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….