The Contraception Debate and Pop Culture’s Weird Silence on Birth Control

When we talk about reproductive health in popular culture, as progressives, we mostly talk about the essential invisibility of abortion. But the debate over Obama’s contraception coverage rule really ought to raise something related into sharper relief: the near-absence of any kind of depictions of contraception in our popular culture at all.

It’s not as if contraceptive use would be difficult to incorporate into pop culture with a relative minimum of effort. When you show a heroine doing her morning routine for the first time, show her popping a pill before she brushes her teeth. If your heroine is going to drop her purse and meet the hero when he stops to help her, have a pill pack in the mix of her stuff. Include condoms in the set dressing for your hero’s bedroom. When you have a couple go to bed, have someone reach for a bedside table drawer. It doesn’t need to be showy or obtrusive, though it is possible to make using condoms an alluring part of a sex scene. It’s entirely possible to incorporate the things people really do in their everyday intimate lives without interrupting the flow of a scene or making a bit deal out of the fact that your characters are doing something normal.

There are, of course, ratings reasons that you might not show a character clearly putting a condom on in a sex scene. But if you’ve got teenaged characters who are going to have sex for the first time and the plot doesn’t call for an accidental pregnancy; or even adult characters going to bed who want to make sure they try to get, it’s not hard to add a preparatory scene that includes the characters making sure they’ve got their birth control figured out. Even Knocked Up, which is about an accidental pregnancy, managed to work in a scene about condom use and sexual communication gone wrong. (Judd Apatow appears to have some condom issues, given both that scene and the condoms-as-agents-of-penis-destruction scene in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin.)

And figuring out how to code contraception use in a positive way is important. One of the reasons I love Sons of Anarchy so much is that it’s one of the few shows in which characters actually use or talk about contraception like grown-ups do. But often, contraception use is coded negatively. The Sons talk about using condoms when they’re sleeping with women other than their old ladies. Porn star Lyla’s use of birth control pills and Plan B isn’t a sign of her sexual agency so much as her deception of Opie and a symptom of their larger communications problems and incompatibilities. I love Tara, but it’s inconceivable to me that a professional woman who seriously loves her career and has an uncertain relationship with her biker boyfriend wouldn’t at least think about trying to protect herself from getting pregnant by accident.

It shouldn’t take product placement deals by Trojan to get condoms and other forms of contraception into our pop culture. But if it does, I suppose that’s one sort of product placement I could tolerate.