Past Present Podcast: Bathroom Politics, Spring Break, and the Heroin Crisis


On this week’s Past Present podcast, Nicole Hemmer, Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, and Neil Young discuss North Carolina’s bathroom bill, the history of Spring Break, and the nation’s heroin epidemic.

Bathroom Politics

North Carolina’s state legislature recently overturned a Charlotte non-discrimination ordinance which allowed transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to their gender identity. Natalia noted that fears about public restrooms have often inspired moral panics, pointing to the 1961 short film Boys Beware that warned boys about homosexual predators waiting to attack them in public bathrooms. Niki mentioned that opponents of the Civil Rights Movement played on similar fears, claiming women would be exposed to venereal disease if restrooms were integrated, as the historian Gillian Frank has argued. Neil said anti-feminists had helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment by arguing the constitutional amendment would create sex-integrated bathrooms, making women vulnerable to attacks from rapists. Neil has written for Slate about how similar arguments were made to defeat Houston’s recent bathroom bill.

Spring Break

It’s Spring Break time again, but what’s the history of this annual bacchanalia? Niki considered Spring Break in part as a media creation, noting Time Magazine’s 1959 article that deemed it a rite of passage for college students and the 1960 movie Where the Boys Are that depicted Spring Break adventures in the popular destination of Fort Lauderdale. Natalia noted Spring Break had begun in Fort Lauderdale in the 1930s where a major swim meet turned into a well-known event for thousands of college students. Fort Lauderdale’s Spring Break status culminated in the 1980s with the arrival of MTV Spring Break which televised every debauched moment.

Heroin Crisis

President Obama recently announced a host of new measures to address the nation’s heroin epidemic, including increased focus on treatment. Natalia noted that this more compassionate approach to drug addiction marks a real departure from how the nation dealt with the crack epidemic of the 1980s,arguing racism may explain some of the difference as crack affected black communities while heroin is largely a white epidemic. Neil traced the history of heroin from the nineteenth century when most heroin addicts were upper-class women who used the drug to self-medicate their pains. That history linked to the current crisis, Niki observed, since today’s heroin epidemic stemmed from the abuse of prescription painkillers. Natalia mentioned Elizabeth Wurtzel’s 1994 book Prozac Nationdetailed how the author used drugs to deal with her debilitating depression. And Neil and Natalia both commented on how pop culture had represented drug use and addiction, including the movies Less Than Zero and American Psycho and the television dramas Weeds and Nurse Jackie.

What’s Making History

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