Monday, November 28, 2022

Ejaculate Responsibly: Why is The Responsibility of Contraception Always Up To Women?

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Many of us women have internalised the idea that contraception and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies are our responsibility. But should the responsibility be shouldered by men as much, if not more than, women? A new book, titled Ejaculate Responsibly, argues exactly this.

When Auckland lawyer Kate* (now 31) was a 22-year-old uni student, she realised, to her horror, that she was pregnant. She was on the pill, but, looking back, the weekend in question was a bit of a blur – did she take her pills, did she throw one up after getting drunk, or was she among the unlucky one percent who get pregnant despite taking the pill properly? That weekend, after a big party with friends, she’d had sex once (no condoms) with a guy she knew well, but who wasn’t her boyfriend.

“You know how many guys are when they’re single?” Kate says. “Many of them will just try to have sex with you without asking if a condom is needed, probably not wanting to give you the chance to say no. And you’re usually expected to be on birth control without this being discussed. At the time I thought it [the pregnancy] was ‘on me’. The guy involved was mad about it and said he’d assumed I was on the pill, and I said that I was but I must have slipped up. He said ‘how could you let this happen?’.” She’s never forgotten those six words.

In our society, we generally expect women to handle contraception – and as women we largely internalise that expectation.

Neither wanted a baby and she had an abortion. “Afterwards, he did call and ask, ‘is it done?’ And I said ‘yes’ and he just said ‘good,’ and that it was nice my mum was there, and that was about it.” They didn’t stay friends. Kate berated herself, thinking they might have got together if she hadn’t ‘fucked up the contraception’. Is anyone else turning red with righteous rage right now? Because, if we haven’t been in a similar position, odds are we know someone who has been.

Not Just Women’s Work

Search ‘contraception’, ‘pregnancy prevention’ or similar words online, and you’ll find that very little content addresses or targets men upfront. In our society, we generally expect women to handle contraception – and as women we largely internalise that expectation.

We may choose one of the following forms of female contraception: one of three kinds of contraceptive pills (usually all referred to as ‘the pill’), an IUD (intra-uterine device), a ‘birth-control implant’ (a matchstick-sized rod inside your arm), “the shot’ (an injection every three months), the ‘contraceptive patch’ (which sticks to your skin), a vaginal ring (a plastic ring you place inside your vagina), or a diaphragm (a cup you place inside your vagina). Forgive me if I’ve missed any others.

But why should women shoulder all the work of preventing pregnancies? Is it about time that men took some responsibility? Yes, says Gabrielle Blair, the author of Ejaculate Responsibility: A Whole New Way to Think About Abortion a pithy new book with a title that is, to an extent, self-explanatory, but there’s also a LOT to cover.

The book cover of Ejaculate Responsibly
Ejaculate Responsibly book cover from designmom.com, main image photo credit Laurie Smithwick

Here’s a quick backgrounder on Gabrielle. An American currently living in France, the mother-of-six and former art director has a hugely popular, award-winning blog, designmom.com, where she starts conversations (you can comment on her posts) about design, motherhood, topics of interest to women, and engaged parenting. She also wrote the New York Times-bestselling book Design Mom: How to Live With Kids. And she’s the woman behind Alt Summit, an international annual conference for designers and online content creators.  

When the U.S. Supreme Court moved to overrule Roe vs Wade (which guaranteed federal protection for abortions), Gabrielle was horrified. Reading the screeds of media coverage, she thought something crucial was being left out – something that led to an essay that led to this book. She writes this crucial point in large capitals on page one of her book: “A CRUCIAL REFOCUS: IT’S THE MEN”. “Currently,” Gabrielle writes, “conversations about abortion are entirely centred on women’s bodies – on women’s bodies, and whether women have a right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.”

Asking readers to please set aside their beliefs about abortion while reading the book, Gabrielle argues persuasively for moving the abortion debate away from controlling women’s bodies, and instead place the responsibility of preventing unwanted pregnancies on men. (Gabrielle is a cisgender, Mormon mother which, as she alludes to, hopefully means people from the religious right are less likely to denounce her book.)

Sperm should be considered “a dangerous bodily fluid,” Gabrielle writes. “An unwanted pregnancy only happens if a man ejaculates irresponsibly – if he deposits his sperm in a vagina when he and his [sexual] partner are not trying to conceive. It’s not asking a lot for men to avoid this.”

She sets out no fewer than 28 arguments. No. 1: “Men Are 50 Times More Fertile Than Women”. No. 2: “Sperm Live For Up To 5 Days”. No. 3: “Women’s Fertility Is Unpredictable”. No. 4: “Ovulation Is Involuntary, Ejaculation Is Not”. No. 5: “Birth Control For Women Is Hard To Access And Hard To Use”. No. 6: “Birth Control For Men Is Easy To Access and Easy To Use”. No. 7: “Society Clings To The Idea That Men Hate Condoms”. No. 8: “Vasectomies Are Less Risky Than Tubal Ligations”.

Hang in there, reader, because you may have some lightbulb moments like I did. No. 9: “We Expect Women To Do The Work Of Pregnancy Prevention”. No. 10: “We Don’t Mind if Women Suffer, As Long As It Makes Things Easier For Men”. No. 11: “Society Teaches That The Man’s Pleasure Is The Purpose And The Priority of Sex”. No. 12: “Women Can Be Impregnated Without Experiencing Pleasure”. No. 13: “Men Cause All Unwanted Pregnancies”. No. 14: “We Expect Women To Be Responsible For Their Own Bodies And For Men’s Bodies”.

Let’s fast forward to No. 25: “Men Have More Control of Their Bodies And Sexual Urges Then We Like To Admit”. No. 26: “Men Can Easily Prevent Abortions But Choose Not To” (by ejaculating irresponsibly). No. 27: “We Know What Works” (including free and accessible birth control, and good sex education). No. 28: “This Is How To Take Action” (for starters, men can commit to ejaculate responsibly, and have conversations about it).

Phew, that’s a lot of points, but also ROUND OF APPLAUSE. And there’s some fun merch out. The Ejaculate Responsibly Tote Bag (why not spread the word as you tote), an Ejaculate Responsibly Pencil set (fun for work meetings), and an I Love Vasectomies hat (a Christmas-present joke that’s also not a joke?).

Jokes aside, as Gabrielle argues, when women in America (hopefully, never here else we’ll RIOT) are facing forced pregnancies – why is no one talking about the men who are impregnating them? If women’s bodies are being controlled by U.S. states (largely by male lawmakers), why are men’s bodies exempt? Nobody’s saying men should have compulsory vasectomies, but you get the idea – don’t force us if we’re not forcing you.

There’s an abortion-rights placard that says: ‘if you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one”. Here’s one I made up (unless I heard it somewhere): “if you don’t want an abortion to happen, use a condom”. They’re 99.7 percent effective when used properly.

It’s Not Just About Abortion

It’s not just about abortion. It’s about women and men sharing the burden of contraception – or even having men shoulder it, which TBH shouldn’t be all that, er, hard. As Gabrielle points out, condoms and vasectomies are “easier, cheaper, more convenient, safer, and more effective than birth control options for women”. However, widely held myths about them put the responsibility for contraception back on, yep, the woman.

A study by the U.S.-based Kinsey Institute – known for research on sex, sexuality and relationships – found that condoms do not make sex less pleasurable for men. And, if you’re done having kids or don’t want any, a vasectomy is generally less painful than stubbing your toe, and also doesn’t affect sexual pleasure (plus it’s sometimes reversible).

“We can normalise condom use so much that asking ‘should I wear a condom’ is universally recognised as a ridiculous question”

Before her husband had a vasectomy, Gabrielle tried and disliked the pill, the injection, and an IUD. And she knows not everyone has the access to birth control that she had. “Female contraception – Pill, Patch, Ring, Shot, IUD – requires a prescription,” she writes. And you need the money, time and ability to see a doctor. Gabrielle wants free, accessible birth control for all.

As for the morning-after pill, in New Zealand it’s available over the counter at some pharmacies but not for free. A wild idea: how about we send the ejaculator to have that awkward conversation with the pharmacist and phone us if need be?

We’ve heard on and off over the years about the development of a ‘male pill’ but it may be years before one comes to market. One study stopped enrolling men after some of the volunteers reported side-effects. I trust that the scientists had good reasons for this. But you’ve gotta wonder, what about the side effects that some women experience while taking contraceptive pills: nausea, spotting, headaches, bloating etc. Yes, you can change pills to eliminate or mitigate side effects, but why should you have to take them at all?

A contraceptive injection can have side effects including bone-thinning and weight gain. An IUD is uncomfortable to insert, and can have side effects include cramping and back aches. Again, side effects usually resolve, but why should you have to implant something in your uterus, in your arm, in your body at all?

It would be great if the male pill becomes available. But as I write this, I’m inwardly cheering while also making a twitchy, unconvinced face. Without over-generalising, can you trust a man (given he wouldn’t undergo an abortion) to remember to take his contraceptive pill? Yes? Great. No? A problem. But in the meantime, condoms.

Gabrielle wants condoms promoted like seatbelts. “We can normalise condom use so much that asking ‘should I wear a condom’ is universally recognised as a ridiculous question, just like asking ‘should I wear a seatbelt’ is ridiculous.” (Rather than ‘make it click’, perhaps ‘patrol your dick’? Hmm, maybe let’s stick to ‘ejaculate responsibly’.)

How do we change the social discourse? By normalising open conversations about contraception, starting with more and better sex education at high schools. Learning about relationships and sexuality is now part of the New Zealand curriculum. A 2020-updated resource, ‘Relationships and Sexuality Education: A Guide for Teachers, Leaders, and Boards of Trustees’ focuses on consensual, respectful relationships. But the quantity and quality of school sex ed is patchy, says Dr Cathy Stephenson, a GP who works with young people, and a University of Otago senior lecturer. She doesn’t think there’s enough focus in sex-ed classes on males sharing responsibility for pregnancy prevention. Unrolling a condom onto a banana doesn’t cut it.

Kate never had a life-skills class at school; never even saw the banana manoeuvre. It’s only now, looking back, that Kate feels upset that she took the blame for getting pregnant. “He was responsible for his sperm as much as I was for my ovaries. And I realise now that [his reaction shows] he didn’t have the traits I want in a partner.” Kate, who wants children but not yet, doesn’t want to use female contraceptives that she considers invasive and fallible, so her husband uses condoms, and is fine with that. “More men should ejaculate responsibly.”

So could this entreaty to Ejaculate Responsibly break through the ‘ideasphere’ to gain momentum as a movement? We’re here for it!

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