Abstinence Is Not A Synonym for Responsibility

I know I just said I’m going MIA, but while I’m here, let me just talk about this weird conflation of abstinence and responsibility.

Most of this rhetoric came out in conjunction with the debates about abortion and birth control.  That’s important to recognize, because realize that women’s reproductive health is forever being linked to this idea of “responsibility”.  Women have become uniquely responsible for the outcomes of sexual decisions and sexual processes in our society, uniquely responsible for reproductive processes, by virtue of biology but also by virtue of the idea that we have “control”.  At the same time, use of that control is stigmatized and that control itself is imperfect.  In many ways, this is a system that is set up for failure.  These inherent flaws in our discussions about women’s sexual and reproductive processes have led society back to the only answer they seem to be able to grapple with: abstinence.

There are a couple things that really bother me about this.  Somewhere in all the conservative rhetoric, it seems that the only way to be responsible about sex is to just not have it.  That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, for a whole bunch of reasons.  First, it just denies a part of our human nature that we know is there-~-and while that may have made sense in a world without protection, we don’t live in that world anymore.  Second, it assumes that abstinence-only is a perfect system, which we empirically know not to be the case.  Third, it assumes that all women have a choice when it comes to sex, which also may well not be the case.

But fourth, it places a weird and undue burden on women that it doesn’t place on men.  Because society has never been clamoring about condoms, etc.  But when it comes to birth control, society wants none of that.  There isn’t a massive outcry for men to take responsibility for their sexual and reproductive outcomes, but women are somehow framed as “irresponsible”, derelict in our duties if something goes wrong.

Which is why they tell us that the responsible thing to do is to just stay abstinent.

I don’t see anyone telling guys that they should also just abstain.  You know why?  Because they don’t have uteri.

The reality is that there are a LOT of ways to be responsible that aren’t necessarily abstinence.  The first of these is monogamy.  I know it sounds silly, but there’s a reason “Be Faithful” is the B in the ABCs approach to sexual health.  In a monogamous relationship, you’re more likely to have real conversations with a partner and know what’s actually going on, which leads to more informed, mutually agreed upon choices.

These choices include other healthy and responsible behaviors, like using a condom and getting tested for HIV and other STIs.  These are important things, and they ARE part of being responsible-~-but they aren’t abstinence.  And when politicians defame organizations like Planned Parenthood that provide these services, all they’re doing is getting in the way of letting people make ACTUALLY responsible choices.

They’re also getting in the way of one of the obvious ones: birth control.  When people complain about money going to birth control, it’s pretty clear that they don’t have their facts right.  At all.  According to the Guttmacher Institute, for every dollar spent on birth control tax payers save six dollars due to the costs that come from unplanned, unwanted pregnancies.  Also, I know I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: if women don’t have unwanted pregnancies, they won’t need abortions.  It really is that simple.  Obviously birth control isn’t 100% effective, but there are options like IUDs that are even more effective than oral contraceptives…and these are things women can discuss with their doctors so that they can make responsible decisions.

These ARE acceptable, responsible decisions that women can make.  And are making.  Just like it would be considered responsible for a man to decide to use a condom.  When society wants to slap extra responsibility on women, it only makes sense that more options (and more reliable options, since let’s face it, condoms aren’t perfect) be available to them.  Making the decision to use oral contraceptives to prevent pregnancy ISN’T slutty.  It ISN’T indicative that someone is being irresponsible.  It’s a sign that a woman knows she ISN’T ready to have children, and wants to make sure that she can take care of herself and not create ramifications that she can’t deal with.  That is, by definition, a really freaking responsible choice.

Abstinence isn’t the only way to live life, and politicians and angry people who don’t understand how preventative healthcare works need to stop pretending that it is.  This is the 21st century, America.  Start acting like it.


~ by Randi Saunders on November 19, 2012.

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