May 9th, 2010

yes they're real -- they're not mine but

the 50th anniversary of the birth control pill

So many directions one could go with this one. I think I'll pick up on a conversation that I've had more than once with my husband.

I think it's a concept that's not well-understood by the men in our lives. How the Pill, and with it, easy access to legal and safe birth control, made it possible for women to have bodily autonomy. Prior to this, women had to trust men to pull out, to wear a condom, or to not force sex during their fertile periods. (In Canada, this was only criminalized in 1982. In many parts of the US, rape between spouses is still a lesser crime.) For the first time, with the legalization of the IUD and the introduction of the birth control pill, women had the ability to choose not to be pregnant.

There's varying opinions on how this influenced second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution, but that's beyond the scope of this writing.

This was something women could take without their husband's knowledge, that girls could take without their parents' knowledge, that didn't involve the moral quandary of abortion, that was more reversible than sterilization surgery, and was more reliable than the rhythm method taught in Catholic marriage prep.

My own Catholic grandmother had a miscarriage after her sixth child, an experiment with birth control. Who knows how safe that method was -- there were pills advertised around that time that were advertised with large cautions: "not to be used during pregnancy as they will cause miscarriage." Her doctor said if he had known she already had six children he would have simply performed a hysterectomy -- and then, I would have no mother. Instead, he preserved her uterus, and she went on to have four more children -- but not before her priest at her parish told her her miscarriage was God's way of punishing her for using birth control.

In her mid-40s, seeking freedom from pregnancy, she wanted to get a tubal ligation -- a method of surgical sterilization. She had to get a permission slip signed by her husband, and her priest from her church -- and they still wouldn't perform the procedure at the Catholic hospital where I was born.

This was the political climate when birth control was legalized in Canada by Trudeau in 1969.

Fast forward to today; my highly Christian family members have no qualms about using birth control to control their family size. I myself have been taking the Pill since approximately the age of 15, though initially to quell the insane pain of menstrual cramping that left me curled in the fetal position on the bathroom floor once a month, barfing from the pain. Originally, this method was available only to married couples. Now, it's advertised to pre-marital women everywhere. In high school, I saw it as a safety measure to ensure I'd finish. In college, I saw it as a safety measure to ensure I'd finish. In my career-centric married years, the shade is a lot more grey. That said, this pill influenced many women similarly -- no more rejection of women into colleges under the assumption they'd just get pregnant and drop out -- less favoritism towards men in the career world under the assumption they'd just get pregnant and go on maternity leave (a fear my first real boss voiced clearly in my interview -- that this is what the job climate was like when he first joined his career.)

In many ways I take for granted all the changes that the Pill has wrought, though my man does more so. I don't think he understood until I made it clear to him that the choice to not be pregnant, the choice to divorce sex from pregnancy, the choice to have sex for pleasure without anxiety about whether there was going to be a little "bundle of joy" to come along and ruin it all, that this was revolutionary in and of it itself. There are women my mothers' age who never had sex they enjoyed until after they were surgically sterilized, so terrified were they that they'd be pregnant.

Few things have changed in the minds of many, however. A close friend of mine recently got issued a prescription for the birth control pill at the age of 16, ostensibly for her premenstrual dysphoria, but in reality in preparation for her loss of her virginity. Her family, her parents, freaked out, accused her of hiding things from them with full knowledge of her plans to go slut it up around town. As if the exclusive reason she'd ever want to get on the pill would be to have sex with as many men as she could manage.

Where does this idea come from, that pregnancy should be a punishment for sluttiness? Where does this idea come from, that sex is only good when it's with someone you're married to, regardless of how much you love them? Why can't we prepare for sexual safety without being somehow branded a whore? Why is it shameful that other people (the pharmacist, your doctor, your parents) who ultimately have your best interest in mind, know you're having sex? Why can't we accept this as a normal human function?

I'd like to hope attitudes towards sex change in the next 50 years. Invariably they'll change somewhat; whether they'll backslide as they have (towards ineffectual purity pledges, distrust in birth control, and sexual denialism) remains to be seen. I've said it as a younger wrin and I'll say it as an older wrin: it's absolutely ludicrous to expect teenagers to repress any and all representations of sexual desire and then once married, to instantly become fully functioning sexual beings. Much as the makers of the pill hoped it would be used to prevent overpopulation, starvation, poverty, death, poor health due to too many pregnancies, and empty marriages sapped by the demands of too many babies, that's not how it's turned out.

It turns out sex is only what we make it out to be.

What do you make it out to be?