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Birth Control Isn't Really About "Women's Health." It's About...

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This is a polemic: Access to birth control isn't really about my "health." It's not principally about the management of ovarian cysts or the regulation of periods.

Birth control isn't about my health unless by health you mean my capacity to get it on, to have a happy, joyous sex life that involves an actual male partner. The point of birth control is to have sex that's for pleasure, widely-defined and non-procreative. It's to permit women to exercise their libidos and desires without the sword of Damocles of unwanted pregnancy hanging gloomily over their heads.

This proposition is radical only by default, because mainstream liberal voices in Congress, especially, have euphemized women's desires out of the current birth control and abortion disputes.

I understand why they've done this, in terms of narrow political expediency. We've been on the defensive about reproductive rights for decades. We've used a euphemism of "choice" for years.

The problem with choice is that it pairs the philosophically monumental with the rhetorically puny. On the one hand, "choice" describes the abortion cause that we've taken thousands of political casualties to defend; on the other hand, it describes 20 brands of toothpaste.

Rhetorically, liberals have also argued from the exceptional cases to defend reproductive rights, sensing a more sympathetic ear when they do. For example, assaults on abortion rights are often combatted with the anecdote of the tragic but less common abortion-seeker: victims of incest, rape or grave medical danger.

These three subjects form a hallowed trinity of morally unimpeachable abortion users, because they became pregnant through "no fault of their own:" In other words, through no exercise of their libido, or their desire.

It should go without saying that they matter in the abortion debate. But the more we argue by the non-consensual examples, the more we communicate that we're embarrassed by the larger population of unexceptional, consensual examples of women who get pregnant or use birth control owing to the fact that they want to have sex.

The phrase "women's health" in the birth control dispute is the latest nimble euphemism.

There are many examples. Barbara Boxer frames the birth control issue a la mode as about "defending women's health. We will fight for women and their families and their economic well-being and their good health," her website declares. EMILY's List refers to the "war on women's health."

This week, Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius criticized a proposed "conscience bill" to let organizations opt out of covering birth control as a "cynical attempt to roll back decades of progress in"--you got it--"women's health."

The New York Times (a reliable source for yuppie prudery and subtle anti-feminism alike -- remember their atrocious coverage of the gang rape of an 11-year old in Texas?), used the outlier example of a lesbian college student who only took the pill because she had an ovarian cyst -- not to have sex, you can be reassured! -- and she couldn't afford it without health insurance, so she ended up with a ruptured cyst, and a costly hospital stay.

We tiptoe around the heterosexual woman's unsightly libido, and end up with an oddly euphemized rhetoric, a defense of birth control that seems to involve no sex, desire, sperm, or men.

Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh barrels right along. He called Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student testifying in Congress on birth control, "A SLUT." The big problem isn't that Rush called the woman a slut. The problem is that most likely he sincerely believes it. This is what we're up against.

Talking in code and euphemism might secure support in the short run, but when we euphemize and point to exceptional cases, we convey a squeamish, ambivalent view of our beliefs. The more we point to exceptional cases, the more we embolden no-exceptions extremism. We give up on defending the promiscuous abortion seeker, but cling to the trinity of Non-Consenting Cases. Then, bit by bit, social conservatives start chipping away at the exceptions, too.

Now, if the Oklahoma "personhood" bill becomes law -- and 11 other states are considering similar legislation -- abortion will be absolutely outlawed (along with many forms of birth control) even for those non-consenting women.

It's counterintuitive, but when deeply-settled rights are most in danger, it's not the time to euphemize, or retreat, from assertions of sexual liberty and self-governance. It's time to gun it instead.

So here's the subject I advocate for, because no one dares to speak her name: It's the 20-something unmarried heterosexual woman who wants to have sex, has sex, enjoys a good sex life with her boyfriend, and, in that sex life, uses birth control. Or, she accidentally gets pregnant.

She doesn't get pregnant because she's a victim of non-consensual sex. She gets pregnant while enjoying sex. She doesn't use birth control to regulate her menstrual cycle. She uses birth control because she has sex.

Don't misunderstand me. It seems like anyone who believes that the personal liberty to make decisions about sex, marriage, family, intimate relationships, association, and sexuality is foundational to modern liberalism in the last 100 years gets imagined as some kind of swinger, or an advocate of wild, mindless promiscuity, suburban sex parties, and hanging-from-the-rafters degeneracy at a strip club (although, to paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, "not that there's anything wrong with that... ").

I'm not sure why that's where some imaginations first wander when "birth control" comes up. Most of the people I know who enjoy non-procreative, non-marital sex lives and see that as part of their humanity are in committed relationships. Not all of them, though -- and, you know what? I've got the back of Limbaugh's promiscuous "sluts," too, just as much as the people who only sleep with one partner, ever, in their entire lives, and the ones who choose celibacy. They don't want to have a super-sized bottle of Viagra or its soon-to-be-patented female equivalent shoved in their hands just because they do not choose, or want, to have sex at a particular time in their lives.

This is what "liberty" looks like. Sometimes we and our fellow citizens make rotten decisions. Sometimes we make asses of ourselves in the exercise of personal liberty and, in those moments, might wish that we had never had any to begin with. It can certainly feel that way. Why did the women's movement give me this freedom to be a fool; why can't I just have an arranged marriage, and so on. Sometimes people act irresponsibly; they treat each other badly and they treat themselves badly; they break hearts; they don't love us back when we love them; we want a relationship, and they give us a one-night stand. A lot of us have done these things, and had these experiences.

I still cringe at an episode or two in my romantic life, when I made a flat-out fool of myself. But I wouldn't trade them at all, and I certainly wouldn't trade them for a time when such decisions weren't even really mine to make, to risk, to control, to take personal responsibility for (as opposed to my "honor" being the business of male relatives), to learn and mature from, and hopefully to look back on with fondness, or at least self-forgiveness and humor.

It seems like everyone's a libertarian and anti-government until someone makes a decision that they personally disagree with. You can't cherry pick a foundational freedom for some, but not for others, depending on whether or not they're sluts.

If birth control isn't actually about women's "health," it's also not strictly speaking just about women, or a women's issue. Again, this is a basic but mysteriously obscure truth of the issue. The discourse has used a non-libidinal rhetoric of "women's health," rather than point to the lust-driven world where it takes two to tango -- one from each biological sex -- and to get pregnant or need to plan to avoid pregnancy. So we end up focused on the principle of women's equality in health insurance coverage. That's a critical issue, certainly.

But when we start talking about birth control as being, well, about sex, it becomes clear that it's an issue for men and women.

Don't men have some right to have sex without the fear that every relationship will come with the game-changing threat of unwanted pregnancy?

Are men destined to go back to the contraceptive roulette days of condoms, rhythm method, luck, or nothing? And, how many men would want that life back? How isn't this a men's issue and a women's issue -- or a men and women, together, issue? Without access to affordable, reliable, convenient birth control, heterosexual men's and women's sex lives are effectively rolled back to the pre-Griswald 1930s.

Birth control doesn't come across as a men's and women's issue because acknowledging that would be to declare the idea that we want people to have recreational, non-procreative sex lives as part of their humanity.

Although personal liberty in private relations for women and men is a foundational concept of modern liberalism and the right to privacy, sexual liberty isn't exactly the rallying cry.

And that's unfortunate, and consequential. Because it seems to me that the bottom line of 21st-century politics is that you can't be embarrassed or equivocal about the things you believe. It always shows.