“Sexual Availability” Isn’t A Thing. Consent Is.
Lindsay Beyerstein has a wonderful review at Slate of the book Sweetening the Pill, which I’ve kicked around before on this blog. The book got floated as a “feminist” book, but as Lindsay makes utterly clear, there isn’t any legitimate kind of feminism that so deftly replicates the sexist tendency towards gender essentialism, i.e. reducing women and the concept of womanhood to certain biological functions. This point should be obvious, but as Lindsay lays out, there’s a widespread and disturbing phenomenon of gender essentialism calling itself “feminism”, one whose outer reaches even extend towards anti-trans bigotry. There’s a lot to read, including Lindsay’s absolute decimation of the pseudoscience fueling anti-pill tirades, so I highly recommend reading it.
There’s one thing I want to single out, because this kind of argument tends to get kicked around a lot when people discuss sexual assault—that the problem is sex and not assault.
She complains that sex-positive feminists push the pill in a nefarious bid to make women more “sexually available” to men. This is an old feminist argument that has never made any sense. You could just as well say that the pill makes men more sexually available to women, because it allows us to enjoy their charms whenever we want. Sure, if a woman is on the pill and chooses to tell her boyfriend, she can’t beg off sex with the excuse that she might get pregnant. But so what? Any method of birth control makes women “sexually available” to men by taking the pregnancy excuse off the table, even the combo of fertility awareness and condoms that Grigg-Spall advocates as an alternative to the pill. If women are being pressured into sex they don’t want, the problem is rape, not birth control.
This is a pretty classic example of just someone dishonestly appropriating a very serious issue in order to fluff their own, very unserious opinions. Invoking rape to make your bullshit, knee-jerk opinions seem more interesting than they are is sadly pretty common. Are you an older person who is made uncomfortable by kids these days and their sexual experimentation? Throw a little rape talk into your “get off my lawn” rant and make it seem like you’re really just concerned about their safety, and not about how their youth makes you feel weird and old. In this, Holly Grigg-Spall is borrowing very real feminist concerns about power imbalances in relationships that lead to sexual unhappiness and even coercion, and using it to discourage women from taking control of their bodies by using the pill if they wish to do so.
What makes this particularly disturbing is that female-controlled contraception is exponentially more likely to be used as a way for a woman in an abusive relationship to exert control over her body and her future than it is to be used as an excuse by her abuser to hurt her. Indeed, as Lindsay pointed out at the top of the article, one major reason the pill was developed was to relieve the sufferings of women who did not feel empowered to say no to sex or to get male cooperation with contraception:
Years before she founded Planned Parenthood, pioneering feminist Margaret Sanger dreamed of a “magic pill” that would put women in charge of their own fertility. As a visiting nurse in New York City’s tenements, Sanger saw women struggling with unwanted pregnancies, botched abortions, and more children than they could take care of, thanks to husbands who wouldn’t cooperate on birth control. A woman who relies on a man for birth control, Sanger wrote in 1920, is “exploited, driven and enslaved to his desires.” In the early 1950s, Sanger joined forces with philanthropist Katharine McCormick to coordinate the research program that would drag that magic pill into existence.
Now we know that reproductive coercion is a widespread problem. Turns out that men who get a rise out of controlling and dominating their female partners often see the threat of unintended pregnancy as a weapon to use against them. Indeed, what a lot of health providers are discussing now is how to help women in need create a contraception strategy that is easier to hide from controlling partners, with the understanding that preventing unwanted pregnancy is an important step in getting out of an abusive relationship. Hormonal contraception is good for a lot of things, but for women in coercive, abusive relationships, it can be a godsend, because it’s easy to conceal and you don’t need male cooperation. Pills can be hidden, but even more so things like the Depo shot or even implants.
Grigg-Spall invokes coercion in order to lambast the pill, but someone in a coercive relationship really isn’t going to do well trying to implement the rhythm method plus condoms strategy Grigg-Spall prefers. That actually sounds like a foolproof way to get pregnant if you’re in a relationship where you can’t say no when you want to. That in no way, shape or form should be taken to mean that I’m implying that natural family planning somehow causes coercive behavior. That’s the point! Contraception can’t cause coercive behavior. But some forms of it protect women against unwanted pregnancy who are being bullied into sex they don’t want better than others, and to be blunt, it’s not the ones that require male cooperation. Seat belts don’t cause car crashes, but they sure can help if you’re in one.
In general, I just wish we could call a moratorium on the use of abuse, sexual assault, and rape as rhetorical devices to justify the urge to exert control over women’s bodies. Whether you disapprove of the way they dance, their use of alcohol, their desire to take the pill, or whatever, darkly implying that rape or abuse is caused or even facilitated by their choices that you happen to dislike is fucked the fuck up. It always sounds like a threat to me, even in cases where I do think the person arguing really does think they’re just trying to help.
The only thing—the only thing—that can signal a person’s “sexual availability” is for that person to directly communicate to the individual person they would like to have sex with that the option is on the table. No one—no one—can ever, under any circumstances, be considered sexually available in some generalized way. You can only be “available” to the person you wish to have sex with, and that “availability” can be retracted at any point in time. Which is to say, there is no such thing as “sexual availability”. There is consent, sure, but without it, a person is not available, full stop. Any other claims otherwise are just people trying to sell you a line of bullshit.