Birth Control Boogeyman Returns in Time for Halloween

Amanda Marcotte

The mainstream media loves publishing scare stories about the birth control pill, even when they’re nonsensical or employ shoddy evidence: they attract eyeballs, since both sex hysteria and counter-intuitive ideas attract readers.

It’s not hard to see why the mainstream media loves
publishing scare
stories about the birth control pill
, even when they’re nonsensical or
employ shoddy evidence.  These
kinds of stories fill much of the criteria to attract eyeballs, since both sex
hysteria and counter-intuitive ideas attract readers. The sex
hysteria part is obvious enough, but what makes these stories counter-intuitive
is that the invention of the birth control pill was such a massive bonus to
people’s lives that merely questioning it attracts attention. Saying the pill is bad, or even hinting
it at that argument, is a lot like saying the Beatles sucked.  Even if people disagree with you,
you’re going to get a lot of attention.

It’s fun to kick around hypotheticals like "What
if the pill made me less likely to pick a genetic match, whatever that
means?"
or “What if the pill deprives me of the 3 days out of the
month where my skin is slightly plumper due to ovulation?”, but it’s also silly
to think that minor concerns like these even have a fighting chance compared to
the major concerns that women who don’t have access to reliable contraception
have.  Concerns like, “What if I
can’t afford to have 6 children?” 
or “Shouldn’t I be with a man for a few years before I get pregnant, to
make sure he’s the one?”  Knowing
this, media outlets happily run with these stories, because they know that it’s
more cocktail party fodder than it is information that could actually influence
someone’s decisions and potentially hurt them by causing an unintended
pregnancy.

Unfortunately, the forced birth brigade isn’t hemmed in by
these ethical considerations, and as such, will take these stories and blow
them completely out of proportion in an effort to discourage women from using
effective contraception.  For
instance, anti-choice blogger Jill Stanek, who never lets facts or
understanding get in the way of a hysterical tirade about the evils of
contraception and abortion, took one aspect of the Trends in Ecology and
Evolution
round-up on studies about the
pill, and
misread it in the most egregious manner
, with a side of gay-baiting and
pandering to the angry white men who make up much of her audience.  She cast used the
Daily Mail’s
coverage, which was guaranteed to maximize the
misogyny and minimize the understanding of the actual study.

Scientists
say the hormones in the oral contraceptive suppress a woman’s interest in
masculine men and make boyish men more attractive. Although the change occurs
for just a few days each month, it may have been highly influential since use
of the Pill began more than 40 years ago.

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If the theory is right, it
could partly explain the shifting in tastes from macho 1950s and 1960s stars
such as Kirk Douglas and Sean Connery to the more wimpy, androgynous stars of
today, such as Johnny Depp and Russell Brand….

The problem with that
interpretation is it makes no sense, on a number of levels. Originally,
the research
was about comparing women’s choice in photographs during the
few days a month they’re ovulating versus the
entire rest of the month
when they’re not. The researchers wanted to see if
women on the pill made similar choices to women not ovulating but not on the
pill, and to no one’s great surprise, they did.  But even if there was no pill, most women are not ovulating
at any point in time, so this simply couldn’t have a dramatic effect on what
Hollywood stars are most popular. 
The Daily Mail also retrofitted the evidence to assert that women are
emasculating men by not being in a constant state of ovulation, which women
never were, even before the pill.  
The notion that starts in the past were all rugged while stars today are
all pretty doesn’t fit the evidence, unless you’re willing to pretend that
Jimmy Stewart could out-square jaw Daniel Craig.

But Stanek isn’t going
to let mere logic and facts get in the way of pandering to her audience that
wants to believe that women controlling their fertility automatically makes men
more feminine.  But I have to
admit, I’m intrigued by the anti-choice insistence that their philosophy is a
better fit for the glamorous masculinity implied by the picture of Sean Connery
that Stanek chose as an illustration. 
I’m trying to imagine a “pro-life” version of James Bond, since the
argument seems to be that real men abhor contraception and abortion.  I’m not so sure that audiences would
swoon over Sean Connery whispering huskily to a woman, “Let’s wait until we’re
married, and then have awkward, unpracticed sex a dozen times until we can’t
have any more children, when we can quit completely.”  Hollywood images of male virility actually rely on audience
assumptions that women have access to reliable contraception and abortion.  Last time I checked, having a dozen
children would put a crimp on 007’s style.

 

At
Double X
, I argued that the picture study can’t really be taken seriously,
because you really can’t tell what a woman’s going to find attractive in the
real world from what she prefers in a flat image of a celebrity when asked to
choose, especially since I’m sure most women in the study would be perfectly
happy with either Johnny Depp or Russell Crowe.  

But in general, it’s important to remember that these
headlines blaring about the positive effects of not being on the pill are only talking
about minor changes that only happen for a few days out of the month.  If women are slightly more attractive
around ovulation, or if they are more likely to go for strong-jawed men, the
effect disappears as soon as you’re not ovulating any more.  More honest headlines for these studies
would be: “Women On The Pill Indistinguishable From Women Not On The Pill Most
Of The Time”.  Or perhaps something
less unwieldy that sends the same message.  I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to run a higher
chance of an unintended pregnancy to buy myself mildly improved looks for 3
days out of the month, especially not when the massive cosmetics industry is
happy to help you fake that glow at any time of the month that you please.

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