Birth control is related to sex, and we should talk about that

“Respectability politics” is a concept that plagues many social justice movements. Members of marginalized groups feel the need to prove that they are worthy of certain rights they want to be granted in order to win victory in mainstream society. It’s an understandable impulse, but it often ends up hurting a cause as well as the people fighting for it. Irin Carmon takes this on in the context of birth control access and makes a strong case against the overemphasis on medically necessary contraception: 

In the wake of the Supreme Court recognizing an even broader right to refuse contraceptive coverage last week, the conversation about the medical uses of contraception has been revisited. That information is important; it affects millions of women like Love, who was brave to share her personal medical information in service of other women.


But as the Arizona example shows, it won’t get the even greater number of women who use birth control as, well, birth control very far. And it certainly won’t stave off the rank misogyny that surrounds so many discussions of women’s health. In fact, treating medically-indicated contraception as a trump card only risks perpetuating the stigma that already surrounds sexuality in general — and female sexuality in particular.

It’s tempting and valid to make a case about very sympathetic women whose pain is eased by birth control. But by focusing so heavily on that case, it undermines the legitimacy of the reason that the vast majority of women take birth control–to have sex on their own terms, and only have children if and when they want to.

The ability to make decisions about reproduction is a critical piece of the gender equality fight. I’ve been lucky enough to get an education and get established in a fulfilling career. Like many women, my life could have taken a very different turn if I didn’t have access to reproductive health services. And our insurance companies and employers should be happy since by not having unplanned pregnancies, we’ve also saved them a lot of money.

Many of the people who will balk at the idea of women having recreational sex are living in a fantasy world where most people don’t have sex before marriage. Many of them are probably men who want to have that recreational sex with women. But it’s somehow grosser and more unseemly when women do it. Somehow sex must entail heavy consequences for women to take it seriously enough. We’re much better off with men and women controlling those consequences and determining for themselves what role sex plays in their lives, whether it’s something they save for their wedding day or do with a friend with benefits.

By taking this head on, reproductive rights activists are in a good place when it becomes a debate about skeevy men trying to control women’s actions in the bedroom. As as Carmon points out, we’re going to get called sluts anyway, so we might as well go for it:

As it turns out, some advocates have been trying to “recast that debate” for years. The most famous person to do it was Sandra Fluke, an attorney and activist now running for state Senate in California. As Graves points out in a second story, few people remember that her testimony focused on a friend with polycystic ovarian syndrome; they remember Rush Limbaugh calling her a slut. Even fewer people remember that the Georgetown plan Fluke’s friend was on actually had a medical exception and she still couldn’t get the coverage she needed. 

“Despite verification of her illness from her doctor, her claim was denied repeatedly on the assumption that she really wanted birth control to prevent pregnancy,” Fluke said then. “She’s gay – so clearly, polycystic ovarian syndrome was a much more urgent concern than accidental pregnancy for her.” Unable to pay for the medication herself, Fluke’s friend lost an ovary and began showing signs of early menopause.

Nonetheless, there was Rush Limbaugh devoting days of commentary to Fluke’s own sexuality, declaring, “She’s having so much sex she can’t afford contraception. She wants you and me and the taxpayers to pay her to have sex.” A few months later, at the Republican National Convention, a grandmotherly Michigan delegate said of Fluke, “She’s a grown woman. We shouldn’t have to pay for her stupid birth control. She could cross her legs.” When told that Fluke never said anything about being unable to pay for her own birth control, “She did so,” the delegate insisted. “She said that she couldn’t afford as a student to pay for birth control. She said that. I heard her.” (You can read Fluke’s prepared testimony here. She didn’t say that.)

All this is not proof that if we all talked more about medically-indicated birth control, no one would be called a slut and the court would rule on the side of broader contraceptive access, which is the implication of the latest round of commentary. It’s proof that even if a well-educated, soft-spoken white woman with an advanced degree never talks about her own sex life – not once – certain powerful members of the right will make it about her sex life.



Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s