribution of contraception. Only recently have historians begun to examine the "cultural work" of printed media including newspapers, magazines, and even novels in fostering support for the cause. This dissertation builds on this scholarship, to examine the films and radio and television broadcasts developed by birth control advocates, and the communications experts they increasingly turned to for guidance, over the course of the twentieth century. As advocates tried to mimic the efforts of commercial advertisers to "sell" health-related behaviors to a wide audience, they crafted the new academic specialty of health communication. I argue that mass media was central to the campaign to transform the private subject of fertility control into one fit for public discussion in the United States. Moreover, the international family planning movement played an instrumental role in establishing and expanding health communication in the promotion of contraception around the globe.

As they negotiated for access to cinema and radio platforms from which to promote their cause, birth control advocates toned down their feminist rhetoric of sexual liberation. After the legalization of contraception, censorship and broadcasting conventions affecting educational messages further diluted the kinds of representations they could promote over the radio and on the nation's television sets. As commercial media became increasingly explicit in the 1960s and `70s, family planning promoters conversely expunged sex from their broadcasts for domestic and foreign audiences. In this way, media helped to shape the messages of the movement.

Seeking greater creative freedom, some of the family planning community began to cultivate informal partnerships with entertainment media producers, perfecting a strategy abroad that would be brought home to the U.S. The Mexican "education-entertainment" approach has since become the most influential model of family planning communication, replicated around the world in efforts to reintroduce the context of sex and relationships to the promotion of contraceptive use. This history is thus a transnational narrative of the dissemination of messages and the technologies and techniques that delivered them.