I Have To Worldbuild The Past: On Birth Control

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 7.236% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

One of my favorite authors, Daniel Abraham, said this yesterday:
I keep thinking that, since it happened before I was born, I’ve failed to grok how much reliable birth control changed things. Thousands of generations with one risk/reward set for sex, and two with the new rules. I expect the species to still be freaked out.
Thing is, he’s right.  I was thinking what the world must have been like in the days when women could just get pregnant for having sex, and there was no consistent control over it, and I found myself slipping into my “science fiction worldbuilder” mode: what would be the ramifications of that decision?  How would that affect society? Because it was such an alien concept to me that I had to back into it.
Which was bizarre, because for me, sex has never been linked to procreation, except accidentally or when specifically desired.  Don’t want a kid?  You’ve got your IUD, your pill, your shot, and arguably condoms… the female body has ways of shutting that stuff down, and they’re all called science.  Sex is for pleasure – and if you approach it carefully, usually without too much danger of pregnancy happening.  I’m usually far more worried about my friends catching STDs than having unwanted children.
But yeah, when I go back a century or two, sex and procreation were pretty much inseparable, a sloppy entangled risk you could reduce only unreliably.  Maybe you could turn that 1-in-20 shot of getting pregnant into 1-in-100 if you pulled out and were careful, but… it still happened.  A lot.
And pregnancy was a sentence, in those days.  Dying during childbirth was a serious possibility, so getting pregnant was a potential death sentence even if you felt comfortable giving away the child.  And if you didn’t want to give birth?  Abortion, back in the days before we understood sanitation and proper surgery, was equally dangerous, if not more so.  You could take abortaficients, but those were like chemotherapy – a semi-controlled poison that may or may not work, and may actually kill you.
Sex was, in many very real ways, a direct link to death, and certainly to a different kind of life.  Back in the days when people literally starved to death for lack of government assistance, an extra mouth to feed could be a strain you couldn’t afford.  Especially if you were a single mother who would have to work, without the assistance of a full-time partner, without the concept of “days off” or “restricted workdays,” as even the comparatively genteel work of being a maid was literally a seventeen-hour day job, six days a week.
Which, as a guy who thinks of sex as more porn than babymaking, is deeply unsettling to contemplate.  That concept that all of this hideous slut-shaming I fight against has a kernel of old truth buried inside it – sleeping around could literally kill you as a woman, and on some level the mothers who were telling women to not give it up were speaking from some aspect of knowledge that hey, if he knocks you up, maybe you bleed out from this unwanted child.
There’s a bit of male privilege contemplating this alternate world, of course, but I also think it’s something that a lot of women who dismiss feminism also don’t ponder too heavily.  The concept that women can control their bodies is as natural to recent generations as the concept that we can have drinking water without cholera – which is to say, such an assumed thing that we forget all of the titanic societal changes that emerged to make that seemingly trivial feature happen.
So of course we’re still having battles over abortion, and birth control, and female reproductive rights.  It’d be eerie if we didn’t.  We’re dealing with the legacy of a whole culture based at least in part of thinking that sex had consequences, and we removed that like a magician whisking a cloth out from under some wine glasses, and now we have this vestigial set of terrors and ingrained shame fighting against a newer world where in fact we don’t have to worry about that.  I’m not saying the fine conservative legislators of Texas are fighting for the right cause – but it’d be like if we suddenly removed the need to eat, and then expected that nobody would fight to protect the legacy of eating animals as a noble and protective cause instead of the gratuitous and then-inexcusable barbarism it would suddenly become.
(Some would argue that it is already.  Mayhap they’re right, which only proves my point.)
But sometime just before I was born, women got handed a fantastic new power, one that shifted the very rules of biology.  We’re still working that out.  And I forget, in my assumption of these scientific miracles, just how fantastic and world-changing that shift continues to be.

2 Comments

  1. mephit
    Jul 18, 2013

    I do think there’s quite a bit of male privilege in this, although I believe your intentions are sound. 🙂
    It wasn’t handed to us.
    Dying is still a real possibility in pregnancy & childbirth, even in the developed world.
    And as a woman potential pregnancy is a constant background noise, even with options of contraception. It’s taking hormones with side-effects, or having invasive procedures . It’s – is it positioned properly, is it working, did I miss a pill, will the antibiotics have messed stuff up, is my mood/appetite because of _me_ or the hormones I’m taking?
    I envy the fact that for you sex seems totally divorced from reproduction.

  2. Carmel J.
    Aug 1, 2013

    Yes, this. Not to mention that for any woman who wanted to do something other than raise kids the only real way to ensure that she could do that was to give up sex (and probably marriage as well), thus pretty much living outside the societal norm.
    Susan B. Anthony said that women who married had two choices: to be a drudge or a doll (housewife or trophy wife, to be expected to do everything or to do nothing). This was why she refused marriage entirely and focused instead on women’s rights. (Source: a very fascinating and very long- 3 hoursish- documentary about Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton by PBS found on Netflix streaming.)
    Reliable birth control meant that women could do something else and still live within the societal norm of marriage. At which point the concept of women wanting to do something else had to become more accepted by society. Lots of conflict here. And really, it’s still true that society thinks that women should marry and have children as a default, so it’s possible that the abortion conflict is a symptom of the continuing conflict between women and the idea that all we are good for is raising babies.
    Which means feminism is definitely still relevant.

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