Ah, the perils of woo in feminism! It’s one of my greatest pet peeves. Feminists have so many great ideas and insights, and yet we routinely discredit ourselves by tolerating or even promoting the most annoying kinds of woo. Take, for instance, this interview with Laura Eldridge published at Bitch Blog. Eldridge’s life’s work is trying to scare women about the birth control pill, and get them to abandon it in favor of less effective methods, or methods that may not be as conducive to the sort of sex lives they want. But she’s not doing this from an anti-feminist perspective, but from a feminist one that fetishizes the notion of “natural”, a common problem on the left. Jill linked the interview and offered some criticisms of it, but I have to point out that her title “Thinking Critically About the Pill” is simply off. The interview is the opposite of critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t simply tossing accusations and seeing which ones stick. It’s about considering logic and evidence, and avoiding fallacies or predetermined conclusions.
This interview is a hodge-podge of logical fallacies, starting with the naturalistic fallacy. The funniest part about complaints about how the pill isn’t “natural” is that none of the alternatives offered to women are all that natural either. Feminists aren’t about to suggest you spend most of your fertile years pregnant or nursing, so they instead offer other unnatural alternatives like condoms or whatever euphemism is currently in play for the rhythm method. Anti-contraception fanatics are happy to suggest that you spend your fertile years always pregnant, but that’s not natural, either. We evolved under conditions that included frequent periods of starvation that probably suppressed menstruation and therefore ovulation, but I’m guessing that outside of the world of high fashion, no one’s suggesting that as a method of birth control.
The interview also has one of the most comical examples of what skeptics call “JAQ-ing off” that I’ve ever seen.
I thought it was the right time to present a reassessment of our birth control choices, to encourage women to broaden the contraceptive conversation..
Just asking questions, right?
Seven years into working with Barbara and I was still taking the Pill. She wasn’t judgmental and it wasn’t like I was hiding it from her, but I had to learn the lessons she’d been discussing throughout her career for myself.
If you’re just asking questions and broadening the discussion, why is it so wrong to come to the conclusion that you want to be on the pill? Why the self-flagellation, if this is about broadening the discussion?
Eldridge also uses empty scare words like “chemicals” to raise fears, without noting that everything in nature is a chemical. When you talk about chemicals in the water, for instance, you’re kind of being nonsensical, because water is also a chemical. I’m not being an asshole who enjoys hair-splitting, either. Generic concerns about “unnatural” chemicals distract from substantive discussion. For example, all greenhouse gases are naturally-occurring, albeit in far lower levels than they would be without humans. And conservatives exploit this fact to the hilt when denying the reality of global warming, even sometimes being childish enough to suggest that environmentalists don’t want you to breath out because that produces CO2.
The thing that really bothers me about this is the underlying assumption that women take the pill because they’re fundamentally stupid and misinformed, and if they only knew there were alternatives, they’d go for it. Except of course for the brainwashing. This idea crops up in the interview.
I do start with the Pill and it’s descendants – like the shot, the ring and menstrual suppressants – but then I also talk about non-hormonal methods like barriers and IUDs, fertility awareness and emergency contraception.
Let me take the time to point out that anyone who categorizes emergency contraception as “non-hormonal” is a quack, and you shouldn’t listen to them. But I found this passage surprisingly enlightening as to what’s going on when it comes to categorizing methods as more or less “natural” and therefore good. The goodness of a method appears to go up as the effectiveness goes down and the pain in the assness of it goes up. “Fertility awareness” is clearly—if you read to the end—Eldrige’s preferred method, because she says it’s the most green. I find the obsession with making sexuality “green” to be a leftist way of being puritanical without coming out straight with it. If only we could get people to give the same level of attention that they give to reducing waste from pills, condoms, and tampons to reducing waste from far more frequent (and wasteful) activities like eating or driving! If you think I’m overstating the case, consider the amount of feminist greenie energy expended on waxing poetic about menstrual cups and reusable pads, two methods that 99% of American women will reject out of hand. And imagine if that energy was redirected towards the far more attainable goal of getting women to stop using tampon applicators. If we did that, we could actually reduce the amount of waste produced by menstruating women, but that doesn’t have the same emotional satisfaction, because there’s still the sense that women using applicator-less tampons aren’t suffering enough when they get their periods. This need to make sexuality painful or unpleasant underlies a lot of leftist hand-wringing over modern conveniences relating to sex.
And that’s why I found this interview so insulting. When someone essentially says to me, “Did you know you don’t have to be on the pill, because there are condoms?”, I want to smack them on the head for thinking I’m stupid. There are reasons outside of idiocy and gullibility that women might prefer the pill to condoms or the rhythm method. Perhaps, and I know I’m being highly unAmerican in saying this, they think sex is more fun if they can do it whenever they want and they don’t have to work around the condom. Obviously, the risks of STDs outweigh that pleasure if you’re not in a disease-free, monogamous relationship, but if you’re in such a relationship, then why on earth should you feel guilty for wanting unfettered sex? The obsession with the rhythm method is always so telling to me. The whole point of the rhythm method—the reason the Catholic church loves it so much—is that it’s the next best thing to abstinence. After all, you have to abstain when you don’t want to in order to make it work, and when you do have sex, there’s a level of anxiety you don’t have with methods that have the effectiveness rate stamped on the side. It’s funny and telling to me that Eldridge didn’t include abortion as a method to use instead of the pill, since that’s both something you need to spend more time considering if you use less effective methods, and super environmentalist chemical-free (except for the painkillers).
Obviously, I’m not being paid by Big Pharma to point this shit out, but to make this very clear, I’d like to link this piece in Salon as an example of good grappling with the impact that pills have on modern life. Why is this so much better than the hand-wringing over the pill? Well, because it’s evidence-based. The issue at hand is that anti-depressants are probably being over-prescribed. There’s troubling evidence that they’re only effective in people with severe, long-term depression, and don’t do much for people with milder forms of the disease. The question, therefore, is are people using the drugs who feel better only responding to the placebo effect? There’s reason to think so.
Beyond just the evidence, I applaud this piece because it assumes that there might be more complex reasons that anti-depressants are over-prescribed beyond just hand-wringing evil minions of Big Pharma trying to rake in the big bucks. It takes the desires of people who use these drugs very seriously. There’s no waving off of the severity of the blues, no pretending that it’s not that big a deal if you feel sad all the time. Contrast that with the pill interview, where the contempt for the intelligence of women who prioritize sexual spontaneity is not so well-concealed.
None of this is to say that women for whom the pill doesn’t work well are in the wrong. Even if the side effects women experience are often placebo effects, it doesn’t mean that they’re not a real problem. Placebo or not, if being on the pill makes you feel sad or is blamed for weight gain, by all means, go off it. That’s not what’s at stake here. The problem is passing off arguments that are emotional reactions as “critical thinking”.