Even When We Talk About Birth Control, We’re Still Not Comfortable Talking About Women Having Sex

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This week, an ad campaign publicizing the preventative benefits under Obamacare — specifically, the health law’s birth control coverage — is sparking some controversy among conservatives and progressives alike. In the most hotly-debated ad, a young woman holding a pack of birth control pills suggests she’s grateful the health reform law will cover her contraception so she can have sex with the man standing next to her:

Another ad released this week features a young woman standing next to Ryan Gosling, and riffs off of a popular Tumblr devoted to the actor’s pick-up lines. “Hey girl,” the copy reads, “you’re excited about easy access to birth control and I’m excited about getting to know you.”

The ads are part of a larger campaign attempting to encourage young adults to sign up for Obamacare, spearheaded by the nonprofit group ProgressNow Colorado. And if they seem designed specifically to incite right-wing rage, well, they certainly accomplished that goal. Headlines blasted the ads as “degrading” and “encouraging casual sex.” Rush Limbaugh — who’s no stranger to bashing this particular Obamacare provision — suggested that the health reform law is catering to promiscuous women and prostitutes. Conservatives on Twitter went even further. “The ‘you’re a whore’ ad for Obamacare. Wow,” Dana Loesch tweeted.

There was some criticism from outlets outside the right-wing blogosphere, too (although it was considerably less heated). The Atlantic Wire pointed out that ProgressNow Colorado’s ads mainly rely on unfortunate stereotypes about the Millennial generation. The Week made the case that it’s not helpful to portray women who use birth control as “exceptionally dopey and irresponsible.” After the Planned Parenthood affiliate in Colorado tweeted about the controversy, some outlets assumed the group had mistook the ads for an anti-Obamacare effort to shame the women who are benefiting from the law’s birth control provision (although Planned Parenthood says that tweet was misinterpreted).

Clearly, it’s not a perfect ad campaign — at a very basic level, it’s hard to be effective if you’re walking such a fine line that your products seem like parody. But it does bring up an enduring reality about the conversation surrounding women’s health care in this country: It may be acceptable to talk about birth control, but it’s typically not okay to talk about it in the context of women using it to have sex.

It’s perhaps understandable that progressives are hesitant to emphasize female sexuality when it come to contraceptive care. Any mention of young women having sex does, as these Obamacare ads illustrate, essentially bait conservatives. It doesn’t help that U.S. lawmakers have moved decidedly to the right on this issue over the past several decades — although Republicans like Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush were strong supporters of publicly-funded family planning, the same isn’t true for today’s GOP.

So when Democrats make the case for women’s health care, they deploy spokespeople like Sandra Fluke, who testified about a lesbian friend who needed birth control to control her ovarian cysts. It’s safer to make the medical case, or the economic case, for women’s access to a health service that the United Nations has declared to be a “human right.” It’s less safe to talk about young, single, sexually active women who want the bodily autonomy to continue having sex with whomever they choose — the women depicted in this week’s ads.

That falls in line with a long history of discomfort with women’s sexuality. Of course, social conservatives are uncomfortable with all young people having sex outside of marriage, but society’s conceptions about what it means to remain “pure” have an outsized impact on women. It’s considered to be women’s responsibility to avoid both consensual and non-consensual sexual activity. While men are expected and encouraged to constantly seek out sex, women are shamed for dressing or acting in a way that’s perceived to be promiscuous, and the messages that they should cover up their bodies begin at a very young age.

This approach to women’s sex lives has serious health consequences for them. It’s fueled the rise of abstinence-only education, which has failed to teach kids how to protect themselves against sexually transmitted infections (the negative effects of STD infections, incidentally, disproportionately impact women). It’s led some parents to resist giving their daughters the HPV vaccine — which is, in no uncertain terms, a tool to prevent cancer — because they believe it could somehow encourage them to become sexually active. It’s caused many parents to feel squeamish about giving teenage girls the most effective form of birth control. And, of course, it’s given rise to one of the primary reasons that conservatives have fought so bitterly against Obamacare’s move to expand access to affordable contraception.

And this isn’t just about the right wing. Democrats, too, sometimes prioritize outdated ideas about female purity over giving sexually active women the medical resources they need. The clearest example of this is the Obama administration’s recent position on over-the-counter access to emergency contraception. Even after the FDA recommended that Plan B should be available to women of all ages without a prescription, the White House decided to intervene to place an arbitrary age restriction on it anyway. President Obama continued to defend that unnecessary policy as recently as April, claiming that Plan B could be too “dangerous” for young teens to use correctly — an assertion that flies in the face of scientific fact. The idea that some 15-year-old girls may need emergency contraception because they’re having sex simply makes people uncomfortable.

If the justification for policies like Obamacare’s birth control benefit always de-emphasize women’s sexuality in an attempt to appear less controversial, it actually serves to reinforce this dynamic. It creates a situation in which there aren’t really any prominent voices speaking up to defend women’s right to have sex and be sexual, or to challenge the idea that a woman needs to be in a committed relationship to be sexually active.

The group that produced the controversial Obamacare ads appears to be perfectly aware of this reality. In an email blast addressing the backlash sent to its supporters on Wednesday, ProgressNow Colorado notes that the ads were intended to provoke these conversations. “We don’t think an ad acknowledging the fact that women have sex and should protect themselves with birth control is slutty. We think that’s reality,” the group wrote. “This is a perfect opportunity for us all to stand up for progressive values and say, ‘Yes, women have sex. It’s normal. Attacking them for it is not.’ ”


This piece has been updated to reflect Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado’s perspective about their tweet.

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