Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sex, Pregnancy and Consent

A Facebook friend recently posted a link to an interesting story about the possibility of a future world where responsibility for - and control over - reproduction could eventually be more evenly shared by men and women. In the blog The Last Word on Nothing, Sally Adee discussed pregnancy, abortion, women's and men's rights in light of ongoing research into the development of external womb technology. Whether it is futuristic fantasy or a real possibility, the topic of ectogenesis shines a spotlight on one of the thorniest issues related to heterosexual human sexuality: unplanned pregnancy.

Coming soon: a brave new world?
Right now, though, there is no handy external womb to help level the moral playing field between men and women when it comes to decisions about preventing or coping with unwanted pregnancy. Women must face all of the emotional and physical risks and demands of a life-altering, physically-depleting, potentially life-threatening experience which results in their almost total loss of bodily autonomy and they usually face most of the burden of the financial and social costs as well. Men who father unplanned children may be held legally responsible for some, none or all of the pregnancy-related medical costs in addition to nearly two decades of child support - if they accept the responsibilities of paternity (or can be proven to be the biological father of a child and forced to accept responsibility).

None of the above is a big problem for two people who have freely chosen to take on these risks; who have planned for and consented to a pregnancy and who happily plan to be jointly responsible should the pregnancy result in the live birth of a child.  The above risks and responsibilities become a serious problem, though, when the two people have not planned for and consented to pregnancy. The physical, psychological and financial risks to a mother and the psychological and financial risks to a father of an unexpected pregnancy are far too high for the possibility to be dismissed lightly. Consent to sex does not mean consent to pregnancy. Pregnancy is easily prevented by mutually respectful sexual partners and it is easily aborted in the earliest stages in the unlikely event that responsible contraceptive efforts fail. Childbirth should never be accidental, unplanned or forced.

No sex, no problems!
That should work!
But, the uncomfortable truth is that, in a religion-soaked culture, people who are sexually active - especially young people with uteri - are presumed to be consenting to the possibility of pregnancy whenever they have heterosexual sex - even if it is non-consensual sex. This has been strenuously underlined in society through abstinence-only pregnancy prevention programs, suppression of contraceptive information for sexually active young people, rape victim blaming, and waves of legislation designed to restrict access to female-controlled birth control and abortion services - even if pregnancy has resulted from rape, incest or coercion. The religiously-motivated "abstinence only" advice to repress natural, healthy sexual desires by avoiding all forms of sexual expression is nearly as ineffective as it is stupid and psychologically abusive.

Less loudly proclaimed, but no less true, is that young people with penises are presumed to be consenting to the possibility of pregnancy whenever they have heterosexual sex, too. The law in most states requires young men to contribute child support toward their progeny's expenses until 18 years of age. Since young men do not suffer any direct physical, educational, social or employment interruptions due to pregnancy, they are often in a far better position to prosper in life than their pregnant female counterparts. The gap widens throughout life as fewer than half of pregnant teens ever manage to finish high school and less than 2% complete a college degree even by the age of 30. Yet, a depressingly small per centage of men actually meet these responsibilities.

Reading the comments under the article on external wombs, I was not surprised to find the often-cited complaint from a male reader that it is unfair that a man may be legally required to support children that he may not have wanted. This speaks to the point above: that the role of men in an unplanned pregnancy is very much downplayed in society, leaving many men surprised and angry when they discover that they may be held legally responsible for support, even if they did not consent to fatherhood.

Sure, give your heart,
but don't lose your mind!
In a perfect world, no unplanned pregnancy could ever occur. But, we do not live in a perfect world. Therefore, it is essential that sexually active people respect and care for themselves as well as their partners in a happy, healthy relationship, whether it is a long-term, monogamous partnership or a single joyous sexual encounter. Luckily, wherever there is safe access to affordable, reliable birth control, this situation can be easily handled by caring - and responsible - sexual partners. It's true that contraception is not a perfect tool for preventing unwanted pregnancy: the failure rate for contraception when only one sexual partner "handles it" is higher than necessary for many reasons, but the main reason is usually operator error. However, when more than one form of birth control is used simultaneously, the failure rate drops significantly. The logical solution to that problem is for both sexual partners to use a reliable form of birth control to protect themselves and each other from operator error. If a condom is one of the two contraceptives used, there is the added bonus of protection from STDs!  Win, win!

I think the foundational understanding should be this: healthy, sexually mature human beings should be able to enjoy worry-free consensual sex. It is one of the joys of being human. In healthy heterosexual relationships, all participants take responsibility for protecting themselves and their partners from unplanned pregnancy. Unless both partners have willingly agreed to try to become parents and both have explicitly consented to actively pursuing parenthood every time they have sex, then both partners must assume that there is no consent to pregnancy, though consent to sex may still be enthusiastic. For every single sexual encounter except those explicitly meant to result in conception, all participants should use some form of contraception.

Indispensable equipment
for fun, sexy times!
What if your partner will not use birth control?  If your partner will not use birth control, perhaps s/he is assuming that you have consented to the possibility of parenthood. You know what you need to do: Correct the assumption before you have sex! If you correct the assumption and your partner still refuses to use birth control, then it is time to consider whether this person respects you and deserves to have a sexual relationship with you. Why would you want to have a sexual relationship with a person who does not respect you? There are millions of people in the world - quite a few of them very interested in a healthy sexual relationship with you. Get out there and find someone else who respects and cares about you!

Look, if you are a man who is unprepared to become a father, or if your partner has not explicitly consented to try to become a parent with you right now, then do not engage in sex without using some form of male-controlled birth control. Men who, like the commenter on the ectogenesis thread, whine immaturely that "she said that pregnancy is unlikely! (she lied!)", or who complain that they think wearing a condom reduces their pleasure (so they won't wear them, dammit!) are men who are too immature for sexual activity.  It is every human being's responsibility to prevent unplanned parenthood. There is a wide array of products out there designed to enhance your sexual experience safely and at least one of them will work out just fine for you. Sex feels great with or without a condom, but subjecting your partner (and yourself) to the risk of an unplanned pregnancy because you want an already awesome experience to be even better (for you) is a lousy way to show respect and caring to a partner.

All-important accoutrements
for fun, sexy times!
If you are a woman who is unprepared to become a mother, or if your partner has not explicitly consented to try to become a parent with you right now, then do not engage in sex without using some form of female-controlled birth control. Women who have become unwillingly pregnant may whine immaturely that "he promised that he would look after contraception!(he lied!)", or who complain that the pill or the IUD may have unpleasant side effects or that it feels too slutty to plan ahead to prevent pregnancy, are women who are too immature for sexual activity. It is every human being's responsibility to prevent unplanned parenthood. There is a vast selection of products out there to enable you to enjoy worry-free sex and with a little effort you will find the one that works well for you. Sex is a wonderful enrichment of life, but subjecting your partner (and yourself) to the risk of an ill-timed pregnancy because you want an already awesome experience to feel thrillingly (for you) spontaneous is a terrible way to show caring and respect to a partner.

We have sexual relationships with other people: our actions affect our partners, and we must have the maturity to treat them with the same consideration that we hope for ourselves. Control over your own fertility should never willingly be ceded to another person, not only because unwilling or unplanned parenthood can and often does result, but also because every child deserves to be conceived knowingly and deliberately by two people who have made a conscious choice to be parents.

Religious conservatives get it so wrong when they declare that extra-marital, non-procreative sex is immoral. Consensual sex is moral, natural and good. But, consensual sex does not mean consent to pregnancy. Whenever you engage in sex without using personal birth control, you are unfairly denying your partner the right to consent to or not to consent to a possible pregnancy. And do you know what?  That would be immoral.

Ah, the joy of consensual sex!

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