Monday, August 27, 2012

The Price of Sex

I've been thinking about Emily's piece on The War on Women, and how some issues have become perennial flashpoints. I think in the end, it all boils down to how "cheap" (easy to obtain) sex is in our culture, and how many social conservatives have a deep unease with this notion.  Most conservative social issues boil down to varying strategies to make sex more expensive, especially for women.

If one thinks in purely economic terms, sex used to be enormously expensive for women.  From the dawn of humankind, all the way up until the 1960's, if a woman chose to have sex, or even if the element of choice was not there in having sex, there was the huge risk of pregnancy.  And it was this risk of pregnancy which constrained a lot of the choices that women could make.  Women had to marry earlier, and could not work as steadily, as a pregnancy could never be predicted.  This made women a lot more reluctant to have sex outside marriage, and the economic protections that it could afford in case of pregnancy.  Families were of course much larger, and all but the poorest women were stay at home moms.  Sex was expensive for both men and women.  To have sex without social stigma, one had to get married first.  Once married, there was very little opportunity for a couple to plan the number of children they wanted to have.

All this changed radically with the when the birth control pill was approved for use in 1960.  For the first time, pregnancy could be planned for, and predicted, even if the woman was having sex.  A woman could put off or delay pregnancy in order to pursue an education and career, and then marry after.  After Roe v. Wade, when abortions became legal nationwide, there was even more freedom for women to control their reproductive choices.  It turns out that many women, when given a choice, enjoyed having sex without having to get married, becoming a prostitute, or getting pregnant.  Sex out of wedlock flourished for people of both sexes, while at the same time the age of marriage increased, and more women worked outside the home in actual careers, rather than just low-paying, low-status jobs.

However many social conservatives are deeply uneasy with the changes in society that resulted from The Pill, and other forms of  available, reliable, reversible birth control.  As it became more acceptable for women to work and support themselves, many also chose to raise families on their own, without the presence of a man.  So-called "hook-up" culture flourished on college campuses. Men started to be outnumbered by women at universities and graduate schools.  Many social conservatives seem to openly pine for the good old days(for some reason fixed in the popular mind as the 1950s), when sex was much more expensive for both sexes, and thus people's choices, especially women's, were much more constricted.  Many seem to want to turn back the clock, and ensure that women must pay a huge penalty for having sex outside of marriage.

The abortion controversy has always had its flare-ups, and right now, it seems to be at another height.  Social conservatives seek to ban all abortions, everywhere, even in the case of "legitimate" or "forcible " rape or incest.  As Emily has pointed out in her post, conservatives are on the march to ensure women have absolutely no choice in the matter.  Many conservatives believe that once the uncertainty of unexpected pregnancy re-emerges, women will be forced to marry earlier, and choose men more for the ability to provide, rather than on romantic attraction.  Women would no longer be able to pursue work outside the home, and thus would rely solely on their mates for economic sustenance.  Because of this reliance, the divorce rate goes down.  Thus all social ills are solved!

  For another example of this way of thinking amongst many social conservatives, being anti-contraceptive is no longer considered a fringe political position.   98% of reproductive age women have used some form of contraception in their lifetime.  Personhood amendments, where life is said to begin at fertilization, is now a plank at the GOP convention.  Theses amendments if enacted, would potentially ban many of the most popular forms of contraception, even though the Pill and Plan B have been shown not to interfere with the implantation of the fertilized egg.  Despite the fact that Plan B has been shown to be effective and harmless, the Obama administration bowed to pressure from conservatives, and overruled an FDA recommendation that it should be available over the counter.

The controversy over Gardasil is yet another example.  Imagine in the future there was a way to prevent your child from ever getting cancer.  The only catch was, you had to make sure your child was properly vaccinated against cancer by a certain age.  A no-brainer, right?  You would do everything possible to make sure your child had the longest, healthiest life possible.  Well, that future is now.  Gardisil is a series of shots which prevent women from getting cervical cancer.  But because cervical cancer tends to be caused by the human papillomavirus, or HPV, a sexually transmitted disease, conservatives caused an uproar over states mandating that children be vaccinated against cancer, the same way the state mandates being vaccinated over chicken pox or the measles.
Conservative groups, including the influential Family Research Council (FRC), have voiced concerns that immunising young girls against the virus that most regularly causes cervical cancer, Human Papilloma- virus, may lead to sexual promiscuity. "We would oppose any measures to legally require vaccination or to coerce parents into authorising it," wrote the FRC in a recent letter to the US government. "Our primary concern is with the message that would be delivered to nine- to 12-year-olds with the administration of the vaccines. Care must be taken not to communicate that such an intervention makes all sex 'safe'."
Apparently ensuring that your child doesn't get cancer can't compete with the horror that your child may grow up,  eventually have sex, and not worry that she will get cancer.  All sex must have a penalty, and the larger and more dire, the better.

Is it better for sex to be expensive?  Should individual choices, potential and technology be constrained if creates a more "idyllic" society than the one we have now?  How far should we go to engineer this type of society, and what percentage of the population should be inconvenienced to ensure this society can come into being?


  1. Yeah the fact that the HPV vaccine is controversial is particularly crazy to me. Even if your daughter doesn't have sex before marriage, she is pretty likely to have sex at some point, and since most people want grandkids, they mostly want their daughters to have sex at some point. Why not protect her?

    I get the feeling that when people talk about sex there is a part of social conservatives that just wants to cover their own ears and sing "God Save the Queen" to drown out the noise. This unease about even talking openly about sex in a culture that is so determined to be "free" in so many other ways is - to put it lightly - bizarre. There's a reason they call them the facts of life. (And you're welcome for getting the Facts of Life theme song in your head).

    Of course, there is the cynical thought that social conservatives would rather we not unpack the logical conclusions of their policies, lest we women folk catch on. Which I think has been the theme in the aftermath of the Akin remarks. It's not like the Rs are changing their policies or platform and it's not like any of us believes that the beliefs of the VP candidate won't matter at all - or that Romney will stand up for women's rights. Which makes this a gigantic "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain" thing.

  2. Thanks for that song in my head, I appreciate it. :P I think it is very hard to excuse the HPV vaccine, with the rest you can hide behind other reasons, but with the vaccine the deep unease with women having sex comes through even more strongly than usual.

  3. I didn't pay very much attention to the Gardasil thing (aside from getting grumpy about the bad grammar), but I did encounter on a few blog sites people opposed to it. But in their cases, their concern was that the vaccine was new and they did not feel comfortable with long-term effects and side-effects. Given the hoopla over vaccines in general vis-a-vis autism, it does not surprise me that some would feel that way. As with every issue, there are a lot of factors.

    Which brings me to birth-control. As I get older, I tend to get more cynical about casual sex -- not because it is sinful outside of marriage (although I'm supposed to think that), but because the rhetoric does not match the experiences I see around me. I think it is interesting that you phrased this as "the price of sex," because I think that as a consequence of the sexual revolution we are trying to act as if sex is no big deal at all*, which requires getting rid of all of the consequences. But there are consequences, serious ones, both good and bad -- pregnancy, obviously, and diseases, but also emotional entanglements and greater intimacy and heartbreak and love. From what I've seen, lots of people talk about sex with no emotions, but far fewer are actually able to do it. And I think that tells us something -- sex is a big deal. We can't as a society pretend otherwise because just because it is lots of fun.

    I'm too tired to write more, especially because we start our drive back home tomorrow morning, but I also want to point out that the depiction of life before the pill is really only accurate for a few generations. The idea of a housewife devoting her life to her children as we think of it is a result of the Cult of Domesticity that arose in the eighteenth century (and only applied to a few families) and some post-war nonsense from the 40s and 50s (in part a reaction to women who worked outside the home during WWII). Also, a lot of American hang-ups with sex and gender come from Puritanism and Calvinism and our brand of individualism, and are not applicable to all women everywhere and everywhen, not to mention our bizarre notion that only in the 60s did people start to figure out how great sex was (read Chaucer! They put our sexual revolution to shame). Finally, the freedom that the pill affords women to work and have careers and plan their children and maybe not get married at all really only applies to well-educated, privileged, mostly white women. My time over the years in criminal courts and helping domestic violence victims showed me something else -- young, undereducated women in and out of relationships with lame men, with kids from different fathers (who rarely acted like fathers), with a real lack of stability in their lives (which is what is worst for kids -- it's not gay or straight, married or not -- it's stability they need). Women and girls who truly do believe that if they don't sleep with a guy by the 3rd/4th/whatever date they will lose him. These women have been taught that modern women have sex whenever they want, but I would argue that they are not at all in control of their sexuality (and poor sex education is only a part of the problem). And this is just the women -- lots of modern men have crappy attitudes towards sex, including a huge sense of entitlement.

    These are real issues that at least some conservatives are trying to address (poorly or otherwise). Just like it is not fair or rational to blame every modern problem on artificial birth control/abortion, it is not accurate to say that all people who oppose abortion/artificial birth control do so out of a simplistic desire to control women.

    Are you guys familiar with George Akerlof? I'm generally skeptical of economic approaches to life, but I think he has some good points.

  4. Footnote:

    *On the other had, we also act as if sex is the most important thing in the world. On tv and in movies and in the attitudes of lots of people, going without sex for more than a few months makes you a pathetic loser. When I told certain people my brother was going to become a priest, they actually, truly, got mad at me because that meant he would never have sex. The idea of someone actually choosing to not have sex is now completely foreign to most people.

  5. There are real issues that the conservatives want to address, but the social conservatives think that they should use the government to decide those issues for women. They don't do that for men as much. Unless those men are gay. If liberals like to use the government to control people's economic actions, conservatives like to use the government to control people's personal actions, while claiming to prefer small government. It's a bizarre schism. I mean, how can conservatives want more freedom in schooling and curriculum, but want to get to decide - using the force of the government - whether a woman gets to use birth control? Sometimes I wish people had to take a test before becoming a parent, but I know that those decisions have to be personal, right up until there is the kind of abuse or neglect the state can document.

    We can't outlaw stupidity. We can, however, give people the most information possible (without using force as with the transvaginal ultrasounds or false information like the requirements that doctors lie to pregnant patients) and hope people make the right decisions along the way. A lack of birth control won't lead to smarter sex decisions, but comprehensive sex ed might. Banning legal abortions won't stop abortions from occurring (they have for thousands of years), but good sex ed coupled with plentiful birth control might -

    A very religious friend of mine posted this on fb, it's about christianity and sex and what churches talk about, you might find it interesting, Beadgirl -

  6. Let me clarify that I in no way think artificial birth control should be outlawed or restricted, or that the government should concern itself with it (except the the extent necessary to prevent fraud, medical dangerousness, etc.). I'm just reacting to the mind-set that ABC has been an unadulterated good for all women everywhere. You are right that it is hypocritical of conservatives who want small government and free markets to also want to police people's bedrooms (of course, it also strikes me as hypocritical to claim that the decision to have sex is a totally private thing that is no one else's business, and then insist that those elses pay for for the ABC ;>). And oh, my, yes, the double standard vis-a-vis sex, GAH. And part of that is the mentality that ABC is a woman's problem, and pregnancy is a woman's problem, and children are a woman's problem, all of which stem ultimately from the fact that it is so much easier for a man to walk away from these "problems."

    Banning legal abortions will greatly reduce the number of abortions. More important still is 1) changing peoples' hearts so that they no longer think abortion is the right thing to do, or even a necessary evil, and 2) offering the support necessary so that women don't need to turn to illegal abortions. I wish that ABC reduced abortions, but so far it has not.

    That is a GREAT article. It reminds me of a thoughtful series of articles a Catholic wrote in the wake of the gay marriage debate, which did a good job of explaining the Church's views without resorting to ugly language and, more importantly, demonstrated quite well that the problem with marriage today isn't the fraction of gay people who want to marry civilly, but all the straight people who have been screwing up marriage for decades in both the civil and religious spheres. Talk about pointing out the mote in other people's eyes while ignoring the plank of wood in ours.

  7. Flash of insight for me this morning: what do conservatives care about? Money over all. What could they gain by making sex more expensive? Money - here's how. Sex sells. Cons want to take your money, by any means necessary, including selling you the idea of sex. So they choke out the competing supply of sex, drive up demand, and make it easier for them to advertise - lazily, using sex, rather than coming up with a more creative ad or ultimately creating a better product. To the extent this presumes men hold all the money, my response is that men will hold all the money once women are forced out of the workplace.

    To the extent the elderly hold money, and perhaps don't care as much about sex - now there's an interesting thought problem. I forever joke that as "sex sells" to younger people, "grandkids sell" to the elderly: most of the ads emphasize that if you, the elder person, buy this, your grandkids will want to spend more time with you. Will raising the price of sex increase or decrease the total number of grandkids, and/or affect the time the kids want to spend with the grandparents, in such a way as to starve out grandparents of grandkid affection, making it easier to take their money with promises of fun grandkid-times?

  8. I definitely think there are conservatives (cough-Santorum-cough) who would like to see most women out of the workplace (except secretaries, nurses, and teachers, probably) in their own Mad Men fantasy.

    Not sure what the Grandparent Effect would be, but it's a really interesting question :-)