The birth-control battle that’s dominated headlines for the past few weeks seems to be winding down, as religious conservatives belatedly realize it’s not a winning issue for them. But given how the American religious right continues to contract into a hard, embittered core, I doubt it’s the last time this will come up. I had some thoughts on how this battle played out in the media, and how we should prepare for the next one.
In the thick of the fight, many people pointed out, rightly, that birth control is a medical necessity. As Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke (the brave young student who was disgustingly vilified by Rush Limbaugh) said in her testimony, one of her friends at a Catholic university couldn’t get birth control pills to control her polycystic ovary syndrome, and as a result, had to have that ovary removed and ended up going into premature menopause. In this case, the anti-contraception obsession of the Catholic church actually prevented at least one woman from ever having children. Other women take the pill to control medical disorders like dysmenorrhea and endometriosis.
However, if we argue solely on these grounds – that birth control should be covered by insurance because it’s a medical necessity for some people – we cede too much ground to religious puritanism. Against the dirty-minded fanatics who hold that having sex for any purpose besides procreation is intrinsically bad, we ought to make a positive, affirmative defense that sex purely for pleasure is perfectly normal, healthy, and good.
I realize that casual sex doesn’t seem to need defending. However, although the modern-day Puritans obviously haven’t stopped people from having sex, they’re doing their best to persuade us all that it’s dirty and shameful. Consider the regressive, sex-phobic abstinence-only classes being aggressively pushed in schools by the religious right. Simply teaching the health benefits of abstinence would be one thing, but many of these classes include exercises that compare sex before marriage to sharing a lollipop, or reusing a piece of tape – as if people who have sex are ruined, spoiled or used up. This is the same Bronze Age mindset as in the Bible, which “punishes” rapists by commanding them to marry their victims – presumably reflecting the belief that once a woman is no longer a virgin, no other man could ever be expected to want her.
What makes this view especially irrational is this: when do people learn how to have sex responsibly? The religious right’s prevailing belief seems to be that young people never need to be taught anything but abstinence, and then once they get married, they’ll suddenly just know enough about sex, somehow, to have a happy and healthy marriage. I suspect the reality for millions of sheltered faithful is more like Deborah Feldman’s: in her book Unorthodox, she describes her wedding night as an embarrassing ordeal because, literally, neither her nor her husband knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing. It took over a year of fights, recriminations and therapy before they were able to successfully consummate their marriage.People have been having sex for pleasure since there were people. As I’ve written in the past, our biology makes this inevitable: the fact that human ovulation is concealed, unlike in most other mammals, ensures that most sex acts will take place at the wrong time for fertilization. The only effect of enforced ignorance is to make this sex both more dangerous and less pleasurable than it would otherwise be.
A far better view of sex is the rational, humanist perspective that strips away fear, shame and mystery and treats it neither as an act of supernatural significance nor an expression of conquest, but an exchange of pleasure and affection between freely consenting adults*. As long as these conditions are met, sex is a good thing and we have every reason not just to accept it, but to encourage it! It can be in marriage or outside of marriage; it can be in the context of a monogamous relationship, a polygamous relationship, or no relationship at all; it can be between people of the same gender or of different genders. The only important guiding principles are consent, honesty and respect. As long as these are present, sex is a positive contributor to the overall health of a society and the happiness of its people. We should be speaking out in defense of people’s right to have it as often as they choose, free from guilt or shame.
* Note: I use “adult” to denote a state of physical and emotional maturity, not a specific and inevitably arbitrary chronological age. There are many teenagers who are adult enough to be having sex; there are many people well over the age of 18 who aren’t. But since the legal line has to be drawn somewhere, I support the idea of Romeo and Juliet laws that establish a sliding scale for people who are below the age of full consent.
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