Throughout the ongoing debate over Obamacare’s contraceptive coverage requirement, a common theme has emerged among many of Hobby Lobby’s supporters: the idea that ensuring access to affordable birth control is harmful to society because it leads to promiscuity and infidelity. Several right-wing groups filed amicus briefs in favor of the crafts chain arguing that women simply shouldn’t be having consequence-free sex. But where exactly does this idea come from? One research paper offers a theory.
According to new research published in Archives of Sexual Behavior, the attitude that women shouldn’t be having sex can at least partly be traced back to the idea that women are supposed to be economically dependent on men. The researchers suggest that this link may drive conservative religious communities’ insistence on sexual purity.
After surveying Americans about their attitudes toward promiscuity — asking them whether they agreed with statements like “It is fine for a woman to have sex with a man she has just met, if they both want to” — the researchers also asked them whether they believed women tend to rely on income from their male partner. They found that the people who believe that casual sex is wrong also tend to believe that women need a partner to support them financially. Within that worldview, sex outside of a serious monogamous relationship is simply too risky. If women don’t have “paternity certainty,” then how will they know who they need to rely on to support them and their future child?
The researchers conclude that this outdated attitude toward women’s pregnancy risks and financial needs hasn’t totally gone away, despite the fact that modern contraception, legal abortion rights, and greater workplace equality have created an entirely different society.
“The beliefs may persist due to cultural evolutionary adaptive lag, that is, because the environment has changed faster than the moral system,” the paper concludes. “Religious and conservative moral systems may be anti-promiscuity because they themselves arose in environments where females depended heavily on male investment.”
In response to the right-wing claims that women who support Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate are “sluts” who want the government to fund their sex lives, many birth control proponents have focused on the medical reasons that women need access to contraception. But there’s also a growing push to confront the deep-seated resistance to acknowledging women’s sex lives. “Women like sex. Stop making ‘health’ excuses for why we use birth control,” feminist writer Jessica Valenti argues in a Guardian column published this week.
On top of the changing societal norms that ensure women don’t actually have to be guided by “paternity certainy” anymore, there’s also scientific evidence that increasing access to birth control doesn’t have any relationship to promiscuity. A large study published in the Obstetrics & Gynecology journal earlier this year found that giving women access to no-cost contraception doesn’t lead them to make riskier sexual choices. The researchers noted their results should dispel social conservatives’ fears that the risk of pregnancy is “the only thing standing between women and promiscuity.”