Sex, Women, and The Pill: Insights on The Pill’s Real Consequences

“The Pill.” It’s been an interesting couple of weeks, reading the commentary leading up the 50th anniversary of the pill’s debut (celebrated ironically on Mother’s Day).

The New York Times engaged in revisionist history, finding an historian who promotes the view that “the pill had little effect on the sexual behavior of unmarried men and women.” (Only a modern day Rip Van Winkle, having slept through the past 50 years, would maintain such a ludicrous thing.)

The Huffington Post looked at the pill from several different angles. Dr. Christine Northrup,  a New-Age-y doc who specializes in women’s health, gave a scary litany of the health problems associated with the pill. She ended, however, with the unsupported conclusion that, compared to the potential ill effects of an unplanned pregnancy, the pill is an overall boon to women’s health.  Another Huffington Post writer extolled the life choices enabled by the pill: “[A] woman no longer has to choose between having a family or a career and a couple has more options for controlling whether, when or if they have a child. Women’s economic status overall has improved….” However, she goes on to acknowledge the pill’s dismal failure in preventing unplanned pregnancies. (Do the pill’s 12 million users know that?)

The Los Angeles Times offered data, reporting that in spite of near-ubiquitous pill use (80% of women take the pill at some point in their lives), “about half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended and 22% of pregnancies end in abortion.”  The immediate solution? More pills, but with over-the-counter availability.  Gobble them down, ladies. Princeton expert James Trussell, however, believes the pill is “not going to be the answer to unintended pregnancy– we can be sure of that.”  He and other experts point towards IUDs and implants as the longer-term solution.

All the talk about more choices and better medicine, however, obscures a more significant point about the pill. (And, ironically enough, it’s an “aging sex symbol” who lays bare the pill’s most troubling legacy.) In a provocative piece, actress Raquel Welch laments “how low moral standards have plummeted” because of the pill and the sexual recklessness it unleashed. She deplores the self-delusion and lack of responsibility among women who believe, “Now we can have sex anytime we want, without the consequences. Hallelujah, let’s party!”

The pill did promise a sexual utopia, without the usual consequences (like babies).  Now, fifty years later, the myth of sex without consequences permeates media, advertising, sex education programs, and the culture at large. A chimera, really, it lines the pockets of the pill purveyors while creating untold heartache for real women.

In the laboratory of life, the pill has proven that sex still has consequences. What’s changed for women is the context in which they  have sex and the consequences they face.

Instead of married sex that sought to space the number of children born within a marriage, we now have unmarried sex, uncommitted sex, teen sex, hook-up sex, and sex that wants nothing to do with kids, ever.

And instead of wives jiggling more babies on their hips (which for many women was indeed a great hardship), sexually active women now face consequences that promise a lifetime of suffering:

  • Abortion: The contraceptive mentality (we want sex but no babies) requires abortion as a backup. According to the Guttmacher Institute, about a third of American women will have had an abortion by age 45 and 54% of them used contraception in the month they became pregnant.
  • Sexually transmitted infections (STI): The CDC reports that forty percent of sexually active teens have an STI and many have more than one.
  • Infertility: One in eight couples suffers from infertility, typically from an STI or from delaying childbearing too long. (Did anyone warn them?)
  • Mental health disorders: Eating disorders, depression, self-injury, and feelings of poor self-worth have skyrocketed among college-aged women. (No surprise, according to former UCLA psychiatrist Miriam Grossman. In the campus nirvana of no-consequences sex, young women find themselves confused by  sad, empty feelings in the wake of last night’s drunken hook-up, or by unexpected romantic feelings for a friend who only wanted “benefits.” And they find themselves dismayingly alone when they face an unexpected pregnancy or a lifetime of genital herpes.)

Raquel shakes her lovely tresses in dismay over the pill-induced sexual frenzy.  She astutely notes that it impairs a woman’s likelihood of finding what she really wants–a loving, faithful relationship with a lifelong partner. “[A] lack of sexual inhibitions, or as some call it, ‘sexual freedom,’ has taken the caution and discernment out of choosing a sexual partner, which used to be the equivalent of choosing a life partner. Without a commitment, the trust and loyalty between couples of childbearing age is missing, and obviously leads to incidents of infidelity.”

Going further, Raquel urges women to embrace with maturity the most likely consequence of sex—motherhood, the pill notwithstanding. Unexpectedly pregnant at 19, Raquel realized that the pregnancy, ultimately, was “not about me. I was just a spectator to the metamorphosis that was happening inside my womb so that another life could be born. It came down to an act of self-sacrifice, especially for me, as a woman.”  Her two children became an “ongoing blessing.”

That’s Raquel Welch talking, today, in 2010, with the hindsight of experience.

Her words remind me of someone else who worried that the pill would “open wide the way for marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards…. a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may …reduce [the woman] to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires, no longer considering her as his partner whom he should surround with care and affection.”

That’s Pope Paul VI talking, in 1968, with the foresight of truth.

Sex still has consequences. Let’s choose well. In the words of Raquel Welch, “Come on girls! …We’re capable of so much better.”

4 thoughts on “Sex, Women, and The Pill: Insights on The Pill’s Real Consequences

  1. Thanks for pulling all these sources into one blog. As a Catholic woman in her 50s, I’ve witnessed the regression of female sexual liberation right back into sexual objectification; prevent the natural consequences of intercourse and the purpose, dignity and context of married love succumbs to the contraceptive mentality, as Janet Smith has taught. Our current culture sustains a constant stream of sensual triggers, making it difficult for women and, particularly, for men, to maintain a Christian perspective in this area. Come, Lord!

  2. I agree that the pill has been abused and probably not examined by the women taking it as closely as it should be; I wouldn’t go as far as to say it shouldn’t have been invented however, because there are many legitimate uses. There are women who take the pill to alleviate painful medical conditions, couples with genetic disorders who want to avoid passing on fatal disorders to children, and so on. I think if doctors perscribed the pill the way it was meant to be–to couples in a stable relationship–it wouldn’t have been such a contributing factor to the current crisis in women’s sexuality.

  3. i happened upon this blog and was interested because i have my own faith-based blog and am always keen to see what other women of faith have to say about things…
    what worries me about discussions of sexual morality is that they almost never seem to acknowledge the fact that every woman is different, and that her needs differ also. nor that it is the entirety of society that is to blame for why women have historically found themselves in positions where their bodies are treated with disrespect (it is by no means just a matter of certain women being loose and immoral). the pill, or any other kind of contraception, to me, is not the problem. (and the pill is of course not a cure-all, but it does help some people and i am in no place to judge the choices of others.) the problem is that we are sending such mixed messages to young girls in our society. before i read this blog entry, i skimmed through the one about hairdresser breakup guilt. young women develop their sexual identities within a society that gives them very complicated and contradictory messages, and then we are forced to walk the fine line between virgin saint and hussy.
    just because i am a young single woman on the pill does not mean that i am not a moral being. in fact, i am a highly moral being. further, i think it is rather a red herring for the real reasons why women might treat their bodies with disrespect / why their bodies might be treated with disrespect by others. the pill was a significant invention. but i think its influence really pales in comparison to thousands of years of cultural history that condemn women for not being sexy, while in the same breath condemning them for having any kind of sexual identity.
    when jesus walked the earth he tried to change the way that society treats women. unfortunately, his message seems to have fallen on deaf ears.

    • Erin, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You’re right that our society sends contradictory messages to young women—about the basis for their self-worth, their value, and their sexuality.

      And I agree that the pill, by itself, is not the crux of the problem…but the pill has made it way too easy for women to be used and demeaned.

      Here’s why I say that (and sorry to be lengthy but your comments deserve a thoughtful answer):

      Your personal value doesn’t depend on your looks, money, or work, but from the fact that God—who is all Love—loves you and cherishes (yes, cherishes!) your existence as an amazing creation. And Jesus loves you so much He died for your happiness and redemption. Together, that’s an incredible statement of your personal value. You’re so loved and treasured!

      And God created sex as an amazing way for us to express that same everlasting love for each other, just as He loves us forever. Sex is about forever, committed love—love so big that it generates another person into existence. We can pretend that sex is something less, but in reality it is not. And, as Dr. Miriam Grossman discovered, when women try to treat sex as if it has no deeper meaning, it causes a lot of emotional pain (plus the physical damage from STDs etc.)

      The pill makes it way too easy to treat sex simply as what we “do” to feel great The temptation then, as Raquel Welch said, is to “just do it” with anyone and as often as we can (which is a lot, because we don’t have to worry about getting pregnant). And sex like that is MEANINGLESS.

      Worse, as women, we’ve treated ourselves as mere bodies to be used for someone else’s pleasure rather than as unique people who have a one-of-a-kind gift to give: ourselves. We deserve to be loved for who we are rather than used for someone’s sexual gratification.

      So, the bigger question is not the pill itself, but do we respect ourselves by treating sex as the expression of deep, forever love that it’s meant to be? Or as the meaningless equivalent of eating our favorite cupcake?

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