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Sex, women, and the pill: insights on the pill’s real consequences

Mary Hasson

“The Pill.” It’s been an interesting couple of weeks, reading the commentary leading up the 50th anniversary of the pill’s debut (celebrated ironically on Mother’s Day).

The New York Times engaged in revisionist history, finding an historian who promotes the view that “the pill had little effect on the sexual behavior of unmarried men and women.” (Only a modern day Rip Van Winkle, having slept through the past 50 years, would maintain such a ludicrous thing.)

The Huffington Post looked at the pill from several different angles. Dr. Christine Northrup, a New-Age-y doc who specializes in women’s health, gave a scary litany of the health problems associated with the pill. She ended, however, with the unsupported conclusion that, compared to the potential ill effects of an unplanned pregnancy, the pill is an overall boon to women’s health. Another Huffington Post writer extolled the life choices enabled by the pill: “[A] woman no longer has to choose between having a family or a career and a couple has more options for controlling whether, when or if they have a child. Women's economic status overall has improved….” However, she goes on to acknowledge the pill’s dismal failure in preventing unplanned pregnancies. (Do the pill’s 12 million users know that?)

The Los Angeles Times offered data, reporting that in spite of near-ubiquitous pill use (80% of women take the pill at some point in their lives), “about half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended and 22% of pregnancies end in abortion.“ The immediate solution? More pills, but with over-the-counter availability. Gobble them down, ladies. Princeton expert James Trussell, however, believes the pill is "not going to be the answer to unintended pregnancy-- we can be sure of that." He and other experts point towards IUDs and implants as the longer-term solution.

All the talk about more choices and better medicine, however, obscures a more significant point about the pill. (And, ironically enough, it’s an “aging sex symbol” who lays bare the pill’s most troubling legacy.) In a provocative piece, actress Raquel Welch, laments “how low moral standards have plummeted” because of the pill and the sexual recklessness it unleashed. She deplores the self-delusion and lack of responsibility among women who believe, "Now we can have sex anytime we want, without the consequences. Hallelujah, let's party!"

The pill did promise a sexual utopia, without the usual consequences (like babies). Now, fifty years later, the myth of sex without consequences permeates media, advertising, sex education programs, and the culture at large. A chimera, really, it lines the pockets of the pill purveyors while creating untold heartache for real women.

In the laboratory of life, the pill has proven that sex still has consequences. What’s changed for women is the context in which they have sex and the consequences they face.

Instead of married sex that sought to space the number of children born within a marriage, we now have unmarried sex, uncommitted sex, teen sex, hook-up sex, and sex that wants nothing to do with kids, ever.

And instead of wives jiggling more babies on their hips (which for many women was indeed a great hardship), sexually active women now face consequences that promise a lifetime of suffering:

Abortion: The contraceptive mentality (we want sex but no babies) requires abortion as a backup. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about a third of American women will have had an abortion by age 45 and 54% of them used contraception in the month they became pregnant.

Sexually transmitted infections (STI): The CDC reports that forty percent of sexually active teens have an STI and many have more than one.

Infertility: One in eight couples suffers from infertility, typically from an STI or from delaying childbearing too long.

Mental health disorders: Eating disorders, depression, self-injury, and feelings of poor self-worth have skyrocketed among college-aged women. (No surprise, according to former UCLA psychiatrist Miriam Grossman.

In the campus nirvana of no-consequences sex, young women find themselves confused by sad, empty feelings in the wake of last night’s drunken hook-up, or by unexpected romantic feelings for a friend who only wanted “benefits.” And they find themselves dismayingly alone when they face an unexpected pregnancy or a lifetime of genital herpes.)

Raquel shakes her lovely tresses in dismay over the pill-induced sexual frenzy. She astutely notes that it impairs a woman’s likelihood of finding what she really wants--a loving, faithful relationship with a lifelong partner. “[A] lack of sexual inhibitions, or as some call it, ‘sexual freedom,’ has taken the caution and discernment out of choosing a sexual partner, which used to be the equivalent of choosing a life partner. Without a commitment, the trust and loyalty between couples of childbearing age is missing, and obviously leads to incidents of infidelity.”

Going further, Raquel urges women to embrace with maturity the most likely consequence of sex—motherhood, the pill notwithstanding. Unexpectedly pregnant at 19, Raquel realized that the pregnancy, ultimately, was “not about me. I was just a spectator to the metamorphosis that was happening inside my womb so that another life could be born. It came down to an act of self-sacrifice, especially for me, as a woman.” Her two children became an “ongoing blessing.”

That’s Raquel Welch talking, today, in 2010, with the hindsight of experience.

Her words remind me of someone else’s worries that the pill would “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards…. a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may …reduce [the woman] to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”

That’s Pope Paul VI talking, in 1968, with the foresight of truth.

Sex still has consequences. Let’s choose well. In the words of Raquel Welch, “Come on girls! …We're capable of so much better.”

Topics: Culture

Mary Rice Hasson, the mother of seven, is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. She blogs at wordsfromcana.

View all articles by Mary Hasson

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