Birth Control Is About Sex, So Why Aren't We Admitting it?



Now that I have your attention, let's talk about birth control.

With all that's being written about reproductive rights in the context of the Hobby Lobby case, it's hard to keep up with all the arguments being thrown around by both sides. The for-profit company is suing the United States to exempt itself from the obligation to cover prescription birth control for its female employees. This case is about a lot of complicated stuff: religious freedom, workplace discrimination, corporate personhood and women's bodily autonomy. But the one thing we haven't heard a lot about is that this is also about sex, or more specifically, ladies having control over all the lady sex they're having.

According to the administration's talking points, the Hobby Lobby court case is not about sex; it's about women's health. Technically, this is true. More than 6 out of 10 women use birth control for health reasons like treating endometriosis, regulating their cycle or reducing the risk of ovarian cancer. Whether to take birth control shouldn't be up to your boss. It should be between you and your doctor. The impressive campaigning headed by prominent women's rights organizations like the National Organization for Women and Planned Parenthood have helped get public opinion on their side. They should be strongly applauded for their efforts.

While birth control does provide women with numerous health benefits, we shouldn't have to lie to ourselves by saying that's all there is to it. 

Although we progressives rarely bring up the sexy part of birth control because it seems like a losing battle, the Right has had a ball with it. Since its inception, the pill has been the favorite scapegoat of social conservatives (that and the feminazis). Although much has changed since 1968, fearmongering over the mass availability of the pill hasn't. In a 1966 feature in the U.S. News and World Report posed the serious question of whether birth control's "potential effect upon our society could be even more devastating than the nuclear bomb" to the reader. In the chauvinistic golden age of the 1960s where women were considered nothing but glamorized domestic slaves, conservatives feared the pill would bring sexual anarchy. Four waves of feminism later, those same fears remain. If someone had told Gloria Steinem that she would still be fighting for this on the day of her 80th birthday, she wouldn't believe it.

Image credit: AP

Exhibit A: Rush Limbaugh

In 2012, the ultra-conservative famously called Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" for speaking out about the importance of birth control saying, "She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex." Likening women who use their insurance for birth control to prostitution is not only a massive distortion of reality, it also reveals our culture's profound discomfort with women's control over their own sexuality.

Image credit: AP

Problematically, a lot of the Left's response has been in the form of arguments about health or religious freedom. They have mentioned little to nothing about the fact that yes, women have and (God forbid!) enjoy sex. Of course it's necessary to discuss all those implications, but refusing to engage with the sex argument is not only profoundly disingenuous, it ultimately gives the Right more ammunition. 

Natalie Jemiola-Wilson, a Protestant woman from Cleveland, Ohio told PolicyMic that she doesn't see a conflict between her faith and using birth control, but personally knows religious women who lie about why they take birth control. "They feared that they would be labelled 'sluts' and 'whores,'" Jemiola-Wilson said. " So they often told people that their use of birth control was to treat endometriosis or irregular periods, because they were embarrassed to admit that they used birth control for their intended purposes."  

The loaded stigma surrounding birth control isn't the progressive movement's creation, but it is our responsibility to defeat it. This means addressing attacks to women's sexuality head on rather than merely deferring the attackers points about health and religious freedom that are valid in their own right. Until the Left publicly embraces a woman's right to an active and healthy sexual life, conservatives continue to claim moral victory — women's sexuality is precisely the battleground we have conceded and that we need to reclaim.

Of course this is not to say that progressive have all remained silent about the sex factor. Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America recently went on the Daily Show to discuss the double-standard when it comes to government funding of sexual health. She was refreshingly honest about the fact that her organization believes "that women and humans do have sex and sex has consequences." More progressive organizations need to take that leap too.

It's high time we put the past behind us, and that includes outdated notions about women's sexuality. Let's make sure that in 50 years, we're laughing about how backward the conversation about birth control used to be and how far we've come. Until then, let's keep talking about sex, baby.