Contraception, Exploitation, and Perversion

As you may know, my How I Lost Faith in the Pro-Life Movement post last November went viral. Well, it’s still being read, and people are still commenting. There’s one response I’ve gotten lots more than once that has really set me back, scratching my head. Here’s an example:

Contraception also perverts sex. What, woman are free to be used by men? Men can now satisfy their lust without any fears of taking responsibility. I wish woman and men were more respected. You are made for more.

The thing is, I remember thinking like this, once upon a time a long time ago. I believed contraception allowed men to exploit women. The basic idea was that if women didn’t have the high cost of pregnancy attached to sex, they wouldn’t have an excuse to fall back on when telling a boyfriend “no.” Further, sex without consequences made it so that men could get what they wanted from women—i.e. sex—without then having to commit to them as part of raising offspring. The problem is that all of this flows from the idea that we feminists have replaced purity/progeny-based sex with, well, nothing, when the reality is that we’ve replaced purity/progeny-based sex with consent-based sex.

Let me see if I can untangle this.

What, woman are free to be used by men?

This idea that women are suddenly open season for exploitation if sex and procreation are decoupled flows from a patriarchal assumption that women are lesser and are only afforded any respect at all because of their mystical and magical ability to bear children. You take away that maternal aspect, and women becoming nothing but trash to be used. In other words, if women didn’t have magical mystical baby-making power, why would men give a fig for them or their well-being, except to keep them around as sex toys? Women’s worth and value and virtue is tied to their role as mothers and givers of life, which becomes their sole role for existing—this is what is meant by the lament for the loss of “respect” for women. More on the concept of respect in a minute.

Men can now satisfy their lust without any fears of taking responsibility.

Satisfy their lust? Men are incapable of forming mutually fulfilling relationships? Men are incapable of approaching women as equals worthy of respect and worth getting to know? I don’t want a man hanging around me with the sole desire of slaking his lust on me, but I don’t want a man respecting my hypothetical desire to not have sex solely because he’s afraid of getting me pregnant, either. Because isn’t that what this sentence says? That the only reason men kept it in their pants outside of serious committed relationships was that they were worried about getting women pregnant and then having to shoulder the burden of helping raise a child? Of course, all of this is predicated on an imagined past, because (a) men did not keep it in their pants outside of serious committed relationships in the past and (b) plenty of men have always shirked the responsibility that comes with childrearing and (c) men have long used women’s inability to control their procreation as a way to control and abuse them, as we see in the current practice of birth control sabotage.

I wish woman and men were more respected.

Yeah, me too, and you’re not helping.

What feminists want is not to free women to be exploited (which by the way, women have always been exploited, contraception or no contraception) but rather for women to be respected as equals, individuals, and fellow humans, not treated as a role, a tool, or a toy. Respect is about viewing women as people rather than seeing them as tools whose only purpose is to serve men, or placing them on a pedestal as an ode to their magical maternal power. Here, let me put it simply: Regardless of what this commenter may think, a person’s ability to respect someone is not tied to that person’s ability to procreate, or, in this case, to that person’s inability to control their ability to procreate.

You are made for more.

You better believe we are. Look, this idea that women have to be able to use “I might get pregnant” as an excuse to get a guy to take her “no” for a “no”—that’s very very rapey. That’s suggesting that men are brutes who push and push and push and can’t possibly be bothered to, I don’t know, respect women’s wishes. Women don’t need excuses for not having sex. Consent is about empowering a person to simply say “no” if she—or he—does not want to have sex—and to have that “no” respected. And personally, I believe consent is a concept men are indeed capable of grasping. I not just think women are capable of way more than simply the biological function of procreation, I also think men are capable of more than simply viewing every contracepting woman they come in contact with through the eyes of a rapist.

Let me make one final point, and it may be the most important point to make here. Women can want sex too. I suspect that the commenter who graced my blog with his comment probably thinks that any woman who has a lot of premarital sex is being exploited. Not so. Women are just as capable of being sexual beings as men are. And yet, you would never see this author suggest that a woman might use contraception to take sexual advantage of the men in her life because she would no longer have to keep her sexual appetite in check for fear of the possibility of pregnancy. Oh no! Women are to be placed on a pedestal, eternally pure, whether virginal or maternal, and having sexual desire would knock her from that pedestal!

Contraception frees women to choose when and if to have children. It gives them control of their lives and their bodies. It enables them to set their own destinies. And if there are men who look at a contracepting woman and see an easy target for exploitation, the problem lies not with contraception but with those men.

What's a Girl to Do?
When "Pro-Life" Means "Anti-Birth Control"
All-Options PRC: The New Pro-Choice Center on the Block
The "Real Men" of Evangelical Christianity
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.