The always-excellent Sarah Posner responded to this past weekend’s anti-contraception rallies (disguised as “religious freedom” rallies, but timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Supreme Court legalizing contraception) by writing articles profiling some of the anti-choice activists who have really been gaining in prominence because of their unadorned hatred of birth control. The unmistakable conclusion to which all of this points is that the anti-choice movement is feeling way more comfortable by the hour admitting what they’ve previously tried to keep from being understood by people outside of their movement, which is that they oppose contraception just as they do abortion. Which, of course, makes it clear that their concern isn’t “life,” but that “life” is just a code word for making sure that the amount of sex that occurs in this country is minimal both in frequency and pleasure, and geared strictly towards procreation.
On one hand, this new openness with the public about the anti-contraception views anti-choicers have previously shared mostly with each other could be a scary thing. It could mean they feel emboldened by victories that have made abortion more inaccessible even as it remains legal, and now think the public is ready to hear more obviously anti-sex messages that aren’t covered in crocodile tears shed for fertilized eggs. On the other hand, this might be the behavior of desperate people trying a new tactic because they realize that the sexual revolution is four generations in and quite likely to become permanent if drastic measures aren’t taken. The faux concern about fetuses has not, as they hoped, resulted in a return to 19th century sexual mores, and so maybe they hope a more direct attack on contraception will do the trick.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the anti-choice movement is being honest yet. At this point, it’s easy to imagine that they don’t know how to make a straightforward argument expressing their actual values to the public at large. They don’t have any practice, after all. Instead, the strategy is to fling the phrase “religious freedom” around a lot, and use it as a pretense to get their anti-contraception messages into the conservative mainstream. No doubt the hope is they can get people more used to these ideas and eventually they’ll be taken seriously in the larger mainstream. After all, this strategy worked well with “free market” libertarian ideology, which used to rightly be seen as the rantings of cranks, but now is the governing philosophy of an entire political party.
Either way, it’s good for feminists and our non-misogynist allies to familiarize ourselves with the anti-sex (for women) arguments we’re dealing with here, because we’re going to be seeing a lot more of them, if the past two years have been any indication. The argument, to summarize, is that contraception has been bad for society and especially for women, because it takes women away from our “natural” and “God-given” duty to stay virgins until marriage, begrudgingly let our husbands relieve their blue balls into us once or twice a year until the flame finally flickers out, have as many children as this ends up creating, and then dying with the knowledge that while this life was relatively colorless and sad, the next one will be pretty good. (And absent all that dirty sex stuff, since there is no “horny” in heaven.) In the meantime, your own unmentionable sexual tension that finds no other outlet can be turned into bitter hatred for other women, which can then be useful to the church and the anti-choice movement because it gives you a reason to push for more anti-choice laws and rhetoric.
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Lest that sound overly harsh, let’s look at the actual arguments made by these emerging anti-choice leaders profiled by Posner. In her profile of David Beiret, the found of 40 Days for Life, Posner quotes Beiret calling Griswold v. Connecticut, the Supreme Court decision that legalized contraception, a “tragedy.” Indeed, makes it clear that anti-choice animosity towards Planned Parenthood has as much to do with its contraception services as its abortion services. Probably more, in fact, because while only some Planned Parenthood outlets offer abortion, all offer contraception services. It’s contraception that Beiret claims is the cause of “a tragic moral breakdown in our culture,” i.e. women having sex on their own terms and not usually for procreation.
Posner also profiles Helen Alvaré, who works the inevitable role of the weird church lady whose life goal is bringing an end of women having sex for pleasure. Alvaré aggressively argues that the only way to have sex is within marriage, rarely even then, and with an eye towards abstaining completely if you’re not trying to get pregnant. Her strategy is to make it all about women, starting with the assumption that women are somehow materially and spiritually damaged every time they touch a penis, and therefore should restrict themselves to only doing so to continue the human race. She claims legal contraception led to “more non-marital sex, the objectification of women, and the likely exercise of a frightening degree of power in the hands of government in its attempt to impose their [sic] will on the population to solve social problems.”
Of course, the problem with that is that the first one isn’t actually a problem and the latter two are actually much more of a problem under the patriarchal society that Alvaré longs for. Only someone who misunderstands the word “objectification” can believe that women are more objectified in a pro-contraception culture. (The word means “reducing a person to an object,” even though it’s sadly often used incorrectly to mean “is sexually alluring.”) The proliferation of contraception has significantly increased women’s right to an autonomous life, and therefore significantly decreased how much they are reduced to objects whose worth is measured strictly in how much value they provide to men as baby machines, sex objects, and free service labor. Objectification is about erasing someone’s humanity, especially their autonomy, and using them for their own ends. By demanding that women give up the basic right to self-determination and instead have their lives be run by the whims of Alvaré and the church she serves, it is Alvaré who is reducing women to objects.
Reading these profiles is above all a reminder of just this historical illiteracy that drives anti-choice activists. They are always talking about a time before, when they imagine that sexual repression worked to turn people into largely asexual beings who only had sex on very rare occasions, and otherwise didn’t particularly miss it. This time never actually existed. In the Victorian era they idealize, adultery, abortion, prostitution, pornography and even masturbatory aids for women were incredibly common. In the fifties era they imagine as chaste, the teen birthrate was more than twice what it is now, resulting in an avalanche of overly young marriages that created the divorce boom a couple decades later. A real examination of history shows that there never was a pre-sexual era that was then turned sexual by contraception or abortion. All it actually shows is there’s no way to turn sexual people non-sexual (and why you would want to will always be a mystery to me), but that you can accept the reality of sex, and work to make it safer and more enjoyable for ordinary people to do what they’re going to do whether you like it or not.