Turns out a lot of men look forward to the oops pregnancy
I know I’ve been writing a lot about reproductive rights and sexual health issues, but the stories I want to comment on seem to be increasing lately. As someone who writes a lot about these issues, I’ve noticed something interesting over the years about the feedback I get on the “moral” question of abortion, specifically from self-identified pro-choicers. Occasionally I’ll get an email, comment, or tweet from someone who is worried about the moral gravity of abortion, and suggests that somehow pro-choice arguments would be more compelling if we gave up more ground on the stigma of the procedure, if we spent more time in public worrying about how terrible abortion is (as if women who get abortions aren’t already shamed enough), that I personally haven’t thought enough about how serious a decision abortion must be for women and how tragic it always, always is.
95-99% of this feedback is from men.
I have a few theories—some of them work together, due to the both/and nature of this blog—as to why this might be. I considered the possibility that it’s biological, that these men are so unaware of a woman’s bodily functions that they really don’t stop to think about how early stage pregnancy isn’t like some lightening bolt for women, but more a gradually introduction to bloaty crankiness that has to be confirmed by a pregnancy test, it’s so not lightening bolt-ish. And so these men don’t have a relationship to the idea of abortion as prevention, which is closer to how women who have abortion—and those of us who feel empathy for them—think of it. I also considered strongly that for men, it’s really an ego thing. The sentimental patriarchal arguments forwarded by anti-choice men who clearly get off on the idea of being able to control women with their super-sperm unfortunately have an emotional effect on some men who are intellectually pro-choice. But what I realized is that a man’s unease with abortion was often, in his own words, related to his desire to be a father—usually recently realized or something he wants very soon.
It makes no sense, though! Or at least that’s what I thought at first. Wanting to be a father, in my mind, was about wanting to make the decision jointly with a woman and moving forward with a plan. But in real life, there are often situations where decisions are made passively, because of an unintended pregnancy. And I realized how that might actually be something men who want marriage and fatherhood hope for. Why not? In our sexist society, the decision to marry is basically on the man. Women are the ones who are supposed to be eager to get married, but they’re also the ones who are supposed to sit back and wait to be asked. But asking is showing eagerness, but eagerness is supposed to be girly stuff, so I imagine that’s intimidating for a lot of dudes. Ways to manage the slight emasculation inherent in picking out jewelry and showing interest in this wedding stuff include having a huge public proposal where people will side with you and her only role is to say “yes”, asking her father first and making it seem transactional, or getting over your hang-ups about masculinity and just asking. Or….you could get her pregnant and be the conquering hero by making an honest woman of her. As soon as I realized this, I realized what a powerful fantasy that must be to some men. It’s the perfect way to get what you want (marriage, babies) without having to say you want that girly stuff. It certainly explained a handful of men’s erratic behavior and opinions that I’ve known in my time. It was a pet theory of mine, but nothing I thought too much about beyond bullshitting over beers.
Well, no more is it merely a pet theory! There’s now evidence that my pet theory has some grounding in reality. The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy surveyed men and women who said that preventing a pregnancy was important to them, and asked about how they’d feel if there was an unintended pregnancy despite precautions. The results were staggering: More than twice as many men as women reported they’d be pleased.
Now, the first thing that is weird and confusing about this is that anyone trying to avoid pregnancy would be pleased if it happened. But it’s been known for a long time by researchers (and despite some quarrels I have with NCPTUP, I respect that they’re really looking into the ambivalence issue) that a whole lot of unintended pregnancy involves ambivalence. Which makes sense—only 40% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion, so many of the rest probably involve some level of wanting to have the baby even if the pregnancy was unintended. Major decisions, such as when to get married or have a child, tend to involve ambivalence and a lot of people do in fact bop along hoping something will happen to make that decision happen for them. But the gap between men and women was astounding: 43% of men and only 20% of women said they’d be pleased by an accidental pregnancy.
What really interested me, however, was that the shifting in the percentages tends to uphold my theory that a lot of men—and some women, too—see an unintended pregnancy as a way to get desired results without taking definitive action. The older that both groups got, the more they indicated that they’d be pleased with an unplanned pregnancy, with slightly over half of men 25-29 who were trying to prevent pregnancy indicating they’d be happy if it happened anyway, but only 29% of women in that same age group. While I’m sure a lot of factors went into people’s thinking, it seems the possibility of marriage and babies being chosen for you gets more attractive with age, as you might imagine.
So why the gap? Are women less interested in marriage and babies than men? I don’t think that’s it, though often you’ll find women are less enthusiastic about marriage in surveys, but not by this much. It might be because a woman feels that her future is unknown a little more if she gets pregnant. I suspect a lot of men who feel they’re in love think, “Well, if it happens, I’ll just suggest we get married, end of story.” But for women who feel warmly about marriage with their partner, it’s not so simple. I know from women I’ve known who got pregnant and then married, the time between when you got pregnant and when he asked can be a very vulnerable time, and asking seems out of the question, because of that stereotype about women who trick men into marriage. And if he doesn’t ask, then you actually have more decisions to make, not fewer. Plus you just learned something really heart-breaking, if you were eager for marriage. Of course, it’s technically true that a pregnant woman can turn down a marriage proposal, and perhaps men should worry about that. But maybe they don’t, perhaps because it’s assumed that a woman who shoots you down will probably have an abortion. To be clear, I’m only addressing the thought processes of the half of men that would be pleased. I think the other half probably have a better grip on how many different outcomes are possible, and some of them really don’t want to face the marriage and babies question now or ever.
One extra thing pointed out in comments at Feministe that made a lot of sense to me was that the burden of pregnancy and child-rearing falls more on women than men, and so men may not take the situation as seriously on average. There’s something to this, especially with men who are already predisposed to marry and have babies with their current partners. In these cases, the most they’re probably thinking about is that marriage and babies, but maybe not so much career prospects or education. Someone at The Sexist suggested that a lot of men might just be happy to find out their sperm works. One hopes this is not the case, but I think in a few cases, it probably has an influence. We aren’t talking strictly rational reactions, after all.
Unfortunately, the National Campaign tends to run campaigns against unplanned pregnancy based on the premise that men are unreliable and you shouldn’t touch one until you’re ready to breed, and so I fear that they may use this information in unproductive ways. I’d prefer a campaign encouraging more couples to talk to each other not just about contraception, but what they see happening if contraception fails. There’s a real taboo against having that discussion, but it’s a really important one to have. It’s no fun not being on the same page in the event of an unintended pregnancy.