Two Steps Back, One Step Forward

I just read an excellent essay by Pamela Haag, “Birth Control Isn’t Really About Women’s Health.  It’s About….,” where she makes a very valid point—that one of the main reasons for birth control is simply not being articulated in our public discourse — that birth control is a means to recreational, non-procreative sex.  Furthermore, I’ve noticed two greatly differing portrayals of female sexuality  (one in lit, another in a TV sitcom), that left me pondering.  In short, we seem to be taking two steps back and one forward when it comes to female sexuality and choice.

In her essay, Haag points out that the entire birth control argument totally sidesteps one of the key issues:  birth control (i.e., the pill) is mainly used to prevent pregnancy during recreational sex.  Whether sex is between married folks or a single woman who is taking precautions against an unwanted pregnancy, a woman’s use of birth control is not just to have a regular menstrual cycle or to reduce ovarian cysts (arguments comfortably cited in the press under “women’s health”).  What we are uncomfortable stating is that a woman also uses birth control because she wants to have sex and enjoy it without becoming pregnant.  As Haag states, birth control also benefits the man with whom she is engaging in this healthy and fulfilling act.  Haag persuades quite well that our society and its views on women’s sexual freedom have taken a turn back – away from the second wave of feminism that Erica Jong exemplified in Fear of Flying.

I am a big fan of the writings of Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen.  Most recently I read  Eugenides’s  The Marriage Plot, and Franzen’s  Freedom.   I found the novels extremely well-written (even though Eugenides tends to over-write and obsess at times), and relevant in regard to contemporary life (marriage, environment, etc.).  However, each novel had a sex scene between a male and female protagonist that gave me pause.  It was as if the same man were writing the same scene in two different novels —  a scene about a woman and how she truly enjoys sex.  The sexual encounter (without going into detail) went something like this:  force and violence to the woman that led to her to total submission and her final realization that she needed a quasi-rape to transcend all of her personal inhibitions.  While I am taking these out of context to a certain degree, my feelings on these scenes remain the same:  misogynistic.  Misleading.  Projection of the male fantasy of dominion over the woman.  I’m no prude.  Consensual sex between two adults is fine by me.  But to portray that the only way a woman can come into her own sexual awakening is through force is not where I stand.  These sex scenes only support a rather archaic view of sexual domination of the man to aid a woman in her own awakening.  No thanks.

But compare these scenes, along with the side-stepping political discourse, to something as odd as a sitcom: Big Bang Theory.  Here we have Penny, the non-academic “girl next door” who has complete freedom in her sexual choices.  While the butt of a few jokes by platonic and bodily-fluid-scared Sheldon, she is open with her choices and still desired by 3 of the 4 protagonists in the show, along with a good number stock characters.  No one looks down on her for her sexual freedom.  Second example is an episode where a visiting female physicist not only beds Leonard, but manages to sleep with the entire gang, acting out all kinds of fantasies in the process.  The tenor of the show is not that this woman is a slut, but that she is acting on her own choices.  That’s what freedom to choose is about:  choose with whom to share one’s body and in what ways.  And to do so responsibly – the pill, condoms, or a combination of such (and/or other) methods.

If I go to my bookshelf I can pull out Anais Nin, Erica Jong, Naomi Wolff, and Susan Faludi.  Haven’t we already addressed women’s right to choose?  Why, then, is Pamela Haag’s essay so compelling – we can’t even as a culture articulate one of the main reasons for birth control:  consensual, recreational sex.  What’s going on?  Are we on one of the cyclical dips where we regress from progress?  Maybe it really is two steps back for one step forward; maybe we really do have to repeat history…again and again….


6 thoughts on “Two Steps Back, One Step Forward

  1. I’m totally digging on this post—fists raised, yelling right on! My graduating lecture that I’ll be giving at Spalding in May is on writing literary sex, and this is exactly where my thoughts kept drifting while writing it. If you haven’t read it I highly recommend: Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex edited By Erica Jong. I’m no prude, either, usually one of the first girls in the room to admit how much I enjoy sex, and yet I was shocked by the candid way these women wrote about their sexual experiences. Mid-way through, I realized that I couldn’t get enough because taking about sex in an experienced, (not pornographic) open-minded, pro-sex way is so rare! And finding literary sex that’s not filtered through the male perspective is just as rare. I think you’re right-on when you question if we’re on one of the “cyclical dips where we regress from progress.” We may be very much in need of an empowering reawakening in this regard. We shouldn’t be afraid to talk about enjoying sex and using birth control to prevent unwanted pregnancy, which does in fact “benefit the man with whom [the woman] is engaging in this healthy and fulfilling act.” And frankly, as a writer, I’m tired of being apprehensive about writing sex scenes for fear of it being labeled erotica because we do so desperately need a shift from the wildly inaccurate and all too common “sexual domination of the man to aid a woman in her own awakening” scenario. Anyway, before this response turns into a full blown rant, let me just say that I loved this post and a fellow female writer publicly addressing this issue is very inspiring. Gracias!!


    • Thanks, Vanessa. I definitely want to read Sugar in My Bowl! I’d love to read your lecture — if you are inclined to share it, shoot it to me in an email. Since reading your post, I’ve been thinking about the fiction I’ve read recently, and I’m not coming up with a long list of “literary sex that’s not filtered through the male perspective.” That gives me pause. Am I missing some good fiction out there? And kudos to you for addressing this very necessary (and part of life!) subject. Gracias to you, hermana!


      • Mary Gaitskill and Jamaica Kincaid immediately come to mind, but totally check out The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers by Elizabeth Benedict. It’s a treasure trove of reference for the best literary sex and she references quite a few female authors. I am totally happy to share my lecture. I’m still doing a little polishing, but as soon as it gets a thumbs-up from Rachel, I’ll send it to your inbox with the audio version accessible on Kiwi. =)


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