Why contraception is scary, and why it’s not
Sara Robinson has a really great summary of how effective contraception Changed Everything, and why—though it’s utterly baffling to most of us—patriarchal dudes long for a time when there wasn’t any such thing and every act of heterosexual intercourse had an undercurrent of doom for women. It’s not because Doom Sex turns them on, though I think for some (Ross Douthat and Rick Santorum come to mind), they can’t get it up without that feeling that this particular act could disrupt their partner’s life at a moment’s notice. It’s because they long for a time when half the human race was most assuredly underfoot, and men could count on being the leaders of women, simply because they were born male. It’s like the divine right of kings, but for every man.
Of course, most men like having sex more than getting crowned the petty king of a teeny country, which is why I want to quibble a teeny bit with this argument.
And, frankly, while some men have embraced this new order— perhaps seeing in it the potential to open up some interesting new choices for them, too — a global majority is increasingly confused, enraged, and terrified by it. They never wanted to be at this table in the first place, and they’re furious to even find themselves being forced to have this conversation at all.
I don’t think a global majority of men oppose contraception. A plurality of men in this country support it being free to all women, regardless of who they work for. The rest are apparently too stupid to realize that they benefit from contraception, too, which immediately makes me think that women en masse should start demanding that men pay half the cost and do the work of picking up of birth control pills, until they get it into their heads that this benefits them just as much. (I’m assuming that gay men are probably more, not less, likely to see that women’s rights to contraception and their rights to health care are firmly entwined.) Most men have a complex relationship to patriarchy. They do enjoy the benefits, but most of them pay a price, too, and having crappy sex because you’re worried about having another mouth to feed is just one part of that. That effective contraception tends to take off wherever it’s available suggests that in this way, men are just fine with the new order. That said, her general point is absolutely right; feminism does mean diminishing male control and the majority of men reject that. But I do think they have reason to believe that they both get to benefit from contraception without having to embrace its larger implications.
Sara mentions that we’re three—actually four—generations into the pill now. (The first users were my grandmother’s generation, then my mother’s, then mine, and now the Millenials.) That’s going to make it a hard entitlement to attack, since as far as most living Americans are concerned, this is how it’s always been. But I think it’s even more interesting than that. First of all, you can tack a couple more generations onto that, since birth control became socially normalized in the late 20s and 30s, and was considered pretty standard by the 50s. Before that, there were multiple attempts throughout history to find ways to have sex without pregnancy, usually crude diaphragms and condoms. What the pill did was bridge the gap between the already-existing expectation of being able to have sex without conceiving and many millenia of people wanting to have sex spontaneously. That it’s female-controlled is what offends the patriarchs so much about it, but so was the diaphragm. I really do think spontaneity is what sells the pill.
But just to be a little wonky, I think what really makes a technology world-changing is that it neatly fills a desire that we always had, even if we didn’t know it, to the point where we seamlessly drift into using it without much confusion or complaint. The pill was adopted faster and more readily than the cell phone, even though the pay phone indicates that the urge to be able to make a phone call on the run was already existing and already acknowledged. It took off faster than the computer, faster than internet, and faster than the television. Demand for it was so high that even in early stage testing, researchers were overrun with volunteers. The only thing I’ve seen take off as fast and make so much sense to people as soon as it was available was text messaging, which spoke to the deep desire to be able to share information with someone while minimizing the disruption that the phone has always represented. If you tried to take away text messaging, people riot in the streets. Something to think about.
All that said, I think Sara is right here:
But if we’re wise, we’ll keep our eyes on the long game, because you can bet that those angry men are, too. The hard fact is this: We’re only 50 years into a revolution that may ultimately take two or three centuries to completely work its way through the world’s many cultures and religions. (To put this in perspective: it was 300 years from Gutenberg’s printing press to the scientific and intellectual re-alignments of the Enlightenment, and to the French and American revolutions that that liberating technology ultimately made possible. These things can take a loooong time to work all the way out.) Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will, in all likelihood, still be working out the details of these new gender agreements a century from now; and it may be a century after that before their grandkids can truly start taking any of this for granted.
I honestly think half the reason that contraception isn’t controversial is because most people aren’t big thinkers, and therefore don’t really see contraception as the straw that broke the patriarchy’s back. Part of that is that abortion plays that role, since rejecting pregnancy after a man’s seed has planted is a much more resonant symbol of rejecting male power and authority. The interesting thing about this is that many of the men who are up in arms about this are big, long-term thinkers. They’re not wrong to see that contraception is far more the problem even than abortion (which has actually been more consistent and widespread in human history than contraception). Where I think they’re going to fail is convincing others of it.