Another month in the ramped-up war on women, and another unfortunately successful attack on women’s access to contraception. The story of the North Carolina legislature defunding Planned Parenthood is remarkable mainly for the doggedness of the anti-choice faction, from the fact that it had to be done with an override of the governor’s veto to the fact that it was done late at night before a holiday. Never let it be said that North Carolina conservatives don’t take keeping affordable birth control out of the hands of women very seriously.
Occasions like this tend to cause pro-choicers not just to be sad about the setback, but also to despair of every gaining any ground. We live in a society where 95 percent of Americans have sex without being married first, contraceptive use is functionally universal, mainstream media largely portrays sex as an ordinary life (which it is), and formerly marginalized sexual identities are becoming more socially acceptable by the minute. You would think in such an environment, the gap between how we actually live and the sexual lives conservatives demand of us — sexual lives that are practiced by a vanishingly small minority, so small that very few of the conservatives pushing this image actually live it –would be enough to overcome their efforts at slashing reproductive health care access. Attempts to force people to embrace abstinence or face very serious consequences should, logically, be seen as just as ridiculous as attempts to force people to abstain from going outside when the weather is nice or going to the movies.
And yet, here we are, watching the legislature in yet another state, where, I guarantee it, the vast majority of citizens are pro-choice in their behavior, attacking access to contraception and getting away with it. In fact, the odds are high that most of the people voting to de-fund Planned Parenthood have rejected for themselves the abstinence course they’re trying to push on others by taking their birth control away. The disconnect is just stunning, if you really think about it. Why can’t we win even when we’re winning?
Part of the problem is the perennial “glass houses” phenomenon. There’s a quirk in human nature that allows us to imagine that when we do behavior X, we have a very good reason for it, unlike everyone else who does behavior X. People who are supportive or even just indifferent towards these efforts to punish women’s sexual behavior often imagine that they’re not the ones who are being targeted by these efforts, that their sexual choices are so obviously above the line that no one could want to hurt them. It’s always those other women, right? Until it’s not, but by then it’s often too late.
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That said, I think one of the major reasons that this tendency is being turned up so loudly now, to the point of attacking not just abortion but contraception, is precisely because conservatives are losing the culture war. Another, possibly stranger quirk in human nature is this tendency to double down when you’re in the wrong. It’s as irrational as it is predictable; taking a louder, more radical stand for a wrong belief has so far not actually made anyone suddenly in the right. It usually just makes you even more wrong, and has the side effect of making those in the right even more alarmed at how wrong you are. And yet, this kind of angry lashing out is just what people do when they’re losing. That’s exactly what we’re seeing going on in places like North Carolina. Unable to actually persuade people that sex is bad, conservatives instead are escalating attacks on reproductive health care, so they can at least make people who are in the right on this suffer as much as possible for winning the cultural argument.
The problem here is that it’s entirely possible to have a totally contradictory society, where the culture is largely sex-positive but the policies are sex-negative. Most of the evidence suggests that people’s ideas about sex are shaped almost completely by their own desires and their cultural narratives, and not at all by some of the more pedestrian questions about contraceptive affordability or disease prevention, which is why unintended pregnancy and STDs have been a constant problem throughout history. The only real consequence of these kind of disconnected societies is off-the-charts rates of negative sexual health outcomes. So yes, while we’re winning the culture war, a loss on the policy front is simply too tragic an outcome to bear.
But I really do believe that we’re facing down the last generation that has enough political pull towards anti-sex ideas that they can get these kinds of political victories. They’re on their way out not just because they’ve lost the cultural argument about sex, but because they have increasingly fewer numbers of people in each subsequent generation who believe that it’s good to have such a divergence between what you say you believe and what you actually do. It may feel now like we’re just trying to hold them off, but if we can hold them off long enough — if we can weather this storm — eventually we will win.