Commentary Contraception

Roman Polanski Says the Pill Killed Romance, Women Say it Gave Them Control Over Their Lives

Martha Kempner

In some ways Polanksi is actually right. The pill did "change the place of women in our times"—but it did so for the better.

Director Roman Polanski made headlines this weekend at the Cannes Film Festival, where he was debuting his new film Venus in Fur. The movie, which is based on a play by David Ives and stars Polanski’s wife, focuses on the relationship between a feminine actress and the macho director who she slowly begins to control. Discussing the film’s themes of gender and gender roles, Polanski told the press that he is not pleased with how the sexes act with one another today. “I think that now offering flowers to a lady becomes indecent, that’s how I feel about it. I think to level the genders—it’s purely idiotic,” he said. “I think it’s a result of progress in medicine. I think that the Pill has changed greatly the woman of our times, ‘masculinizing’ her. I think that it chases away the romance from our lives and that’s a great pity.”

Polanski, who is now 79, is famous for having directed award-winning movies such as Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby. In 1971, his wife Sharon Tate was murdered by members of the Manson Family at Polanksi’s home outside Los Angeles. A few years later, he dated actress Natasha Kinski while she was starring in his movie—Kinski was 15 years old when the relationship started. His infamy, however, comes from having evaded punishment in a 1977 statutory rape case. He was arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl after allegedly drugging her and plying her with alcohol.

He was originally indicted on six felony counts, including rape by use of drugs, child molestation, and sodomy.  He accepted a deal by which he plead guilty to unlawful sex with a minor in exchange for the other charges being dropped and a sentence that was most likely going to be probation. Before final sentencing, however, he fled the country and returned to his native France out of fear that the judge would send him to prison. As a French citizen, he could not extradited to the United States. It looked like Polanski might come back to the United States to face sentencing in 2010 when he was living in Switzerland and officials in the United States asked Swiss officials to begin extradition procedures. Though the Swiss temporarily held him under house arrest, they ultimately denied the request. Polanski now travels freely between Switzerland and France but is restricted from going elsewhere because of an Interpol warrant that is recognized by 188 countries.

Obviously, this is not a man from whom anyone should be taking advice on romance. In fact, I hesitated to even write this story, as I feel he is unworthy of our attention. However, he continues to be a famous and even well-regarded filmmaker, and his comments were re-printed by numerous news outlets, including the Associated Press. Though most of the articles pointed out his past behavior, which should serve to discredit his opinion, few actually pointed out how sexist and asinine the comments themselves really were.

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I started to respond to Polanski’s “masculinizing” remark by pointing out that the pill is made out of estrogen and progesterone (female hormones), not testosterone. But he wasn’t talking biology; he was talking sociology.

In some ways Polanksi is actually right. The pill did “change the place of women in our times.” The introduction of the pill in the 1960s coincides with shifts in sexual behavior and gender roles. Though simple cause and effect can never be proven, and it is possible that these changes would have occurred without the pill, many people believe that the new form of birth control was a big player in the shifting cultural norms.

One theory is that the pill allowed women to separate sex from procreation, which not only changed how they viewed sex (it was now less risky and therefore more personally acceptable), it also changed how they planned their lives. Being able to control their own fertility and time the births of their future children was one of the things that drove women into the workforce or allowed them to stay there long-term. Women were able to take control of their sexuality, advance their careers, and become more productive members of society.

While most of us see this as a great advance for women’s rights, Polanski seems to believe that it just made women more masculine and, perhaps worse, equal to men. Polanski seems to believe that power and privilege should be unique to those with penises. I would find that offensive coming from anyone, but it is even worse from someone with his history of drugging and raping a young teenager and refusing to accept punishment for it.

As for the flower comment: I like my birth control pills, I like my career, and I like that I am far more in control of my reproductive health than the generations that came before the pill. Also, I love it when my husband brings me flowers.

Commentary Contraception

Reproductive Coercion: A Widespread Form of Domestic Violence Supported by Anti-Choice Legislation

Amanda Marcotte

A lot of men, it turns out, get off on having power over women’s bodies, and are willing to bully, coerce, and even trick women into pregnancy to get that feeling of power over them. And anti-choicers are helping them maintain control.

As Martha Kempner recently reported here at Rewire, Roman Polanski—admitted rapist and all-around creep—doesn’t like it when women can control their own fertility. “I think that the Pill has changed greatly the woman of our times, ‘masculinizing’ her,” he said, firmly characterizing the ability to control your own body as a male-only privilege. “I think that it chases away the romance from our lives and that’s a great pity.” Polanski, who pled guilty to plying a 13-year-old with alcohol in order to make it easier to forcibly penetrate her, thinks that the way to preserve “romance” is to keep women in a state of fear of pregnancy at male whims.

Sadly, as research is beginning to bear out, this violent man’s negative attitudes toward female reproductive autonomy are not merely the eccentricities of an aging misogynist. A lot of men, it turns out, get off on having power over women’s bodies, and are willing to bully, coerce, and even trick women into pregnancy to get that feeling of power over them. It’s called “reproductive coercion,” and it’s way more common that was previously thought, as Kat Stoeffel reports for The Cut.

Stoeffel references a recent study by Dr. Lindsay Clark of the Women and Infants Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, where 641 women who received routine care were asked if they had been threatened or bullied by their partners into getting pregnant or had even had their partners mess with their contraception, by hiding pills or poking holes in condoms. A shocking 16 percent had experienced such abuse, a number which reflects other, still preliminary studies that show a widespread problem of men trying to force pregnancy on unwilling partners. The problem is both so common and so hidden that the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecologists is recommending that doctors screen for reproductive coercion in addition to more traditional screening for domestic violence.

Why do men who engage in reproductive coercion do such a thing? Don’t they know that if they successfully force their partners to give birth, they too will be responsible for the baby that results? The behavior is definitely not rational if the goal is a harmonious, happy sex and family life. But domestic abusers don’t want a harmonious, happy life. On the contrary, most of them are perfectly happy, often downright eager, to sacrifice happiness and peace in order to get the buzz of feeling powerful and in control, specifically in control of their female partners. Being so in control that you control her body functions is the ultimate form of control.

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In fact, this need to feel in control is so overwhelming for some abusive men that they will actually force women to get pregnant and then try to force them to abort. In a 2010 piece for The Nation on reproductive coercion, Lynn Harris told the story of a young woman in an abusive relationship whose boyfriend-captor would hide her birth control pills. When she inevitably got pregnant, he tried to beat her into submitting to an abortion. When she refused, he kicked her in the stomach and even pushed her down the stairs in an attempt to induce a miscarriage. Despite the abuse, the woman remained pregnant, and she eventually escaped the relationship with her young son.

In most cases, however, the abuser sees forced childbirth as a way to tie his victim to him, making it harder for her to leave and giving him that desperately desired control. As Harris wrote in another piece summarizing the “red flags” of reproductive control, one thing to look out for is men who talk about making babies as a way for women to “prove” their love, claim contraception is only used by cheaters, or see conceiving as a demonstration of their power and virility. These are abusive men who are more interesting in forcing people into relationships with them than they are in being good, loving partners.

Then there’s the most common kind of reproductive coercion: Guys who slip off condoms or refuse to wear them simply because they get a thrill out of getting one over on their partner. It’s a sort of sexual assault lite, where he can get the buzz off dominating his partner sexually without her consent without running the risk of getting the police involved.

We tend to think of anti-choice antics as a separate issue from violence against women, except when anti-choice politicians slip up on occasion and say something that minimizes rape. Considering this small but growing body of research, we really should take a harder look at the connections between abuse of women and reproductive control. The abuser who hides the birth control pills, the sleaze who slips off the condom, the anti-choice protester yelling invective at women seeking abortions, and the politician writing laws to make it harder to get contraception and abortion are all pieces of the same puzzle. All of them want to take away a woman’s basic right to self-determination, and all of them do it because they subscribe to an ideology that paints men as the natural dominators and even owners of women.

Indeed, looking over the extensive use of reproductive coercion by abusive men, it’s hard to deny that the best friend of a woman-beater is the anti-choice politician. Slip off the condom during sex to force her to get pregnant? Thanks to anti-choice lobbying, she’s going to have a hard time getting emergency contraception to thwart your plans. Keep hiding her birth control pills so that she has to go explain to her doctor why she needs more? Luckily for abusers, anti-choicers are shutting down Planned Parenthood clinics, making it both more expensive and more time-consuming for women to get that done. Successfully impregnate a woman you’re trying to trap with a baby? Thanks to anti-choicers, she may not be able to afford to travel across ten counties to the nearest clinic to get an abortion and get away from you.

Indeed, if we want to help women get out of abusive relationships, it’s increasingly becoming clear that one of the most important steps we can take is reversing the tide of anti-choice legislation.

Advice Sexuality

Get Real! His Religious Beliefs Say No Condoms, But I Need Them. What Do I Do?

Heather Corinna

What to do when someone's religious beliefs or ideas conflict with your need and want for safer sex and pregnancy prevention.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen

sapphire12758 asks:

The guy I’m sleeping with really wants to have PIV sex with me, but he won’t wear a condom because he’s Roman Catholic. Everything else we’ve done has been amazing and I really want to do it, but I’m terrified of getting pregnant and I’ve already had a scare that I haven’t told him about. I’m on the pill now, but I know that it isn’t 100% effective. Would it be really wrong to try and get him to change his mind about condoms? I’m religious too and I’d hate to make him do anything that would go against his faith, but the idea of getting pregnant scares me so much that I have nightmares about it, and since we’re not really together I don’t know what he’d do.

Heather Corinna replies:

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He doesn’t want to engage in sex with condoms (or, I assume, anything that would reduce your risks of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections).

You don’t want to engage in sex without those things.

So, your limit, a limit you need to make clear to him, is that you won’t engage in sex without the things that reduce the risks you aren’t comfortable with: that includes condoms.

You can say something like, I respect your beliefs, wants, and limits here, but this is what I need in order to feel OK engaging in that kind of sex, just like you’re saying going without condoms is what you need. I know your limit, and now you know mine. Now let’s talk about where we both want to go from here.”

Then he gets to decide what he wants to do, and what is or isn’t in alignment with his own limits.

It may be that he feels it’s more important to him to have sex without condoms or other risk-reduction than it is to have sex with you—whether or not that’s based on his faith. I say that because Roman Catholicism doesn’t support sex (of any kind, not just intercourse) outside of marriage, sex for purposes besides procreation, or engaging in sex when someone is using the pill, so it’s hard for me to tell how much this all really is or isn’t about religious doctrine, since he’s being awfully inconsistent here.

Regardless, if he decides he’d rather hold his line about sex with no condoms than compromise with that so he can have sex with you, that’s OK (and it’s OK no matter what his desire to not use condoms is based in). He gets to feel that way, and he gets to decide to only have sex with people who don’t want to use condoms or other forms of contraception and risk reduction.

Or, it may be that he decides that his desire to have sex with you takes bigger precedence over his belief that it’s not within the bounds of his religion to engage in sex using condoms, and he may decide he’d rather use condoms than not have sex with you. He gets to do that too, if that’s how he feels and what he finds he feels best about.

(I’d also say that you should figure that someone who insists on not using condoms with a partner probably poses higher sexually transmitted infection (STI) risks. Because if they have had any other partners before, they probably did not use condoms with them. So, with someone like this, I’d say just from an STI-safety standpoint alone, going without condoms for any oral, vaginal, or anal sex is probably a bad idea. Personally, in a situation like this, I’d just be graciously saying it was time for me and someone like this not to continue to be sexual, since what I needed for emotional and physical safety obviously isn’t compatible with what they believe in and want to do. No harm, no foul, everyone is still awesome, but I’m going to just exempt myself from the whole situation and move along.)

No matter what he decides, you can both set your own lines and not make anyone do anything they’re not uncomfortable with when you’re just clear that, like they have given lines, so have you, and you want and intend to respect both of them. In other words, he’s set his, now you’re going to set yours. And so long as you both respect what the other decides, and neither of you attempts to change the other’s mind about each of your limits, it’s all good here.

So if you’re going to hold your limit with condoms, but you also understand and respect he may continue to hold his, what’s most likely is that you’ll be at an impasse. What that probably means is that sex between the two of you isn’t going to be something either one of you will choose to move forward with. Here, it sounds like what he wants and what you want just really aren’t a fit; it sounds like you two just aren’t a good choice for being partners together.

If that’s what winds up happening, that gets to be OK too. In fact, when any two (or more) people find that to engage in sex together, one of them would have to do something they really don’t want to do, or take risks they don’t want to take that scare the beejeezus out of them, and that don’t need to even be taken? Not having sex together is usually the best choice for everyone involved.

After all, it’s not like you’re the only two people in the world. He can find partners who also don’t want to use condoms, and you can find partners who also want to use them.

The world goes on when that happens. It truly keeps right on turning, even if we’re bummed out about not having a sexual relationship with someone we wanted to have one with.

Being disappointed like that sucks, but it passes, and it also usually feels a whole lot better than doing things with sex we don’t want to do and really aren’t OK with. You probably know this already just from being in the position where you don’t feel like you can tell him you had a pregnancy scare, and that’s something you had to go through alone. With a partner that was a better fit for you? You wouldn’t have had to do that—you could have been honest and gotten some emotional support you probably really wanted.

Not only does the world keep right on turning when we choose not to have sex with a partner who isn’t compatible for us in some ways, our sexual lives and the way we feel about them are usually far better for it when we are only choosing sexual partners who are truly a good fit for us. They’re usually much, much better when we don’t do sexual things, or do them in ways we really don’t want to, without the safeties we need to stay well and to feel safe and sound. When we only do them with partners where we’re both able to have sex involve the things we really want and need—where those wants and needs are at peace, not in combat.

I don’t think the fact that his belief around this is apparently religious really changes anything, nor makes this any different than if his desire not to use condoms had nothing to do with religion.

Again, it might not really have anything to do with religion, given how it sounds like he wants to do and does do things that are just as far outside that doctrine in terms of sex anyway. Even if it did, it’s not like because something is about religion, it gets to automatically trump or be held higher than someone’s boundaries or personal safety needs. Plus, I have to tell you, I’m not convinced this isn’t just someone trying to wheedle their way out of using condoms with you by using religion as an excuse, especially given the inconsistencies with his beliefs and behaviors. It’s not like he’d be the first person to do that.

But ultimately, he wants a thing that doesn’t work for you; you want a thing that sounds like it won’t work for him. So you both just put those things out there, as limits, hopefully each with care and respect for each other, and make your decisions about them accordingly, understanding that no one has to do anything they don’t want to do here, or aren’t comfortable with. And the simplest, and probably soundest, way to make sure that’s not what happens? It’s probably just to nix sex together altogether, and maybe even just both move away from this sexual relationship, so you both can seek out different partners who fit you both a whole lot better.

Here are a few links that I think will give you some extra help with some of this: