Back to Basics #26
The first [invention facilitating a near-future, temporary Golden Age on Earth] was a completely reliable oral contraceptive: the second was an equally infallible method — as certain as fingerprinting, and based on a very detailed analysis of the blood — of identifying the father of any child. The effect of these two inventions upon human society could only be described as devastating [sic], and they had swept away the last remnants of the Puritan aberration.
— A. C. Clarke, Childhood's End (1953 [II.6])
Craig Timberg, former Johannesburg bureau chief for The Washington Post, and Daniel Halperin, an epidemiologist and medical anthropologist — and AIDS expert —have written Tinderbox: How the West Sparked the AIDS Epidemic and How the World Can Finally Overcome It (Penguin, 1 March 2012). I haven't read the book, but I am familiar with a couple of interviews with the lead author. And I will segue from the release of that book — and from the current round of attacks on contraception — with this much of a caveat: a warning about the limits of what I have to say here.
One of the "take-away" messages of Tinderbox is the really basic, basic point that different human cultures really do differ, including on matters of sex; and "Those variations in sexual culture" are highly important for "how quickly the virus spreads" and what can be done to stop that spread.
Similarly for other sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) — and for other matters if we understand that "sexual culture" covers a lot of cultural territory.
So I think what I have to say has wide relevance, but I'm writing about America and the industrial/post-industrial world and places where American popular culture is strong and our customs and mores powerful or at least tempting.
I am also writing for a debate that probably won't be possible until after the 2012 election and that election's proof (I am confident) that it is not only immoral to mess with the women's health and reproductive rights, but also a political blunder.
A song from 1952 has it that "It Takes Two to Tango"; indeed — and, with only trivial exceptions, it takes two to reproduce sexually.
So when we've re-established the basic points that women have the right to control over their reproduction and health care; when we've accepted again the fact that people have sex for many reasons — of which reproduction and expressing true love are only two; when we're ready to talk sensibly, let us move the discussion on to guy issues: the responsibilities and, after that, rights and empowerment of men, especially heterosexually-active young men.
We in America have the term "deadbeat dad" and the principle that fathers should contribute to the support of their children, a principle that can be pushed to the ludicrous, draconian, and cruel, but a legitimate and important principle. And with the cooperation of mothers and some minor pressure on kids, various authorities in the American State can identify fathers with DNA testing, if not infallibly, at least as accurately as even higher-stakes factors in the criminal-justice system.
When the State starts pressing young fathers to help support the kids they sire, it will concentrate even testosterone-addled minds wonderfully on the male end of contraception.
Indeed, it will lay the groundwork for framing contraception issues in terms of rights and empowerment for guys.
If women deserve power over their reproduction, and they do, then so do men. If being fertile only when she wants to be is empowering for women, it can be sold that way to most men.
And people indeed can be sold ideas; even sexual matters have their fashions. God knows condoms can be sold — but that's an issue I've handled and will put off for a moment.
Somewhat less controversially and more surprisingly — for AIDS prevention, male circumcision seems useful, and among American Christians (agnostics, atheists), circumcision is in large part a matter of politically-inflected fashion. Fashion can't be dictated by the State or, apparently, anyone else; but fashions can be influenced: encouraged or discouraged.
When I was growing up, it was indeed thinkable that a guy would show up for his wedding night without pubic hair: there were tales among the guys of bachelor-party dirty tricks where the groom was seized by his friends, held down, and shaved.
Ha, ha! Humiliation! (What are friends for if they can't humiliate you?)
At least judging from a couple of raunchy movies I've seen — and a quick Private-Browsing browse of a likely web site — it is safe to say that for men, the shaved crotch is a current fashion statement.
Think about that: Fashion is strong enough to get guys to shave their own pubes and to get women, as Jeff Foxworthy has noted, to go to depilatory lengths most guys don't even want to think about.
Combined with a strong possibility of having to support every child one sires, fashion should be strong enough to get even condoms popular among young guys.
This is an additional argument for getting shaved porn stars wearing condoms. As a stopgap measure in male contraceptions, condoms should be made cool, or whatever the proper term is this month for what a couple generations called "cool."
Ultimately, though, we would want "a completely reliable oral contraceptive" — or one reliable enough (Childhood's End is science fiction; in the real world, no technology is completely, absolutely, 100% efficient). More exactly, we need a system of mores where all people having sex take their pills and use other contraception, including, for guys, condoms — and in other ways behaving like socially responsible adults.
Even after a society has "swept away the last remnants of the Puritan aberration" (or especially after we've freed ourselves from small-p puritanism), there is still the need for common sense.
If something is worth doing, it's worth taking a risk to do, and sex is worth doing. Still, common sense says to minimize risk. Various instances of sexual activity may have no deeper function than SCUBA diving, but one ought not SCUBA dive drunk or with partners you don't know a bit and trust a lot. Similar with sky diving and, well, returning to the topic, other "diving."
So, for the next round of debate on contraception:
* Human societies need highly reliable birth control with the goal of having people fertile only when they want to be. With luck, unwanted pregnancies could thereby be made so rare that the few unwanted fetuses wouldn't be aborted but transplanted to women who want to carry and adopt a child.
* Such reliable birth control should be far more simple and elegant than condoms and definitely for men in addition to women.
* As long as STDs are a significant public health issue, there should be State encouragement of condom use and (if and where appropriate — only) encouragement of male circumcision: for infants, boys, and adults.
Under "the Puritan aberration" in its worst forms — to be fair, more general small "p" "puritan" more than under the historical Puritans — sex is pretty much intrinsically evil and needs to be redeemed by a goal of reproduction. Under the rules of Romance, sex itself is empty and needs to be redeemed by love. Etc.
The fact remains that a lot of people are just going to get it on and screw and that in terms of public health, population policy, and social policies more generally it would be best to accommodate recreational sex: a frequent and highly basic (or base if you insist) human behavior.
People will continue to want babies and fall in love and do all that other good stuff. For a large swath of humanity, though, for far into the future, we need sex safe enough for public health purposes — and cheap, easy, and reliable contraception for gals, and for the guys.