Sara Robinson at Alternet has an excellent piece up entitled Why Patriarchal Men Are Utterly Petrified of Birth Control — And Why We’ll Still Be Fighting About it 100 Years From Now. In it, she discusses how earth-shattering a change contraception really is in the context of human history. Nearly every civilization, past and present, has been grounded in the “fact” that bearing children and serving a husband is not only the primary duty of a woman, but the only acceptable focus of her life:
Women were born to bear children; they had no other life options. With a few rebellious or well-born exceptions (and a few outlier cultures that somehow found their way to a more equal footing), the vast majority of women who’ve ever lived on this planet were tied to home, dependent on men, and subject to all kinds of religious and cultural restrictions designed to guarantee that they bore the right kids to the right man at the right time — even if that meant effectively jailing them at home.
Our biology reduced us to a kind of chattel, subject to strictures that owed more to property law than the more rights-based laws that applied to men.
Entire systems of religion, government and culture have arisen to make sure it stays exactly this way. But I think the piece misses something important. The ability for women (and their partners), for the first time in human history, to limit and control whether and when they will bear children is only one aspect of the right-wing backlash against reproductive rights, and perhaps not even the most critical one: that one is strictly sexual.
I am hardly denying that contraception has been a tremendous boon to woman’s emancipation from her traditional confinement. Unrelenting childbearing certainly puts a damper on female ambition in any realm outside of the home, and there is no question that widely available birth control is what makes emancipation even possible (though by no means necessary). What I am getting at is that the traditional legal and cultural strictures that for millennia have kept her “in her place” with regard to childbearing also diminished her sexuality to an afterthought — at best. And it is female sexual autonomy that the war on women generally, and on reproductive rights specifically, is really about.
It is neither an accident nor a coincidence that the same legal and cultural standards concerning childbearing have traditionally conspired to keep women in a permanent underclass: submissive, economically dependent, on-demand providers of men’s sexual gratification. Look at the history of spousal rape laws, for example, and consider that until “1993 North Carolina law stated that ‘a person may not be prosecuted under this article if the victim is the person’s legal spouse at the time of the commission of the alleged rape or sexual offense unless the parties are living separate and apart.'” What is our society’s message to women when until as recently as 1993, it was considered impossible to rape your wife?* It is this: if nothing else, you are an on-demand provider of sexual gratification.
Women were not just “born to bear children” for their husbands; they were born to service them sexually. With the advent of contraceptives, women could have sex strictly for pleasure — their own pleasure — without the mitigating fear of an unwanted pregnancy. That is what is game-changing, and that is what the old conservative guard simply cannot abide.
Read the whole thing – aside from that quibble, it really is excellent.
UPDATE: As I was writing this post a reader sent me this, which explores on the sex-as-pleasure theme from a tactical political perspective, not a historical one. But the point the author makes is in alignment with mine: that female pleasure and sexual desire lies at the heart of these contraceptive battles — and we cede ground to our enemies when we shy away from proclaiming it.
*I am not getting into whether it is actually possible to get a rape conviction against a spouse in reality; I just note here that now it is at least possible in theory.