The myth of sexual freedom

The pill is the greatest invention of the 20th century, but the capacity for confusion is infinite

Deborah Orr
Friday 08 January 1999 01:02 GMT

THERE CAN be few women today who are not familiar with the scenario in which a stricken friend confesses that she fears herself to be the bearer of an unwanted child. The situation might not seem rich with comic possibilities, but even in this most unhappy of dilemmas, sometimes you have to laugh.

Take my chum - let's call her Rachel - who had had a brief romance with her flatmate. The flirtation was over, but the consequences were just beginning. Rachel was full of bitter recrimination. She was angry with herself, for although recent health scares had prompted her to come off the pill, she had made no attempt to discuss alternative contraception with her sexual partner - let's call him Tom. And she was angry with him, for he had not taken the birth-control initiative either.

But when she confronted him, she got something of a surprise. Tom displayed amazement that Rachel could be pregnant, and demanded to know how this could have happened. She countered with a few sarky remarks about men, women, unprotected sex and gooseberry bushes, only to have the wind taken completely out of her sails when Tom asked her if she was mentally disturbed. Why had she been so irresponsible as to tell him she was on the pill when quite clearly she wasn't?

Gobsmacked, Rachel retorted that she'd done no such thing. While she was willing to admit that their failure to discuss contraception was as much her fault as his, Tom's weaselly attempt to shuck off all responsibility was utterly contemptible. Outraged, Tom gasped that on the very first night they had slept together, Rachel had left his bedroom and gone into her own, announcing that she was off to get her pill.

A horrible realisation came upon Rachel. She had indeed enacted the scene which Tom described. But one small detail was wrong. She hadn't nipped into her bedroom to take her pill. She had popped next door to grab her pillow. Laugh? We didn't stop till we got to the abortion clinic. That soon wiped the grins off our faces.

According to Professor Carl Djerassi, inventor of the contraceptive pill, there are nearly one million conceptions every day. Half of these, he says, are unplanned, half of those, unwanted. He also asserts, and on the evidence it is difficult to argue with him, that birth control is not a priority any more.

Birth control, more specifically the pill, has got to be the single most important invention of the 20th century. First sexual liberation, then feminism, and now the remaking of our ideas about family structure in the West, all began with the advent of the oral contraceptive. But as Rachel learned to her cost, the capacity for confusion packed into this little tablet of hormones seems almost infinite.

First, women are confused about the threat the pill poses to their health. And the release yesterday of a new study by the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, is not likely entirely to calm their fears. Yes, the report confirms, death from thrombosis, stroke, blood clots and breast cancer are slightly more common among women who are taking the pill. But within 10 years of coming off it, the threat of death from these diseases disappears completely.

Of course this is good news, particularly for those women who took the pill for extended periods before the health risks were understood. But how much does it help women like Rachel, who are concerned with both their health and their sexual freedom in the here and now, and also clearly feel some resentment that contraception is assumed by their sexual partners to be only their responsibility? More broadly, how much has the pill, which let men off the sexual hook so much, helped women in their search for liberation at all?

At the beginning of the Sixties, when the pill was first licensed in the US, then Britain, it immediately began to change the West. And the sexual revolution wasn't too far advanced before women began to realise that the advantages of this easy new contraception were far more obvious for men than they were for women. Control of their fertility made women immediately more sexually available, but at the same time demanded the surrender of the ace up their skirt when it came to brokering a place in a man's world. Enter feminism, and the far-from-over battle to secure equality between women and men. But right from the start there was a contradiction. While a feminist agenda enabled women to take full advantage of the new control they had over their bodies, it also made equality in the bedroom harder to achieve, as all responsibility for contraception was summarily dumped into the arms of women.

So look at us now. Birth rates in Western Europe have fallen below replacement levels, and one of the crises of the next century will be the burden placed by the old on the young. Meanwhile, teenage pregnancy is rising, within a moral climate so bitter that when Boots opened a clinic offering free contraception to under-age girls, it caused outrage. Further, while feminism's support of female-headed single-parent families has become an article of faith, the truth is that for many women this is not a choice. It's easy for Emma Thompson to declare, as she did recently, that "single mothers are our brave heroines". But often, single mothers feel far from brave and heroic. Instead they feel abandoned and betrayed, not to mention stressed-out, knackered, lonely and skint.

The social pressure on men to take parental responsibility for their children diminishes daily, often driven by women who reject the importance of fatherhood. Meanwhile, we scratch our heads in puzzlement as we wonder how to imbue schoolboys with a sense of responsibility about contraception. Er, wouldn't it help to rope them into sharing responsibility for the results of unprotected sex? Maybe we could do it by telling them what kind of toll bringing up a family alone can really extract from a woman and her children, instead of making out that single motherhood is a great leap forward in human evolution.

It may seem far-fetched to lay all of this sexual and procreative confusion at the door of the oral contraceptive, but that overlooks the psycho- sexual impact of this 40-year-old wonderdrug. Despite the best efforts of feminism, despite the health scares which have driven women off the pill in droves, despite even the threat of Aids, male and female attitudes to contraception don't appear to have changed since the moment the pill arrived, bringing with it the implicit assertion that contraception was now simple, and that no one need worry no more. It is as if the very existence of the pill protects us from pregnancy. Actually swallowing one every day, or enquiring as to whether one's partner is doing so, seems like an unimportant detail.

Worse, this abdication of sexual responsibility has by no means increased women's sexual power. It isn't just youngsters who fail to grasp that sex means babies. Since health scares about the pill reached their peak in 1995, abortion rates among middle-aged women have soared. What are we to do? The sexual and feminism revolutions of the last 40 years have been based on a fallacy - that women have gained control over their bodies and their fertility and that men don't need to fret any more. We haven't, and you do. It is about time we all faced this simple fact.

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