Enter Artificial Birth Control
In Part 2, I discussed the sense in which marriage customs and sexual morality can be seen as an adaptive response to controlling childbearing. I’d like now to turn to the question of artificial birth control.
In my first job out of college, a small chemical distribution company, I sat next to the customer service group, and thus found myself overhearing a lot of middle-aged “girl talk”. One anecdote I particularly remember was recounted by a woman who’d married in the late sixties. She told about how when she and her husband were still engaged, she’d gone with her mother to a wedding, and her mother had taken occasion to whisper to her that it was generally known that the bride had “had to get married.”
“I’m just so glad you’re a good girl and you’ll never need to get married quickly like that, my mother told me,” she said. “Of course, what she didn’t know is that I’d been on the pill for the last three years.”
I think this does a good job of underlining a massive shift in social structure and morality which the advent of plentiful and efficient birth control allowed. The adherance to social and moral norms (“being a good girl” as the mother put it), which had previously been essential for avoiding the bearing of children out of wedlock or a hasty marriage to the father of an impending child, was now rended unnecessary by The Pill. Artificial birth control is certainly not 100% effective, but it is effective enough to allow people to separate sex and reproduction in their minds. Having sex with some given person or at some given time becomes one choice, having a baby with some given person or at some given time becomes a totally separate and unrelated choice.
This, I would argue, is the “contraceptive mentality” in its most basic form: the idea that having sex and reproducing are two activities with no necessary connection, that having sex in no way suggests a desire or willingess to have children with the person you are having sex with.
From a societal point of view, I think this puts us into a state of clear and major change. Whereas there used to be very clear biological and societal reasons to strongly pressure people not to engage in sex outside of marriage (primarily women — there was always the double standard resulting from the fact that it is women who become pregnant) in addition to the moral reasons which we as Christians recognize, these practical and secular reasons for avoiding sex outside of stable relationships have been reduced to half-hearted (and unpersuasive) suggestions like: Wait until you are emotionally ready.
Who, after all, at such a moment is really sitting around thinking, “Oh, but perhaps I’m not emotionally ready.”
Thus, when its full implications are considered, the contraceptive mentality removes virtually all of the practical reasons for seeking permanence and exclusivity in sexual relationships. And, indeed, the loss of these is pretty much what we see around us.
However, this renders us very confused creatures. As biological creatures, we still have the physical pleasures and instinctual emotional ties associated with sex which developed because of its reproductive function. And yet most of us do not think of sex as being reproductive. The fact that natural incentive and natural effects have been so totally disengaged must have a major effect on us — and the fact that sex is something both so attractive and so essential to the relationships which are the building blocks and perpetuators of society means that the imbalance resulting from this de-coupling of incentive and effect will reverberate throughout society in major ways.
[to be continued: Part 4]