Providing women with access to no-cost contraception doesn’t spur them to make riskier sexual choices, according to a large study published in the Obstetrics & Gynecology journal this week. The researchers who collected the data noted that their results should dispel social conservatives’ fears that the risk of pregnancy is “the only thing standing between women and promiscuity.”
The study is part of the ongoing Contraceptive CHOICE project, a research initiative at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis that has been tracking nearly 10,000 low-income women of reproductive age for several years. The women participating in the project received an FDA-approved contraceptive of their choice at no additional cost to them.
In 2012, the researchers confirmed that this policy — which simulates the Obamacare provision that extends birth control coverage without a co-pay — effectively helped lower these women’s rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion. Then, the researchers conducted a follow-up investigation into other aspects of the participants’ sexual behavior, surveying them about their number of sexual partners and the frequency of sexual intercourse during the year after they received their free birth control.
Most of the women did report that they were having sex more frequently — but they were doing it safely. The majority of participants, 70 percent, reported that there was no difference in the number of their sexual partners. The women who did report an increase were most likely to have gone from zero sexual activity to a sole sexual partner. There also weren’t any increased rates of sexually transmitted infections among the group that got no-cost contraception.
“Increasing access to no-cost contraceptives doesn’t translate into riskier sexual behavior,” Jeffrey Peipert, the study’s senior author, explained. “It’s not the contraception that drives their sexual behavior.”
Indeed, even among the women who indicated that they wanted to start using birth control specifically so they could become sexually active, more than 45 percent had not actually started having sex after a year of using contraception.
The new research paper directly refutes arguments from groups like the right-wing Family Research Council, which argues that it’s important to restrict access to contraception to dissuade teens from having sex. Nonetheless, the debate over Obamacare’s birth control provision has largely centered on this myth about female sexuality. Particularly after Sandra Fluke testified in favor of the policy, conservatives were quick to bash her for being a “slut” who wanted the government to finance her promiscuous sex life. Two years later, Republican lawmakers are still repeating this line of reasoning.
Thanks to deeply ingrained societal attitudes toward women — who are expected to remain pure, and who are often punished for displaying their sexuality — this attitude extends to other areas of sexual health, too. Many Americans are uncomfortable with the HPV vaccine, effective long-lasting forms of birth control, and comprehensive sex education because they believe these resources could somehow encourage girls to become sexually active.