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The Feminist Anti-Contraception Crusaders

The right-wing anti-sex “real woman” backlash seems to have hit the feminist movement this month, with the publication of books telling women to swear off the Pill and to swear off sex. I’m writing about it in the Guardian: That we’ve come a long way, baby, but gender relations remain fraught, and living with a wide variety of choices that look wide-open but end up constrained is much more challenging than having one or two paths to choose from. It’s easier, in many ways, to offer simple proscriptive advice about “real” femininity than to have to figure out how to be a woman when the definition of “womanhood” is increasingly broad:

Anti-abortion and anti-contraception activists often brand themselves as the “true” feminists, claiming, for example, that “women deserve better” than abortion. But their arguments are almost universally premised on the idea that women simply don’t know what’s good for them. We might think we want birth control or abortion access or the right to control the number and spacing of our children, but what’s really empowering is to embrace our natural femininity and have as many babies as God gives. That women have spent all of human history trying to avoid just that doesn’t seem to register. Feminists, you’d think, would understand that better than anyone. Which is why arguments like those in Sweetening the Pill are so disappointing.

Hormonal birth control doesn’t work for everyone, but neither does any medication or treatment. No, birth control isn’t “natural,” and it does interfere with what your body would otherwise naturally do. But so does nearly every other kind of medicine. Ovarian cysts are “natural;” that the pill helps to prevent them is not. Heart attacks are natural; open-heart surgery is not. Cancer is natural; chemotherapy is not. I’m a fan of avoiding putting unnecessary or harmful chemicals into your body. But I’m also a fan of science and of staying alive, healthy and happy. “Unnatural” is not a synonym for “bad”.

Similarly, that something didn’t work for you doesn’t mean that it’s useless for everyone. I experienced some unpleasant side effects from hormonal birth control, went off of it and never looked back. Another good friend of mine had to go off the pill for a few months and was miserable without it. Another swears by her NuvaRing. Another won’t shut up about her Mirena. With 3.5 billion women in the world, it should come as no surprise that some things work for some of us and not others. Of those 3.5 billion, some 222 million would like to control their fertility but lack access to birth control.

Women in many nations today exist in a strange time. We’re technically on equal legal footing and we’ve come so far so quickly that it’s easy to declare feminist victories achieved. But we still lag – we make less money, there are far fewer of us in positions of power, we do more domestic work, our most fundamental rights to our own bodies are still hotly debated, traditionally female careers are especially under-paid and traditional female interests under-valued. We’re supposed to be nurturing child-bearers and also successful professionals, but working mothers find themselves facing wide discrimination. Girls tend to do better in school than boys, not because we’re inherently smarter, but at least in part because girls are taught from a young age to follow the rules, be polite and defer to authority figures. Female workers who succeed are perceived as difficult, aggressive and tough to work with, while successful men see the opposite. Sexualized images of women pervade media and advertising, but we shame women who are unapologetically sexual (and even teenage girls who wear pajamas and take selfies).

There’s no easy way to be a woman today. Adopt the life of a traditional wife and mother and you’re taking a very real risk by making yourself financially vulnerable, not to mention potentially bored and resentful; you’ll also find yourself routinely condescended to and assumed to be an uninteresting childlike twit. Try to be a having-it-all supermom and you’re stressed out, exhausted and frustrated with the systematic barriers to equality, not to mention regularly pilloried for being insufficiently dedicated to your children. Skip or delay the kids and you’re a selfish narcissist flitting through life with no real purpose.

There’s something sweet and simple and safe about being able to say, in such a confusing culture, “The best way to Be A True Woman is to embrace fertility and let it define you.” Or, “We live in a sex-saturated culture, so it’s best for women to give up sex.”

It’s easier to point to one simplistic solution than to assess the diversity of problems women face, and to recognize that “womanhood” is not a singular experience. That’s part of why right-wing anti-feminist narratives resonate so widely: wasn’t life just so much simpler for June Cleaver?

20 thoughts on The Feminist Anti-Contraception Crusaders

  1. “There’s no easy way to be a woman today.” And I don’t think it has ever been easy to be a woman , ever. I’m happy to be a man. Compared to the average woman, my life has been a walk in the park.

  2. Hormonal birth control doesn’t work for everyone, but neither does any medication or treatment. No, birth control isn’t “natural,” and it does interfere with what your body would otherwise naturally do. But so does nearly every other kind of medicine. Ovarian cysts are “natural;” that the pill helps to prevent them is not. Heart attacks are natural; open-heart surgery is not. Cancer is natural; chemotherapy is not. I’m a fan of avoiding putting unnecessary or harmful chemicals into your body. But I’m also a fan of science and of staying alive, healthy and happy. “Unnatural” is not a synonym for “bad”.

    This! I’m so tired of seeing the two conflated. It’s most pernicious with medicine, but also obnoxious with food- there are a shocking number of people who think that because something is labeled ‘all-natural’ or ‘free of artificial ingredients’ that means anything healthwise. Some natural chemicals will kill you in a couple heartbeats; some artificial ones will make you dramatically more healthy.

    1. This. I’m fond of quoting some of my chemist friends:

      Arsenic is natural. Hemlock is organic.

  3. Great points. Reminds of the stigma people like myself with mental health disorders like bi-polar feel when we’re told to “just get over it”, or like if we were strong enough we wouldn’t need medicine. Like you said, depression may be a naturally occurring phenomenon in my head, but damn anyone who says I’m any less because I treat it (successfully I might add) with drugs.

    1. Right? If my depression’s natural, than I say bring on the chemicals. I have no intention of being miserable because of somebody’s ideology.

    2. And god forbid I should have treated my gender dysphoria in a way that’s worked for thousands of people for decades — the only treatment ever shown to work — rather than simply forcing myself to be content with how God (or Nature, depending on one’s beliefs) made me.

      1. Right on. Something that really gets me about social conservatives (and especially the Evangelical Fascist Front, henceforth the EFF), is that they very much have an “I’ve got mine” attitude about these things. That is, if its something that they agree should be treated or recognized, or definitely something they have been diagnosed with, then it’s perfectly acceptable to

        1. (Sorry accidentally sent early)

          Use drugs or whatever treatment is available. If they have reservations, out come the natural or moral arguments against it.

        2. The EFF also have the “ok for me but not for thee” attitude: e.g. It’s ok when they get an abortion, they aren’t like *those* slutty women who get them once a month!
          The Only Moral Abortion is my Abortion.

          hey /ren’t888888888/like those dirty slutty 8

  4. My major beef with the anti-contraception thing – at least on the alleged feminist side – is that it seems to be a chronic case of “my experience is a valid basis for making decisions for others.” I know the author of Sweetening the Pill wrote the book after herself having a terrible experience on Yaz. I relate that to taking lithium. My side effects were so severe, I stopped taking it. Did that lead me to the belief that Lithium is very bad and nobody should use it? Nope. I know that my experience is my own – it’s not statistically significant, it’s not reproducable in others or anything of the kind. What was horrible for me is life-saving for another. Should people have options outside of hormonal BC? Of course. Will those methods generally be as effective? Might not be (excluding the copper IUD, of course). It’s a cost-risk-benefit analysis. All medical decisions are. I don’t knwo if this is people taking “the personal is political” totally out of context or what, but it never ceases to amaze me.

    1. Yes. I’m currently on an anti-anxiety medication, and it balances my moods without too many side effects. The exact same medication caused my friend to get Serotonin Syndrome and have to discontinue the medication immediately. That shows that folks on the medication need to be warned ‘there is a small chance you will get awful side effects; if you notice these things, this is what you do’. And, if something turns out to be exceptionally risky, it might be removed as an option except in desperate cases*, or banned for certain cases (like pregnant people).

      The human body is a complicated system, and doctors can’t immediately know how a given person will respond to a given drug, but they can make guesses about ‘well, this is likely to work, and this is likely to not work’ based on large groups of people.

      * Chemo drugs have awful side effects, for instance, but aren’t likely to kill you, while the cancer they kill probably will.

  5. but what’s really empowering is to embrace our natural femininity and have as many babies as God gives.

    Ha. And we all know they only want middle-to upper class/ Christian/ able bodies/cis/ conservative white women to reproduce!
    *CN* anti-choice language:

    Forced abortion, Mississippi Appendectomies and the workhouse for the women who bore children in spite of the above.
    (also the way pregnant women are treated in prison, and women forced into C-sections, refused cancer treatment b/c of the fetus et al.)

    I’m not exaggerating . A hybrid The Handmaid’s Tale/ the suburban 1950s America *is* the end goal.

    I doubt that many of the Republican voters or politicians have read The Handmaid’s Tale but I can picture them salivating over it.

    Bottom line: men are human, women are women, but some women are more equal then others. (hat tip to George Orwell)

    ( fwiw I liked the movie and Natasha Richardson portrayal of Offred.

  6. I’m probably pointing at a puddle in the face of a tsunami, but I can’t help noticing how two different interpretations of the phrase “being a woman” are being conflated:

    1. performing some expected female role
    2. “existing while female.”

    I think the conflation is intentional on the part of the people Jill is criticizing, or at least it suits their ulterior motives.

    If you thought of these two senses as being independent issues, you could be female in sense #2 and it wouldn’t prevent you from saying “hell, yeah” or “hell, no” to any part of whatever expected feminine role sense #1 is talking about, whether it’s having dozens of babies or using mascara or cleaning the toilet when it’s dirty.

    I mean, how does it make sense to say that if a woman uses or doesn’t use birth control, or has kids or refuses, or becomes a lumberjack or a supermodel, or whatever, that that decision determines whether she’s “really a woman,” unless “really a woman” has only to do with how well she performs some role? If you define “women” as people with certain anatomical features, then none of those decisions have any effect on the anatomical features. (Well, working as a lumberjack might affect your arms, which is, I admit, part of your anatomy.)

    But somehow this (to me) illogic seems to be convincing to — somebody?

    I’m not a woman (by any definition I’ve heard of), so I don’t know what all this feels like inside. But as a man, I get hit with a similar sort of nonsense, where first I’m assigned the gender “male” based on my anatomy, and then am told I’m _not_ male if I fail to do all sorts of nonsense, like get into brawls, or drink till I throw up, or make misogynistic comments to women, or wear tons of Axe hair spray. I don’t know what awful thing is supposed to happen as a result of failing in my dudely duty — does my you-know-what fall off and turn me into some sort of bearded lady? (Or does the beard fall out, too? Inquiring minds want to know….) But, from what I can see, lots of my fellow (?) males are really, really convinced that if they don’t do all this stuff, something so awful you don’t even dare imagine what it is will happen to them.

    Is this anything like what women experience with all the “how to be a [Real] Woman” stuff?

    OK, \end{rant}

    1. This is it exactly, except with the added hassle that, as Jill suggests, there are competing theories of how to be a Real Woman. Apparently anatomy determines destiny, but people have a lot of different ideas about what that destiny is. Is Cosmo the template? Quiverful? Inga Muscio (who I actually mostly like)? For women, perhaps for men as well, I suspect there’s a racial/ethnic component to this as well (I recognize that the models I cited are generally white). A person could spend a lifetime decoding exactly what a Real Woman is.

      I’ve never really grasped the “Real Man”/”Real Woman” business. Anytime I hear a piece of advice that isn’t nauseating, it’s just “How to Be A Halfway Decent Human Being” with gender mystifingly grafted on top.

      Mostly I find it just exasperating, but that kind of gender essentialism can be dangerous as well for people who don’t show sufficient “Real”ness.

  7. I’m allergic to the Tetracycline family of antibiotics. I found this out through a nasty (and somewhat scary) reaction my first time taking them.

    Because I had this bad experience, I demand that *everyone* stop taking these drugs! /sarcasm

  8. I know that warning labels are always worst case scenarios, but I personally would have to have failed at all attempts to handle contraception on my end (i.e. latex allergy, vasectomy doesn’t take, etc) before I would ask my wife to take something with so many potential side effects, even if those side effects are classed as ‘very rare.’

    If there is a feminist argument against ‘contraception’ it shouuld be an argument against the inequality of a system that says it’s better that a WOMAN take a pill that has a number of potential side effects than a man to put a bit of latex on the end of his todger.

  9. I’m hoping for the development of individually customized birth control. All versions of the pill I tried caused severe side effects. I don’t know why exactly (too high concentration of hormones? or the combination of different hormones?).

    But yeah, it’s ridiculous to go from “It didn’t work for me” to “It’s bad for everyone”. Obviously the pill is working very well for lots of women. I really wish I could be on the pill.

  10. Great article. Also hate the natural is always good/unnatural is alaways bad discourse.

    Am I the only one that had a little inappropriate titter about the word crusaders being in the title of the post? 😉

  11. Biological and social diversity is natural. Conformity is a scheme perpetrated by identity thieves and dumbasses to make their lives easier. Marketers fear declining birthrates. Heard it in a sales seminar targeted to Christians and I believe that the anti-contraception movement is supported by these folks, people who want wages lowered through increased competition for fewer jobs, and, by kid porn which is the fastest growing porn market. I refuse to underestimate sociopathy as an economic force.

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