Space the Nation: The effect of birth control on men

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Sep 18, 2018, 3:00 PM EDT

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Women’s control over their reproductive systems is a matter of such far-reaching social consequences it inspires speculative fiction in even somber government bureaucrats. Federal officeholders, religious leaders, policy advisors: These are the sorts of people who have weighed in on the far-reaching and occasionally fantastical ramifications of advances in birth control. It can be as simple as, for instance, the Trump administration claims that birth control might lead to “risky sexual behavior.” Or the ideas can be grandly dystopian, like Republican Congressman Steve King predicting that widely available birth control would end with “a dying civilization.” In 1968, Pope Paul predicted that birth control would cause men to “lose respect for the woman” and “consider her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion.”

These oracles work in the fantasy genre as well: Remember Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin conjuring something straight out of Mists of Avalon? “If it’s a legitimate rape,” he said, “The female body has ways of shutting that whole thing down.” A state representative in North Carolina had a slightly earthier take, testifying once, “The facts show that people who are raped — who are truly raped — the juices don’t flow.” Oklahoma state representative Justin Humphreys, on the other hand, went with a more Lovecraftian metaphor, suggesting of pregnant women, “What I call them is, is a ‘host.’” A woman may think it’s her body, but if she’s pregnant, “You’re the host and you invited that in.”

Now, these are not the sorts of examples of science fiction having an impact on policy that this column usually deals with. And is it even science fiction if the authors think they are reporting fact? Because, in order: Birth control does not lead to risky sexual behavior, civilization may be dying but it’s not because of birth control, and men have thought of women as “mere instruments of selfish enjoyment” long before birth control came around. Also: Rape definitely gets someone pregnant at the same rates any other kind of sex does. The “host” thing, well… it was a great trope in the Alien series.

These examples are instructive, however, as to how thinking about women’s bodies seems to make even the most literal mind more... fertile.

Many politicians’ prognostications have been echoed by actual science fiction writers. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is the most famous narrative that shows how disconnecting sex and reproduction can mean devaluing, even degrading, sex itself — except as a pastime. Perhaps that says more about how men view sex than it does about the role of birth control, because in feminist science fiction, disconnecting the act of sex and having to give birth seems to lead to greater personal fulfillment and social equity. This was the theory behind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland in 1915, and it has more or less been proven true.

A fair number of writers have elaborated on the Akin/Humphreys hypothesis — “women have a way of shutting that down.” In Dune, the Bene Gesserit Sisterhood have such great control over their bodies, pregnancy — and the gender of the child — is a choice at the cellular level. The Asari in Mass Effect have to make a conscious choice to reproduce as well. And in any all-female world, reproduction can’t be an accident.

In many popular franchises, birth control shows up not as a lever to move the entire plot but as a kind of fringe benefit to a generally advanced society. The crew of Deep Space Nine gets regular contraceptive injections, but that isn’t mentioned until an episode turns on an accidental pregnancy. I’m currently reading Dan Simmon’s Hyperion series, and the fact that adult men are given a one-time but reversal birth control shot is a literal aside. Certainly, not giving much thought to how and whether birth control is practiced can lead to plotting disasters, as Sarah Jeong examines in detail in the article “Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy Star Wars’ Old Republic?

Of course, freedom from having to think about birth control is its own kind of utopian dream, with a significant catch. We don’t need a supernatural or scientific leap in technology to get to it. Methods exist right now, available in any doctor’s office, that would make avoiding an unwanted pregnancy a simple, cheap, and painless matter with few side effects. The obstacles to this utopia are entirely political and social. You don’t have to imagine what might happen when women can choose when and if they become pregnant, it’s happening now — just not for every woman.

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