Are we less free than a 1950s housewife? A look at contraception
What started as a means to liberate women seems to have taken an ironic twist.The past century has witnessed the widespread normalization of artificial contraception, with its promise of empowering women and teenage girls to gain freedom over their bodies and fertility, along with a level of sexual liberation equal to that of men.
This freedom has emerged from what is seen as a longstanding culture of misogyny – exemplified by the so-called “1950s housewife” – where women were expected to marry young and dedicate their lives solely to homemaking, placing the comfort and desires of their husbands before their own interests.
Thanks to contraception, its proponents say, women no longer need to be controlled by a society ruled by the expectation to marry and have a family rather than have a career. In other words, with contraception, women can finally achieve their true potential and earn the respect they deserve.
Yet, little more a decade into the 21st century, the sexual exploitation of women and girls is at an all-time high, and the dream of woman's liberation – as promised by contraception – seems to be falling far short of the reality.
Provocatively-clad women are regularly used in advertising campaigns to sell everything from car insurance to sandwiches. Studies reveal an alarming percentage of young teenage girls being forced or coerced into sexual activity with their boyfriends, with similar trends colloquially seen among adult women. Victims of “rape-culture” at universities are speaking out in increasing numbers about widespread sexual violations on their campuses.
Then there's the pornography industry, which has so normalized depictions of degrading and aggressive sexual acts toward women that mainstream films and television shows are following suit for the sake of entertainment.
All of this begs the question: Did the 1950s housewife in fact have it better than women of the 21st century when it comes to sexual freedom and respect? And, could contraception be at least in part to blame for the current climate?
One expert who believes that contraception is actually damaging to woman's freedom in society is Fiorella Nash, a Catholic novelist and researcher for the London-based pro-life group, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC).
Instead of liberating women, a culture which readily encourages the use of contraception in fact “undermines female autonomy,” Nash told CNA in an interview last year in London.
“We’ve sort of created a situation where, in order for women to be equal to men, they have to make their bodies a little bit more like men.”
Ironically, this discrepancy between contraception's promise of freedom and the tendency to make women more susceptible to coercion begins with their fertility. Nash cited the example of the “Pill” which is widely prescribed to treat a host of conditions, from painful periods to acne, while the core causes of these ailments are routinely neglected.
“It suggests that women can’t look after their own fertility,” Nash said. Consequently, many women are uneducated when it comes to their own bodies.
“Fertility is very essential to women’s lives, and it ought to be something that we work with, rather than (something we're) constantly trying to manipulate,” she explained.
“There is something very patronizing to me about the fact that we circumvent knowledge by giving an artificial way out, almost as if women need a cure for being female.”
Contraception is often touted for its role in opening the doors to greater sexual freedom. However, rather than being a means of empowerment, Nash explains that contraception, in fact, makes women more vulnerable.
While it is not a new phenomena for men to be non-committal, or to abandon women they have gotten pregnant, Nash said, “the contraceptive culture has given men a license to do that.”
“Why should you stand by a woman if she gets pregnant? If she had only read the instructions on the package, she might not have gotten pregnant. And, there’s always abortion, so there’s a way out, isn’t there?”
“It’s almost allowed men to get out of their responsibilities, a lot more so than women,” she said.
Nash cited the reassurance men often give to their pregnant girlfriends – “I’ll support you whatever you decide” – which, she says, is simply the man passing on his responsibility.
“They’re really saying: ‘Actually, I can’t be bothered. I’m not going to make any kind of a comment here. I’m going to leave you to go through it. I’ll sort of make reassuring noises, before I disappear into the next adventure.’”
“The contraceptive culture has completely destroyed any respect for women,” which in turn has “left women a lot more vulnerable,” she said.
Going beyond relationships, the acceptance of contraception has wider implications in society as well, Nash suggests: for instance, its role in the breakdown of marriage, the increase of recreational sexual activity, the objectification of women – even violence.
“A book like 50 Shades of Grey would never have been produced in a culture that respects women,” she said. “The whole story behind it – if you can call it a story - is very reflective of a society that does glorify the abuse of women.”
This mentality translates into the so-called “rape-culture” at universities, Nash suggests. On the one hand, she did stress that it is important understand the context of the situation; for instance, taking into account the increased tendency to report assault cases, and a better overall understanding what constitutes a sexual offense, etc.
However: “If you create a culture where women are regarded as objects for sexual gratification, and where there’s always an assumption that that’s what girls want, the onus is always going to be on the women to explain that she’s not interested, rather than onus being on the man to ensure that the woman is consenting.”
Films, like the James Bond franchise, have contributed to the confusion with regard to boundaries and consent, Nash said: for instance, a scene which shows Bond walking into a woman's shower and having sex with her, without her objecting.
This phenomena places “a huge burden on women,” she said, because it occurs within a culture where men “believe that they have a right to take what they want.”
“If we were really so emancipated, if women were so empowered, it really shouldn’t be happening as much.”
Along with cases of serious assault, women and girls, in turn, are often pressured into sex with their partners. Nash cited a recent study in the United States that revealed a high proportion of teenagers being forced or coerced into sex, often out of fear of losing their boyfriends, having to prove themselves, etc.
“It does raise the question about how much coercive sex, at least, is going on in society...because, they feel the need to keep hold of a boyfriend, because they feel the need to do the right thing by their husband, etc.”
In another example, Nash spoke of the UK TV personality Davina McCall, who reportedly said a wife must satisfy her husband in the bedroom “even if you’re absolutely exhausted.” If not, “he will go somewhere else.” Following the statement, many critics compared McCall to a “1950s housewife.”
“Actually,” Nash said, “that’s not a comment from the 1950s. That is the sexualized 21st century speaking.”
“There’s nothing that odd about her saying that within the context of a very sexualized society that says people have a right to sex, they have a right to sexual gratification, and therefore, frankly, women should just be expected to deliver it.”
“Is this really what emancipation was about? Is this really what the suffrage movement was fighting for a hundred years ago? How much progress have we really made?”
Although she acknowledges the extensive progress that has been made in the area of woman's rights, Nash nonetheless holds that contraception and abortion have in many ways increased the challenges for women.
“Once you throw 'choice' – or, it’s really a false choice – contraception into the equation, then everything’s a woman’s fault.”