Monday, March 05, 2012

A private matter UPDATED

All of the discussions lately about contraception - so much catchier than the Big Political Issues, and yet more hard-news than whatever else you might get from WWPD, so allow me to proceed - center on the question of "access to." What does it mean for women to have "access to" contraception?

The problem with this topic is that it's, well, personal. Female friends might discuss this, but typically, in my experience, certainly past college, they - we - do not. I assume that the heterosexual women I know who don't have 15 children are doing something, but couldn't say in most cases whether it's actually that they're abstinent; discreetly lesbian; or infertile; or with infertile men; etc., etc., etc. It's not my business. This is, after all, an issue whose legal grounding comes from a "right to privacy."

And yet I wish that as a rule, there were more openness about contraception. I wish that frank discussions of birth control weren't somehow equated with confessions of what, precisely, goes on in the bedroom, how often and with whom. But that's how it goes. If a woman announces she's on the Pill, it's kind of... inappropriate, as if she's set up a webcam in her bedroom - no! - in the public parks where she and her myriad lovers fornicate the night away. Admitting to being on the Pill is like confessing to a sordid private life. Shouldn't be, but is. It's TMI! Overshare! What if the young woman's parents or potential employers read this thing? What if They - that amorphous They, including, of course, the potential elementary-school-age students of women who aren't even teachers - were to know? What then?

Never mind that the reality of this is, it's about the same as if all of a sudden, men had to partially subsidize tampon purchases. It's an expense that impacts virtually all women for some period (sorry) of their lives. It benefits all of society that random benches and office chairs and seats at the movies aren't destroyed, yet the people whose clothing/reputations would also be impacted tend to be the ones purchasing the Tampax. Men would probably resent having to pay for something they don't, personally, use. Given the extent to which contraception is employed, this is, more or less, what we're looking at. It absolutely means something about society that there is now contraception, but on an individual level, it tells you approximately as much about a female pharmacy-goer that she's purchasing a month's supply of birth control pills as that she's stopped by the Always aisle.

Precisely because contraception is oh-so-private, misconceptions arise - especially, needless to say, among men - about what this "birth control" thing is all about. They easily forget that the very need for contraception comes from women having sex with men. Sparing these men - I might add - 18 years of child-support payments, not to mention the serious possibility of 18 years of continued communications with every woman they've ever slept with. It becomes a discussion about women choosing to have sex, when the sex in question by definition involves men. Not such an issue for women who have sex with women. Not to bring my dissertation into everything, but this is kind of like when Napoleon and others in 19th C France wanted "the Jews" to intermarry, without ever considering that for this to happen, non-Jews would need to be involved.

They also - further evidence, if any were needed, that "Seinfeld" has covered everything - don't have an immediate sense of how it is that they haven't impregnated the women they've been with. They don't, in other words, have a terribly good sense of what birth control is. It's going on behind the scenes, so they can pretend it doesn't happen, like the proverbial high school boy who imagines girls lack digestive tracts. There was, of course, Rush Limbaugh, making the leap that a woman who defends the Pill a) uses it herself, b) uses it as contraception, and c) needs lots of pills in order to have lots of sex. Then, in this nutty-but-popular article that's being linked to left and right, a genius named Craig Bannister hears that it would cost a woman $3,000 for three years' worth of birth control, and concludes that women with this complaint "are having sex nearly three times a day for three years straight, apparently." How so? "At a dollar a condom if she shops at CVS pharmacy’s website, that $3,000 would buy her 3,000 condoms – or, 1,000 a year. [....] Assuming it’s not a leap year, that’s 1,000 divided by 365 – or having sex 2.74 times a day, every day, for three straight years."

It did not occur to these men that there are forms of birth control other than the condom, let alone that these might not all be equally effective. And it appears that many found Limbaugh and Bannister's argument convincing. One adds a new level to the brilliance by catching on that this $3,000 figure is in reference to a prescription method, but assuming that a young woman is on the Pill to avoid the need to use condoms. The word "steamy" is used. If this episode tells us anything surprising, it's that not all sex-obsessed social conservatives are closeted homosexuals. Some are merely repressed straight men with active imaginations.

In one sense, the "$3,000 worth of sex" contingent is just being misogynistic, just making the most of a politically-sanctioned opportunity to call women sluts. Maybe some know what the Pill is, but get a kick out of hurling epithets. It points to anxieties about what it means that a woman can go out and have sex with tons and tons of guys and not bear any physical consequences whatsoever.

But I suspect all this discussion points to a genuine misunderstanding about the technology underlying our experience. There are some concrete reasons why, despite lower infant and childbirth death rates, the average woman doesn't have a dozen kids, why women are able to participate in the workforce, why young women and men - for that matter - are not forced into marrying the first person they've slept with. It saves everyone from having to promise a lifetime of fidelity to someone it may turn out they don't even enjoy sleeping with once. On some level, the anti-contraception side - and I mean by this not only whichever tiny minority would have contraception banned, but also the great many social conservatives who see contraception as kinda-sorta a bad thing, kinda squicky, part and parcel of These Corrupt Times - imagines that those who eschew the extremes of the "hook-up culture" - a couple of serious, monogamous relationships in high school and college, say, followed by marriage around age 25 - somehow don't need to use contraception. "Nice" girls/women do not have post-its on their foreheads bearing the name of whichever prescription they're on, so it can be assumed that "nice" means eschewing contraception.

The debate ends up putting defenders of contraception in a bind. On the one hand, there is the desire to point out that the Pill has medical uses, and that contraception is used not only by the young and promiscuous, but also by the married-yet-premenopausal. To beat it over the heads of the reason-impaired that non-barrier methods of contraception are not used more often by those having more sex, but are a binary, on-it-or-off-it sort of thing. It's entirely possible to use birth control daily and have sex yearly, or never. It's also entirely possible to support access to contraception and not, personally, use contraception. There's a perfectly understandable desire to emphasize, in other words, that contraception =/= sluttiness.

On the other hand, while beneficiaries of contraception tend to fall all over the spectrum on these issues, as they include virtually everyone in heterosexual relationships (with the possible exception of closeted politicians, whose family fertility may bear some resemblance to that of the Protestant couple at the beginning of The Meaning of Life: "We have two children, and we've had sexual intercourse twice."), supporters of contraception tend to also oppose making value judgements about the difference between consenting-adults sex with one partner, and with 1,000. I mean, not entirely - even Dan Savage rails against bathhouses and the like - but "slut-shaming" is, as a rule, considered unacceptable discourse. Thus SlutWalks. No, being for/on contraception doesn't make a woman promiscuous, but if she is promiscuous, don't judge. While the not-that-there's-anything-wrong-with-it approach has its merits - ideally women wouldn't be any more judged than men, and it's important to remember that "promiscuous" is subjective, as is "sex positive" (Dan Savage, after all, is anti-bathhouse), and that even those who take a pro-marriage, pro-monogamy stance might support premarital experimentation - it has the unfortunate impact of alienating those who acknowledge they benefit from contraception and would openly support it, if they didn't think doing so was signing onto some kind of broader pro-libertinism agenda.

The problem with either approach is that it's inevitably about the question of women having sex, even though the sex in question is, of course, with men. A woman who takes a pill each day to prevent pregnancy is, each day, acknowledging that she is, or is open to being, sexually active. Men... might carry condoms if intending to have sex relatively soon, or in a relatively casual capacity, but a man who has sex whenever luck strikes, or with a woman/women with whom (responsibly or otherwise) no condoms are used, is not continuously on birth control. So, apart from the (significant!) social double-standard regarding male and female sexual activity, there's this way that men can kind of play at being chaste-but-for-procreation. It's plausible that an individual man only ever had sex to produce whichever children he and his wife ultimately bring into the world, because she and whichever women he'd been with before were the ones making those monthly trips to the pharmacy.

This was long and rambling, the result of more drafts than a WWPD post usually receives (which is to say, there were drafts, and when this post was, as it were, conceived, the Limbaugh kerfuffle had yet to even happen). Shorter version: the invisibility of contraception does much to explain why the conversation surrounding it is so screwed up.


Just noticed Emily Bazelon's take. And... I'm not sure where Bazelon gets her definition of "sex-positivity." Sandra Fluke's Affaire produced outrage precisely because Fluke reads as mature and super-serious. Fluke did not ask for any "slut" solidarity, or even, from what I understand, mention if she herself uses contraception. She certainly didn't just proclaim the right of women to sleep with hundreds, thousands of partners, so long as everything's between consenting adults. The controversy came from the fact that the woman slut-shamed does not come across as a "slut." If she had been even a touch "alternative," this all would have played out differently.


Nicholas said...

One factor, though I'll make no claim to how much of the confusion about contraception this accounts for: I have known a large number of conservative Catholics, of male and female varieties, who don't know or understand anything about contraception. I think there's a logic behind this lack of knowledge, even if it's lamentable in this case: contraception is a mortal sin according to the infallible teaching of the Magisterium, such that the use of contraception severs your connection with God and puts you at risk of Hell (I knew people who believed that simply handling a condom still in its packaging qualified as a sin). If it's a sin, and the belief that it's a sin is part of the fundamental stuff of Catholicism about which differing opinions are not acceptable, then there's really no value in understanding why it's not permitted, or what specifically is wrong about it. In fact, the only reason to seek this information out would (probably) be to find a reason not to follow the teaching. The end result of which is a lot of people who are very passionately anti-contraception who are unable to muster good arguments as to why.

This is without prejudice to the "men can be ignorant about this" explanation, which I also think is right on.

Flavia said...

Huh. It's been my experience that women speak extremely freely about contraception with one another--and more freely post-college than in college. I have a pretty good sense of who among my, let's say, 10-12 closest friends is using (or has used) which methods, and what their satisfactions/dissatisfactions are.

But that's just my experience, and my friend/peer group may be more share-y about sexual matters than the average. (Excluding abortion, which does seem a taboo: in the past 20 years I can think of two friends who have mentioned abortion in any real, live, personal way--and the abortions in question were not their own.)

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


That may well be the case, but (lifelong, it would have to be, thus excluding Santorum) conservative Catholics are what % of the population, what % of the discourse? "Cultural" Catholics, even lots of somewhat religious ones, know as well as anyone else about how to prevent pregnancy, which is to say not very much. I mean, I only first heard that something beyond condoms was necessary if one really wished to prevent pregnancy when I was past the age of sex-ed, and I'm hardly from a demographic one would expect to be sheltered in this regard. Meanwhile, everyone in the Netherlands and whichever other parts of Europe is evidently taught this early on, saving most everyone a lot of grief.

But the ignorance, even among those who must be in their late 20s or older, is astounding. The number of comments and articles insisting that someone who needs $3,000 worth of hormonal contraception in three years is surely having a lot of sex... How is this possible? Of course, this is also a commentariat prepared to put Fluke's own sexual practices on the table, which they never were to begin with, and for all we know she's celibate/a lesbian/infertile, etc. So, once someone has opted to make it about Fluke, irrationality is just part of the picture, and doesn't necessarily point to genuine ignorance. But I kind of think it does.


Maybe it's that I don't have as many female friends with whom I'm let's-discuss-contraception close? Some, yes - I can't imagine being a straight woman and not having anyone to discuss the practicalities of such issues with - but there are more women I consider friends, but wouldn't be likely to bring that up with. Could bring it up, but probably wouldn't. Which I guess about amounts to what you suggested - different levels of openness. I feel like in college, when this was all fairly new to everyone, it was a huge topic of conversation, but that around the age at which people were settling down with future spouses, it kind of petered out.

But these particularities aside, the broader point, I think, is that it's in the realm of... inappropriate. As in, if you mention that you have a kid, this implies intercourse, but it's socially acceptable. In virtually any setting, if you mention you're married, or (certainly if you're in your 20s or older) have a boyfriend/girlfriend, this implies a romantic relationship with a physical component. But if you mention at, say, a social event with colleagues that you need to stop by the pharmacy for your birth control, you're saying something vaguely graphic. Even though all it implies is that one is a heterosexual, premenopausal, and not trying for a kid. Nothing super-explicit about the bedroom. Yet outside of close friendships, people tiptoe around it as if it did.

Britta said...

I talk about BC and menstruation management a lot more post college than in college (and in high school I would have died rather than talk about menstruation with strangers, of course not sexually active then.)

Yeah, on BC. I guess super hardcore Catholics go to hardcore Catholic school, and I grew up in the Socialist Utopia of Portland OR, but by 8th grade I knew every BC method out there and its general effectiveness. (We had to make charts in both 6th and 8th grade health class listing the effectiveness for perfect and actual use, how they prevented pregnancy, and the pros and cons of all the methods available at the time.) I assumed my sex ed experience was normal, but apparently not.

It's also it's pretty apparent that this isn't really about BC and much more about blatant misogyny, so I suppose what people actually know isn't all that important as long as they can find some excuse to call women sluts and prostitutes and demand sex tapes of them.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


From everything I've read about it, I really do think this is a mix of misogyny (blatant, copious) and ignorance of the technicalities of contraception. I mean, if you understand that the Pill must be taken daily to work at all, and that it's not some kind of pre- or post-sex implement, all these remarks about how Fluke must be having "so much sex" seem at least as foolish as they do misogynistic. If the Limbaughs, the "opinion leaders," as it were, do know how contraception works, it seems they're intentionally stirring up a crowd that isn't on such solid footing. I don't remember where this particular one was, but some comment on this topic was about how, if a woman had a serious boyfriend, and wasn't, you know, sleeping around, then they'd be using condoms and not the Pill. As if the point of hormonal contraception was merely to protect women who didn't trust their super-casual partners to use a condom. I think? It didn't add up.

And the comments tend to be along those lines - a vague sense that a woman who's on hormonal birth control is having lots of sex with lots of partners, as well as refusing to use condoms.

Britta said...

Well, one thing might be that the right has succeeded in getting people to associate hormonal BC with the morning-after-pill (and thus with abortionz!!!!!) If this is the case, it's kind of sad and depressing. It would make sense though if you think that people apparently are claiming that BC is 1) sex-frequency dependent and 2) OTC.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


Some on the right are certainly trying to give the impression that contraception is abortion, and thus going beyond the (unpopular) claim that both are bad insofar as they separate sex from reproduction. Some NPR podcast or other I was just listening to while walking my dog had a woman on who represented a non-sectarian anti-choice group, and one of her talking points was to mention 'and such and such abortion drug' every time contraception came up, when the drug in question was some new version of the Pill that evidently medical science doesn't understand to do what this woman was claiming. And it follows that if there's confusion over whether the Pill is taken each time a woman has sex, it would be easy enough to convince vast swaths of the country that birth control - all forms of it, why not? - is abortion, without even bringing in the "every sperm is sacred" language. Ugh.