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Code red on feminist woo

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, April 5, 2010 20:38 EDT
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I don’t mean to keep hammering at Bitch Blogs for this, but it’s just irresponsible at this point. Earlier today, I criticized an interview with anti-pill activist Laura Eldrige for engaging in unscientific fear-mongering. Well, there’s a part two up. In the first part, there was the pretense that this is about “asking questions” and “broadening the discussion”, a cover story that skeptics like to call “JAQing off“.

JAQing off is the act of spouting accusations while cowardly hiding behind the claim of “Just Asking Questions”. The strategy is to keep asking leading questions in an attempt to influence listeners’ views; the term is derived from the frequent claim by the denialist that they are “just asking questions”, albeit in a manner much the same as political push polls. It is often associated with denialism in general.

In my experience, JAQers usually drop the pretense fairly quickly, and that’s exactly what happens in part two of this interview. The pretense that this is about demanding more options and greater variety is dropped, and it’s full-blown demonizing of the birth control pill, complete with characterizing women on it as hapless victims who don’t have control over their lives. If you think I’m overstating it, let me say this—Eldridge basically says that being on the pill makes you a junkie.

I went to a conference with Barbara in 2007 and a doctor was talking about HRT (which by the way, is made of the same chemicals that are in the Pill but at lower doses) – and I asked her about women coming off of hormone treatments and how they could get, perhaps, addicted to them and she was very adamant that women do not get addicted to these drugs. I couldn’t believe her contention. These are powerful chemicals, and people have the potential to get addicted to powerful chemicals. Many women describe experiences coming off the Pill that sound like addiction. That said, not all women find coming of the Pill or HRT tough – I didn’t have a problem with it.

Oh, good to know she doesn’t think we’re all junkies!

The slim excuse for this hyperbolic language is that she’s talking about physical dependency, but let’s face it. Calling the pill “addictive” is about aligning it with recreational drugs, which is something that I expect from sex-phobic anti-choicers who think we all have abortion parties, but not from a feminist. Using that frame is sex-negative, whether Eldridge intends it to be or not.

That’s the weirdest part of the interview, but it’s far from the only weird part of it. Eldridge mentioned a whole bunch of contraception alternatives in the last post, but in this one, she talks about how she settled on using a diaphragm. Yes, the much-reviled method that was so popular in the anti-feminist 1950s! The one that has fallen out of fashion because it has all the negatives of condoms without any of the positives (STD protection, getting men involved). And as if daring me to call her a crank, Eldridge practically delights in the fact that the doctor thought she was loony for wanting a diaphragm.

In all seriousness, I’m sure the diaphragm is fine. Like Eldridge says, it worked fine for a lot of women in its heyday. According to Planned Parenthood, it has a 6% failure rate if used correctly. Not as good as the pill, but not so horrible, either. And since I’m into vinyl collecting and vintage dresses, I can’t pick on someone who enjoys a little of that retro flair, though I can’t say that it seems very satisfying to have it hugging your cervix. But it’s funny to me that someone who, in her JAQing off phase, bemoaned the lack of innovation in contraception is now applauding a method that hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the past 60 years. And while she says it’s easy to use now, the fact that it took her three weeks to figure out how to use it properly doesn’t do much to dissuade me from feeling that Eldridge is working from the premise that sex should be a hassle.

And then there’s the conflation of science and superstition.

There’s a certain amount of superstition that comes in to trying to avoid getting pregnant. You put your faith in one method or another. Being more in control of the process and taking responsibility for what happens can be scary. It’s amazing that we have this one size fits all Pill where someone who is 4’10” and 95 pounds takes the same one as someone who is 6’2” – that doesn’t seem right.

I’m sorry, but this is just stupid. Women don’t use the pill on “faith”. Those hormones and chemicals Eldridge is trying to raise fears about? They are scientifically demonstrated to suppress ovulation. To hear her talk about it, people are just swallowing random shit and hoping it works. In reality, the effectiveness rates for birth control pills come from scientific studies, with controls and everything! She can’t have it both ways. Either the pill is some kind of chemical that affects your body, or it’s like trying to control your fertility by praying. She’s just throwing everything she’s got at it, even arguments that contradict each other.

As for her concerns about body size? Guess what! That’s actually accounted for. In one of those non-faith bona fide scientific studies, they found that the pill is slightly less effective in overweight women. If you’re overweight, that means that a pill that would have a 1% failure rate goes up 1.6-1.7% failure rate, if I’m doing the math correctly. Not great, but I have to point out that it’s still better than the diaphragm. Of course, there are more health risks for overweight women on the pill, which is something to consider. Good doctors discuss all this with their patients. But the reason it’s less effective has less to do with Eldridge’s kind of goofy understanding of how the pill works. It’s not that you get less “coverage” over your whole body, it seems. It’s more that overweight people tend to have higher metabolisms, so the drug is used up faster. Losing weight would lower their metabolisms.

And to round off this interview, we get a little paranoia about the male birth control pill that hasn’t been invented yet.

But pharmaceutical companies are much more wary about inflicting the possible side effects on men. They say, for example, that the male contraceptive can not have any effect on men’s sexuality, when the female Pill certainly does have this impact on women. Women are supposed to tolerate these problems and possibly until they hear men stand up and say they don’t want to take the male Pill then they won’t think any further.

There’s a lot of real sexism in the world, enough that you really don’t need to make it up to be against it. While individual women have anecdotally said the pill drove down their sex drive, the only study I’ve found that indicates that is a very small one that has control problems. Whereas I do believe the research on the male birth control pill was pretty conclusive on the sex drive issue, and the dip was severe. What’s so funny to me is that anti-pill arguments often go into the “have it both ways” bin when it comes to this. We’re told that the pill was invented by men so they could get laid more, and that it drives down a woman’s sex drive. Why would those diabolic men push a drug that makes women say “no” more often?

The real reason there hasn’t been a male birth control pill is mundane. No one really knows how to do it. Despite Eldridge’s constant banging on about how unnatural the pill is, it works because it mimics a process that a woman’s body has all on its own, which is ovulation suppression. Right after you ovulate, your body starts sending out hormone signals that keep you from ovulating again—this presumably evolved so women can’t get pregnant after they get pregnant. (Though on very, very, very rare occasions this fails and a woman does get pregnant while pregnant. Weird, right?) What the pill does is keeps your hormones at the level they would be after you ovulated. That’s basically it.

The problem is there isn’t a natural process in a man’s body that stops sperm production. (Except death, but seems like it has even more drawbacks than a diaphragm as a birth control method.) Without a model of how to do that, researchers are kind of stuck in the throwing-darts-at-a-map phase. To make it worse, I don’t think the research funding is ever going to be adequate. Drug companies believe that the demand for this product just isn’t high enough to turn a profit to justify the research expenses. I think their fears are overblown because of sexism, but they probably have a point, too. Except for women who really have bad luck with the birth control pill, not many women are going to see the need to hand the control over to someone who doesn’t run the risk. The perception is that we’re more likely to take care of ourselves than others. The research that shows that men are more likely to hope for an oops pregnancy than women only makes me more certain that a lot of women have a good reason not to trust that their partners would be diligent. (Not that they’d purposefully get you pregnant, but they may not be highly motivated not to forget the pill.) That research is only going to make drug companies less inclined to invest money in researching a male birth control pill without an obvious path to success.

I’m sorry that I had to dedicate not one, but two posts to this. But I have a good reason. Political activism should be grounded in reality and respectful of scientific evidence in all cases, but this requirement is doubly important for feminism. Why? Because feminism is already vulnerable to attacks based on the sexist notion that women are hysterical and irrational. Feminists are already up against a wall of accusations that we make up sexism and we’re paranoid. It doesn’t help us when some feminists embody the worst stereotypes of irrationality and paranoia. And then there’s always the “feminists hate sex” side dish of hate, which is not helped when you have feminists out there exploiting sex negativity in order to push the idea that sex should be unnecessarily cumbersome.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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