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Putting the Sex Back in Birth Control: Why the Dominant Narrative on Contraception Undermines Young People

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August 18, 2012

Originally posted on RH Reality Check

While I applaud Elizabeth Banks for her new ad supporting Planned Parenthood, birth control, and President Barack Obama–and wholeheartedly empathize with her personal story–I’m reminded of a sobering fact: the progressive community is deathly afraid of talking about sex and young people.

That’s right. I said it.

Between Banks new web promo aimed at female voters, Sandra Fluke’s testimony before Congress last February, and the reactive messaging around Rush Limbaugh’s vile comments, one thing has remained clear: our movement is far more comfortable elevating stories about birth control when they don’t involve sex. Pure unadulterated sex. Sex without the fear of an unintended pregnancy. You know… the primary reason young Americans use birth control.

And for arguments sake, maybe there’s a good reason for this. Maybe–just maaaayyyybe–we’re trying to appeal to conservatives. Perhaps we’re making our funders happy. Or maybe we’re just trying to sell a message that is palatable; easy to consume.

Nope. Bullshit. Not buying it.

As sweet and good intentioned as these justifications sound, what we’re ultimately doing is playing the game that our opponents want us to play and operating under a set of rules that threaten the long-term success of our movement. By running away from a serious discussion about sex in the birth control debate, we’re appealing to a deep-rooted paranoia and fear in this country. Fear of young people having sex. Fear of young people exercising agency over their own bodies. Instead of using this political momentto challenge that stigma and re-frame the debate with a sex-positive message, I’m afraid we’ve taken the easy way out. We’ve chosen to prioritize a sensationalized and fear-based discourse that completely undermines our ability to alleviate the root causes of sexual and reproductive oppression.

We’ve chosen a strategy that undermines young people.

Let’s make something very clear. Birth control isn’t under attack because the powers that be are frightened by the prospect of Elizabeth Banks using birth control for her migraines and heavy flow. Contraception isn’t under attack because of the heartfelt story Sandra Fluke shared about her friend six months ago. In fact, Rush Limbaugh didn’t have anything to say about that story. He did, on the other hand, have plenty to say about Sandra Fluke’s sexuality.

Don’t get me wrong. Elizabeth Banks story has value. Sandra Fluke’s story about her friend is important. Both of these experiences highlight a grave and horrific consequence of limiting access to affordable reproductive health care. But as important and valuable as these stories are, they fall short in exposing our opposition’s true intentions. They fail to radically transform the embedded cultural ideologies that are responsible for these wide spread and relentless attacks on birth control to begin with.

Make no mistake about it: birth control is under attack because it empowers young people with the agency to make healthy choices about sex and sexuality. It gives us social, political, and economic power. And to the structural systems of oppression that rely on our indefinite alienation and disenfranchisement, birth control is a threat of epic proportion. As evidenced so eloquently by Representative Mike Kelly (R-Pa), access to affordable birth control is comparable to Pearl Harbor and 9/11.

“I know in your mind, you can think of the times America was attacked. One is Dec. 7, that’s Pearl Harbor Day. The other is Sept. 11, and that’s the day the terrorists attacked. I want you to remember Aug. 1, 2012, the attack on our religious freedom. That is a day that will live in infamy, along with those other dates.”

Let me translate. According to Representative Mike Kelly, providing young people with the resources to embrace sex–free of consequence–jeopardizes the very fabric of our country. You see, the truth is that birth control enables us to be agents of our own lives, a concept so terrifying–so threatening to entrenched systems of inequality–that those in power have a vested interest in dislocating us from the resources we need to shape our own futures.

I’ve worked with a lot of diverse young activists over the past six months and I can say with relative certainty that the vast majority of them want a national conversation about birth control that embraces sex and sexuality. Young people know what’s really at stake in this debate because we understand the consequences of a sex-negative culture. We’re experiencing it first-hand. Abstinence-only programs. Parental notification and consent laws. Age restrictions on emergency contraception. Conscience clauses.

That’s why we have to stop running away from sex like it’s our movement’s dirty little secret. Because despite the supposed mainstream appeal and political expedience that comes with a watered down sexless narrative about birth control, it also comes with a swift price.

We’ve already seen the consequences of this rhetoric. In fact, just a few short weeks after Sandra Fluke’s testimony, and the subsequent Rush Limbaugh debacle, Arizona legislators began to push a bill that went far beyond simply rolling back the birth control mandate. Instead of wholesale denying coverage, the bill attempted to authorize employers with the right to determine whether a person’s justification for using birth control was viable or not. In other words, birth control coverage is a legitimate form of health care,unless used for the purpose of preventing an unintended pregnancy.

It’s an old story, but I don’t want us to lose the irony here. The very logic behind this nauseating bill in Arizona was born from a sex-phobic, paternalistic narrative that our movement unintentionally helped market to the American people. We avoided a necessary conversation about sex in favor of a story about the “ideal victim,” and consequently, laid the foundation for innovative attacks on birth control access. Attacks focused on the very thing we were running away from to begin with.

If we keep running away from this simple truth–the truth that young people (married people, unmarried people, lots of people) have sex and should have the right to do so–we’re going to miss out on a powerful opportunity to engage and mobilize the Millennial generation. We’re going to lose out on this unique chance to hijack the narrative on sex and sexuality, and truly uproot the systems that benefit from this pervasive moral panic.

The good news is that young people are fighting back. We’re telling our own stories about sex, relationships, and birth control. We’re calling out the media for slut-shaming and victim-blaming. We’re fighting for body-positive images and representations. We’re asking our legislators to support comprehensive sex education, and then creating our own peer-education programs when they leave us out to dry. We’re relentless change-makers and we’re unwavering in our commitment to building a better future. But no matter how much we do – how hard we fight – our impact will always be limited if the movement we’re trying to fight for refuses to advance a narrative that accurately depicts our interests and values.

If we don’t get our act together and start prioritizing a political conversation about birth control–centered on sex and young people–I’m afraid this ship is going to sink.

By Andrew Jenkins, Choice USA Field Associate. Follow Andrew Jenkins on Twitter, @andrew_jenkins

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